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Myanmar refugees take shelter in Thailand’s Mae Sot

Avatar of Arsi Mughal



Myanmar refugees take shelter in Thailand's Mae Sot

(CTN News) – The bamboo and leaf-thatch shelter in the middle of a sugarcane field hardly resembles a safe house.

But it is where 23-year-old Sanjay (his chosen pseudonym) and eight others have been hiding since evading conscription across the border in war-torn Myanmar.

They are currently fugitives in Mae Sot, near Thailand’s western border. They share their primitive home with ducks, hens, and goats.

“Back home I used to feel afraid every day that they would come to take me into the army,” said Sanjay. “Even though we have very little food here (just rice and vegetables), no one will come to harm me. “I feel free here in Thailand.”

Myanmar and Thailand are separated only by a small, muddy river that is little more than a creek during the dry season.

Since the 2021 military coup, tens of thousands of people have fled to the Thai border town of Mae Sot, seeking protection.

The most recent arrivals are young males evading national conscription, which Myanmar’s military rulers have imposed since February and applies to all men aged 18 to 35. With most of the younger population fiercely opposed to military authority, the law has resulted in an exodus of young males.

Over the years, Mae Sot has become an unsettling haven for Burmese on the run. It reminds me of Cold War Berlin or Casablanca from the iconic film of the same name.

It is a town filled with exiles preparing for revolutions, waiting for refuge offers, frightened of spies and informants, and living in a condition of near-constant dread.

“I used to be a bad boy,” Sanjay admits. “I did whatever I wanted. I never listened to my mother. “I wasn’t interested in politics.

His life and ideas changed following the coup when the military imprisoned his father for aiding the resistance. But he never considered leaving his home until his call-up papers arrived.

“No way was I going to fight for them against other Burmese people.”

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The Burmese army recently suffered a devastating setback in Myawaddy, across the river from Mae Sot.

When an insurgent coalition overran its bases, hundreds of troops were forced to surrender. Reinforcements sent to reclaim the town were ambushed and pinned down in the forested slopes to the west of Myawaddy.

A series of comparable losses experienced by the military in recent months – in Shan and Kachin States to the north and in Rakhine State to the west – has left the army desperate for recruits. Thousands of soldiers have been killed, injured, captured, or abandoned.

Sanjay did not wish to be one of them. As a result, his mother assisted him in his escape by accompanying him on the long and risky bus voyage to the border.

With his Myanmar ID card, he obtained a two-week visa to enter Thailand.

That has expired, but he is fortunate to have an uncle in Mae Sot who is helping to sustain him.

He is compelled to hide in the fields, fearing arrest and deportation every time he enters Mae Sot. However, he has no regrets.

Mae Sot is now a maze of safehouses, with entire streets housing primarily undocumented refugees. Some are well-established dorms supported by foreign humanitarian agencies.

Others are improvised: abandoned shophouses in the main market, partitioned inside with plywood and plastic tarps to create chambers just big enough for a family to lie down.

A family of five arrived in one of the better safehouses a week ago, taking only a few clothes and blankets, as well as their five-year-old son’s favorite toy vehicle.

The eldest son is 19, and the family decided to leave their home in Yangon when he received military call-up papers.

“I could not accept my son being forced to fight against other young men,” he added.

They reported a difficult 15-day journey from Yangon via the Karen State hills before crossing the river at night into Thailand. The bribes and fees they had to pay depleted their funds.

That morning, the father, a former railway worker, had been looking for work. Wages in Mae Sot are frequently pitifully low, yet he was unable to find work.

The village serves as both a sanctuary and a prison for those who have left Myanmar.

Thailand is not a member to the United Nations Convention and Protocol on Refugees, and people escaping Myanmar’s turmoil receive no official protection. Most fugitives have little or no documents.

The Thai authorities mostly permit the influx; individuals have crossed the border for decades, and Mae Sot is now almost exclusively Burmese. However, without papers, they cannot travel outside of it.

Money is an ongoing issue; the police charge 300 baht (£7, $9) per month for a card that is supposed to prevent them from being imprisoned at checkpoints, but many Burmese are still apprehended and compelled to pay much bigger sums for their release.

“There are a lot of mental health challenges,” says Nay Chi Win, the co-ordinator of Joy House, an innovative community organization that opened last year to help immigrants deal with the stress and sadness they frequently experience.

“We hear about many suicides or people discussing suicide. They feel worthless. They may have been an engineer or a doctor in Myanmar, but they are now stateless. They cannot further their schooling. They can’t sustain their families. Sometimes people cease caring about their lives and turn to drugs or alcohol.”

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Sanjay has decided to follow the lead of many other young guys and return across the border to fight. At the very least, he stated that he would feel helpful.

However, the brutality of fighting is not for everyone. Accepting one of the volunteer People’s Defence Force units necessitates four months of rigorous training by veteran fighters from the Karen National Union. Many people fail to make the grade.

Other young men with technological experience are being deployed in drone squads, assisting in the construction, adaptation, and piloting of drones, which are becoming increasingly essential in the conflict, dropping small explosives with precision and accuracy to weaken army morale.

“I miss my leg,” said the 27-year-old former PDF fighter, speaking on a Mae Sot backstreet.

He is a former IT technician who joined the resistance following the coup and lost his right leg when he stepped on a landmine.

“It was the right thing to do.”

His advice to draft dodgers who wish to contribute to the cause is to consider their abilities: “Joining a strike team and fighting is not the most important thing. We need technical people for our drone squads, as well as people to travel overseas and raise funds.”

Future Uncertainty for Displaced Families

Meanwhile, Thailand, which has for years pretended that any spillover from the border conflict is a localized issue between the two countries’ militaries, has admitted that Myanmar’s military regime may be crumbling and that it must prepare to accommodate tens of thousands more crossing the border.

The fighting in Myawaddy has resulted in a more conspicuous Thai military presence in Mae Sot.

They can be seen standing sentry along the river’s banks, looking across to the casinos and scam centers that have plagued this part of Myanmar in recent years, as well as the now-insurgent-controlled border posts and a handful of defeated Burmese soldiers who have crouched down on the opposite bank for a few days.

Despite the memories of Myanmar’s conflict on their doorstep, many who have recently arrived in Mae Sot are nevertheless feeling relieved.

The father of three is concerned about his son’s schooling. Undocumented Burmese cannot attend Thai schools and the majority of Burmese language schools in Mae Sot charge tuition. He and his wife hope that their eldest son will be able to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor through online studies.

But, he says, they’re delighted they fled Myanmar.

“In the past week I have slept better than at any time since the coup.”

Source: BBC

Arsi Mughal is a staff writer at CTN News, delivering insightful and engaging content on a wide range of topics. With a knack for clear and concise writing, he crafts articles that resonate with readers. Arsi's pieces are well-researched, informative, and presented in a straightforward manner, making complex subjects accessible to a broad audience. His writing style strikes the perfect balance between professionalism and casual approachability, ensuring an enjoyable reading experience.

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