25 years on the Thailand-Burma border
This year, the Bangkok-based Thailand Burma Border Consortium is marking its 25th anniversary of working with refugees from Burma living in camps all along the border.
Jack Dunford (left), meeting with the Women's Organization at Mae La camp.
Photo: Richard Harvey
This year, the Bangkok-based Thailand Burma Border Consortium is marking its 25th anniversary of working with refugees from Burma living in camps all along the border. Today the TBBC provides food, shelter and capacity-building support to around 140,000 refugees in nine camps as well as support to about 100,000 internally displaced persons in eastern Burma. Since 2002, TBBC also has published internationally acknowledged annual surveys documenting the deteriorating human rights situation in eastern Burma.
Church World Service, a TBBC founding member, provides support through its Blankets+ program. Moreover, Jack Dunford, TBBC's founder and executive director since 1984, is a CWS staff member. In recognition of his role and of TBBC's 25th anniversary, CWS offers this Q&A with Dunford.
Q: You have dedicated your life to serving refugees from Burma. How did you first get involved, and what brought you to CWS?
Jack Dunford: I am a transport planner by profession and came to Thailand in 1978 to "solve Bangkok's traffic problems" (that's always good for a chuckle). I was looking for something more meaningful in life. I was very involved with my local church at the time and for me the most compelling message from the gospels was to respect and care for the poor and oppressed.
I was offered my first job with Indochinese refugees working with the Church of Christ in Thailand. CWS has jointly supported me since 1981 and has been my main church link all the way through. CWS is my ecumenical “home.” I feel part of the family.
Q: When did you first go to the Thailand-Burma border area?
Dunford: In March 1984, after I0,000 Karen fled attacks by the Burma army and arrived as refugees across the border. The Thai government asked NGOs working with Cambodian, Lao and Vietnamese refugees to provide temporary assistance (we were told it would be for three months!). I was invited to go and take a look along with other NGOs.
There was something special about the situation from that first day. I was used to huge regimented camps on the other borders with hundreds of aid workers around, but the Karen were in village-like settings more or less getting on with things themselves. Instinctively I felt they were more the victims than the aggressors. Besides which they were quietly dignified and their demands were modest.
At first, just three NGOs were involved in providing food and medicine. We all expected the Burma army to pull back when the rainy season started and allow the refugees to return home. But the army kept up its offensive, and more refugees arrived. Today TBBC is the largest of 20 NGOs working on the border under the umbrella of the Committee for the Coordination of Services to Displaced Persons in Thailand, which I chair.
Q: So that is how TBBC got started. What has kept you at it?
Dunford: It has not been a happy 25 years. The ethnic people have lost their land and the human rights abuses continue with impunity. New refugees still continue to arrive. My work today is mainly in advocacy and fund-raising: a lot of time spent in meetings and travelling internationally to raise awareness. But if ever I get weary, I just go to the border and visit the camps. When I witness again the quiet dignity, perseverance and faith of these long-suffering people, I remember why I am doing what I am doing and return with my batteries recharged.
Dunford, with a painting of Aung San Suu Kyi presented to him by the TBBC Board this fall in recognition of his 25 years of service on the border.
Photo: Janet Cousens
Q: What has been your greatest satisfaction over the past quarter century?
Dunford: Having managed to maintain interest and support for 25 years through crisis after crisis. I am also proud that TBBC still places partnership at the top of its agenda and, in spite of donors’ ever-increasing demands for monitoring and accountability, we are still able to run our programs based on trust and a healthy respect between TBBC and the communities we serve.
Q: Most media and political attention to Burma seems to focus on the aspirations of Burma's political opposition, with very little attention to the plight and aspirations of Burma's ethnic peoples. How can we get the international community to take their suffering just as seriously?
Dunford: I am afraid ethnic "minorities" all over the world get ignored. Those in eastern Burma are largely out of sight and the war has been chronic without any major newsworthy headlines. But they are not totally forgotten and we have made a lot of progress over the years to get the situation recognized. The U.S. government has been quite vocal on the issue and is very supportive of our work.
We just have to keep flogging away. We produce lots of reports and I encourage people to look at these on our website: www.tbbc.org. Tens of thousands of refugees have now also been resettled from the border to the U.S. They also need to be supported and encouraged to speak out about what is going in Burma.
Q: What is the situation right now in Burma?
Dunford: The situation in eastern Burma gets worse. Every year the Burmese Army destroys more villages, displaces more people. Over 3,500 villages have been destroyed since 1996, over a million people displaced. The Army is hell-bent on total control, the elimination of all resistance.
Q: How is the TBBC marking its 25th anniversary?
Dunford: Quietly. We do see this as an opportunity to draw attention to the refugee problem. A 25-year "Scrapbook” that includes very moving contributions from refugees should be published in February. We also hosted a special seminar with UNHCR, donors and the Thai government, focusing on the future.
Q: Looking forward, what is your greatest hope for the TBBC's work, and for the people of Burma?
Dunford: My dream was always for peace to come to Burma and for TBBC to move to the other side and help in the reconstruction of eastern Burma. That day still seems far off and is unlikely unless there is a change of government. But I feel that day is closer now than I have felt it at any time in the last 25 years.