Mae Sot under the Microscope
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Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Mae Sot under the Microscope

By David Scott Mathieson FEBRUARY, 2006 - VOLUME 14 NO.2


Australian journalist looks closely at life in a Thai border town

Restless Souls. Refugees, Mercenaries, Medics and Misfits on the Thai Burma Border, by Phil Thornton, Asia Books, Bangkok; 2005. P240

Borders everywhere attract their fair share of humanitarians, traders, mercenaries, messiahs, opportunists and loons. The beautiful, rugged and long-suffering Burma-Thailand frontier region seems to have exceeded its quota of all of them some time ago, and the Thai border town of Mae Sot is now clogged with foreigners existing as a sort of parallel species to Thai, Burmese, Karen and Muslim inhabitants. Such is its fascination as the entrep?t for trade, refugees, drugs and conflict over the border that Mae Sot and its surroundings represent a microcosm of the deep malaise of Burma.

Phil Thornton is an Australian journalist who has lived in Mae Sot for more than five years, working with a range of Karen groups and collecting stories of everyday survival. Restless Souls is a painfully authentic tour through the lives of ordinary people living in a zone of low-intensity conflict in the world’s longest and most ignored civil war, the 58-year struggle of the Karen people against the Burmese military.

Through 19 thematically structured chapters, Thornton evokes a world of migrant workers, refugees, rebel soldiers, Western aid workers, and displaced, abused and desperate people, relaying stories that most journalists or writers rarely tell, and outsiders to the conflict seldom hear. The people he meets are intricately described: gem dealer Ko Sein, Karen women’s leader Let Let Win, ex-soldier Naw Paw, who lost a leg in a landmine explosion, and Dih Klee, a boy who survived a Burmese army massacre that killed his mother.

It is in Thornton’s detailing of the routine aspects of survival that Restless Souls finds its energy: the cost of burying a deceased migrant worker or refugee in Mae Sot (500 baht—US $12), the proctology of gem smuggling (painful), the cost of feeding and sheltering a refugee for a year (4,600 baht—$115), the horrifying experience of stepping on a landmine and its aftermath, including paying the Burmese army for “destroying” government property (10,000 kyats—$10), how much mercenaries get paid (nothing), and the bounty for killing a migrant worker who dared ask for his wages (1,000 baht—$25). The book’s haunting pictures match the evocation of the prose.

By contrasting the relative privilege of foreign aid workers, especially the United Nations “consultants,” and the less well-off local inhabitants, this book not only tells the story of Mae Sot and civil war in Burma, but also the limitations of the modern aid industry. Mercenaries come in many guises, and Thornton is witheringly critical of grossly overpaid Western “consultants” ($1,000 per day plus expenses) when a senior Karen “backpack” medic receives 1,100 baht ($28) a month. Journalists have been known to “buy an ambush” for 30,000 baht ($750) to provide a story. Missionaries, academics and plain opportunists all come in for long-overdue criticism.

While Thornton takes aim at the largesse and self satisfaction of non-government organizations—the ubiquitous NGOs—he acknowledges that many toil “without a fuss” and are barely credited, apart from by the communities where they live and work.

By contrast, Thornton draws attention to such outrageous cases as the new NGO in town that spent all its cash on salaries, accommodation and ostentatious office cars only to come up short on funds for projects. Then there was the ill-fated UN High Commissioner for Refugees plan for refugee repatriation in 2004, which would have seen many people returned to areas controlled by the pro-Burmese Democratic Karen Buddhist Army—areas many had fled from years previously, and which, curiously, had been earmarked as industrial sites with Thai financing.

If Thornton is darkly, unsparingly humorous in his critiques, he is at least democratic in where he directs that humor. While there is a discernable glee in his attacks on Westerners—the gollowa, as the Karen call them—he also directs tough questions at well-known figures like Dr Cythnia Maung, Karen General Bo Mya, DKBA commander Maung Chit Thu, and former Burmese student leader Aung Naing.

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