Capital of Mae La: in a world where states don’t accept refugees as citizens

Capital of Mae La is a documentary about the Mae La refugee camp, the largest refugee camp of the nine along the Thai-Myanmar border and home for more than 40,000 refugees. The making of this documentary took 4 years, spanning the entire period of the director’s doctoral thesis. Out of hundreds of hours of footage, only half an hour was selected.

This documentary premiered in Amsterdam, before being screened in Thailand at SEA Junction, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.

Prachatai talks to Jiraporn Laocharoenwong from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Faculty of Political Sciences, Chulalongkorn University, the anthropologist who started the project, and Nuankhanit Phromchanya, the director, about the making of the documentary and the idea of the myth of the nation, which turns refugees, who are citizens of the world like everyone else, into second-class citizens.

Jiraporn Laocharoenwong (left) and Nuankhanit Phromchanya (right)

How did you get together to make this documentary?

Jiraporn: It began with the idea that if I just write an academic work, then it’s limited to academia, especially if I publish it in English, then Thai people can’t access it. So when I met Belle (Nuankhanit) in Amsterdam, I pitched the idea to her. She was interested, so I asked her to make a film with me.

Nuankhanit: I went to Mae La as part of Oil (Jiraporn)’s entourage. I was an observer, and I took my camera to record the things they talked about, the way they live. When we had all the footage, we looked at the things we filmed and talked about them. Oil would explain to me what she thought, which is an explanation in another layer which I may not understand if I was just someone with a camera shooting, but Oil knows more than normal people because she’s been in the camp for 10 years.

Jiraporn: If I went alone, the film wouldn’t turn out like this, because there wouldn’t be my influence over it. It wouldn’t be framed from an anthropologist’s viewpoint.

Nuankhanit: The first time I went was during Karen New Year. I saw the world all pink, because people were having fun, there was a festival, but when I spent a long time in the field, I saw the deeper side of it. Even if Mae La looks like a developed city, there’s a lot of complicated things in there and it took us time to understand what people are facing.

Why did you choose Mae La?

Jiraporn: Mae La may be close to Mae Sod, and I’m interested in cities and urbanization, and the construction of space in a refugee camp, which not many people talk about. Everyone talks about the camps of refugees as victims, as passive, but when I go to Mae La, it’s a city that has everything.

I went there just sightseeing without asking for a permit. It was around 2011-2012, and I could take a song thaew there and my friend would take me in. It was my friend’s graduation. I saw stereos, markets, cafes. There’s FedEx and DHL to deliver things in case you want to sell something across the border. There’s a school. There’s everything like a city would have, which is an image of refugees which doesn’t often get talked about, because mostly refugee camps are talked about as temporary residences. They are separated from others and live on the margins, but people often talk of Mae La as a capital city of refugees. This complexity is interesting.

An example of the complexity is, at the school, they teach Karen values and identity, about Karens saving the nation, and they sing the Karen national anthem every day, but at the same time, children in the camp have a different awareness of the past from their parents’ generation. What we can see clearly is that there are young people who are YouTube rappers, and so they explain their identity as a different kind of Karen. 

Or we could see the connection of power between the Mae La camp committee, which has a lot of autonomy in ruling themselves and is more democratic than the KNU, which is the main Karen organization.  

But the camp committee has the idea of not causing problems for the Thai government, so they can stay here longer. If there is a problem within the camp, such as theft or assault, the camp committee will try to mediate, because they don’t want the problem to get so big that the camp commander knows. Or if children fight or bully each other, they’ll choose to send them to stay with the KNLA, meaning that they send them across the border to Karen State to be a soldier. If it’s really serious, they’ll stay there for a month or a year, but I’m not sure if it’s still like that now.

The documentary's poster
What is the rapper kids’ awareness like?

Jiraporn: They are the 2nd and 3rd generation in the camp. They were born in the camp, and they are smart, but they’re not into what they study. They are not into academic things or human rights. They use their free time to write rap songs, but these children were taught by the 1st generation that they have to love the nation, love the Karen state, but they have their own ideas. Right now, some of them are doing their undergraduate degrees at Payap University.

I think they are children who know the wide world. They want to do things their own way without wanting to start the kind of revolution where you use guns to fight, because everyone is tired of war. They feel like they want to have a normal life like ordinary people who can have an occupation, who can go study in different places. If there’s going to be people who want to go back to the Karen state, it may only be the elite who still feel like they have to go back and save the nation.

