Tag Archives | burma

Relief Trip to the Refugee Camp Destroyed by Fire

In the middle of a border mission near Karen State, we received news of a fire decimating a refugee camp in Northern Thailand.  Dozens killed and many homes burned.  Scattered updates, thin reporting, and suspicious causes gave us little comfort that needs would be well handled.  Being many hours away, there was little we could do immediately.  The refugee camp in Thailand is not within the typical scope of the FBR mission to serve the people of Burma—the Thai refugee camps have many NGOs proving aid.  Still, several ex-Free Burma Rangers and many once-IDP families in Burma now call Camp 2 home.


With no clear answer on what to do, Dave prayed for a way FBR could help.  Minutes later, he opened his computer to find an email from ____–they had relief supplies, but no means of transporting them to the camp.   FBR had trucks and rangers ready.  Doh Say, a Karenni FBR leader, led the trip, joined by Jonathan, Lisa, and me.

The mission would be no slam dunk.  Refugee camps in Thailand notoriously restrict visitors—especially foreigners, since the camps “technically” do not exist.  Despite the challenges, our team took off Saturday morning for an anticipated five-hour drive.

Ten hours and several engine overheating stops later, our truck rambled into the first checkpoint along the road the refugee camp.  We were not sure what would happen next.  Three hours prior, we received a phone call that the camp gate would close at 5 p.m.  We prayed for an opening and kept moving, anticipating that we might sleep on the hood of the truck at the camp gate.


News quickly turned worse.  A Thai army at our checkpoint told us that only 30 minutes ago, the refugee camp commander called up and said “Allow no more trucks through.”

“You missed it by half-an-hour,” the soldier explained.  “Only registered NGOs and people with camp permits.”

We had neither.  We decided to wait them out.  Two other trucks from Chiang Mai arrived just in front of us.  They received the same frustrating news.

After waiting 30 minutes, the Thai soldiers came to us and said they called the camp commander who would allow us to drive to the gate and then make a determination there.  With no guarantees our relief supplies or our FBR team could get into the camp, we pushed ahead.  There would be no turning around for the next two hours.

The road to Camp 2 winds up and down a ravine, crossing a large river in at least a dozen places.  The off-road trail requires four-wheel drive with deep ruts and steep climbs through the jungle—picture taking the back entrance to Jurassic Park.  With darkness already upon us, the pace slowed to a crawl.


Two hours later, our truck entered the rocky flats along the riverbed.  A surreal world greeted us.  Hundreds of candlelit tents lined the steep canyon walls around, reflecting off the snake-like river our trucked waded through.  We drove straight up the river in places, finally coming to a halt at an oasis of technology in this remote camp: the emergency response center, complete with satellites, internet, and aid workers.

Doh Say stepped out to negotiate.

“We can go,” he told us minutes later.  If we had a place to stay in the camp, we could walk in and drive our truck in tomorrow.  “Hurry before they change their mind,” Doh Say stressed.

By flashlight, we began a walk into an extraordinary land of suspended bamboo walkways and tree trunk footbridges.  Crisscrossing the river, entered a portion of the refugee camp burned to the ground.  The air smelled of recently scorched earth and, in places, the fire still burned and logs continued to smolder.  Charred bamboo poles rose eerily from the ground and each step left footprints in the ash.

We soon arrived at the bamboo home of the camp chairwoman.  I’m not sure whether they knew of our arrival, but they made space for us to sleep in and prepared dinner.

We rose in the morning to deliver relief supplies, including rice and cooking materials, and begin interviewing victims.  We made visits to families in two sections displaced by the fire, as well as interviewing several other victims and the camp chairwoman.  The fire victims received temporary tarp shelters.



In total, the blaze destroyed at least 380 homes out of 685.  The fire consumed 55% of the camp (2 sections), displacing approximately 2,300 people.  In addition to the homes, the fire burned 2 churches, 1 Bible school, and a large clinic.  39 people died in the fire, including two unborn children.

The sections of the destroyed refugee camp contained predominately Christian families.  They requested new Bibles, which mostly burned in the fire and relief organizations do not provide them.

The refugees interviewed said they had a lot of time between seeing the fire and it arriving at their home.  One section burned in 10-15 minutes while the other burned over the course of 30-60 minutes.  Yet, they did not know what to do an often ran in and out of their home in fright.  Despite the amount of time, they did not save any possessions from their homes.  Others attempted to fight the fire instead of saving possessions.  Also, many of those who died did so because they went in to rescue victims.  All of this gives rise to some questions about the adequacy of fire response training among the refugees.



The cause of the fire remains unknown as well as the subject of suspicion.  Early reports suggest a cooking fire.  Some refugees, however, cite seeing an aircraft fly overhead and drop a glowing material.  The Thai government operated rain-seeding aircraft in the area at the time of the fire.  Other refugees said the size of the fire was too large for it to be a cooking accident because the fire had to jump a wide river in several places.  Additionally, they said the fire appeared to begin burning in two places almost simultaneously.  The cause remains under investigation.

