Mae Sot, Little Burma in Thailand, May 2011 – Mostly about political ex-prisoners and people escaped from Myanmar with no sufficient identity in Thailand. Since 2006 up to now, due to Thai policy decisions, without any legal possibility to attain legacy of stay. Living in Mae Sot and in May 2011 facing uncertain process of registration or screening, with unclear aims or guarantees. Forced by situation to move into refugee camps, despite potential dangers for them there.
„We need to follow the right way, though there are obstacles, danger or discomfort. To keep our self-confidence, our inner values.“
From the whole bulk of available information and documents, the apparent is: they experienced real life-threatening not only situations, but long years. Dishuman treatment, unimaginable torture, denying them even base human needs and rights. Touching “soul”. Cognition under the conditions like these, facing deepest fears. Yet, their dignity, selfconfidence and courage, as well as reasoning or intellect, are sustaining, vivid and inspiring when meeting them. One can just bow down and marvel, facing such potential.
They have starved for human rights and democracy in Burma. They have “enjoyed” attention of the Burmese millitary intelligence; have faced stable chance to be caught. On their path, which they consider as the right one. While keeping in mind and maintaining their inner preciousnesses. They experienced student years at a university as well as bullets in demonstrations, arrests, long torture, most of them sentences for many years or even, originally, death. They might had not sensed they could survive. Later, after all the experience, they successfully got away from Myanmar. Some luckily escaped before cought. Many of them continue to engage anywhere, including Mae Sot, a town surnamed as Little Burma or the City of Exiles.
Settled and Resisting in Little Burma
(This section is intended as a short introduction; more information might follow next time.)
Thein San is a leader of the organisation helping the people living in this area, mostly those originally from Myanmar. He and his mates are engaged in safety of the people, especially those living in remote areas away from Mae Sot. People often come for consultations with him, as I can see, regarding their personal issues or problems. Currently, the organisation has just opened a new school in a village area for their people. In Mae Sot, though being busy, they resisited on willigness to let me know more about their agenda and current affair. Perhaps in some next article I will describe a bit more.
Another at least three brave ones, of them one woman, now relativelly free, care about all the agenda of present political prisoners, in an organisation supported from the West. Besides keeping information and the „museum“ (see picts above or here), or more likely „exhibition” about the torture in Myanmar which still continues in Myanmar. This organisation provides some support, including financial, for those who are currently behind bars, sometimes even tortured, and for their family members. Further, the organisation provides one-time contribution for those who just escaped and came to Mae Sot.
Myat Thu and his Thai woman employ Burmese, mostly young, nice guys in well-established Cafè & Restaurant. Looking at them, it seems some gentlemen are still living. However, Mayt Thu has different view on it. He can recognize that young generation did not grow up in democracy… Perhaps, some attitudes can be passed down in the school he established for Burmese children, with Burmese teachers three years ago.
Also Bobo got through some peripetia. The way he has found and goes now sounds both pragmatic and enlightened: mostly “nation for themselves” or “help on your own”, though it seems to be possible only in such areas Bobo chose: a tearoom with a restaurant, a shop with products from Burma, stuff about Burma and Myanmar, exhibitions and promotion of artists from Burma. Amazingly productive, effects are apparent, vivid.
Another one, similarly, runs a tearoom – restaurant with a small shop, and weekly screens films on Burma or Myanmar issues. The Burmese tea the both he and Bobo make in their tea-rooms is the real one, rust-colored, with condensed milk, of toothsome taste, refreshing, stimulating, the best in the town, maybe even in the whole Thailand.
Prisoners of conscience in a new “prison”
In Mae Sot I also met Thiha Yarzar and Aye Min Soe so called Andrew. Both from the 88 Generation Students.
Andrew originally studied chemistry (me too, however letting it behind). Now he is a journalist with a famous name and label. At the same time, he has no official identity, except the professional one. Some charisma of dignity and organisational and managerial experience is apparent. When out and going around, he stops and asks ‘how are you’. Generally quite interested and patient, including for him not so new questions and answers. Andrew is a determined non-violent warrior in many ways, more than most of us know.
Thiha is a bachelor of history, he studied philosophy. A long-term meditator, Buddhist, translator. By his disposition, maybe by the work of his kamma or destiny, a leader of the 88 uprising. A rebel, arrested and sentenced, originally receiving death sentence, later on, more than 17.5 years non-stop behind bars. At total, even more. Survivor. Currently, in uncertain exile in Thailand.
Thiha and Andrew came to Thailand soon after Thiha was released. Thiha lives in Thailand, provisionally somehow legally as a student; however, he does not feel free. As they both say, it is another jail here. And it is not only about their feeling; it is about general conditions and “opportunities” they face.
No choice where to go
As for their status here, besides that virtual one, officially, many as if they did not exist or only a bit, or they are weaker in this sense. From other view, they are quite alive, active, and even initiative. Reasons for being surprised are different here.