Nuankhanit: When I first met these children, they said they write songs about love, about god, but in reality, they are proud of their own identity. There are some songs which are about revolution, about war, which are what the older generation taught and passed on to them, but they interpret it in their own version and communicate it through rap. Hip hop culture itself also has the sense of people who are oppressed, so they could express themselves through this kind of communication, or say that there are different ways of being Karen, but there’s no need to split into Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim Karen.

What is the dark side of the refugee camp that you see?

Nuankhanit: Like not getting certified refugee status, or the camp has grown into a city but no one knows how long it’ll last. 

Jiraporn: I think that my life is very boring when I listen to the lives of people in the camp, in which everyone has stories to tell. We often think of refugees as victims who need help and are unfortunate. When I really meet them, it’s not like that. I want to present it so that you see them as humans like us. Their stories are interesting and complex. There’s hopefulness, disappointment. There are other things that are their identity other than being refugees.

For example, there’s a teacher who has a very complex history. He was in the Myanmar communist party. He’s been to the Netherlands, and when he came back, his passport was taken at Suvarnabhumi Airport. He was sent to Yangon, and later, the KNU were the ones who negotiated his ransom. Myanmar brought him and released him at the border, and he walked from the border to the camp. He wasn’t a refugee. It’s interesting why he chose a life in the camp, why he chose to be a teacher.

The darkest problem, I think, is that no one in the camp knows whether the Thai government will close the camp in the future, because in the Myanmar context, there’s now a negotiated ceasefire, and there’s an elected government. They’re not ruled by the military any more. So there are rumours every once in a while that the camp will be closed. Before this, other refugee camps may have some uncertainties, but at this camp, the situation was certain until now, and the new generation have the feeling that they don’t want to go back. They want to stay here. It’s their home.

So it’s not an issue of sending refugees back, but it’s an issue of them not being attached there in their ideals or their feelings. Their homeland is not the Karen state but Mae La, so if they go back to the Karen state, they won’t feel like they belong. While if they stay here, they have an identity, a society, a home, and friends.

So is that a contradictory feeling, when young rappers are proud of being Karen but haven’t wanted to go back to the Karen state?

Nuankhanit: They are proud of being Karen without being attached to the place. It’s a community which exists all over the world. If you look on the YouTube channel Karen New Generation, they talk about being Karen without being attached to the place, but they are attached to the identity in the way they created it, like one song that talks about Mae La as home. Some people who used to live at Mae La, but were able to go to other countries, still feel like Mae La is like their homeland. It’s like the feeling of those forced away from a faraway home.

Does the new generation want to leave Mae La?

Jiraporn: They have a sense of wanting to have an adventure in the wider world, but there are other children who came to study in the camp because the tuition fee costs less in the camp. The camp is like a city where young people come into study, work, fall in love, or they come because of economic reasons. At the same time, if you feel bored with this city, you want to go to other cities. You want to go study in Chiang Mai, or go to Bangkok, because people want to get an education that is accepted, while education in the camp is a Karen form of education for Karen people, so it is not accepted generally. But the people who decided that the curriculum should be Karen are the Karen elite. It’s the education committee that doesn’t want there to be the kind of schooling in Myanmar or Thailand, but the children here speak good English. There are foreign teachers who come to teach them, because the camp is connected to the outside world, so even if you feel that the camp is a closed area, in reality, there are people coming and going all the time.

How do people in the camp deal with the problem of staying temporarily?

Jiraporn: In fact, the issue of whether the camp will be closed has been around for a long time. The Thai government has taken a clear stance that someday these people have to go home. Some things in the camp reflect the temporariness. For example, there’s a rule that concrete roads can’t be built, or houses which may be connected to the Karen sense of home, such as bamboo houses. But what reflects regularity and certainty within that temporariness is the creation of concrete roads built by people in the camp themselves, so that dust doesn’t get everywhere when a car goes past. There are water pipes, which are basic infrastructure. There are NGOs who regularly help with food. There’s the camp committee taking care of people. They can come and go from the camp to a certain degree, but they may have to pay a toll. Or there are houses that are half concrete, half bamboo. There are electricity poles, telephone poles, satellite dishes. People watch football and bet on it. When the football is on, they crowd together to watch. These things testify to the long time they’ve been here and a statement that they live here and haven’t gone anywhere.  Even if they hear news that the camp was closing, they build more, re-build.

So really it’s seeing between what the state wants it to be, what a refugee camp should be, and how they really live in there. There are areas that are clear and unclear whether it’s permanent or not, which I think is an art of living between being temporary and permanent, which for them, it seems very permanent.

