Borderlands of Burma

While Muslim Rohingya flee Myanmar to the west today (formerly Burma), refugees, migrant workers, and political exiles from the east, have found refuge and uncertainty in neighboring Thailand for decades.
Photographs from Mae Sot, Thailand, 2010

 
 
 Thai military personnel watch over a group of refugees from Myanmar, 90% of whom are members of the Karen ethnic group.

Thai military personnel watch over a group of refugees from Myanmar, 90% of whom are members of the Karen ethnic group.

 

Part 1:   "Camp Mae Sot"

A day after Myanmar's national election in November of 2010, an estimated 5,000 refugees spilled across the border along the Moei River into Thailand to escape an armed offensive between Myanmar's military regime and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. The DKBA has in years passed been a regional ally of the national regime, which has brutally fought to maintain control of eastern borderlands controlled by ethnic minorities. The largely ethnically Karen refugees were escorted by Thai military personnel to a nearby army base out of fear of them adding to the nearly 150,000 Burmese refugees that populated the nine official refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. After two days of overcrowding within the temporary camp, many chose to return home amidst the fighting, while others jumped over the perimeter walls to join the approximate 1.4 million Burmese already living in Thailand as immigrant laborers.

 
 
 
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Part 2:   The River Crossing

The Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge connects the small cities of Mae Sot and Myawaddy. The Moei River, which defines the national border throughout the region, separates them. Underneath this official bridge crossing a thriving black market exists on both sides of the porous border. Ferried by flat boats and inner-tubes, commodities are purchased in Thailand, which are unaffordable or unavailable in Myanmar, while migrant workers from Myanmar provide cheap labor throughout the Thai economy, including the sex-tourism trade. Spontaneous border inspections of cargo trucks and group taxis are common, but largely for the purpose to providing pay-outs to local Thai police who turn a blind eye. Meanwhile, local activists smuggle human rights abuse documentation out of the country, while military informants infiltrate and monitor the community abroad. All of which, creates a general atmosphere of fear and distrust.

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Part 3:   Little Burma

Despite the violence, discrimination and economic hardships, many refugee families from Myanmar have established Mae Sot as their unofficial home in exile (in contrast to legal refugees, defined according to the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), whom reside within designated refugee camps). Transient in nature, squatter communities of Karen people from eastern Myanmar give sectors of the Thai town a decidedly non-Thai character. While politically persecuted, Bamar people (from which the country derives its former name) from the central capital region of Yangon, largely constitute the staff of activist organizations like the Burmese Political Prisoners' Association. For each, the community is a place to seek economic and cultural resiliency, medical care, and educational institutions for children, many of whom are orphans.

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