Magazine: Life and death along the Thai-Myanmar border

A 1,200 mile long photographic journey, documenting the fear, faith and everyday survival of those living in exile.

Panyuk's arms were blown off and he was blinded by a landmine explosion in Myanmar. He now spends his time singing songs and telling stories about traditional Karen culture [Jack Picone]
Panyuk's arms were blown off and he was blinded by a landmine explosion in Myanmar. He now spends his time singing songs and telling stories about traditional Karen culture [Jack Picone]

When I met Panyuk he was sitting outside his hut on a seat made of fat tubes of bamboo. Panyuk, a member of the Karen ethnic group from Myanmar, lost both his arms and was blinded in both eyes in a landmine explosion five years ago.

He has lived in the Mae La border camp on the Thai-Myanmar border ever since – exiled from his home, his family and his people. He spends his days singing songs and telling traditional Karen stories inside the camp.

“I like telling stories,” he says simply. “I’m very good at it.”

Here is Panyuk’s story.  

Ten years ago, when he was 19, Myanmar government soldiers attacked his village in the country’s Karen State as part of a brutal campaign against the nation’s ethnic minorities. The soldiers, young men barely older than himself, killed his father and his uncle, and raped his mother. They destroyed the rice crops and burnt his village to the ground. Panyuk escaped into the jungle and joined the rebel Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

“After what I had seen, I knew I had to take action to protect my people. I had to take up arms,” he told me.

He fought with the rebels until he stepped on a landmine planted by the military. He almost died.

For my photograph, Panyuk struck a proud pose with an umbrella – his weapon against tropical downpours – hooked over the stump of his left arm.

The Mae La camp is home to more than 45,000, mostly Karen, refugees. It is a fully functioning community at the foot of a dramatic escarpment just on the Thai side of the border. The camp is policed by the Thai army and residents are not allowed to leave its confines [Jack Picone]

Along with 45,000 others in the Mae La camp, mainly Karens who have fled Myanmar, and up to two million other displaced people from various ethnic groups along the Thai-Myanmar border, he is a casualty of one of the world’s longest standing and bloodiest military dictatorships.

Myanmar’s mountains rear up invitingly on the horizon right behind him, but Panyuk’s homeland is as remote to him as another planet.

A young illegal immigrant from Myanmar sails from that country to the Thai port town of Ranong [Jack Picone]

The 2,100km border is a vast, densely jungled wilderness of rugged mountains and snaking rivers. For most of its length and width there are no houses, no roads, no visible pathways or signs of human life. Landmines, malaria and food shortages kill many migrants long before they reach a crossing point.

Sleeping on a street corner early in the evening, this young girl was so exhausted after scrounging for rubbish all day that she was totally oblivious to the cacophony of sound from passing traffic and people. Thousands of children displaced from Myanmar are exploited and oppressed by unscrupulous businessmen, corrupt officials and human traffickers [Jack Picone]

If the dire situation of people inside Myanmar is too often ignored by the world at large, even less attention is paid to their fate once they escape.

By nature, borders in troubled regions are a surreal combination of official tension and lawless chaos, and I grew fascinated by how these exiles live, work and survive in such an alien place.

Thailand’s government offers official refugee status to less than one percent of asylum seekers from Myanmar. The illegal status of the rest condemns them to live a life on the margins in more than just a geographical sense; they fall between the cracks of political responsibility, disappear from the radar of international relief, and make easy pickings for unscrupulous Thai employers, human traffickers and corrupt police who demand bribes to allow them to stay.

Some end up in ramshackle border camps with no freedom of movement. Some take their chances as migrant workers, scraping an underground living in factories, sweatshops, rice paddies and brothels. Others live rough in muddy riverside encampments, picking through rubbish to survive. Once they arrive they are trapped. Their only route back to Myanmar is the fate they dread most: being rounded up and deported in cattle trucks by the Thai authorities to face certain imprisonment or execution back home.

An orphanage for Muslim boys in Mae Sot. When I took this photo, I tried to understand the void that must exist in a child’s life when they lose both of their parents and are exiled to a foreign country, but I quickly realised that it was beyond my comprehension [Jack Picone]

In the border town of Mae Sot, behind a grimy doorway guarded by Thai heavies, I found a young sex worker named Su who was confined in an airless wooden room. I entered the building by walking in when the guards were not looking, but Su was too terrified to attempt to leave by the same means.

A mother of two young children, Su is one of the around 10,000 women and girls from Myanmar who are sold or lured into Thai brothels and forced to work in conditions of medieval slavery each year.

Su came to Thailand after an attack by the Myanmar military drove her from Karen State, destitute and in fear of her life. She has two children to feed but receives only a fraction of the $3.50 she earns per client; the rest is pocketed by the brothel’s middlemen.

At only 18, she has the depleted body of a middle-aged woman and the quiet stoicism of a veteran of misfortune. She was eager to be photographed despite the risk of being caught by her minders.

“I am not ashamed of myself. I want the world to see the way I have to live, that I have to sell my body because I have no other choice,” she said. But, she added nervously: “Please don’t show my face.”

Many of the people I met and photographed on the border had a similar ambivalence to the camera. They were torn between the recognition that the images were somehow a record of their existence, an acknowledgement of their hardship, and the fear that they could be arrested or deported if they lost their invisibility.

A broken bridge runs parallel with the Thai-Myanmar border [Jack Picone]

I often found myself treading an uncertain line.

