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Unseen Mae La

by Justin Marcello & Zoeann Murphy

The Largest Refugee Camp in Thailand

When asked about his hopes and dreams for the future, Gabriel Eh replied 'Refugees have no freedom. When you have freedom you can have dreams for your own life.' Gabriel is a refugee from Burma. He is Karen, one of the many ethnic groups in the country. In the spring of this year he and nine other young Karen leaders participated in a first person storytelling project called Unseenworld where they received cameras and hands on photography training, while engaging in conversations about self-representation, culture and globalization.

Like the other participants, Gabriel's life is largely defined by loss. After the Burmese army destroyed his village he fled to Thailand where he has lived for the past decade. In Thailand he is safe but he has few basic human rights. He does not have the right to freedom of movement, nor does he have the right to work. He is confined to Mae La, the largest refugee camp in Thailand. His life is restricted, rationed and yet also resilient. Speaking about his dreams for the future, Gabriel continued, 'We must work for freedom and democracy before we can dream for ourselves.'

The Karen people have been fighting for their freedom since 1949 in what has become the longest-running armed conflict in the world. They are the last of Burma’s many rebel groups. Their struggle has shifted from creating an independent Karen Nation to defending Karen villagers from the Burmese military who routinely commit war crimes. Forced labor, extra-judicial killings, and the destruction of entire villages have sent over 100,000 people fleeing to Thailand for safety.

Many of those refugees live at Mae La. Originally established in 1984 with a population of 1,100, the camp now houses over 40,000 people from across Burma. It has a hospital, a college, schools, libraries, stores, and places of worship. There are Buddhists, Catholics, Baptists, Muslims and animists. Most strikingly, there is now a generation of young people born in the camp, a generation who know life only as refugees. Paw Dah, another participant in the workshop is part of this refugee generation. Asked about her hopes for the future she said, "Sometimes I want to resettle."

Resettlement in a third country, often the United States or Canada, is an increasingly common hope among the younger generation of Karen refugees. After decades of war, international condemnation and sanctions there appears to be little hope for the people of Burma as the military junta who rules the country is still firmly in control. The Karen in particular feel lost to history as their struggle has faltered, receiving little support from the international community and little recognition from international media.

Now through the language of photography they are telling their own stories. Their gorgeous and moving photographs explore the hardships and fortitude of refugee life, the loss of culture due to war and globalization, and their hopes for the future. Due to the sensitive nature of the project some of the photographers chose to use silhouettes and pseudonyms. To see more of their photographs and read their stories please visit:  http://unseenmaela.blogspot.com.

young girl in red dress
Makeshift Toys
She found something to play with on her way down the mountain.
Photographer:  Beau La Htoo

old woman in a hammock
In our culture the young take care of the old.
Photographer:  Chanaical

woman teaching a child how to weave
Teaching the Young
The longer we are away from our homeland the more we lose our culture. These days fewer women know how to weave.
Photographer:  Gabriel Eh

processing sugar cane with a hand crank
Sugar Cane
Sugar cane juice is so delicious.
Photographer:  Paw Dah

baby asleep in a hammock
My cousin is twelve-months-old. His name Eh Klo Mo means 'a person who maintains their culture'.
Photographer:  Pi Kwe

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Articles in this Issue

What the Nose Knows, by Avery Gilbert
The Swap, by Matthew Salesses
Honeymoons, by Mary P. Curtis
Unseen Mae La, by Justin Marcello & Zoeann Murphy
Bike, by Scott Saalman
Transportation, by Anne Germanacos
Fine Art, by Lou Brooks
Athletics, by Rebekah Doyle Guss
August 2008


JUSTIN MARCELLO & ZOEANN MURPHY created Unseenworld as an expansion of the successful national project Unseenamerica. Unseenamerica is an initiative of the Bread & Roses Cultural Project of 1199SEIU and has completed over 300 photography workshops throughout the country. For more information about Unseenworld visit: UnseenMaeLa.blogspot.com.

Where loss is found.

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