My first direct encounter with Burma starts in Thailand. The overnight coach from Bangkok’s Morchit terminal to Mae Sot in the Northwest stops at several Thai army checkpoints where soldiers with bulletproof vests and surgical masks survey passengers’ identity cards. With the first check in process, four people quietly slip off the bus and, once the officer is out of sight, equally discreetly return to their seats. In the early morning, we reach another checkpoint, but this time they fail to escape on time and all four are escorted from the bus. As the only white foreigner (farang), I am of no interest to the representatives of the Thai state – the officer motions not to look for my passport. It will be a different story on the other side of the border.[1]

Mae Sot in Tak province, Thailand

Once in Mae Sot, nicknamed ‘Little Burma’, the futility of the “fight against illegal immigration” is revealed. River Moei (called Thaungyin in Burma) serves as Thailand-Myanmar boundary between the Thai province of Tak and Myanmar’s Kayin (Karen) State. Border checkpoints are located on the opposite sides of the mighty Thailand-Myanmar Friendship Bridge (opened in 1997), all fenced off with chicken wire. At the Thai border post, queues of people coming from Myawaddy on the Burmese side do not seem to die down the whole day.

Below the bridge, a riverbank is complete with a concrete pathway and razor wire. Pairs and groups of people, many with thanaka paste on their faces, wearing longyi and carrying bundles scuttle in both directions past the few shacks and makeshift vendor stands located in the dry stretch of the riverbed, on the other side of the spiralling razor wire. A short walk leaves the checkpoint behind a river bend and soon reveals the source and destination of this commotion – a wooden staircase attached to the pathway. A step away a Thai soldier is chatting to someone, but nobody seems to care about him as people descend the staircase and squat by the water waiting, their eyes fixed on a boat being loaded on the Myawaddy side. The boat arrives in a few minutes and quickly fills up again.

At least in the dry season, River Moei has never posed a formidable obstacle for the unceasing movement of goods and people. Even when the Myanmar government, annoyed at some Thai decisions, decides to ‘shut the border’ (meaning the closure of checkpoints), petty trade goes on, although prices of Thai produce thus imported rise in Burma at such periods. Last time the border was closed between July 2010 and December 2011 as the Myanmar government was allegedly worried that Thai construction of the concrete embankment encircled with razor wire could affect the borderline[2].

Back to the surroundings of the Friendship Bridge, Moei riverbank hosts a bustling market, hordes of songtaew minibuses and motorcycle taxis. It looks livelier than the centre of Mae Sot. However, even in the town centre itself traces of Burmese presence (probably more than half of the population) abound: longyis, thanaka make up, Burmese eateries, signs in Burmese script alongside Thai and occasional English or Chinese, difficulty to get by in Thai at times, buildings decorated with stars inspired by past and present Myanmar national flags…

The predominantly Karen-Burman-Thai population mix is infused with people from further afield. For decades, dozens of Karen and Burmese exile organisations operating semi-officially in the town have been attracting volunteers from developed countries sympathetic to the plight of the Karen insurgents and those displaced by their conflict with the repressive Burmese military government. Local and international humanitarian aid NGOs employing overseas staff have sprung up along the border since the 1980s to cater for the swelling refugee camps on the Thai side. Both foreign staff and volunteers have helped to advocate organisations’ causes, including dissemination of information about the human rights violations in Burma.

In fact, foreign engagement with the section of the Karen (called Kayin in Burmese) speaking the Sgaw dialect predated the civil conflict that flared up in 1949. 19th century British and American Christian missionaries in the Karen Hills brought a world religion, script, formal education and ideas of national consciousness that moulded the Sgaw Karen “imagined community”, eventually uniting them against Burman domination in the newly created Burma Union. Two centuries after the first Western missions, the international community is still more willing to listen to the vocal Karen National Union (KNU) leadership (mostly Christian, Sgaw-speaking and well-versed in English) in exile in Thailand and its satellite organisations than to the ‘other’ Karen, namely those living inside Burma[3], predominantly Buddhist, speaking other dialects such as Pwo and actually accounting for the vast majority of the Burmese Karen population[4]. Many Karen have stayed away from the Karen insurgency, while others have aligned themselves with the Democratic Buddhist Karen Army, a splinter group of KNU that has cooperated with the Burmese army since 1994.

Hpa-an (Pa-an) in Kayin State, Myanmar

Staff from Mae Sot-based NGOs talk of going ‘inside’ when travelling to Burma. Although adjacent to the Tak province, the Kayin State (except for the border town Myawaddy) is not accessible for third-country nationals coming overland from Thailand. When travelling to Kayin State from within Myanmar, the state capital Hpa-an and its surroundings are the only place that foreign tourists are allowed to visit. Given that due to the long-term civil conflicts similar restrictions exist along all Myanmar’s borders, the country is still physically closed off from the outside world, whereas the rest of South East Asia is crisscrossed by international railway and road networks.

On the 6-hour bus journey from Yangon to Hpa-an I am again the only white passenger. This time it is specifically because of me that the otherwise bored-looking officer with an Immigration badge on his uniform sleeve stops the bus after it has crossed the River Thanlwin (Salween). The officer heads straight to me, asks for my passport and scrutinises my visa. Tourists are a recent occurrence in this region where Myanmar central government is eager to show it is in control despite contentious history: newly-installed billboards in the town centre remind of the “three national causes” and the “true spirit of patriotism”; a clumsy colourful sculpture adorning a roundabout pictures a Karen couple with a victorious Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw) soldier. When asked about long-overdue peace talks with the KNU being held this year, many locals still sound cautious and mistrustful of the now nominally civilian government.

