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Burma: Welcome to the Jungle

In the June Issue of Dazed, Joseph Wade visits the Thai-Burma border town of Mae Sot for the first of an exclusive two-part series about the Burmese resistance movement

Pado Mahn Shar was shot dead in his home in the Thai border town of Mae Sot. He was the leader of the Karen National Union and the men who killed him were likely contracted by the military dictatorship that rules Burma. Since the assassination, the remaining rebels, freedom fighters and democracy campaigners in the bustling border town adopt counter-surveillance tactics to avoid either the same fate, or being snatched up and bundled back to their own country to be condemned to a long sentence in one of the regime’s prison camps.

Mae Sot is on the border of Burma and Thailand and is one of the official entry points to a closed country; connected by the Friendship Bridge to Burma, the town teems with smugglers, refugees, foreign aid workers and an assortment of groups fighting to free Burma from the grip of one of the world’s worst dictatorships. It’s easy to forget about Burma, with the world’s media pointing its lens at the uprisings and revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. It is less easy to admit that you didn’t know much about it in the first place.

Before departing from Bangkok’s mega-modern tangle of skyscrapers and highways on the lengthy journey north, I had never heard of Pado Mahn Shar and knew only the anemic amount about the Karen people that I had managed to absorb from information supplied by Amnesty International. This knowledge deficit would come to cause me considerable embarrassment, as the faux pas flowed during discussions with people who were jeopardising their liberty to speak to me, but it’s worth mentioning not merely to delight in my ignorance but because (as I later realised) that I personified the pervasive lack of knowledge about circumstances in Burma – a situation deliberately engendered by a government that has successfully drawn a veil over the largest country in Southeast Asia.

Like most people, I knew about Aung San Suu Kyi (although not how to pronounce her name) and that the country is ruled by a military junta, a clique of generals who, unlike their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, have no qualms about ordering the army to open fire on unarmed civilians, as they did during the Saffron Revolution in 2007. Lack of knowledge about their brutality is in the most part due to their complementary ability to suppress the flow of information from inside the country. An arsenal of repressive laws stipulates that all media is censored, the web is heavily restricted and owning a camera requires a license. Transgressing any of these laws will lead to a lengthy sentence in one of the regime’s savage prisons. I’d later meet with the jolly Khin Cho Myint, 38, one of the directors of AAPPB (Assistance Association Political Prisoners Burma) who had been in prison for five years, three months for taking part in the 1998 uprising who explained that: “It doesn’t end when you’re released. I couldn’t continue with my education or get a job I didn’t have any papers. The secret police would always come to my place, asking questions and looking around.” So he broke across the border like all the other émigrés operating out of Mae Sot. 

It’s not just difficult for foreigners to find out what’s happening inside Burma, the junta has also successfully prevented the flow of information into the country by restricting ownership of radios, which limits access to services broadcasting unbiased information
into the country such as the BBC World Service and the Democratic Voice of Burma.

The absence of real news combined with the lack of a functioning mobile phone network prevents information spreading around the country – for example, people outside of the capital Rangoon didn’t discover there had been an uprising in 2007 until years later, meaning the revolution was never going to take hold nationwide. Many of the campaign groups (or community-based organisations) such as the AAPPB work at considerable risk, to rectify this situation – that is, they aim to improve the Burmese people’s knowledge of their own country and to publicise the plight of the different peoples who live in Burma to the wider world. I attended a covert conference of CBOs upon arriving in Mae Sot, not just to interview participants but also to give a short talk about creating political virals and promoting them using social media.  

Mae Sot is ruled by some of the most corrupt cops in Thailand, all of who prowl around in black-clad packs on motorbikes, silently observing goings-on from behind mirrored aviators before tearing off through the packed streets and markets. They manage to earn some of the biggest bribes in Thailand by taxing the goods flowing across the Friendship Bridge; the people on the Burmese side are crying out for consumer items which the Thais are happy to supply, and in return businessmen connected with the Burmese military specialise in exporting gems, timber, heroin… and people. The Friendship Bridge has been closed since July 2010 by the Burmese government for unknown reasons, although this is usually a way of leveraging concessions from the Thai authorities who – in common with the Mae Sot constabulary – lose considerable earnings when the bridge is closed. The CBOs were duly on high alert because the sort of co-operation the Burmese authorities usually demand is a crackdown on the Burmese resistance groups in Mae Sot. The atmosphere at the conference was accordingly hyper-tense with photography banned and most attendees using pseudonyms, especially as another shifty-looking visitor at the guesthouse had fallen under suspicion of being a Burmese government informant. 

There were representatives from about ten different groups at the conference, almost all of whom were frighteningly young, with a large proportion of female delegates. This is consistent with the composition of resistance groups in Burma, with young people assuming leadership from an older generation that have passed the baton after being cowed by the regime’s repression. Women, especially in the Karen regions in the west of Burma, suffer disproportionately, often having to work full-time alongside performing their traditional household duties as men have succumbed to opium addiction. The Burmese regime has encouraged opium cultivation to bolster their revenues but also as a deliberate strategy to undermine the Karen resistance by getting men hooked. 

The three-day conference was chaired by Verity Coyle of Amnesty International, who described its purpose as being “about knowledge-sharing. There are different groups doing lots of brilliant work and so it’s really useful for everyone to get together and talk about what works.” As chair she introduced my video viral workshop, some of which seemed to get a bit lost in translation, an impression reinforced when Verity (to my horror) asked all the participants to grade the day’s activities with my segment basically bringing up the rear (although I was in good company, as another speaker who scored poorly was the highly impressive and charismatic Khin Maung Soe who runs the Democratic Voice of Burma, profiled in the following guide). Workshops where groups teamed up and problem-solved, discussing practical stuff like how to conceal goods, brought from across the border, from the military rated the highest because they were more hands-on and practical. 

The delegates departed leaving me with a new appreciation of the importance of information and how we take access to the web, television, newspapers and radio for granted, and assume media will always be accessible and varied. It’s also vital that western media use their freedom and power to shine a light on countries that have been plunged into darkness by repressive regimes to report on the evil they do, and amplify the work of pro-democracy campaigners fighting against them. I spent the next few days travelling by tuk tuk to safe houses dotted around Mae Sot meeting more groups campaigning for freedom of information, and all the other basic human rights that have been denied to the people of Burma.

Text by Joseph Wade