Karen refugees in Nu Poe refugee camp
By tim mehrtens
5 Aug 2008
The Karen are the largest minority group in Burma. Most of them live in Karen State in eastern Burma. Many are on the run from the Burmese military, who are engaged in a systematic program of destruction of Karen villages.
Around one hundred thousand have fled to Thailand and live in a handful of refugee camps that dot Burma's eastern border. Even more lack this tenuous security, eking out an existence in the mountains and jungle, trying to avoid Burmese army patrols. Ethnic cleansing is a strong term, though recently a Burmese general boasted that soon the museum will be the only place you will find a Karen.
In July, on the first day of a major Buddhist holiday, Thai paramilitary forces (tahaan prahn, literally "hunter-killer soldiers") rounded up 52 Karens from the camps and forced them back across the border to an area controlled by the Burmese army, who they had just recently fled from.
There is no home for these folk. Some wait to emigrate to a western nation, some hope to return to their villages in a peaceful Burma, but with the brutal determination of a dictatorship that spends almost half of its budget on the military, this may not happen any time soon.
I visited the Nu Poe camp twice as a guest of the camp secretary, as my wife and I are setting up a charity to help the internally displaced kids there, who under UNHCR rules are ineligible for assistance, part of around 20,000 along the border who cannot register as refugees.
I took loads of pictures on my 35mm camera, then decided to make some portraits with my chunky ol medium format. Somehow the process of working with different cameras brings different results. Knowing you only have 10 frames fosters a bit more of a considered approach, and the waist level viewfinder creates another relationship with the subject.
I was blown out by the gentleness, gutsiness and warmth of these people, who are unwilling to give up their dream of returning to their homeland.