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Koung Jor refugee camp, located in the hills of northern Thailand along the Burmese border, is home to about 600 Shan people who have fled conflict in Burma.
Some of them have been living across the border for decades.
Koung Jor camp was set up in 2002 and exists unofficially since it’s not recognized by the UN refugee agency or the Thai government.
Each year in December, the nearby village of Piang Luang organizes popular Shan New Year celebrations. But this year it was cancelled.
So the refugees of Koung Jor decided to lay on their own festival for the first time inside the camp.
Special guest was well-known Shan singer Sai Lab Sing who is visually impaired, and learned playing music from famous artist Sai Htee Saing.
“The festival is really important and all of us should celebrate in unity”, he said. “I want to emphasise – if we don’t cooperate on occasions like this, our traditions will disappear one day.”
“Historically, nobody has ever enslaved us, but because of military rule many people left Shan state to settle in Thailand. The New Year festival reminds us of how we are united and love each other.”
The New year celebrations featured Shan dancing and traditional songs.
A rock band, playing popular Shan tunes, brings back memories of the home country.
“Some people work in Bangkok or Chiang Mai but they come back here to meet their families and celebrate together”, said Hseng Lake who was watching the band.
“It makes us remember our homeland, and inspires us to keep our culture – and our traditional new year – alive.”
The next morning the festivities are over – the stage is taken down and the instruments are packed away.
Naing Ying lives in the camp and is happy with how the night turned out.
“I enjoyed the New Year’s festival very much because we got the chance to celebrate the festival in the camp for the first time. I feel very happy. I think it’s important that the next generation learns about our Shan culture.
Because Koung Jor isn’t recognised as a refugee camp, the Thai government are keen to repatriate the villagers back to Burma.
But Naing Ying has mixed feelings about her home country. Even though she misses Burma, she feels safer staying in the camp.
”I feel happy living here but I worry because I don’t know when the Thai authorities will force us to go back.”
The people living here say they have been kept out of discussions about repatriation.
Their children have grown up on the Thai side of the border and many don’t know how to speak Burmese.
“The children have no experience at all of Burma and are happy here”, said Naing Ying. “If we moved to a new place, I don’t know what the future would bring. That makes us afraid.
Many families in Koung Jor are worried they will be forced to go back to areas where fighting continues between Shan rebels and Burmese government forces.
They hope the first New Year’s celebration in the camp won’t be the last.