Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Life lessons on the Thai-Burma border


Thai-Burma diploma program graduation 2010Jimmy (not his real name) was among the quietest of the Burmese refugee students we taught. His English was the most hesitant but at the interview and during the entrance exam his sharp intelligence shone through. He was accepted into the diploma in liberal studies program for Burmese refugees and migrants on the Thai-Burma border.

The course is one of the world's most successful programs in bringing internationally accredited higher education to refugees.

It is reckoned that less than 1 per cent of refugees have access to higher education globally. This is partially because being exiled in a refugee camp was regarded as a temporary phenomenon.

In fact, over the last decade, the number of protracted refugee situations (described by UNHCR as 'being in exile for five years or more') has shot up from 45 per cent to 90 per cent and the average length of stay has gone from nine years in 1993 to 17 years today.

Many of the refugees, including some of our students, who live in nine camps strewn along the Thai side of the border with Burma, were born in the bamboo shelters that leak sieve-like in the long rainy season while the dirt tracks turn into quagmires. They all fled persecution in Burma following wars between ethnic groups and the Tatmadaw (the generals' army).

Those wars continue, causing massive dislocation within the various regions. In Kachin State bordering China, over 30,000 villagers have had to flee their homes because of clashes between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese army since June this year. Many, if they can, will make their way to the camps in Thailand.

But back to Jimmy. He is from one of the ethnic groups and saw his parents shot in front of him in a raid on his village by the Burmese military when he was a young adolescent. He and his brother fled into the jungle and made their way to relatives in Yangon. They put him through secondary school where he excelled, especially in music.

He studied Japanese and won a scholarship to a Japanese university, but the government refused him a passport. He then made his way to Thailand where he heard about the diploma course. He graduated in 2010.

Most graduates have been able to find jobs with NGOs or community-based organisations caring for refugees and migrants. Others who sought resettlement in the US, Canada or Australia succeeded in gaining entry to universities on the basis of the qualification earned through the diploma course. One graduated in a bachelor of commerce in Melbourne earlier this year.

Jimmy decided to stay on the border and is now a leader with a 'backpack' medical organisation whose members take medicines into the areas where 'internally displaced persons' are found. This involves crossing the Moei River from Thailand into the forests of Burma and traversing mountains with heavy loads on his back to 'serve his own people', which was a kind of mantra for our students.

Jimmy's course taught him about leadership skills and critical thinking and he is now using those faculties to help his own people. He also risks his own life every day since the jungle is awash with Burmese soldiers. He embraces the attributes of demonstrating respect for the dignity of each individual and responsibility for the common good.

During my last visit to the area, he told me how the course had taught him not just to think but to re-evaluate his attitude to the war. He had moved from supporting the armed struggle for justice to using peaceful, political negotiation.

Recently in Burma, we have witnessed the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and her reappearance on the political stage, the loosening of some anti-human rights laws and even attempts to sit down and parley peace with the ethnic insurgents. It will either come to nothing or kindle embers of real hope for change in Burma.

Either way, Jimmy, with his new perspective on life, struggle, solidarity and peace, will continue to contribute to his people's wellbeing. Now there's a Christmas story.

Duncan MaclarenDuncan MacLaren is the coordinator of Australian Catholic University's Refugee Program on the Thai-Burma Border and lectures in international development studies in Sydney. 

Topic tags: Ducnan MacLaren, Burma, Thailand, Aung San Suu Kyi



submit a comment

Existing comments

An inspiring and informative article. I needed to be reminded that refugees spend the best part of their lives in camps. Thanks Duncan.

steve sinn | 16 December 2011  

Actually most refugees don't spend their lives in camps.

Marilyn Shepherd | 17 December 2011  

Similar Articles

North Korea's new season of hope

  • Binoy Kampmark
  • 21 December 2011

He presided over a starving nation, created an unstable nuclear state, and terrified his neighbours. But the death of Kim Jong-il should cause neither terror nor concern as much as the experts would have it.


Don't stoop to stupid policy over boat tragedy

  • Aloysious Mowe
  • 20 December 2011

Of course we want people to stop making the hazardous boat journey to Christmas Island, but tow-backs and off-shore processing are immoral and stupid. Australia must engage with others in the region to find ways to ensure people are not driven to make desperate journeys.