For example, Myanmar officials refused to grant passport for Andrew. It would be a surprise, if they did. So, Andrew does not have such passport and he refuses to have it managed “unofficially”. Those who know, speak about 10-12 thousand of Thais (Thai Baht), with which it works. As Andrew is explaining – and I mean, in his case, it is more likely theoretical consideration, however, you never know – such act could be considered as an act against international law. He tries to follow law, but what is the law for and who else follows it? Who really cares, besides non-biding acting and idle talks, that core human rights, internationally proclaimed, are for him and others like him denied? Andrew intends to go his way, giving the space to those with power to shift and do a step, a change.
As for Thiha, his provisional documents do not guarantee he will be allowed to stay in Thailand indefinitely; and though holding them, he cannot apply for asylum at all, no matter where.
In compliance with Thai official decisions and accoridng to official documents, nobody who escaped to Thailand since 2006 can apply for asylum. Such policy also means, those without any ID card are under risk of deportation at anytime (see current case). If they do not pay bribes nor have somebody who employ them and manage the papers. Every day a passer-by can see from the street new detainees at a police detained centre, facing deportation back to “home”. In May there is often exceptionally many people. Also a nice woman over her 30 working in a guesthouse has her story – and perhaps a good luck…
Towards some of well-known cases, the police officials have behaved with restraint. Reasons might be anticipated. In case of detaining them, they perhaps would have to face the case well internationally and publicly covered. So such assumption might bring kind of uncertain certainty for some cases.
This month seems to be a time of one of turning points or at least, time of key decisions (hardly comparable with my „key decision“ to come to Mae Sot, btw, ‘by chance’ several months earlier then originally planned. Not being aware what would be happening). Due to previous decisions, and not only them, I am here at this time.
Thai authorities ordered that all those more or less with no identity, i.e. with no proper documents, shall move to a refugee camp by 22nd May, stay there and undergo a kind of registration or screening process. Completely all of them shall follow the same procedure without any exception. Otherwise, they would be more likely caught and prosecuted, their deportation is to be more realistic, compared with the before. This month, increasing number of uniformed officials frequently stopping people for checks (including pupils going from school), increasing number of people in the detained centre as mentioned above just support such assumptions.
However, maybe the process is a chance to receive what is missing, namely the legacy of stay and refugee status. But who knows surely? At that time, no information available to Thiha and his friends confirms that. Conditions or guarantees are not yet known and even the idea that there could be some has not come out of one’s mind (another case of how one is “being informed” is mentioned by U Nee Oo, originally politicaly engaged in Myanmar and now living in a refugee camp and still afraid of deportation, see here). Rumours or fragmental news claim there is an agreement between Myanmar and Thai authorities about deportation of all refugees back within three years, even unvoluntarily. Previous cases, that did happen recently or past 20 years, of unvoluntary deportations back to danger territories in Myanmar (e.g. the Mons last year), are recalled in one’s mind. And, the exceptionality of those like Thiha or Andrew and others is also about what would follow in case they were deported back. Their faith could be quite easily anticipated.
Thiha expresses his fear and nervosity. Including refugee camps on the border. There is rumour about presence of Myanmar spies there. Indirect experience indicates their increasing number; Thai authorities are interested in.
Another threaten relates to ethnicity. Many politically engaged are Burmese, while most of refugees are Karen abused by the Burmese, junta.
Days before official deadline, tension is in the air. At this moment, nobody can be sure what happens after that date.
I watch Thiha, standing by the bar, smoking his cigarette and drinking from a glass of water. I’ve heard briefly last news and so have some idea, though only to a degree I can, what his nervosity has aroused from, in this time.
Crucial days, are not?
(Odding, nervously drinking water and drewing his cigarette.)
I’ve heard the news… Feel sorry for that.
(He does know what I mean.)
… How do you feel this day? (Naive question sounds pretty natural, I really feel kind of concern towards him, watching him.)
Many feelings. Discomfort, big discomfort.
And what is under this discomfort?
(Decisively) Fears, basic fears.
I’ll tell you, I’ve said to Mart, if they deport me, I will do something.
(I somehow know, Thiha loves freedom and prefers to decide about himself on his onw. There are thoughts of suicide. So I just keep silence for a while…)
And what helps you when you have feelings, fears like this?
Meditation. And, my mother tought me 5 Ps. (He recalls) patience and tolerance. We have to follow the right way, although sometimes there are obstacles, danger, no comfort. But we have to, to maintain our self-confidence.
I am interested in how you find what is the right way.
It’s not easy. I studied philosophers, a lot (he acknowledges many names), intellectually at the university. Some of them were right, some of them were wrong…
And do you meditate these days?
He says yes, however when seeing him shaking, though subtly, I can think of, how much difficult and life threatens he might face. I believe he meditates, however, to keep distance from so big dangers, with all his previous experience, who really can?
He mentions, he is a Buddhist and says it is not just philosophy, but the way of life. Christian notion of creation of the World within several days is for him kind of illusion, he remarks.
