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Tour du monde en autostop - Jeremy Marie

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 Travel Diary : At the Myanmar border

Myanmar is a country that I was resolved to get around. For many years, crossing the border overland is impossible. According to the political situation of the country, it is sometimes possible to cross this border by road, for a day and only one.

The only way to visit Myanmar is to enter and to leave the country by plane. The only possible place to land is Yangon, the main city of the country (the capital has been moved in 2005 to Naypyidaw).

When I entered Thailand, I received an email from someone called Frederick. He is an Indonesian man who currently lives in the border town of Mae Sot, in the North-West of the country. He works for a NGO that is trying to help the Burmese refugees in Thailand. He just let me know that this place could be interesting for me...
Some weeks later, I arrive in Mae Sot.


The market

When I arrive in the market of Mae Sot, I notice that there is something very different with the traditional Thai cities. In this place, there are almost no Thai people. 80% of the population of Mae Sot is made up of Burmese people.

In the Market of Mae Sot, most of the signs are written in the Burmese alphabet

The market of Mae Sot

The market stalls are offering many different products, sometimes very foreign for a westerner like me. Eels, insects or even frogs (I would more say that it was a good old toad).

The frogs-toads

Some stalls in the market in Mae Sot

There is also an important traffic of gems in Mae Sot. I wouldn't guess anything about the level of legality of this traffic because I don't know anything about it, but let's not forget that we are in a border zone.

There is an important traffic of gems in Mae Sot

The atmosphere of this market is different. I would say that this place is more chaotic and alive than a Thai market. This place of commercial exchanges is very dense for a city this size. The Burmese people themselves look different. Many of them have are wearing the “Thanaka”, a vegetal cosmetic paste

A very young Burmese wearing the Thanaka on his face

There are indeed many Burmese people in Mae Sot. What is the reason why this population ended on the Thai side of the border?
 

The History

Myanmar has been under a military dictatorship since 1962, and this got worst with the military junta that arrived in 1988.

This junta is considered as one of the worst government in the world according to the Public Freedom. This government also started to slain the ethnic minorities, as the ethnic group of the Karens.

In consequence, there are many minorities that are running away from Myanmar towards more stable countries, like Thailand.
 

The border zone

The border in Mae Sot, demarcating Thailand and Myanmar, is a surprising place. When I get there, I can see a long queue of Burmese people waiting to cross legally the Thai border. Those refugees (if they succeed to pass) are in a way, lucky, because they got the paperwork (for some of them) that will make their life easier once they get to Thailand.

A queue of Burmese people hoping for a better life in Thailand

The border is controlled by the Thai military force, but those one seem enough relax about the the traffic that is going on in this place for already several decades.

The Thai military force in the border

The traffic here is indeed quite important. Between the Burmese and the Thai side of the border, there is a river and its two banks. This place is considered as a “No Man's Land”, which is a place that doesn't really have laws. In consequence, it is possible to see a lot of small traffics. On the edge of the “No Man's Land”, near the Thai side, I can see many platforms. There, some Burmese people are selling different products over barbed wires. They are mainly selling cigarets and adult movies.

I can see some platforms in the No Man's Land, from where Burmese can sell different products

But there is more. Some refugees actually live in this same No Man's Land. They live in very poor shelters. Those Burmese indeed prefer to live in an unhealthy environment in the middle of this No Man's Land rather than trying to survive in their own country.

Some shelters in the No Man's Land in the border

The blue roofs of the temporary houses of the refugees and, behind, the mountains of Myanmar

There is also a lot of boat traffic in the river in the middle of this No Man's Land. The movements from one river bank to another happen very often. The refugees come and go between the two borders. Some of them, sometimes, choose to come illegally into Thailand.

A boat movement in the border


 

The illegal camps of the Burmese refugees

I was saying earlier that the Burmese refugees that were succeeding to enter legally in Thailand were the luckiest. Indeed, there are some legal Burmese refugees camps in Thailand. They are guarded by the Thai military force and are very difficult to access. The refugees wait to obtain the status of political refugee and to be sent in another host country to start a new life. Let's think about it. To find yourself far from home in a country where we ignore everything of the culture, far for your friend and your family... Is it really something we can call luck if this is not done by choice?

I have the chance to visit those illegal camps of Burmese refugees. Those one came illegally into Thailand and temporarily set up. The local police ignores it most of the time, except to sometimes ask for bribes to those refugees. I had the occasion to witness it.

Those camps look like improvised small villages. It reminded of the poorest corners of the African countryside.

A home of illegal Burmese refugee near Mae Sot, with one of the occupants

If we look closer, we can see that some “walls” are made of dried leafs...

An Indonesian television realize a reportage about the current situation of the Burmese refugees. I join the team. A refugee kindly opens the door of his house. Inside, this is of course very vestigial. I don't even dare to think about the flood that can happen during the rainy season, that is very heavy in this area.

Inside a refugee house

Logically, the children of Burmese refugees don't have a bright future in front of them. Once again, the younger suffer the consequences of the absurd actions of the ones who should set up the example.


 

An orphanage and a school

In the market of Mae Sot, I could see many children begging. They were gathering around a crippled adult who was collecting the money that those kids could get.

Indeed, there is little future for the young Burmese refugees.

Few days later, I meet David. This Burmese refugee have spent a lot of his time to build an orphanage and a school for the kids. He could have accepted the two offers to send him as a political refugee in the United States. But he refused. He wanted to do something useful in his life.

David explaining how he created the orphanage and the school of « Agape »

Many of those refugees are Karen, one of the ethnic groups that was victim of the Burmese military junta. I guess that their past is not very peaceful. However, I felt something very alive that was coming from those young Burmese. Once again, I can witness a joy of life coming from the poorest, able to enjoy the simplest thing and desiring to exchange socially.

Once again, I receive a Life Lesson from those young Burmese refugees

Education is fundamental to rebuilt Myanmar with good bases. Building a school, educating the youngest is, I think, something useful, intelligent and necessary. I already had the opportunity to see the consequences of a lack or of a bad education. In every case, I am convinced that the children are better here to learn something than in the street begging or selling drugs.

The children are attentive during a class in Agape


 

The conflict is still going on in Myanmar. The borders are still closed. However, some elections just happened and, since 2011, some opening signs can let guess of a better future. Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize, has finally been released. She even became this year (2012) a Member of Parliamentary. Let's hope that it carries on this way and that the ethnic minorities recover their rights and that they can come back peacefully to their own country.

Hoping that a day, this young Karen could wear her traditional clothes in her own country

See you soon,

Jeremy

Info :
If you want to know more about the orphanage-school of Agape, you can have a look on their facebook page:
http://www.facebook.com/agapems



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