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US First Lady Tours Refugee Camp on Thai-Burma Border


For U.S. first lady Laura Bush, the plight of the Burmese people is both a cause and a calling. Throughout her husband's presidency she has spoken out on their behalf, urging the world to take a strong stand against Burma's military regime. And while Mr. Bush was conducting business of state Thursday in Bangkok, she boarded a military cargo plane for the Thai-Burmese border. VOA White House correspondent Paula Wolfson traveled with her.

We approached the Mae La refugee camp in a soft but steady rain. Heavy clouds partially obscured the top of the mountains behind the camp. Beyond those mountains, lies Burma.

The first lady was greeted at Mae La by teenage refugees performing a traditional Burmese dance, a dance from a country most have never seen.

Almost all of the 16,000 students at the camp were born there and so were some of their parents. They live in limbo in Mae La, the largest of nine refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border.

Official reports put the population at the camp at anywhere from 38,000 to 40,000. Unofficial tallies put the total much higher.

"You know, it is a tragedy," said the first lady. "These are people who would much rather be in their own homes, who love their country and want to be with their families in their own country."

There are so many children in Mae La, that there are 26 schools. They are built simply with earthen floors and waist-high walls of bamboo.

At an English class, Mrs. Bush looked on as teenage boys wrote their thoughts on a chalkboard.

"My life in refugee [as a refugee] is better than Burma, but I don't have [any] opportunity to go outside of my camp," one wrote.

Mahn Htun Htun is one of the refugees who sits on the governing council. He says everyone yearns for home, but there is no way they can return while the military runs Burma. He urged Mrs. Bush to help those who want to leave the camps and resettle elsewhere.

"Our dream is, we want to go home," said Mahn Htun Htun. "But if there is no peace and democracy in Burma, it makes it impossible to go home."

People who work with the refugees at Mae La often refer to them as "stoic." There is no electricity here and no running water. But there is a belief that it is possible to build a better life.

Mrs. Bush spent time at the camp with refugees at various stages of the resettlement process. Some are taking lessons to prepare themselves for living in a different culture. Others are packing their belongings and saying their good-byes.

"I know that a lot of these families would rather go home but because of the situation in Burma they can't, and because many of them have been here so long they have given up hope on being able to go home and have decided to move on to the United States or other countries," said the first lady.

Mae La camp has been in existence since 1984, when it began as a small settlement of ethnic Karen Burmese escaping violence in their homeland.

About 45 minutes away is another border institution borne of the need to help Burmese refugees and migrants- the Mae Tao clinic.

Mrs. Bush toured the medical facility before leaving the border region and left crates of donated supplies, including thousands of mosquito bed nets to help prevent malaria - a serious health hazard in the region.

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