Dogmeat Diaries 7: Mae Sot – milk-shakes and mercenaries

Dogmeat Diaries 7: Mae Sot – milk-shakes and mercenaries

This post is part of the series ‘Dogmeat Diaries’ by Ashley South. (Read the first entry here for an explanation about the title choice.) 

Dr Ashley South is an independent author, researcher and consultant, and a Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University in Thailand. Between 1992 and 1994, he worked as an English teacher along the Thailand-Burma border. This was followed by three years coordinating relief supplies to ethnic Karen and Mon refugees and internally displaced people, who had fled armed conflict in Myanmar. Since then, Ashley has mostly worked as a consultant for the aid industry and in academia.

The Dogmeat Diaries recollect (not necessarily accurately) and reflect upon Dr South’s experiences working in and on Myanmar over several decades. During this period, he published extensively on ethnic armed conflicts and peace processes in Burma and Mindanao (politics of legitimacy and governance); politics of language and education; and most recently on climate change and “deep adaptation” in Myanmar

Ashley’s academic and policy-orientated publications are mostly available at: www.AshleySouth.co.uk. The Dogmeat Diaries are intended to supplement this more analytic work, providing some snapshots and impressions of life beyond the beaten track in Burma. 

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I first visited Mae Sot in late 1991. I had been teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) for a few months in Thailand – first in Bangkok, and later down south in Hat Yai.

The TEFL industry in Thailand seemed a pretty dull conveyor belt, at least at the lower-middle end where I was working. I was looking for more adventure; also, that novel wouldn’t write itself, and I felt a more rural setting might be conducive. (I sort-of finished a manuscript of the “Golden Boy” a couple of years later. Not worth publishing.)

Anyway, by chance I met with a friend of a teaching acquaintance, who later herself became a very good friend and colleague. I mentioned that I had been thinking of teaching English to refugees. The money in the school I worked at was not much good, so I figured why not be a volunteer – do something constructive, and probably more interesting? I was thinking of heading to P-, where I understood international organisations (whatever they were) were preparing Cambodian refugees in Thailand for resettlement to the West, and they were looking for teachers. My new friend suggested instead that I should head to Mae Sot and try my hand as a volunteer teacher in a Karen refugee camp.

Cambodia or Burma – it was all the same to me, and I think the bus fare to Mae Sot was slightly cheaper. I headed off with not much knowledge or expectation of what awaited. On the bus I got into conversation with a Thai man. “Don’t you know”, he said “those people are unhygienic – they don’t even know to boil water before drinking it.” He was mistaking the desperate situation of Karen refugees from Burma with a lack of knowledge. As I soon discovered, the Karen had many skills and knowledge of how to survive, and much more. What they often didn’t have was basic resources, and the means to boil water while hiding in the jungle, as whole communities had to flee at gunpoint from the Burma Army. I didn’t know it at the time, but the people I was going to live with for the next six months were the relatively lucky ones, who had achieved at least temporary refuge and shelter across the border in Thailand.

As I soon discovered, the Karen had many skills and knowledge of how to survive, and much more. What they often didn’t have was basic resources, and the means to boil water while hiding in the jungle

After a couple of days in Mae Sot town, staying in a cheap guesthouse, I moved into the refugee camp at Huaykaloke (which was burnt down by the DKBA in 1994, with the refugees transferred to Mae La further north along the border). At the time, about 5000 people lived in Huaykaloke – many of whom had been there since the early 1980s when the camp was first set up. Never officially recognised as refugees by the Thai authorities, this was the first “temporary shelter for civilians fleeing conflict in Myanmar” to be established in the kingdom. The place felt organic – more like a big ramshackle village than the kind of regimented and stark camp which existed in my imagination (and I later discovered was the reality for refugees and other displaced people in many parts of the world). The wooden and bamboo houses with leaf-thatch roofs gave the place a picturesque and rustic look, and the people were full of smiles and friendly greetings. Notwithstanding the abuses this community had suffered not much more than a stone’s throw away across the border in Burma, I was hosted with great warmth and generosity.

The refugees (specifically, the KNU-administered Karen Refugee Committee) played leading roles in administering the camp, and negotiating its ongoing presence in Thailand with the local military and government authorities (and also with Thai businessmen, in whose factories and workshops many of the refugees worked). There was a clinic run by the French medics of Medicines Sans Frontiers, mostly with local Karen staff; rice supplies came from a consortium of international aid agencies, at that time, named The Border Consortium (for which I later worked). Otherwise, with the exception of some missionary groups and well-meaning if ultimately marginally helpful foreigners like myself, that was it in terms of international support.

I lived in Huaykaloke for just under six months, until my money ran out. Weekdays I taught English to Grades 8 through 10 in the high-school. The rest of the time I messed about with the supposed novel, read lots of books and otherwise mooched around.

I made some good friends among the camp teachers, a couple of whom I have stayed in touch with on and off. It was only afterwards that I became really interested in Burma, so I can’t say I learned a great deal or used my time wisely as a researcher. I didn’t even realise there were other foreigners doing similar things, until quite late in my stay I bumped into other volunteer teachers at the coffee shop in Mae Sot.

The coffee shop, because in those days Mae Sot was a much smaller place. There must have been other establishments serving coffee, but only one (or at a stretch two) where the staff spoke English, and served chocolate milkshake. I went there most weekends, to read the newspaper, eat different food and stop myself from getting too bored.

I never got used to being woken up before dawn by roosters crowing, and the hundred-and-one noises of early-morning bustle before the day’s heat kicked in.

The rest of the time, a friendly 10th grade student shared the house with me, and did the cooking. Most nights we ate at least a little bit of meat – a far better diet than most others in the camp – together with rice and fish paste. I never got used to being woken up before dawn by roosters crowing, and the hundred-and-one noises of early-morning bustle before the day’s heat kicked in.

These days there are dozens of restaurants and bars, and the town has spread way out. There are giant superstores, car sales-rooms and furniture warehouses on the outskirts, as well as new-ish moo bans (middle-class Thai housing estates). Much of this development has been financed by the cross-border trade, on which some in Mae Sot and beyond have grown quite rich. Back in the day, the KNU took a big slice of this business; much smaller these days.

The town had also changed a bit by the time I arrived. A few years later, back in the UK I had the privilege of meeting an elderly British gentleman who had parachuted into Burma in 1945, at the end of the Second World War. He told me how he received the surrender of the Japanese garrison at Myawaddy (across the border from Mae Sot, in Burma), and crossed into Thailand to send a telegram to headquarters. He showed me a beautiful parachute-silk map of the Thailand-Burma border, still fresh as new. Back in 1945, he had arrived in Mae Sot to discover a village (if that) consisting of a dozen wooden houses, one of which doubled-up as a post/telegram office. “I expect it’s changed a bit since then”, he said.

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Dr Ashley South is an independent author, researcher and consultant, and a Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University in Thailand. Between 1992 and 1994, Ashley worked as an English teacher along the Thailand-Burma border. This was followed by three years coordinating relief supplies to ethnic Karen and Mon refugees and internally displaced people, who had fled armed conflict in Myanmar. Since then, he has mostly worked as a consultant for the aid industry and in academia, focusing on ethnic and humanitarian politics in Myanmar, and the southern Philippines. Most of his publications are available at: www.AshleySouth.co.uk.

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