(Starry sky in a Thai-Myanmar border town)
(CEDAR’s note: The writer, Dr Ho Shun Yee, joined CEDAR’s Exposure Trip to the Thai-Myanmar border towns and the northern regions in Thailand at the end of last year. In this article, Dr Ho shares her experience and thoughts about the tour. CEDAR will host another in-depth tour to Bangladesh to visit the poverty-stricken communities. For more information, please visit: http://cedarfund.org/trip/)
In mid-December 2018, more than ten of us from CEDAR arrived at the Thai-Myanmar border – a place that turned out to be quite different from the land of orchids, Thai silk, massages and water fights that most people would have in mind when the place is mentioned. There were cloud-shrouded mountains and singing streams, but what we heard was a song of a thousand sorrows from the border towns. Yet, in a way, it was also a song of hope.
Towns on the border
When you open a map, you can see that Mae Sai is the northern most town in Thailand. Yes, it is within the Golden Triangle region, and it is also where 12 young football players and their coach were trapped in a cave and nearly lost their lives more than half a year ago. The place is full of the unique characteristics of a multi-cultural community. Apart from Thai, Burmese, Laotians and Chinese, there also hill tribes living there such as the Lahu, the Akha, the Karen and the Palaung. People from all walks of life, be they residents, travelers or businessmen, all converge at this little border town.
The Thai border and Myanmar are only separated by a river. As you can imagine, there is a lot of traffic going back and forth and everyone wants to go to the place where the economy is better. Some shops sell jewellery and silverware which cater for tourists, but most of them sell daily necessities. There are also hawkers selling food and low-paid labourers working hard to make ends meet. The town is like a big marketplace for the grassroots, where all sorts of ethical and unethical business transactions take place day and night.
‘What is your biggest dream?’ Throughout our visits to the local families, every weather-beaten face wants to tell us how important it is to have the right of abode in Thailand. Everyone and every family has a long story to relate. Warfare drove some ethnic minority groups such as the Lahu and the Palaung from Myanmar to Thailand, where the living conditions were better. Unless the circumstances are desperate, I don’t think anyone would choose to abandon their own home and leave their country.
Some of the residents in the area have parents who have lived in Thailand for years, while others were actually born in the country. However, both Thailand and their places of origin refuse to give them recognition of their nationality. Some fortunate individuals are able to apply for their residency through a long and tortuous process, but many are unable to work or are only able to work some of the time. If they are asked, ‘Who are you?’, they cannot answer this question. All they are asking for is a place to live, an opportunity to work and to live a life with dignity. Must this humble request be turned down?
A Town of Blurred Ethical Boundaries
Everyone wants to live an ethical life, but the doubling effect of poverty and adversity make people sink lower and lower. Drug-related problems are still rampant in the Golden Triangle, and the area is also plagued by human trafficking and the AIDS epidemic. Criminals have been exploiting the poverty-stricken and underprivileged groups. They take advantage of their dire situation and language barriers to sell women into prostitution or forced labour. The police are incompetent and often turn a blind eye to these crimes. Some local people have become accessories to these criminal acts because they hire undocumented workers at very low wages.
Where there is darkness, someone sows the seeds of love and peace. CEDAR’s partner, the Thai-Lahu Foundation (TLF) works with local churches to help the Lahu people out of their predicament. They rescue girls that have been sold into slavery, give them hygiene education, teach them how to protect themselves and help them develop backyard farming. Pastor Prasang first founded TLF out of his compassion for the sick, and Pastor Nava still does what she preaches by opening her home to the orphans and widows. In addition, LIFT International, a non-government organisation based in Chiang Mai has been fighting against criminal syndicates courageously. They have defeated some of the human traffickers and rescued many women and children. Every member of staff we have met in these organisations is full of love and compassion. They are gentle and humble in heart, but at the same time as tough as nails, because they believe that the Lord is their strength and shield, and He will watch over them when they fight against evil.
A Town of Spiritual Ways
I believe that everyone has the power to come out of the darkness and into the light. We visited a 16-year old Akha girl who came from Myanmar. She was almost sexually assaulted by her stepfather, and was eventually sold to someone in Thailand. She now looks after her 8-month old baby and learns Akha embroidery from her neighbour. But most importantly, she has forgiven her mother after she became a Christian. She is willing to let the past be the past and move forward. This is the change in her life.
We got to know the staff of Upland Holistic Development Project (UHDP) in another border town called Mae Ai. They are God-fearing and they try to protect God’s creation and land. They help the people who live in the hills by teaching them how to start organic farming and animal husbandry at a low cost. They also teach these hill people how to utilize the small plot of land in their backyard to grow vegetables for themselves. Nowadays, many greedy and unscrupulous companies use poisonous chemicals to expedite the growth of their crops and livestock. In the end, both humans and nature itself will have to pay the price. Truly, without the fear of God and the compassion for others, sometimes we can go astray on the path of poverty alleviation.
At the mountainous Thai-Myanmar border, the emerald forests are overgrown with green leafy trees. However, the wind seems to carry a thousand weeping and moaning souls – the lack of identity, the forced labour and exploitation, the drugs and crippling illnesses, the human traffickers who torment the lives of women and children, the displacement resulting from warfare, the barren land and many other sufferings. Dear Lord, our eyes wait upon Thee. You have revived so many truthful servants, you must have mercy on this land. Everyone from these non-government organisations and churches are fighting in your name against the evil powers. They are all striving to bring the victims to this side of the border and lead them towards your spiritual kingdom. Their efforts are like the thousand twinkling stars splashed across the milky way, shining especially brightly like dazzling diamonds in the darkest night sky.
(The writer is the Principal Lecturer of the Division of Chinese Language and Literature in the Faculty of Education, the University of Hong Kong)