A mother tends her child at Mae La Poh Ta refugee camp just inside Burma, on a crook of the Moei River. The split bamboo floors of the huts creak and bend as you walk across them and the walls are breezy affairs. The giant bamboo is sourced in the surrounding jungles, trees form supporting poles.
Each year thousands of Karen make their way to Dr Cynthia Maung’s clinic, nestled between Mae Sot and the Burmese border. Here they are treated with compassion and medicines not accessible in Burma. Herself a refugee, Dr Cynthia has built an operational clinic and surgery famous throughout the world. On the road outside Dr Cynthia’s pick-ups and trucks ply back and forth to the border between Burma’s Myawaddy and Thailand’s Mae Sot, rough frontier towns where gems, drugs and pirate cigarettes are sold on the street with a wink and nudge. In Thailand it is motor vehicles that lug produce, in Burma it is oxen pulling carts with wooden wheels. You can walk between the two worlds in 10 minutes.
Dr Cynthia poses uncomfortably for a photograph inside an area of her clinic with sealed floors. It takes a few days to meet her and some fast-talking to stop in her tracks long enough for a photograph. The clinic is not like any one would encounter in the West. It is struck of rough timbers and dangerous staircases. Backpack medics operate from here, young Karen people who make their way across the border to collect medicines and then sling them in a pack and walk back inside for months to distribute them. They are often killed or wounded by Burmese troops trying to stop the flow of precious medicines even they do not have access to.
It is high noon at Mae La Poh Ta internally displaced persons camp and there is no one around. The last time we visited this camp there were more than 1000 people milling about, going about their daily business, school was sitting and a bamboo church was being built. Now the church smoulders in the background and the place is deserted. There are still about 1000 people living in the camp, but a travelling Thai medical clinic is about five kilometres away across the river and the camp’s inhabitants, predominantly women, are all getting check-ups. Most are pregnant, hence on the very old and the very young laze about the camp in the oppressive midday heat.
Late at night, about 11pm, in Umpheim Mai refugee camp, a chorus of sweet voices breaks the silence. A quick investigation, stumbling in the pitch black, brings one upon a choral group rehearsing for coming event at Mae La refugee camp. The Karen love to sing.
Keeping your balance moving around Umpheim Mai refugee camp, home to about 15,000 people, is critical. Perched on the side of a mountain, the paths are so steep that should one fall, injury is assured. For the old people plying these goat tracks the dry season is manageable, the wet a period of isolation, pretty much confined to their section of the camp.
How much has this old man seen. He has weathered a world war and lived through the harshest of fighting after the British withdrawal from Burma. Now, in his old age, he spends his days wandering around Umpheim Mai refugee camp, not much good to anyone anymore, but a wealth of knowledge and held in the highest esteem by his people.
There are few things to do in refugee camps, walk, talk and play takraw, a blend between football and volleyball. This court is at the top of Umpheim Mai refugee camp, and a source of entertainment for players, passersby and groupies of the star players. The athleticism on show here is testimony to just how tough and suited to guerilla warfare the Karen really are.
In frontier lands between Burma and Thailand that belong to no-one, the Karen people carve out their existence. Those lucky enough to be born on the Thai side sometimes carry citizenship, others who have fled villages inside Burma are kept confined to camps. Political expediency assures they are not granted refugee status, and so their lives grind on in limbo. Some have lived like this since the mid 1980s, some of the younger people, born in the camps, have known nothing else their whole lives. Canadian photographer Steve Sandford captured these images travelling with Australian journalist Dan Pedersen — now living in Hobart — through lands of picture-postcard settings inhabited by a people desperate for recognition.