Burma was colonized by Britain and established independence in 1948. Since then- for approx. 65 + years- the people of Burma have experienced a turbulent history of internal conflict, an unstable military regime, severe economic hardship, and human rights abuses.
For years the country has experienced ongoing political unrest, civil war, and genocide. Human rights violations and economic instability continue to force people out of Burma to seek safety in neighboring countries like Thailand and Malaysia.
BBP’s Past and Present
Dr. Cynthia Maung, fleeing from Burma’s military junta’s violent suppression of the 1988 pro-democracy movement, established a makeshift medical facility to treat the injuries and illnesses sustained by fellow refugees. Over twenty years later, Dr. Cynthia’s Mae Tao Clinic (MTC) has grown from a one-room building with only a rice cooker to sterilize instruments to a large community hospital providing healthcare to over 150,000 displaced people each year. In 1998, BBP’s Executive Director, Michael Forhan visited MTC for the first time and met with Dr. Cynthia who told him that despite their expanding medical facilities and improved capacity to provide physical care, there was no help being offered to heal the minds and hearts of her traumatized patients and community members. From this conversation, BBP was born.
Our collaboration with Mae Tao Clinic continues to be dynamic and we work together to address the most current needs of the clinic and its patients. For example BBP has:
- Initiated and supported the MTC Counseling Center.
- Provided counseling skills support and training, individual and group supervision to the team of local counselors, and technical advising on program development and mental health policy.
- Facilitated the application of the Child Recreation Center (CRC) to meet the developmental and psychosocial needs of migrant children. BBP has been involved in every stage of the CRC’s creation and maintenance, from the physical construction of the building and its outdoor playgrounds, to the establishment of a daily schedule of physical and psychosocial programs, to the training of staff and providing technical advice on child protection matters.
BBP’s reputation of developing relevant tailored-made trainings expanded additional requests from other community-based organizations along the border. BBP made a commitment to create partnerships with social service agencies to provide training and workshops that enhance psychosocial functioning of refugees and migrants.
To address the trauma related to displacement, BBP began to provide play therapy to various boarding schools and homes for children in the border area.
New collaborations are developed virtually every day and continue to be created at the specific request of partnering agents.
Mae Sot and the Border
The estimated number of people who have migrated to Thailand from other Southeast Asia countries varies from 1 to 3 million people and includes migration from Laos and Cambodia as well as the biggest contributor, Burma.
Mae Sot lies on the other side of the Friendship Bridge; the passage from Burma to Thailand. There is an official immigration office at both ends of the crossing. The Moi River separates the two countries, and provides an informal way to travel back and forth. The informal crossings make it impossible to have an exact count of who lives in Mae Sot, but the number are significant enough that Mae Sot has been called little Burma. Census data collected by various NGOs suggest that the official population of Mae Sot is as few as 38,000. More robust estimates state that the population is closer to 140,000, including Thais and documented migrants. In reality, due to porous borders, unrecorded births and deaths, and mobility it might be impossible to capture an accurate estimate. What does seem consistent is the “guestimate” about population distribution: most sources report that only about 40% of people living in Mae Sot are Thai. Businesses report that at least 60% of their weekly transactions are with Burmese, including people who cross the border to shop.
Mae Sot is a town of cultural “shifting sand”. Ethnic and religious minorities, documented and undocumented migrant people, NGO workers, and the 120,000 Burmese refugees living in the camps create a diverse social environment. Many daily interactions are done in English, often broken English. It is also a town on the verge of becoming more diverse and busier. A highway running from Viet Nam to India goes through Mae Sot. Twenty new hotels have been built along the highway with more in the works. The immediate impact of the construction is that workers are being drawn to Mae Sot. Thailand has a national minimum wage of 300 baht (about $8.50) a day but under the table laborers are paid between 60-120 baht a day, still considerably more than they are able to make in Burma.
When the highway is complete more traffic will pass through Mae Sot. Factories will have easy access to a major transnational through-way. Cheap, plentiful labor and easy distribution routes are great selling points for companies looking to establish new factories and business. Six kilometers before a transnational border makes for an ideal resting spot after a day of travelling. There will be long term jobs in hospitality and other industries. Using English as the language of the day will become an even more important common denominator.
These impending changes make the work at BBP even more important. With more people, there will be greater demands for more and various kinds of health and mental health services. Traditional families are willing to live apart when they need to do so for economic reasons. We might see an increase of children in boarding homes. The English language introduction programs will be a necessary springboard for employment. Areas around transnational highways often also become fertile ground for the growth of businesses related to the darker side of life, most notably the trafficking of humans and drugs. As a leader in child protection services and expertise, BBP will be at the fore front of building systems to enhance child safety.