Tommorrow I will cut my hair, he says. It reminds me Tibetan Buddhists, they believe cutting hair in special days brings special benefit. From his Théraváda view, he claims he has no prejudice.
(After a while, I can’t help…)
Big karma, isn’t it? I mean, kamma. K-A-M-M-A.
Ahaa, kamma… Yeah… (His face softened, there is some tension and moist eyes, nearly tears being revealed, no words possible now.)
(He feels and knows. Takes time… Nodding…)
Yeah… Thank you.
It seems he knows, dangers on the path are big blessings when one gots through.
He keeps on drinking his water. As far as I know, nobody has seen him drunk. Others here, especially those younger, even do not smoke. When I try to share my rare clove cigarettes with them, they say it’s not healthy. Andrew smokes, but usually does not drink. Today is different. He stands behind the bar, looking calmly as usually, keeping his dignity. With kind of elegancy he is preparing Burmese speciality, which is drunk only exceptionally, and which is not on the bar menu. For the seasoned, eggs in gin. He suggests us to share it with him. Nobody pushes me, however, a wish and occasion to express and feel right now kind of solidarity is what I consider more important, more valuable at this time. So after forethought I put above some my commitment otherwise kept and agree with Andrew’s offer – thus obtaining and testing two spoons of this drink. It’s really tasty and nourishing.
Later, Thiha brings his mp3 player and puts Burmese music into my ear. Is lovely, kind of folk, full of life, happiness, cultivated, with dignity as well. Sharing with him some of ‘my music’. Perhaps those Czech guys will forgive me or even will be happy of it. The day after, Thiha shows me without asking, that he’s liked it. Making some analogies in my mind, thinking Would he like it in Czechia and could he be happy there?…
Days later, new information comes about conditions and guarantees. Perhaps no deportations of the ex-ones, until the present prisoners of conscience are released. Many in the town have to decide now. Not so some students and migrant workers. It seems they even do not know and do not want to know about the action at all, though legacy of their stay is also impermanent.
Thiha considers his situation. A call from the UNHCR just invites him to come for consultation. At that time he considers to go there anyway. The woman asks him, to keep his chance alive and go. She ensures him he will not be deported back to Myanmar. She says UNHCR takes responsibility for his safety during his stay in the camp. However, she cannot guarantee when the process will start and when it will succeed. Thiha has in his mind thoughts of one or one and half year. After his interview with the officer he feels better and decides to go. However, he feels concern about his friend Andrew.
In the beginning, Andrew refuses to move to the camp. However, he does have family and he does not have the documents. No matter which merit he gained, he obtained just one profesionall ‘prestigious’ ID card. So, within these days, he changes his mind. He says with kind of pride, he will reach the camp as the last one, in the last hour. Maybe like a captain leaving the ship as the last one, he will be the last who will apply.
During these days it’s also becoming clear it will not be possible to manage the things out of the camp. Permits to leave will not be granted this time as they were before and more checks are expected. This pushes anothers to make their choice as well. Whether to leave their life in the town, up to now somehow tolerated. They’ve enjoyed a certain way to make some money, and some protection against deportation. However mostly without clear, sustaining and sufficient guarantees. On the other side, there is uncertain chance to legalize their stay and related things. More freedom in the future. Some of them speak English very well, or they study it. They decided for future. Which means, as I hear later, their current certainties ceased – their employer though originally from Burma, did not expect nor waited them to come back. So, they found other possibilities.
As for the length of the process and its course, there are different expectations. It can be assumed, that people do not change so quickly, including the uniformed. Thus one hopes, there will be some ways to get away of a camp, either stealthily, or with a bribe, or with a legal permit. But, nothing is sure now, neither intentions nor aims of the process. And this applies also for the refugee statute itself.
Thiha and Andrew, in cooperation with a sponsor, organised in the Exppact, have considered how they could help those coming from Myanmar, with some practical issues. A volunteer, experienced English teacher, native speaker suggested he would provide regular lessons for those who would be interested. Free of charge, several hours a week. In this changing period with uncertain future is the interest in such courses weak; and such situation is also reflected when planning other activities.
Other plans suggest me it’s time to leave now. I do not part too much. I cannot speak as for others, however I feel being given something what is not just for holding. Something has started and not finished. Maybe such are sometimes the ends. Maybe for something different, to could start. After all, some news says the expectations were not irrelevant. Some of them are practically back from the camp – there, where they had been before or a bit elsewhere.
Some paths disappearing, might others come.
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Some other information about the situation here – worth to look at (“The census is designed to count the total number of registered and unregistered camp inmates.; Refugees living in the camps “feel insecure” about the implications of the census; Many refugees suspect Burmese pressure behind the move…”). According this information, it was already in 2005, when “the Thai government stopped screening and registering new arrivals in 2005”. Published on the 6th June 2011 (i.e. after the deadline mentioned above) by the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), on the server of UNHCR.