One week I went down to the banks of the Moei River underneath the cruelly misnamed Friendship Bridge that connects Mae Sot with Myanmar. On the first day I shot pictures of a family sheltering under the bridge. The husband was selling crack for $1 a hit and using the cash to buy food for his three scrawny children. I was touched when his wife offered to share a meagre plate of rice with me.

The next day I went back to see the same family and another crack dealer pulled a knife and threatened to use it if I didn’t leave.

The unpredictable rhythms of life on the border infuse the atmosphere with an ever-present sense of menace. The illegal immigrants jump when local kids let off firecrackers, a reflex fear of mortar fire, and they fade into the shadows when police trucks rumble through the streets.

No-one is safe, but the Thai authorities tolerate a degree of clandestine activity because trade such as illegal logging and gem smuggling, and the copious supply of cheap labour, bring obvious economic benefits.

At 7am each morning, not far from Friendship Bridge, small wooden motorboats packed with hundreds of illegal workers cross the river from Myanmar. On the other side, they are loaded up with tax-free Thai goods for their return journey. It is a bald exchange of commodities.

At the Golden Horse Monastery, Thai Buddhist abbot Khru Ba provides refuge for around 50 orphaned boys from Myanmar’s Shan State. He accepts the boys as novice monks and trains them in kick-boxing and horsemanship [Jack Picone]

Further north, high in the hills skirting the infamous Golden Triangle, I met a Thai Buddhist abbot named Khru Ba who is battling another iniquitous border trade.

At the Golden Horse monastery, Khru Ba provides refuge for around 50 orphaned boys from Myanmar’s Shan State, many of whose parents died due to the area’s massive drug trafficking activity. 

A muscular man draped in an elaborate tapestry of tattoos, Khru Ba accepts the boys as novice monks and trains them in kick-boxing and horsemanship. Then he rides with them back into the jungle to wage a non-violent war against the drug trade.

The prime traffickers in this area are members of Myanmar’s ethnic Wa tribe. Once in rebellion against central rule, the Wa army remodelled itself into one of the world’s largest drug producing organisations.

Khru Ba and his novices bravely attempt to confront armed Wa caravans laden with heroin and methamphetamine to prevent the smuggling.

“I use my powers of faith and persuasion rather than weaponry,” Khru Ba told me. “I pray to the Lord Buddha, and I ask the traffickers to consider how they’d feel if their own children died from opium addiction.”

A few seconds before the orphaned boys were doing back flips off the backs of their horses. Then, exhausted, they just laid there quietly [Jack Picone]

The abbot admitted that he is not sure if his efforts are successful. But for him it is a spiritual quest, an attempt to counter the savagery of border life and restore some peace.

His monastery, with its incense-scented air, softly chiming temple bells and roaming wild horses, is one of the rare oases of tranquility in the region. But Khru Ba was quick to dispel any romantic notions. The orphaned boys must adhere to strict Buddhist doctrine and accept the gruelling ascetic regime he imposes.

“It is very tough here. My mission is to teach the novices to accept fate and not to fear suffering,” he said.

At the end of the day bathing in the river is followed by swimming. It seems like an idyllic life, except for the fact that the Padong people in Nai Soi village have no freedom of movement and are not allowed to leave the border village [Jack Picone]

In fact, spiritualism is one of the only forms of solace for many exiles on the border. Cut off from their culture and communities, the disparate ethnic and religious groups try wherever possible to observe sacred festivals, wedding customs and funeral rituals. Such occasions, some told me, help to maintain their sense of balance and identity.

In Um Phang, a remote village south of Mae Sot, I watched two elderly Karenni tribeswomen peer through the slats of a wooden hut to witness the consummation of a Karenni marriage. The groom traditionally wears bells on his toes to inform the wedding guests of his exertions, but the two old women wanted confirmation of their own.

As well as Buddhists, the refugees comprise Muslims and numerous Christian denominations, and most also worship ‘nats’ or animist spirits. Myanmar’s tribes believe nats inhabit the trees, wind, water and earth of their villages, and will protect the people from disaster if they are given offerings of prayers and fruit.

In many villages the Myanmar regime has already ensured that the nats are no match for military force, but shrines to the spirits are dotted all over the border area — tiny symbols of hope that one day the nats will help the refugees return home.

This 14-year-old landmine victim is having his gangrene-infected leg amputated with a blunt saw and a local anaesthetic. He winced at times during the operation but did not scream [Jack Picone]

Everywhere I went along the border, with all its complex layers of misery, subterfuge, exploitation, brute authority and everyday survival, I wondered how people could live here without going mad or simply giving up. Chances of improvement in their stateless plight or of regime change in Myanmar are currently almost nil. Yet I rarely saw self-pity or outbursts of strong feeling of any kind. Part of it, I guessed, was due to the Asian culture of saving face, of not showing weakness or excessive emotion.

But it was more than that too. In a rundown border clinic I saw a 14-year-old boy having his leg amputated with a blunt saw and a local anaesthetic. The boy had stepped on a landmine during his flight from Myanmar. He did not utter a sound during the operation, but his eyes had the glazed expression of someone who is in such agony that he is incapable of feeling any more pain.

I realised then that I had seen the same expression many times before.

This article first appeared in the October 2014 issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine. Download it for iPads and iPhones here and for Android devices here.

Source: Al Jazeera


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