SHORTLY AFTER DAWN, someone dropped a pile of thinly sliced onions and whole garlic cloves with the skins still on into a wok of hot soybean oil. As the smell wafted up, I climbed out from under my mosquito net and walked softly out of my room.
Htan Dah—whose name was pronounced, to my unceasing delight, the same as the self-satisfied English interjection "ta-da!"—stood at the gas range, which spat oil at his baggy long-sleeved shirt. He tilted the wok, concentrating harder than he needed to on the swirling oil. Htan Dah was worried about me. As the office manager of Burma Action for the past two years, he'd heard the nighttime weeping of plenty of self-pitying philanthropists, who tended to arrive tired and instantly homesick. The last girl, a Canadian with a lot of luggage, had started sobbing almost as soon as he'd picked her up, and couldn't be calmed even by the hours she spent taking calls from her boyfriend back home. She'd cried for days.
Indeed, I'd had a very sad moment the night before when, after my air mattress deflated and my angles pressed into hard floor, and I realized that the ants patrolling the grounds were trekking right through my hair, I actually hoped that I had contracted malaria or Japanese encephalitis from the mosquito bites raging hot and itchy so I would have a legitimate excuse to bail back to the States. That way I wouldn't have to be mad at myself for being too chickenshit to hack it through loneliness and less-than-ideal bathing arrangements. I'd even considered taking the bus back to Bangkok. If there wasn't an immediate flight out, I could just hang out on Khao San Road and read books. I hated Khao San Road, with its hennaed European backpackers and incessant techno and beer specials, but at least it was familiar. I'd realized then that I might start crying, but I was determined not to. Instead, I saved the tearing up for when Htan Dah put another bowl of stick soup in front of me now and asked, "How long are you staying?"
"Six weeks," I said.
"Six weeks!" he hollered. "Why not four months? Or six months?"
"Six weeks is a long time to go out of the country in America," I said. "Besides, I was in Thailand for a month two years ago."
"How many times have you been here?"
"Wow," he said. Then, more softly, "You have traveled a lot. That's nice."
He had no idea, even. "Have you traveled?"
"No, I cannot."
"Because! I am Karen!"
"So, I cannot go anywhere." He dumped chunks of raw, pink meat into the oil, which sputtered furiously. "If I go outside, I can be arrested."
"Yes! I am refugee!"
Htan Dah's exclamations suggested that none of this should have been news to me—though I soon realized that this was also just how he talked. But my books hadn't said much about refugees, or mentioned that most of the Burmese refugees in Thailand were Karen, and Burma Action hadn't told me that my housemates were refugees, and certainly not refugees who'd run away from camp to live and work illegally in that house. I, after all, was the one who'd just figured out that no one here was Korean.
"I'm sorry," I said. "Why would you be arrested because you're a refugee?"
"Because! I don't have Thai ID. I am not Thai citizen, so, I cannot go outside refugee camp."
"Yes! I can be fined, maybe 3,000 baht"—nearly $100 in a country where the average annual income was about $3,000—"I can go to jail, or maybe, be deported..." We looked at each other, and he nodded in my silence, emphasizing his point with a sharp dip of his chin. "You have a lot of experience. You have been to a lot of places."
"Did you live in a refugee camp before?"
"Yes. Before I came to BA."
"How long have you lived here?"
"In Thailand?" Htan Dah asked. "I was born in Thailand."
TO BE A KAREN refugee in Thailand is to be unwelcome. The Royal Thai Government, already sanctuary to evacuees from other Southeast Asian wars by the time the Karen showed up in the '80s, was hardly in a hurry to recognize and protect them as refugees—and, not having signed the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, it didn't have to. This is only the latest misfortune in the Karen's long history of troubles. They were massively oppressed and enslaved before Burma became a British colony in 1886, but their relations with the Burmese were nothing so nasty as after they played colonialists' pet and then joined the Allies in World War II. British officers promised the Karen independence for helping us fight the Burmese and Japan. They lied. The Karen resistance started, and the Karen National Union formed, about as soon as the ink was dry on Burma's postwar independence agreement. Their oath had four parts: (1) For us surrender is out of the question. (2) Recognition of Karen State must be completed. (3) We shall retain our arms. (4) We shall decide our own political destiny. The Karen had been well trained and well armed by Westerners. They nearly took the capital in 1949, and when they were pushed back to the eastern hills, they built the largest insurrection (among many) against the Burmese junta. By the '80s, the KNU claimed that its annual income, from taxing smuggled products flowing through the porous Thai border, was in the tens of millions of dollars a year.
The junta responded with Four Cuts. You've never heard of Four Cuts, but it's a Burmese army strategy that every Karen child knows very well: cutting off the enemy's sources of food, finance, intelligence, and recruits (and, some say, their heads). Unfortunately for villagers, these sources of support include the villagers themselves, in addition to their rice and livestock. It's the same strategy the British used to extinguish uprisings back in their day: "We simply wiped out the village and shot everyone we saw," wrote Sir James George Scott, an intrepid administrator who, in addition to killing Burmese, introduced soccer to them. "Burned all their crops and houses." Htan Dah's parents were among the first wave of Karen to flee the wrath of the Burmese army. Today the Burmese camp population in Thailand is 150,000, and the No. 1 answer people give when asked why they left Burma is "running away from soldiers."
I ASKED HTAN DAH, on my third day, how many people lived in our office/house. I'd been working on lesson plans all day for the soon-to-start English classes. Men had been working alongside me at the other computers, keeping to themselves.
"Maybe 10," he said.
A lot more dudes than that had been milling around. Many of them were dudes in Che Guevara T-shirts. Htan Dah said that in addition to present staff, there were visitors from other offices and NGOs, plus staff currently "inside"—in Burma.
"Doing what?" I asked.
"Doing interviewww, taking videooo, taking picturrre..." he said, drawing out the final syllables. "They go to the village, and they tell about what is going on in Burma, and about how to unite for democracy. Also, they ask, 'Have you seen Burma army? Have they raped you, or shot you, or burned your village?'" This explained the "Human Rights Vocabulary" translation cheat sheet I'd noticed on my first night. I'd since gotten a better look at it, studying the 15 most-used phrases. One side listed words in Karen script, a train of round characters, with loops that extended lines or swirls above and below the baseline. The other side was in English: (1) Killings (2) Disappearances (3) Torture/inhumane treatments (4) Forced labor (5) Use of child soldiers (6) Forced relocation (7) Confiscation/destruction of property (8) Rape (9) Other sexual violence (10) Forced prostitution (11) Forced marriage (12) Arbitrary/illegal arrest/detention (13) Human trafficking (14) Obstruction of freedom of movement (15) Obstruction of freedom/expression/assembly. These were going to be English classes like no other I'd taken or taught.
"Then they enter information into Martus."
"Human rights violation database."
"Then what happens to the information?"
"We can share, with other HRD."
"Human rights documenter."
"So you guys collect it all..."
Htan Dah stared at me.
"And then what? Then it just sits there?"
Htan Dah shrugged.
"How do the guys get to the villages?"
Reporting for this story was supported by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.