After spending about 10 days along the border, I am way behind on my bogging and report.  More to come soon!!


Request from Karen Refugees: Change the Dictionary!

I am in Thailand again for the annual Pepperdine Law Spring Break trip.  It’s arguably my favorite event to lead.  One of the most fascinating experiences for our students is an overnight stay at Mae La Refugee Camp with the Karen people along the Thai-Burma border.  We learn about the plight of the Karen, the dramatic story of Burma, and the ongoing fight for freedom.


As usual, we joined them on our morning of departure for a church service.  In typical fashion, we sat in front and each student introduced themselves.  I gave a message.  When that was over, one of the pastors thanked us and, in front of 450 Karen in the congregation, asked for our help in an important matter.  The dictionary.  In The New American Oxford Dictionary, he explained, the Karen people are defined as a “wild unclean man.”  Could you help us change it? he pled–he had written to the dictionary and received no response.

I was stunned–by both the perplexing nature this prejudicial definition and the specificity of their request.  Naturally, as lawyers, we all wanted to see the definition in print.  An outdated dictionary perhaps?  Urban legend possibly?  We would need to make it back to Chiang Mai to read this supposed definition in an obscure dictionary edition.

Or so we thought.

On Lisa’s Kindle, The New American Oxford Dictionary comes pre-loaded.  Not so obscure after all.  And, there it was, the high definition: “from Burmese ka-reng ‘wild unclean man.’”  The offending definition was Oxford’s proposed etymology, not the full definition itself.  Nonetheless, the Karen position is completely understandable.  For the several million strong Karen population now spread the world over as ambassadors and refugees of Karen nation, the definition is simply offensive.  Especially for refugees getting resettled among 11 nations, the definition is prejudicial.

The New American Oxford Dictionary

The New American Oxford Dictionary origin, however, is suspect.  First, the language of the Karen isn’t Burmese—it’s Karen.  It’s dubious that the Karen would adopt a name for themselves not of their own language.  It’s also questionable that they would willfully adopt a derogatory term.

We immediately began some research on the origin of the name.  It’s been studied by anthropologists and there is a fairly clear consensus among them: they don’t know.  While the exact origin of name “Karen” is unknown, the most probable scenario is that it came from the Kayin, another hill tribe in eastern Burma who speak a related Sino-Tibetan language.   No anthropologist suggests the name originated a derogatory Burmese term.

While the exact origin of “Karen” is unknown, The New American Oxford Dictionary treats it as conclusive fact.  At the very least, this is incomplete and misleading, if not woefully inaccurate.  While the good people at Oxford Press may not be moved by the effect of their definitions, I suspect they are concerned about the accuracy of their dictionary.

So, what do we do from here?  Despite their many needs as refugees, its not very often that the Karen ask for something specific.  Thus, we are inclined to do what we can.

Two questions:

1)     Does anyone have an explanation for the Karen name that explains or refutes the NAOD definition?

2)    If the definition is inaccurate, does anyone have any suggestions for how to help get the definition changed?  We are considering a letter from Pepperdine University School of Law to Oxford Press as well as a subsequent or concurrent Change.org petition.


My Favorite Photos from 2012 Thailand Trip

These photos were taken on the Pepperdine University School of Law Spring Break Service trip to Northern Thailand.  We spent 10 days along the Thai-Burma border visiting refugee camps and working with various humanitarian organizations.  Read my story on the experience of staying the night in Mae La Refugee Camp.


Visiting the buddhist temple at Doi Suthep.


Refugee Camp Fence Crossing

Crossing the barbwire boundary into Mae La Refugee Camp.


Receiving a tour of Mae La Refugee Camp.


Mae La Houses

Mae La is nearly identical to a Karen village in the jungle.



Listening to harmonies of Care Villa–a home for amputees of landmine injuries.



Negeen and Amy making two new friends.


Steps to the Prayer House

Steps up to the Prayer House overlooking Mae La Refugee Camp.


Girl with Beads

I see you too.



Grant bellowing out Battle Hymn of the Republic at devotional service in Mae La.



Riding elephants.


See more from the trip!

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Thailand Update #2 – Off to the Burma Border

Note: We are back in the States, but I had little time to write on the trip.  The updates are still coming!

Last weekend, we took a deep dive into the realities of cross-border aid and the changing political landscape in Burma.  We had the opportunity to sit in on important meetings with the Free Burma Rangers, journalists, and ethnic leaders.  Our access to these meetings was kindly granted by great friends.  For our students, it was an unprecedented look into the matters they would be seeing very closely the next few days.

