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Buddhadharma : Summer 2008
61 summer 2 00 8 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly March.) At one monastery we were told that all of the local nuns had fled after the crackdown and that local people missed their morning chanting. Each of the centers we were able to visit—and these were places ostensibly not involved in the demonstrations—had government security officers at the gate. One morning, while we gave out packages of noodles to five hundred young children at a desperately poor monastic orphanage, we learned that military intelligence agents had followed us in and questioned the young abbot about our presence. They left—evidently feeding children was not illegal that day—but their presence had left the school staff badly shaken. Buddhist monastic schools and orphanages play a key role in the educational system. In the Rangoon Division alone there are 162 monastic schools. Across Burma there are hundreds of thousands of orphans, children who have lost a parent or whose families cannot afford even the small expense of government schools. There are some fine monas- tic schools, but the ones we saw on the outskirts of Ran- goon were disturbing places. Hundreds of young children had to make do with thin rice gruel, sometimes mixed with a touch of fish paste. They had no textbooks and writing materials were scarce. Children learned by rote memoriza- tion. Dormitories—home to dozens of students per room— were crowded and dirty. We saw a health worker checking the children for scabies and ringworm, conditions that were almost universal. Malnutrition, overcrowding, and limited staff mean that children are neglected, despite the teachers’ and monks’ best intentions. The school we visited had previously been home to nearly forty monks and was now staffed by just four or five, the rest having fled in October. That was not unique to one temple but rather common in monasteries across Burma. We asked the abbot where they had gone. He didn’t know. Looking down, he said he did not know if he would hear from any of them again. Leaving Burma, we flew back to Bangkok and traveled by van to Mae Sot along the Thai-Burma border, where we heard there was a cluster of Burmese monks who had fled Burma for the relative safety of Thailand. Mae Sot is deep in the mountains of Thailand, just across the Moie River from Myawaddy on the Burmese side. It is a kind of Wild West place with dusty streets and teeming mar- kets full of cheap goods. Illegal Burmese refugees account for roughly 80,000 of the town’s population of 100,000. Another 75,000 refugees live in three large makeshift camps set up by Thai authorities in the nearby hills, cut off from opportunities for work and liberty. Around Mae Sot’s gar- bage dump children comb through mounds of refuse daily, salvaging anything that might be sold or bartered for food. On the outskirts of town, two hundred prison-like facto- ries are staffed by these illegals. They manufacture clothing and other bargain items for the world market, working for half the Thai minimum wage of about $4.50/day. Most of these workers are from the neighboring Karen state inside Burma, a region that has seen much repression by the Bur- mese army and where there are no jobs to speak of. They are grateful for any employment at all, but working behind barbed wire for such wages is exploitation nonetheless. Mae Sot is also home to an astonishing number of Bur- mese opposition groups—local, national, and international. Each has its own mission and constituency, and it is often difficult for them to work together across ethnic and political lines. Despite Mae Sot’s proximity to Burma, and a some- what laissez-faire attitude toward these displaced Burmese (Thai businesses need their cheap labor), sources told us that only a few hundred refugees have made the difficult journey from central Burma to the border, and of those, perhaps only twenty or thirty were monks. The number is hard to pin down. Through contacts with the local National League for De- mocracy and other activist organizations, we were invited to talk with monks from Rangoon, Mandalay, and Bago at several Mae Sot safe houses. The houses themselves were inconspicuous, but hardly safe. Like many of the offices and residences of Burmese activists, they were subject to ran- dom raids by Thai immigration officers, who line their own pockets with bribes and remind the Burmese of their undocu- mented vulnerability in Thailand. Dr. Cynthia Maung’s Mae Tao Clinic, the main medical resource for Burmese migrants and refugees along the border, has been raided countless times. Since Thailand never signed the 1951 Refugee Conven- tion, it has blocked the United Nations High Commission for Refugees from registering and screening new arrivals, who are constantly subject to deportation and exploitation. Beneath people’s smiles, fear seemed close to the surface. But wherever we went, people were anxious to talk, to tell their stories about the long, painful months just past. alansenauke