10 July 2013 – From 14-20 June, organizations and refugees raised their voices together to share refugees’ perspectives with the broader Thai community in Mae Hong Son. Following the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) theme, “One family torn apart by war is too many,” Burmese refugee students of all ages participated in art competitions in the Ban Mai Nai Soi (Camp 1) and Ban Mae Surin (Camp 2) refugee camps. In Mae Hong Son (MHS) town, UNHCR and NGOs set up information booths for the public and hosted speeches, to observe World Refugee Day in 2013.
About 100 students in Ban Mai Nai Soi and Ban Mae Surin camps marched to music and more than 1,000 in total from the two camps participated in the exciting festivities of “Karenni’s Got Talent,” an annual competition hosted by the Catholic Organisation for Emergency Relief and Refugees (COERR). The winners then entertained the audience in one of the camps.
“The young people who attended were so happy and enjoyed the entertainment provided by the Karenni’s Got Talent winners,” said one JRS MHS staff member.
The Karenni Education Committee (KnED) organized also organized an art, essay and poem competition to showcase the work of refugees in Camp 1, while in Camp 2, the camp committee coordinated an art competition.
By sharing pieces of their lives, through art work, poems, and essays, created by the refugees, the competition aimed to promote understanding and friendship in the camps and with the Mae Hong Son community. The UNHCR awarded twenty-nine jubilant winners with small prizes of stationery, including 17 consolation prizes.
In the town, one hundred people from diverse industries gathered to recognize the day. The audience included: representatives from different government offices such as the Thai military, Provincial Government Office, District Office, the MHS governor, Police, Navamin Technological College, including around 25 students, Karenni Refugee Committee (KnRC), NGO staff from seven NGOs working in the camps, including JRS, WEAVE, ACTED, COERR, TBC, IRC and UNHCR, some refugee students and local media (including the MHS radio station). The event was held at the Venue- Public/Community Hall of the local MHS government.
Ten-minute speeches were delivered by UNHCR, MHS governor and KnRC chairman about the Burmese refugees. The UNHCR explained the current refugee situation worldwide and expressed compassion for the protracted plight of the Burmese refugees in Thailand, which has now lasted more than 27 years. The 16,283 population of the two camps remain displaced as low level conflict and human rights violations wage on in eastern Myanmar.
“Many families around the world are split up and forced apart because of war,” said Narumol Talawat, the Governor of MHS town, who encouraged the crowd to develop a culture of peace.
The KnRC Chairman thanked the Thai government for allowing the Karenni refugees to take refuge in Thailand.
“Positive developments have taken place in Myanmar,” he said, referring to the lifting of censorship laws, increased political voice for ethnic groups, and opening up of the country to international investment in the past two years.
Yet support from the Thai government, NGOs, and UNHCR are still needed to continue to provide support for the 130,000 refugees* remaining in the nine camps until such time that they can go back in safety, dignity and with voluntariness, according to the Chairman.
“Please understand that the situation on the ground is not yet safe enough for their return,” he said.
Booths set up by various NGOs showcased handicrafts made through refugee projects. NGO staff explained to the visiting public, including the MHS radio host, military, and various government civil servants, about the refugees’ lives, hopes of education and the reconstruction of schools after the fire in Ban Mae Surin Camp 2.
Governor Talawat left a message to the refugees on a poster in the exhibit with the words, “Be Happy,” an expression wishing them well.
JRS Mae Hong Son would like to thank the Governor for her kind words, the UNHCR for lending their humane slogan of caring for each and every individual refugee, and the refugee students for their hard work and artistic expressions.
While we do not wish to say “Happy World Refugee Day” to people who have been forcibly displaced, we would like to recognize and celebrate the continued hope and smiles that they have, the laughter that resounds in the community in spite of the challenges they face.
Rosalyn, JRS Mae Hong Son Project Director
* Figures according to TBC’s most recent figures from May 2013.