MAE SOT, Thailand - One night in August 2011, Law Law Poe, 17, and Saw Htoo*, 19, became drunk on local rice wine, took a heavy piece of wood and smashed one of the pipes that bring water to the residents of the Mae La refugee camp in northwestern Thailand.
As they were leaving the scene, they were caught by a camp security guard who promptly brought the duo to a detention center. Normally, they would have been tried for vandalism by the camp’s justice system and then detained for days.
But the next morning, as they were facing camp authorities, the young men were given a unique opportunity: to remain in detention or enroll in a new International Rescue Committee-sponsored programme that works to rehabilitate offenders by allowing them to make a positive contribution to the camp community.
“Instead of being locked up, we were able to help the community rebuild a road in the camp,” Law Law said.
Claire Holland, a mediation specialist with the IRC in Thailand, said that instead of just dealing with juvenile offenders by incarcerating them, the programme aims to educate and rehabilitate offenders and focus on the needs of victims and the community.
“Offenders' ties with their community need to be restored,” Holland said. “Working off their debt is an observable act to make amends, which carries much less stigma than a stint in detention.”
The Mae La refugee camp is one of nine camps strung along the Thailand-Myanmar border that are home to an estimated 140,000 refugees. Most are members of ethnic minority groups who have fled conflict and economic hardship in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Over 40,000 people live in Mae La, a large cluster of wooden houses set in a lush hilly landscape against a backdrop of steep limestone cliffs.
Life in the border camps is hard and monotonous; unemployment and the stress of living in the camps for years on end with no prospect of returning home have contributed to high levels of alcohol abuse and conflict among the refugees. While serious crimes are handled by the Thai criminal justice system, less serious crimes are usually left to camp leaders, themselves refugees.
The Community Service programme is only the latest IRC initiative designed to reform the legal system in the camps, while also helping Burmese refugees gain access to the Thai legal system.
Pue Htee Tae, who heads the traditional justice system in Mae La camp, supports the initiative.
“They will be accepted back into community, rather than being shunned,” he said. “Under the programme, we will also provide counselling and help to overcome problems with alcohol and drugs. It helps the offenders. And it helps the entire community.”
*Names have been changed