Misunderstanding Burma

Moei River, Border between Thailand and Burma

The Moei River separates Myanmar and Thailand. Since the coup, refugees have fled their homes to escape military persecution. Many cross this river and hide in Thailand. However, they are still not safe. If Burmese refugees are caught they can be jailed by the Thai government or deported back to Myanmar. The conflict is often too dangerous to even talk about openly on both sides of the river, and is therefore locally referred to as “the situation.” The danger and risk of speaking out lead to a lack of international attention. We, the writers of this story have been at that border and aim to bring light to Burma through three Burmese activists members of the Myanmar Film Collective, a foreign aid respondent and our own experiences. We need to demystify misconceptions about Burma if we really want to tackle the “situation.” All interviewees remain anonymous and the pictures are taken in Mae Sot last week by a trusted aid respondent.

Myanmar Film Collective

Three Burmese filmmakers shared their stories through the film, “Myanmar Diaries.” In the interview, they debunk some of the misconceptions that the international community has about Burma. 

We have divided the interview into chapters: about the situation, The Rohingya Crisis, common misconceptions about the revolution, the People’s Defence Force and their motivation to create. 

We failed to speak about what is happening in the ethnic areas

If it is not about the Rohingya, Burma would be known for gentle people

Mae Sot refugees camps
Moei River

I just want to show people how families are suffering

Now we are having a revolution, an armed revolution

Refugees’ camp tent

Foreign Aid Respondent

In this interview, V gives us insight into Burma from his perspective. He shares information about Burma now, Burmese in Thailand, the Rohingya crisis, the 2020 International Court of Justice trial and the response from the international community. 

They say they caught 60 Burmese workers looking for a job in Thailand

The Burmese side. Note how low the water is, but how exposed the shelters are
Food delivery to the refugee camp

This is a trend of the Military

Going to The Hague was to say, I am with the people of Myanmar

The International Court of Justice, The Hague
Refugee camps, people coming from Lay Lay Kaw

Send weapons and humanitarian aid

Us in Mae Sot

The following journal entry highlights our experience in Mae Sot near the borderline and the interviews with former members of the democratic party.

2nd of April 2022 – Tak bus station, Tak province. We grab a minibus directed to Mae Sot, the border between Thailand and Burma. People piled in, all the seats were full, and our bikes were squat within the aisle, nudging a woman with her bag full of groceries tightly in hand. The weather was hot, we hadn’t eaten enough that day, and the exhaustion of travelling was slowly creeping up. However, when we were on the bus, we were on the bus. Everyone was in the same boat, sailing towards uncertain land.

The journey between Tak and Mae Sot was majestically chaotic. Rolling hills, and curvy roads. We went up, up, up and then looked to our left to see a truck full of carrots tumbling down the road. Our hungry bellies wouldn’t have minded a few to snack on. We continued our journey, the woman next to us shifted slightly, pulling her bag closer to her chest.

We continued our way to the first military checkpoint. They came aboard and checked our passports. Our European ID cards were golden tickets, free passes to roam freely, others were asked to jump ship, like the woman with the groceries, the police checked her card, she was asked to leave, and I saw her dip behind a wall, not be seen by us. She exited and boarded again. Confused, I breathed a sigh of relief. At least, she was not taken. Is that the standard now? We are relieved when someone is not oppressed for their nationality?

After two more checkpoints, we made it to Mae Sot. The bus driver helped us manoeuvre our bikes and we watched as everyone drifted apart, continuing on with their lives.

Mae Sot felt different from Nakhon Sawan, Kampang Phet, Chang Mai, Tak: other “normal provinces” in the country. Mae Sot had a colder feeling, a feeling of tension and stress. We took everything step by step and went to the hotel. Afterwards, we met the foreign aid correspondent, further referred to as V. Our previous conversations with people undercover in Mae Sot had prepared us for this moment. We kept our heads down, we were normal tourists. Even though Mae Sot is not a place that has attracted too many tourists since the coup. We arrived at our hotel. Dropped off our bags, the lady was kind, a contrast to the stress of the city outside the hotel walls.

V greets us at the restaurant. He smiles, but clearly a bit uncomfortable- he has only arrived in Thailand a few days prior. He starts by explaining the rules: what we can say, how we should say things, and what not to say. Our conversation ends up being an exchange of code phrases, and undertone expressions. I am a blunt person, but today awareness of the subtleties was important. We said goodbye to V and wished him the best in the weeks he had ahead of him. We walked the streets, meeting drunken taxi drivers and angry men who were not too happy with our presence. Mario spoke through a wall to a woman, asking her help with directions, she smiled at us, bringing a calming presence. Communication was a challenge; however, we found a way, and she guided us home.

The next day, we woke early and prepared for a meeting with a member of the exiled democratic government, the one elected in 2020 and whose leader is the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. V was able to set some principles, and now we were having breakfast with someone who was risking their life just to talk to us. He wore a round cap and a necklace that dangled around his neck. We greeted and sat down. He asked if he could sit cross-legged, ever since his days in the jungle, the cross-legged position is much more comfortable for him.  It was difficult to start a conversation with a person that has lived in a situation that you have only read about. I felt my understanding could only reach a certain level; however, I was eager to hear his story, understand through his eyes and share his experiences. I was worried by simply asking for this meeting, it was too much. Am I risking this man’s life by just talking to him? There is always a risk he said. His calm, soothing presence did not expose the violence he faces every day. He explained the situation step by step, telling us about the other side, the border and life in Mae Sot. He did not speak with anger or accusations, he spoke with confidence, sharing his story and his experiences in the jungle and as part of the democratic government. Hearing the daily fear and injustice he faces turned my belly. I have the freedom to travel, to exist. This is a privilege that not everyone has, some have to run or hide, just to escape persecution. Some who are fighting for their freedom are met with bombs and military intrusions. Children, the elderly, men and women everyone is in this fight and blood is even drawn from the innocent. We thanked the man for his openness and bravery, and we bowed and parted ways. He left us with words to think about and act on at a later time.

We left Mae Sot a day later, taking our ride back to Tak, back to the outside world. The words and bravery from our new friends stuck with us, and it reminds us that we all need to stand strong and remember what is worth fighting for.

What can we do?

Burma is a closed place. It is difficult to gather information due to people’s fear of being discovered and persecuted. As people on the outside, it is our responsibility to reach out and share information. 

If you want to learn more about Burma, check out these resources: People’s Defence Force and Myanmar Diaries