Saw Glads Htoo lives in the Mae La refugee camp on the Thailand-Myanmar border [Vincenzo Floramo/Al Jazeera]
From: The Slum

Thailand: Living in limbo

Time has stood still for the residents of the Mae La refugee camp decades after they fled their homes in Myanmar.

As part of the ‘Where I live’ series, the Al Jazeera Magazine asked people from around the world how their lives have been influenced by where they live. Meet Saw Glads, a 65-yearold principal of a school in the Mae La refugee camp.

Sitting on the bamboo floor of his basic hut at the Mae La refugee camp on the Thailand-Myanmar (formally called Burma) border, 65-year-old Saw Glads Htoo smokes a cheroot cigar.

“Before the Burmese army arrived, we lived peacefully amongst our community,” he says of his small village in Myanmar’s Karen state. “Now the village is full of enemies.”

On January 28, 1995, Myanmar government soldiers – engaged in a decades-long conflict with the Karen National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Karen National Union – began a mopping up operation in the area. The villagers, warned of the imminent danger, escaped into the jungle. They say the army burned all of their houses, destroyed the harvest and killed their livestock.

Saw Glads, his wife, four daughters and son, hid in the bush, with other internally displaced families for 10 years.

“When we lived in the jungle we had to move often, to avoid the Burmese soldiers patrolling the bush. We felt like wild animals in a hunt,” he recalls.

Hunger, poor sanitation, illness and the fear of being caught, drove Saw Glads to take his family to the other side of the border and, in 2006, they started a “new life” in the Mae La refugee camp – a jungle ‘town’ of bamboo houses with leaf roofs that is home to around 50,000, mostly ethnic Karen, refugees from neighbouring Myanmar.

Today, Saw Glads is the principal of a small primary school. His daughters have all married in the camp and he is now a grandfather to five grandsons – all born in Mae La.