On Monday morning, we started our most extensive journey: A drive to the border and the refugee camps.  First, we began the morning with a brief visit to the U.S. Consulate in Chiang Mai to learn about our government’s position with respect to Thai-Burma border matters.  Given the latest developments in the government of Burma, this meeting was timely.  We were briefed by the Vice Consul.  When I told the Vice Consul we were headed to Mae La Refugee Camp, he was surprised and said that they often couldn’t even get Senators and Congressman in who want to visit.

Continue Reading →


Lifetimes of Work: A Reflection on the Ceasefire in Burma

A few years ago, I met an extraordinary woman named Louisa.  A colleague at Pepperdine told me that her next door neighbor growing up was somehow involved in Burma.  She wrote Louisa’s contact information on a note card.  I set the note card on my computer monitor stand and called.  She was thrilled that a university took interest.


Louisa lived a life worthy of biographies.  A Burmese movie star, she was crowned Miss Burma in 1956 and 1958.  Following the military coup of the early 1960s, she married a pro-democracy rebel army commander.  After her husband, the rebel commander, was assassinated, Louisa took over leadership of his brigade and led them back into the revolution.  She fought in Burma jungles until she moved to the United States as a refugee.  In the U.S., she was a significant figure in a landmark alien tort statute claim again Unocal and remained active in Burmese pro-democracy movements.

Continue Reading →


My Five Favorite Photos of the Year

2011 was a fun year for photography.  Between new camera equipment and trips to Thailand, Uganda, Rwanda, Peru, and Tahiti, there was plentiful ground for photos.


Today, I looked back through my archive of the year to revisit what I had taken.  I wanted to select what I felt were my five most iconic of the year.  It was much harder than I expected–the first three were the only completely obvious choices to me.

Continue Reading →


What Makes Me Sad about the Death of Kim Jong Il and other Tyrants

2011 was an interesting year. The death of Kim Jong Il was a surprise.  A year earlier, who would have guessed that Gaddafi and Osama Bin Laden would share the same fate?

All Hail Kim Jong Il

These deaths have been largely celebrated (Bin Laden particularly).  While they symbolize the potential for significant shifts in nations or ideologies, I find them to be somewhat sad.  Why?  These individuals rose to be leaders and held power  over people (Jong Il benefited from nepotism, no doubt).  And they convinced their followers do unbelievable things: go to their death for a cause, commit evil atrocities, and refer to them as “the great leader.”  They figured out how to make people follow.

If we truly believe in the redemptive capacity of people and the redemptive power of God, then we must acknowledge that this leadership could have been used for good and not evil.  This possibility for good  is a great loss. Continue Reading →


My Take on Secretary Clinton’s Trip to Burma

This is a very interesting time.  As I write, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is visiting Burma (Myanmar).  She is the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit since 1955. It’s opens a whole new world of dialogue with this rogue nation and invites many questions.  Overall, I applaud this trip as realistic foreign policy, but I’m cautious about our role.

Jay at the border

In the past, the U.S. has largely overlooked or ignored Burma.  We sanctioned it.  We didn’t recognize it.  We condemned from afar. Continue Reading →


A Few Years in the Making: The Joy of Publishing My Article On Statelessness

Yesterday, a nondescript box arrive at the office.  I opened it to find my recently published law review article “Stateless.”

Stateless Cardozo Cover 2011

Not often do I get the satisfaction of seeing something “completed.”  My job is one where everything is a continual process of long-term global justice projects or a recurring process on the academic cycle.  Publishing “Stateless” was one of those moments–let me share a little about the background and my suggestion. Continue Reading →


My Big Idea: A Global Network to Solve Statelessness

Traveling to Southeast Asia to research human trafficking, I encountered scores of “stateless” women and children—citizens of no country and wanted by no country.  By operation of law, they were denied citizenship. Left stateless, these individuals quickly became vulnerable to human rights abuses, exploitation, and trafficking.



Stateless persons living in “no-man’s-land” — on the pillars of a bridge between Burma and Thailand.

The United Nations estimates that more than 12 million people worldwide are victims of statelessness.  From South East Asia to the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, denial of citizenship takes form as both a failure of law and tool for oppression.

Fortunately, this problem was solved before.  After World War I, Europe found itself with an influx of stateless people from dissolved nations.  In response, the League of Nations created the “Nansen Passport” (named after founder Fidtjof Nansen) to document and provide basic rights to those who were stateless.  The Nansen Passport was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and considered a success attributed to the League of Nations.  This solution is equally relevant today.

My “big idea” is that we create a private system of international identification similar to the previously-successful Nansen Passport.  Our way of understanding citizenship and identification is out-of-date in that we allow nation states to be the sole arbitrators of identification and citizenship.  This model is based on the decades-old idea that each country is an island.  And, unfortunately, nations are increasingly using citizenship as a tool for discrimination. Continue Reading →


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