March 31st, 2005

Mae Sot . History

I'm in Mae Sot, the real town, around which 3 refugee camps are clustered. The net is dirt cheap ($0.39 / hr) and its hot out, so I'll take a few minutes to explain where I am and what I'm up to.

Mae Sot is a town in thailand, near its border with Myanmar (aka Burma). The town is notable for being the location of the 'friendship bridge' between the two countries. This is a fairly recent construction, and was an attempt to formalize the trade which has happened here for a long time. That trade usually takes the form of smuggling, and given the numerous (but far from universal) trade embargoes on myanmar, smuggling is a major part of its economy. This town is the nexus for that smuggling, and here its probably the principle industry. This has given Mae Sot a reputation as a wild west style frontier, where anything goes.

Myanmar is predominantly composed of people who are ethnicly 'Burmese' (aka Baman). However the country's borders contain a huge mix of ethnicities, most often these are lumped together as 'hill tribes'. These hill tribes are viewed as backward or underdeveloped. This is not entirely undeserved, as they are a mixture of semi-nomadic slash and burn farmers, who migrate to new fields periodically. I've heard that the most primitive are at a stage of development roughly approximating the year 600 in the west, althought most are considerably more up to date. They encompass dozen of languages, and perhaps 60+ ethnic groups, each with different beliefs. Some are devout christian due to the missionaries, some retain historic animist or ancestor worship traditions. Polygamy is not uncommon. Opium farming is still quite common, although they use it in a raw form, as a multipurpose medicine. Its refinement into more concentrated forms was unheard of until chinese merchants, and later various SE Asian wars created a commercial trade.

These ethnic groups have fought to maintain their autonomy throughout against the more numerous, lowland dwelling Baman throughout all of the history of this area. In this region the Karen ethnic group stands out, as being the most numerous (approx 3.5M people, 7% of Myanmar's of 42M total population) and therefore the most effective at maintaining their independence. At the moment they often do that with machine guns.

This sounds very bad to most folks reading this, but please appreciate it in its context. The current government of Myanmar is the military which siezed power when they were unhappy with the results of a popular election. The NLD, led by the daughter of Myanmar's version of George Washington won 86% of the vote. So the military threw her in jail, without cause or explanation. The govt has continued a policy of genocide against its minorities, in its vision of building a unified Myanmar. The Karen understand well what this means, and seek to establish their own state. At the moment there is an official cease fire, and the state is no longer a stated goal. But this is not the first or last time this relationship has seesaw-ed back and forth.

too pretty to step on a landmine

For numerous reasons (see next article) Mae Sot has become a focal point for what we lately call insurgents. In Miami we would have called it the exile community. Take your pick. Nearly all active conflict takes place on the Myanmar side, but much of the communication, organization, and critical medical treatment happens from here.

I've come to see this for myself, and offer what limited help I can. Specifically I've brought

1. a first aid guide, with lots of pictures and simple concise english. Medical care in myanmar is effectively non-existent for minorities.

2. a shortwave radio, with hand crank. Batteries would be far too expensive. Deeper in country, the govt has tremendously effective control of the media. Besides providing news which is otherwise not available, services like VOA's Special English provide an opportunity for people who wish to learn english.

I have a video testimonial from a monk in Laos who learned most of his english in this manner. In short he thank's Steve who is a friend of mine back in DC that used to work for VOA.

3. A small library, which I've been carrying on my back for the last 3 months. Ugh!

While I'm not official enough to be formally invited into the camps, things around here have a lot of back channels, which I'm currently negotiating. Even if I can't get in, I can still work with folks who are here in Mae Sot who have been granted 'person of concern' status by the UN, or are otherwise in need of assistance.

Whether it happens in the camps or outside, I should be able to help then learn english, which is essential for getting the word out. Going further I may be able to put my computer skills to work, helping people learn to create web pages to advertise their story to the world. At the extreme end I can teach lots of nifty computer skills which might prove useful. I don't plan to take it any further than that. This is their war. I'm sympathetic, but not prepared to risk my own life.

I'm too pretty to step on a landmine.

Business up front, party in the back

Besides the volunteer work described below, I've got ulterior motives. The next 30 days here, will be a time with much annual significance.

1. I'm gonna have me a birthday. My 29th infact. Since someone will ask, April 22nd, emails are welcome, but please no ecards, too many spammers already have my email). While I don't plan to make much of a fuss, it seemed it'd be nice to have been established somewhere semi-long term, so I know someone in town on my birthday. I can't buy my own beers!

2. Water festival
In Thailand its called Songkran in Myanmar its called Thingyan. In either case its a 3 day water fight. In some places the fight is quite dainty and proper (Rangoon). In some places its down and dirty (Chiang Mai). Mae Sot is literally and figurative somewhere in between.

3. Muay Thai
Thai Kick Boxing. Once a year there is a not-quite-legal old school Muay Thai match, between a Thai fighter and a Burmese fighter, somewhere on the outskirts of this town. There are no gloves, no judges, and no time limits. The fight is over when one of them men is knocked out cold or surrenders. The ONLY thing that could be better would be if they had an orangutan.