Lush green rice paddies that stretch as far as the nearby mountains give way to Thai sweatshops as the concrete AH-1 highway covers its final kilometers to the Burmese border.
A “Friendship” bridge that crosses the Moei River is the official connecting point for trade between Mae Sot, Thailand, and Myawaddy, Burma. But a local dispute between the two governments turned ugly, and for more than a year the bridge has been an idle steel monument.
To the right of the Thai side of the bridge sits a government immigration office. On the gate leading into the official building is an enormous billboard that reads, “Stop Human Trafficking,” in both Thai and English. Like the bridge, this billboard is an official symbol, in a place—the border—that is the heart of a very unofficial universe. Indeed this border is not only active, but just a few kilometers away it is also a human trafficking hub.
A hand-drawn map by a local fixer shows how a quick left onto a small road at the edge of the river will lead to the “real” border crossing.
The road follows the curves of the river around small shops and homes until it reaches an open metal gate. Two young monks, heads shaved, and dressed in traditional saffron robes, pass by, quietly.
Ahead a group of concrete apartment buildings center on a small Buddhist shrine. To the left is a non-descript long concrete building with a sheet metal roof. The side door is opened just a crack to allow for ventilation. Inside, a mass of Burmese laborers, most of them young women, are set up at machines, making clothes. Their faces feature swirls and lines painted on with a kind of sandalwood makeup called thanakha, used as both a sunscreen, and a Burmese fashion statement.
According to a local labor rights NGO, these factories pay below the legal minimum wage in Thailand, around two dollars a day. The workweek can be as grueling as 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with one day off per month.
Still millions have fled to Thailand from Burma because two dollars a day is more than they’d make back home. Burma’s population has become increasingly poor, despite the fact that the country is rich in resources like oil, gas, and timber. It ranks 202nd in the world in terms of living standards, according to the CIA fact book.
Indeed, while Burma is better known for its political refugees, a group of activists who fled after the initial military crackdown in the late 1980s, the vast majority of Burmese who have left in the last 20 years are economic migrants. They’ve suffered from the corruption and inefficient economic policies of the military junta that runs the country.
The migrant journey begins just a few hundred yards from this factory. A right at the Buddhist shrine takes one back to the Moei River, to a handful of wood shacks where a small morning crowd has gathered for a bite to eat.
Marching up a concrete river walk, an odd bit of modern infrastructure in a place that thrives on informality, are a group of recent arrivals. One young man carries a small inner tube, his mode of transport across the muddy Moei.
The boardwalk follows a clearing along the river, and the view is stunning, not for its beauty, but rather its honesty. You can actually see why Burmese are leaving. Grim, lifeless buildings, shuttered, and rusting, are crumbling into the river. Staircases from many of these homes literally dead-end in the water. The only visual sense of optimism comes from the still gleaming golden domes of Buddhist shrines, rising above the border ghetto of Myawaddy.
At least a dozen long wooden motorboats are filling up with passengers. The matter of fact nature of these travelers lends a kind of rush hour quality to the scene. There are no emotional goodbyes, or sad waves. This is business.
Indeed for some Burmese this is a commute. They simply cross into Thailand to work at factories during the day, and then return at night to Burma. Thousands also come across to Thailand every year with no intention of going back any time soon. They’ve had enough for now.
On the banks of the Thai side of the border boats are loading up with food and appliances. While things on the Burmese side could not be worse economically, local Thai villagers are making some good money, selling the basics to their neighbors.
Nobody appears to be checking passports on either side. People pay a small fee for the boats and a day pass, and come and go as they please. But then again borders have always been informal in this region. What’s different now is the imbalance between an emerging democracy and economy in Thailand and the continued political and economic disaster in Burma.
And while goods from nearby Mae Sot find a market in Burma, Burmese find a home in Mae Sot, the place where most migrants are likely to start their lives in Thailand. Some estimates say more than 200,000 Burmese call Mae Sot home.
One of the longest tenured Burmese residents in Mae Sot is Mo Swe. Now in his forties, he arrived twenty years ago as a political refugee. His activist streak started as a student leader back in Burma in 1988, when a young Aung San Su Kyi first rose to prominence. A bloody military crackdown left Aung San Su Kyi under house arrest—and Mo Swe and his fellow student leaders on the run.
Mo Swe is still an activist, but now he provides shelter and legal help to migrant Burmese workers. He says he’s happy to still be close to his beloved Burma, and to be working towards a better future for his people, making sure, until conditions are right for change back home, they survive and have basic human rights in Thailand.
Aung San Su Kyi is a prominent fixture in Mo Swe’s Mae Sot office. Her likeness lines the walls via photos and posters, and her thoughts and words fill a bookcase. While Mo Swe maintains a political connection to Burma, most of the people he’s helping now are simply struggling to survive economically.
One of the newest arrivals is 23-year-old Nay Win. He came across the border on a day pass a month ago, just to check things out he says. But is he planning to go back to his small store in the Burmese capital Rangoon? The grin on his face provides an answer. Not a chance.
Nay Win says his first day in Thailand was scary, he didn’t speak the language, didn’t know where to sleep, and spent the few dollars he had saved. Now he is being housed at Mo Swe’s NGO headquarters. Many of the 20 some boarders at his makeshift dormitory ran into trouble with local employers or police. Others were saved from human traffickers and even prostitution, which is rampant along the border area.
Nay Win was lucky to find his way here before he got into any real trouble, although he’s still wary of what might happen the longer he stays in Thailand. He says he’s heard that the police will put him in jail, take his money, and deport him back to Burma.
Any temporary worry, however, disappears at the site of his proudest possession. He holds his new cell phone up in the air like a trophy. A cell phone, with local coverage, can cost as much as $1,500 back home, making it almost impossible to have one.
Another Burmese migrant gave Nay Win the phone on condition that he’d pay for it when he gets a job. Nay Win says he hasn’t actually made a call with it yet—he doesn’t have any money to buy phone credit. For now he’s content to just listen to Burmese pop music on it, which makes him feel less homesick.
Mo Swe says Nay Win’s wide-eyed nature is pretty typical. Burmese come to Thailand, have access to TV, cell phones, and other relative luxuries, and quickly give up on any plans to return Burma in the near future. Nay Win says his plan is to find a construction job, somewhere closer to Bangkok, which pays better than the Mae Sot garment factories.
Nay Win is less attached to the ideologies that forced Mo Swe and his fellow student leaders across the border. The old guard wants to return to peace, real democracy, and Aung San Su Kyi in power. Nay Win says his triumphant return will look a little different. He wants to come back to Burma one day in a sports car, to the big house he plans to build for his mother.