11/12/2008, 00.00
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Cardinal Martino with Thai Church in Burmese border refugee camps

by Weena Kowitwanij
The prelate’s visit underscores the Church’s concern for refugees. Catholic officials say that aid is not enough; causes that push people to flee must be eliminated.
Bangkok (AsiaNews) – “Although life in Thailand is more comfortable than in Myanmar, living in refugee camps is like being a bird in a cage; we cannot go where we wish, our freedom is restricted,” said Moo Sa Pai, 19, who was born in one of the many camps that dot the border region between Thailand and Myanmar, which Card Renato Martino, prefect of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral care of Migrants, visited a few days ago. “His presence filled us with joy,” Pai said before leaving for the United States to join her parents, “because it showed that he is concerned about our fate. We are grateful for his help.”

Last Sunday Card Renato Martino celebrated Mass. About a thousand people took part in the service, half of them non Catholics, in the Mae-Lah refugee camp (Maesod district) in Nakhon Sawan diocese.

During the function the prelate quoted Pope Benedict XVI who urged those who have an opportunity to travel to Thailand to take time “to visit a refuge camp near the border.”

This refugee crisis goes back to the seventies when the Vietnam War forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam for Thailand.

According to official estimates some 758,000 refugees found shelter in camps set up along the border. This allowed the Thai government with the support of associations and NGOs, some Catholic, to provide humanitarian aid and a place for the refugees.

In December 1978 Thailand’s Catholic Church set up the Catholic Commission for Emergency Relief and Refugees or COERR to provide humanitarian assistance to the needy.

One of the initiatives launched by the new organisation involves taking care of more than 2,000 orphans dispersed among nine camps. As a rule assistance plans are worked out in co-operation with the Thai government; this way the spirit and motives that inspire Catholic volunteers can be explained.

“We are involved in hygiene, training and farming’ said COERR Director Fr Phibun Visitnonthachai, “but what counts is building unity and harmony among many ethnic groups as well as promoting co-operation among various Thai agencies and government officials.”

“The humanitarian support we provide is the end result, the cause is rarely considered or discussed,” said 59-year-old Fr Manas Supphalak, 30 of which spent running a refugee camp for Karen from Burma. As a matter of fact “these people get no justice from their own government which is bent on trying to wipe them out as a race,” he added.

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