Thai Myanmar BorderThailand Myanmar Border
Spending his day chanting hymns and recounting Karen traditions in the camps. He was 19 years old when Myanmar's Myanmar administration troops invaded his Karen state town as part of a violent protest march against the country's minority population. As Panyuk fled into the jungles, he became a member of the rebellious Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
"I knew from what I had seen that I had to act to save my population. Together with 45,000 others in the Mae La concentration camps, mainly Karens, who escaped from Myanmar, and up to two million other internally displaced persons from various ethnical groups along the Thai-Myanmar border, he is a victim of one of the oldest and most bloody army tyrannies in the run.
Myanmar's hills rise inviting on the skyline just behind him, but Panyuk's home is as secluded for him as another world. That state of expulsion and exiles, the proximity to home and yet so unimaginably far away, was an issue I wanted to investigate when I began to record the life of those living on the border between Thailand and Myanmar.
This 2,100 km long border is an extensive, dense wildlife of jagged hills and meandering canals. On most of its length and width there are no homes, no streets, no visible paths or symbols of man's lives. When the terrible plight of the Myanmar refugees is all too often ignored by the whole globe, even less consideration is given to their destiny when they flee.
Boundaries in crisis areas are by definition a super-real mix of formal suspense and lawlessness, and I was intrigued by how these exile people lived, worked and survived in such a strange place. Thailand's administration is offering less than one per cent of Myanmar's refugees formal refugee protection. They are falling between the rifts of global policy responsibilities, off the map of world aid and making a sitting duck of ruthless Thai workers, smugglers and dirty policemen who are demanding payoffs so that they can remain.
A few land in dilapidated border storage facilities without any room to move. Some are roughened in swampy river bank warehouses and pick garbage to stay alive. The only way back to Myanmar is the destiny they fear most: to be round up by the Thai government and transported by livestock transport to face some detention or death.
I found a young sexual labourer called Su locked up in an airtight wood room in the border city of Mae Sot, behind a dirty door watched over by Thai heavy men. Su, the mothers of two small kids, is one of around 10,000 Myanmar females and maidens who are trafficked or enticed into Thai whorehouses every year and have to work under mediaeval slave labour practices.
After a Burmese army assault, Su came to Thailand from the Karen state, penniless and in terror for her own lives. They were anxious to be taken, despite the danger of being captured by their caregivers. She said: "I want the whole wide planet to see how I have to go about my business, that I have to resell my own bodies because I have no other option.
" Most of the pictures I took at the border had a similar ambiguity to the film. I spent a whole weekend on the shores of the Moei River under the cruel wrongly named Friendship Bridge that links Mae Sot with Myanmar. Incalculable rythms of border living permeate the ambience with an omnipresent feeling of threat.
No one is sure, but the Thai government tolerates a certain amount of illicit activities because trafficking such as felling and precious stone trafficking and the abundant availability of low-cost labor brings clear commercial advantages. Every mornings at 7am, not far from Friendship Bridge, small motor boats with several hundred illicit labourers sail across the Myanmar Canal.
They are also laden with tax-free Thai goods for their way back. Farther norther northerly, high in the mountains around the famous Gold Triangle, I ran into a Thai Buddhist monk called Khru Ba, who is fighting another unjust border deal. Khru Ba offers shelter to about 50 orphans from the Myanmar Shan state at Teutonic Horse Abbey, many of whom have lost their lives as a result of the mass deal.
He then returns to the jungles with them to fight a non-violent battle against the drugs traffick. Myanmar's main human traders in the area are members of the Wa people. For him, however, it is a mental search, an effort to counteract the wildness of border activities and re-establish it.
It is my task to educate the young people to embrace destiny and not to be afraid of suffering," he said. Indeed, spirituality is one of the few ways of comfort for many exiled on the border. Isolated from their cultures and societies, the various ethnical and religions try, wherever possible, to watch holy feasts, weddings and burials.
Myanmar's tribal peoples believe that when they are offered prayer and fruits, Nat will live in the tree, breeze, water and soil of their village and save humans from disasters. The Myanmar government has already made sure in many towns and cities that the Nat can't compete with armed forces, but the ghost sanctuaries are spread all over the border area - small icons of hopes that one of these Nat will one of these days help the returnees to get back home.
Wherever I walked along the border, with all its complexity of poverty, abuse, brutal authorities and daily life, I asked myself how one could survive here without going crazy or just giving up. The odds of an alleviation of their statelessness or of a transformation of Myanmar's regimes are currently almost-nothing.
At a dilapidated border hospital I saw a 14-year-old kid whose legs were removed with a dull saw and a topical anesthetic. When he escaped Myanmar, the kid walked on a land mine.