On the other hand, cities are impermanent. For example, a condominium has a 30-year lease, but we feel like that’s so long, but in the camp, 30 years feel temporary.

The city aspect needs impermanence. Shops in Siam Square change all the time. If they don’t change, there’s no dynamic. It’s boring. It’s also like that in the refugee camp. It’s a state that’s half temporary, half permanent, and we also live in that state, no matter if you are in a city or in a refugee camp.

It seems like the people in the camp themselves are still connected to the outside world. In reality, do they feel that the camp is a closed area?

Jiraporn: If they’re the upper class, they might have easy ways of getting in and out of the camp, but people from the villages might feel like they can’t really go anywhere that much, but they can go out and work outside for a bit, which reflects a Southeast Asian statehood, which is a state that doesn’t have any formality in dealing with citizens. When it’s informal and uncertain, rules become softer, because they know that these people can’t make enough of a living if they stay in the camp all the time. The local state has a certain level of understanding, so as long as you don’t cause problems for the Thai state and society, people in the camp can still come and go.

Does the majority of people in the camp want Thai citizenship?

Jiraporn: If they get Thai citizenship, they may have much more access to other things, such as education, making a living, traveling without facing random police search and arrest.

I think that, if they could choose, they would want Thai citizenship more than Myanmar citizenship. Even if they can still have Myanmar citizenship, their feeling is that they are people in Mae Sod. They are people in the border area where previously no one said whether this is Thailand or Myanmar. Their parents crossed the line all the time. The national border doesn’t separate people who are different, but separates people from each other who are the same.

I think the national border is the Moei River. It’s like one kind of communication route, but when statehood becomes a part of daily life, when it’s on your ID card from birth, to sickness and death, it’s unavoidable that they would feel that I once had a nation, and now my nation is gone. They may think that I still want to stay here, which is already integrated into the Thai state. While they come and go, and they go to work in the city, and they can speak Thai, legally they are not Thai people.

If we think under the umbrella of the nation-state and citizenship, where citizenship comes from having a state, then you won’t see anything except that these people are stateless, that they have no country to live in, that they are not accepted, that they live in-between, but can we imagine beyond the nation-state? Can we have a citizenship that is not connected to the idea of the nation-state?

Refugee camps have existed for a long time now, and it’s like a worldwide trend for people to fall into the status of refugee. These people may be like people at Mae La or other places in Thailand, in that they have refugee status, but they are not citizens, but at the same time, they are kind of members of this society. They may have the right to work and to stay.

When the world has about 20 million refugees, and another 10 million in third world countries, in Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Lebanon, these people also don’t get citizenship but they have been there for a long time. It’s a new type of people. They have the right to stay, but they don’t have the right to be citizens, because citizenship is limited by the idea of the nation-state. When you don’t have a state, you become stateless. Why do they have to live in this state where they can’t turn back and they can’t go forward, in this state of dilemma? Is there anything that could go beyond the limit of the nation-state?

Are you saying that refugees should be classified as a new type of citizens?

Jiraporn: They could be one type of world citizen, as refugees who have been in this state for a long time, but the problem is that they still have fewer rights than citizens in the country where they are. We may have to criticize the idea of the nation-state for being too limited when the world is globalized. People migrate all over the world. Can you see citizenship differently?

The easiest thing in the citizenship issue is the ‘right to have rights’. Are you going to limit someone’s rights just because they’re not someone in your country? If one day you go to Japan and get hit by a car, does the Japanese state have to take care of you? In what status are you being taken care of? Even you can become the other in another society. Can we see the connection between us and them, now that everyone can travel anywhere around the world?

Nuankhanit: People who do this kind of work get asked very often why we have to help refugees. Isn’t it better to help Thai people? I think it’s a different way of seeing things. People who have been there for a long time, but with a line that happens to make them the other, they really are the same as us.

Jiraporn: In fact, the nation is a new creation, especially in Thailand. The sense of being Thai and the sense of the Thai state has just been created recently. Before this, it was different kingdoms. Why do we think that nationhood is something natural that we’re born with, even though it’s really something that has been constructed? If we think back, my family came from China. If I didn’t get citizenship, I probably couldn’t be a lecturer like this. We could think of it so that it’s related to ourselves, because we all have different ethnicities combined. Why do we not accept difference and diversity but like to accept uniformity, when the food we eat, the language we use and the culture we have, come from mixing with other people? Why is it that this becomes a problem of dividing whether this is Thai and this is not?

The documentary's trailer