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Mae Sot, Haven Once Again for Myanmar’s Struggle

Originally published on Mohinga Matters

“As I walked onto the pavement to address the thousands of protestors in Myaynigone, Yangon in early February 2021, I caught a glimpse of Mae Sot,” said a Member of Parliament (MP) from the National League for Democracy (NLD) who has now taken sanctuary outside of Myanmar. The town in question, Mae Sot, belongs to Thailand, and it is the closest town to Myanmar, sharing a border with Karen State via Myawaddy. Two towns are separated by a river that is called Moei on the Thailand side and Thaungyin on the Myanmar side. If one visits both places, one will notice many similarities in the locations. Many people speak both Thai and Myanmar there. Both currencies can be exchanged and used to an extent. Directions and signboards are written in both languages. Food is common. However, the sad truth remains that Myanmar people feel much safer on the Thai side of the river, especially if they are connected to the resistance, one way or another. 

Resettlement Forced by the Coup 

Since the coup in February 2021, tens of thousands of people have fled to Mae Sot seeking a sense of security in their lives. At first, the MPs and the members of the National Unity Government (NUG) who had managed to escape the abduction crossed the river to continue their political activities. Soon, they are followed by the people who joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Later on, people from all walks of life were forced to leave their families behind and cross the border illegally as the junta continued preying on everyone who showed defiance to their reign. People who supported the resistance on social media, people who donated money to the resistance, people from Urban Guerilla (UG) forces, and members of the People’s Defense Forces (PDF) have since joined the like-minded folks on the other side of the river. 

Ordinary Lives Shattered 

It’s not always those who were directly involved in the resistance that was forced to flee. Case in point: a young family of three, made up of a doctor, a nurse, and their two-year-old son faced a drastic life change on January 30. As the Silent Strike was scheduled on February 1, the anniversary of the coup, the regime’s forces rolled around the country, forcing every business not to close shop on that day. The doctor’s clinic was also visited. Being a former class clown with pure hatred for tyranny, he wrote gibberish when his signature was asked on a letter that guaranteed the opening of his clinic on the day of the silent strike. As a result, the clinic was raided by the regime’s forces within a few hours and thankfully the family escaped narrowly, and eventually crossed Moei River on foot. They are now leading an uncertain life in Mae Sot, where they volunteer at the humanitarian camps and wait for the UNHCR’s phone call for resettlement elsewhere. 

The story of the father of two children is a more common one. He worked as an engineer for nearly a decade overseas and came back to Myanmar in 2015 to finally settle down with his family, leaving a very lucrative job with much hope for contributing toward development in the country. When the coup took place, his main responsibility became donating to the resistance movement for himself and on behalf of friends. He let fundraisers use his bank accounts and mobile wallets. In August 2021, his KPay mobile wallet was frozen by the bank, citing instructions from the military. In the following month, his KBZ and AYA bank accounts were also closed in a similar fashion. However, it was not until March 2022 that the regime’s forces stormed into his house. Luckily, he left home early that morning to visit a monastery and he has not been able to go home since then. He is now isolating himself in a single flat in Mae Sot where he spends most of his days reminiscing the memories of living with the family together. He said he could no longer afford to donate to the cause, it’s time he focused on his survival first. 

No Stranger to Myanmar’s Armed Struggle

It’s not just since the 2021 coup that Mae Sot has been the haven for pro-resistance people from Myanmar. Back in 1988, thousands of people fled here to escape from the military’s cruelty. Those people included many members of the NUG and the NLD today, including the one who was quoted in the introduction. At that time, he initially took up arms under Brigade 7 of the Karen National Union (KNU) and occasionally crossed the river for shopping and brief relaxation. When he said about seeing Mae Sot from afar on his first day out protesting in Yangon back in February 2021, he did not mean that he would decide to leave the country and seek a quiet and peaceful life in Thailand, it is rather that he foresaw the resistance would come to this, people having to take up arms, and having to seek temporary shelters in this border town. And it has indeed come true. 

How Safe is Safe? 

So, are people really safe in Mae Sot? The biggest fear amongst the people is deportation. Since they have entered the country illegally, nobody has proper travel documents. Worst case scenario, one can be snatched by Thai police any time of the day and deported back to Myanmar for lacking identification. That is where the ASEAN way of doing business comes to the rescue. Myanmar people in Mae Sot have a piece of paper with a fading signature as identification and it is called a “police card”. It can be purchased at 500 Baht ($13 USD) and must be renewed monthly. If one has this card, the police will let him or her go without much harassment. Who produces this card? Policemen, of course. However, there are cases the police cards are found to be fake, in such cases, the person with the forged document is taken to the police station where they must choose between potential deportation or a hefty bribe. The latter is always picked because Thai police may be greedy but never as cunning as Myanmar’s. 

Such rip-offs happen on various scales. In one scenario, a Myanmar family with a young child decided to move to a new place and they asked for a refund of the deposit from the landlord, according to the lease contract. The landlord refused to return the money, saying that the TV in the room was cracked by the three-year-old child of the tenant. That TV had never been turned on once. However, the family could not go anywhere for help, except to leave their hard-earned cash. When their own authorities turn on them, they cannot go over others for legal help. 

Interestingly enough, it is safe to say there is still a layer of protection for the “important people” in politics. A myth said that the NUG Minister of Defence Yee Mon once got famously arrested for going outside to purchase alcohol at an odd hour. It would have been a disaster if the minister was deported and handed over to the regime for his own breach of security in his quest for a drink. 

The UNHCR Role 

The greatest hope of most Myanmar people living in Mae Sot illegally today lies with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). As of July 2022, about 100,000 applications have been submitted to UNHCR for resettlement to third countries. Many applicants have chosen Western countries as the ideal destination for their future lives. However, according to the primary sources, they have been told by the UNHCR that the resettlement program has been put to a halt and they can only help with a small contribution for the temporary stay in Mae Sot. There are also other organizations that help out the needy in Mae Sot, but they are mainly focusing on aiding people for brief stability while living there. 

In the third week of September 2022, Myanmar model Han Lay, who had publicly voiced her defiance to the regime on an international stage was briefly detained at the Bangkok airport because her passport was canceled by the military. Amid fears of deportation, the UNHCR came to the rescue in time and Han Lay arrived safely in Canada. At the same time, tens of thousands of ordinary Myanmar people in similar situations await their own fate that may or may not come. As much as Mae Sot has been a somewhat decent host community giving the much-needed security, it will always remain as a temporary haven for most. People want to either go home or fly away. And yet, they don’t have their destiny in their own hands.

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