A Town So Close, But Yet So Far
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A Town So Close, But Yet So Far

By KYAW ZWA MOE Saturday, July 30, 2011


Hla Phu sits in the middle of his five-by-five-foot shop in Mae Sot, Thailand, among discarded old clocks, battery-less flashlights and rusty pots and pans. Everything is for sale, he tells me with a smile that reveals a missing tooth, even a pair of bamboo chopsticks—the kind they give away for free in noodle shops. With his wispy white hair that reaches below his shoulders and “vermicelli” beard that dangles from his narrow chin, the short and thin 84-year-old resembles the stock hermit character in an epic Asian film. But in real life, Hla Phu has been a pioneer, patriot and physician. He is one of the Burmese migrants who made the border town of Mae Sot what it is today—the closest thing to Burma one can find in Thailand, complete with shady characters, danger and intrigue.

Mae Sot sits on the banks of the Moei River in western Thailand, opposite the town of Myawaddy in south-eastern Burma. To reach Mae Sot from the Thai side, it is necessary to navigate a snaky road through the mountains where sharp turns are frequent, errant drivers don’t keep to their side and heavily-loaded trucks often roll over on the steep slopes. Caution must be exercised. You should expect the unexpected when approaching Mae Sot, beginning with the three checkpoints manned by the military, police and border patrol along the road leading into town.

If the checkpoint personnel think you look suspicious, you will be stopped. Whether that means you’ll be asked a few brief questions and sent on your way, or be told to pull over and have your car and belongings searched, depends on the instincts and mood of the officer on duty. Normally, there is a higher risk of getting pulled over, and the searches and interrogations are more severe, when traveling away from the border because the authorities are looking for drugs and illegal immigrants coming into Thailand from Burma. But smuggling goes both directions, and shakedowns take place on both sides of the highway.

Upon arrival in Mae Sot, you’ll know you’re in the right place when you start seeing males and females of all ages wearing longyi (Burmese sarongs) walking by the roadside. On the cheeks of many women and girls will be a beige paste called thanaka (traditional Burmese makeup), and the signboards of many vendors, shops, restaurants and guest houses will be written in Burmese. When you stop and get out to stretch your legs after the long drive through the mountains, chances are you will hear people conversing in Burmese rather than Thai, because over 200,000 Burmese live here, and only 80,000 Thai.

If the Burmese community were not here, it wouldn’t be Mae Sot. In a sense, Mae Sot seems to have assimilated into the Burmese community, rather than the other way around, and depending on which Burmese resident you ask, Mae Sot will be dubbed the town of exiles, the town of dissidents, the town of rebels disguised as civilians, the town of migrant workers or the town of refugees. 

Hla Phu, who was one of the first Burmese to arrive here forty years ago, could be considered a member of most of these categories. He was born in Rangoon in 1927, when Burma was a British colony, and grew up a patriot like many of his era. He was schooled in a Rangoon monastery and never went to college, and when Burma was occupied by Japan during World War II, he participated in anti-fascist political activities. When Burma gained independence from Great Britain, Hla Phu was a fire department officer in Kamaryut Township, and at 4:20 a.m. On Jan. 4, 1948, he and his colleagues hoisted Burma’s flag to mark the historic event.

“You know, when I was pulling the rope to raise the flag, I had conflicting feelings—joy and sorrow,” he says. “Seeing our new flag being raised, I felt joyful. But I felt sad seeing the Union Jack flag being lowered, because I grew up with that flag. But my happiness was so strong that I felt as if I was walking on air above the ground.”

After independence, Burma appeared to be on the road to democracy when U Nu became the country’s first democratically elected prime minister. But in 1962, Gen Ne Win and his socialist comrades overthrew U Nu in a military coup. After being released from prison, U Nu fled to Thailand and in 1969 formed the Parliamentary Democracy Party (PDP) to stand against Ne Win’s military regime. Several hundred people, including prominent politicians, became members of the PDP, and in 1972 Hla Phu left Burma and came to Mae Sot—which at the time had only around 50 Burmese residents and no newspaper—to join the PDP in its fight against dictatorship in his home country.

At Hla Phu’s invitation, we leave his tiny shop and drive to Ho Paing Village, the place where he lived while serving the PDP. The trip takes about 10 minutes by car—but Hla Phu says it took much longer four decades ago, when there were no paved roads to the village.

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Dave Wrote:
A cracker of an article indeed - top marks!

nicole wolf Wrote:
Thank you Kyaw. A very touching look at a town through the life of one.

Michael Wrote:

Can you provide the actual address of this man in this article?

I would like to donate some money to him.

Thank you

Myanmar Patriots Wrote:

U Hla Phyu is a great man. We would to honour him. Greatness has nothing to do with fame; fame is a product of media manipulation. Any traitor can be famous with the help of the western media. Real heros and heroines, amongst the masses, are never recognised by the media.

We would also like to help the Burmese community in Mae Sot.

That part of Thailand was part of Burma. almost of half of Bangladesh belonged to Burma. What they call Chittagon is our 'Sittagaung', meaning war front/bridgehead.
Ask any Bangladeshi what the meaning of Chittagon is, they cannot answer.

Because of colonialism we lost territories around our current national boundary. FACT!

We convey our utmost respect to U Hla Phyu.

We are ready to support you materially if you contact us.

[email protected]

Greetings to all our Myanmar people in Mae Sot.

ON THIS OCCASION we thank IRRAWADDY for publishing this article.

Maung Aung Wrote:
This is a compelling story. It's better to have read the whole story in the e-magazine. Mae Sot is a very unique town for Burmese people. Mae Sot seems to be a town for Burmese for many more years as long as Burma remains like now.

Kyi May Kaung Wrote:
Beautifully written and should be built up into a full scale biography, fiction, or creative non-fiction of book length and published in print or e-version (Kindle etc.)

Much published work set in Burma is not that well written.

The article on Laiza is also good.

Unfortunately, the e-magazine is very hard to read - that format is very hard because of need to zoom in and "turn" the pages etc.

The painting illustrating the Mae Sot article is also very good.

Kyi May Kaung

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