What you need to know
A short film highlights the plight of the Karenni people and their liminal existence on the Thai-Myanmar border.
While so much of what comes out of Myanmar comprises geopolitical hand-wringing and vague accusations of ethnic cleansing, Like We Don't Exist, a rare well-produced documentary from the restless Thai-Myanmar border, hopes to bring more of a human face to a long-ignored civil war.
As the Rohingya conflict has heated up in the past few years and spilled over Myanmar's borders, it has gathered a modicum of international attention, a sad introduction to many to the country. It's easy to forget that this has been doing on for decades, and is only one of many slow collisions going on in Myanmar's border regions.
Often billed as the longest ongoing civil war in the world, the conflict between the Karenni peoples and Myanmar's army has gone on since the 1940s and has displaced over 100,000 people to refugee camps on the Thai side of the border. The conflict has degraded into an alphabet soup of insurgent groups with shifting loyalties; many militia groups defected to the government side in the past decade, and much of the violence is now among different factions, rather than against the army itself.
Those who flee often end up in crowded camps on the Thai side of the border, facing a different struggle against boredom and malnutrition; food aid was cut off to the camps in late 2017, leading to months of tense scrambling for funding. Refugees have been forbidden from farming in the Thai camps or even using permanent building materials – a literal way to keep them from laying down roots in the country. Over ten thousand have left the camps and returned to Myanmar in the past few years.
Like We Don't Exist skims over the politics and takes an up-close look at the conflict, focusing on the lives of a few people caught in this larger fight, from local politicians to students. These sympathetic and articulate subjects become lenses through which to view the greater issues at play, dealing with past trauma, food shortages, the difficulties in acquiring an education, useful skills, and the often dangerous task of finding work.
The short film's cinematography is fantastic, contrasting sweeping drone footage (often not an easy task in Myanmar) with naturally-lit vignettes into the subject's lives.
While Like We Don't Exist may be a sparse introduction to the conflict along Myanmar's eastern border, it should serve as an emotional reminder of the human condition of the Karenni and all other disenfranchised people in the country.
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