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Karen refugees a 'forgotten story'

  • Story Highlights
  • Mae La is situated about 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of the Thai town of Mae Sot
  • The camp currently holds 43,000, and has been in operation for almost 25 years
  • Conflict is considered by many analysts as the longest-running civil war in the world
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By David Challenger
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MAE SOT, Thailand (CNN) -- Nine refugee camps stretch along western Thailand's border with Myanmar, but Mae La, with a population of 43,000, is by far the largest.

A Karen woman smokes a pipe. Boredom is one of the main problems for the refugees.

Wooden houses dot the hills at Mae La. There are 43,000 people living in the camp.

"I came to the camp 10 years ago after the army burned our village and took our rice," one young mother told me.

Most of the camp's residents arrived after being forced to flee their homes due to the violence in Myanmar, as documented by the United Nations.

The refugees' stories were often identical: Direct military attacks by the Myanmar army, forced labor, destruction of homes and food crops, and enslavement.

The camps are overseen and run by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), a union of 11 international non-governmental organizations that provide food, shelter and non food items to refugees and displaced people from Myanmar, also known as Burma.

The Mae La camp is situated about 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of Mae Sot, a Thai border town known for its cross-border trade in gems and teak, and more recently, as the home to the Sylvester Stallone movie character, John Rambo.

The first view of the camp is spectacular -- hundreds of wooden houses with roofs made from leaves dot the lush, hilly landscape, as limestone cliffs rise steeply in the background. Video Take a video tour of the camp and listen to refugees »

There were no guards and little fuss while entering the camp, which somewhat reflects the plight of these displaced people.

The conflict between the Myanmar government and the Karen and other ethnic groups such as the Karenni, Mon and Shan is considered by many analysts as the longest-running civil war in the world. Yet, according to TBBC director Jack Dunford, it has become a "forgotten story." Learn more about Myanmar's recent political history »

The recent storm that hit Myanmar's delta region, killing at least 78,000, has raised the question of whether border camps will be inundated with new refugees.

But Saay Tae Tae, a coordinator with the Karen refugee Committee, believes it would take months, if at all. Video Saay Tae Tae talks about the plight of refugees »

"The Delta is where most of the Karens live, but it would be very difficult for them to get here. Travel is very restricted by the army, and the people have no money to pay for transport," Saay said. "It will take four or five months until we see the real picture."

Mae La, which sits about five kilometers from the Myanmar border, is huge -- one expression of its age; the camp has been running for almost 25 years. Watch an audio slideshow on Mae La »

The camp's population is mainly made up of families of farmers and low-income workers, while religious lines are more or less evenly divided between Buddhists and Christians.

Some of the violence has followed them, such as when the Myanmar army attacked Mae La in 1997. Since then, it's been peaceful, though according to TBBC, tensions rise every dry season -- the preferred time of activity by the Myanmar army.

But while refugees have escaped direct violence, other problems exist. There's little or no employment, education for children is minimal, and boredom is rife. Camp dwellers not only have to deal with the horrors of their past, but the grim outlook of their future.


Despite this, the people at the camp appeared stoic, and carried with them a sense of humor and pride. They welcomed strangers into their homes, openly told their stories and for the most part, seemed resilient.

The young mother told me. "But if the situation in Burma changes, I hope to go back to my country."

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