Unlike in Mae Sot, no foreigners live here and those staying for longer than sightseeing requires are suspicious. Also the town feels rather empty as a lot of the locals are working abroad. The Hpa-an region, mostly inhabited by Karen people speaking the Pwo dialect, is where many of the Mae Sot migrant stories begin. Testimonies to emigration bound for Thailand are omnipresent. Newly constructed or extended houses funded by remittances sit side by side with modest bamboo huts thatched with palm leaves. A bunch of cheerful well-dressed women visiting the Kyauk Kalap stupa perched on a rock in an artificial lake are eager to show off their Thai skills to talk to me. So is my taxi driver. A woman running a street side stall with her two daughters turns out to have met her Karen husband while working in Thailand. So has another woman who has recently come back to her native village near Hpa-an after spending 10 years in Bangkok as a housemaid.

The borderland populations continuously migrate back and forth, returning to weddings or monk initiations. People find inventive ways to stay in touch with their friends and family across the border. Through agents they send remittances for building houses and educating their younger siblings or children back home. Mobile phones are not yet widespread in the Kayin State as SIM cards are extremely overpriced in Burma, but villagers manage to use the Thai mobile network signal from atop of high towers operated as family businesses.

Destination for those seeking work, however, has not always been Thailand via Mae Sot. Previously Yangon, the former capital, used to be a popular choice among locals as until 1970s, Mae Sot was a remote backwater loosely connected to Central Thailand via dirt roads and reliant on Myawaddy for trade. Migration flows reversed in the 1980s when the Burmese military government offensive jolted the Karen National Union forces, hitherto de facto in control of most of the Kayin State, towards the border with Thailand. Government army attacks, mass displacement of villagers, requisitions, forced labour and general impoverishment resulting from ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ meant that thousands spilled across the border into refugee camps. That is when Mae Sot’s population also started growing rapidly. Now it is home to several hundreds of factories employing migrant workers.

Perpetuating or reversing the flows?

Were this ‘irregular’ circulation to cease, as is the Thai government’s official aim, Thailand’s economy risks facing shortage of cheap labour. At least such were the fears among Thai businessmen provoked by Aung San Suu Kyi’s address to Burmese migrant workers in the Thai port of Mahachai during her visit in May this year[5]. The icon of Burmese democratic opposition now turned MP promised to work to improve Burma’s economy so that migrants can come back from Thailand and apply their skills at home[6]. Yet making a country with a GDP per capita currently almost 7.5 times lower[7] economically attractive for up to 3 million Burmese living in Thailand seems a daunting task.

In spite of the porosity of the long Thailand-Myanmar border, a cat-and-mouse game goes on within Thailand, transforming the border enforcement into recurrent daily boundary-making that Zaw Aung has aptly described: “The unregistered Burmese migrants and the police are playing a daily game of “Hide and Seek” in Mae Sot. When the police successfully “seek” them, the migrants have to pay a prize so that the game starts over and they get to go into hiding again”[8]. In other words, if caught, unregistered Burmese migrant workers pay bribes to the police or face arrest – despite the fact that “police fees” are regularly deducted from their sub-minimum national wage. Those short of money to bail themselves out may be eventually deported to Myawaddy where they easily come back from again.

Thus human flows continue to follow the same pattern: from the Kayin State into Thailand where Mae Sot remains a hub of international activity. This hub, however, seems to be losing importance as financial flows are changing direction. Organisations based on the Thai side of the border and working with the populations from Burma (in medical, humanitarian aid, human rights monitoring and other fields) complain of draining support. Foreign governments and donors are so excited about Myanmar’s ‘opening up’ that they are now bypassing the border areas and rushing to Yangon. There they still need to cut deals with the still predominantly (ex-)military government. But the wish to believe in the irreversible positive change in Burma (or profit from its untapped business potential) is stronger.


[1] The article builds on personal experiences in the Thailand-Myanmar borderland in April this year, placing them into the context of Burmese modern history, Karen insurgency and labour migration. With Burma/Myanmar heavily present in the news due its recent ‘opening up’, it is worth asking what this perceived and cherished change in Central Burma (i.e. the biggest cities such as Yangon (Rangoon) and Mandalay that most reporting is confined to) means for the country’s border affected by world’s longest civil war, now at the stage of a volatile ceasefire. In the text, I use ‘Burma’ and ‘Myanmar’ as synonyms which they actually are in Burmese, ‘Myanmar’ being the formal version and ‘Burma’ the colloquial one. Thus ‘Burma’ in this article refers to the country throughout and to the state until 1989 when a law was passed insisting on using only ‘Myanmar’ in languages other than Burmese. Accordingly, ‘Myanmar’ here means the state after 1989. ‘Burmese’ refer to the people from Burma, regardless of their ethnic affiliation. The same law of 1989 Burmanised many country’s place names. Without an intention to express a political position, I use these latter forms now common in Burma, citing the older ones at first instance as they are more frequent in English usage.

[2] Bangkok Post, 2011. ‘Burma checkpoint opens up again’. December 12th. [Accessed 14-08-2014].

[3] Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, 2008. The Karen revolution in Burma: Diverse voices, uncertain ends. Washington: East-West Center, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Policy Studies 45 (Southeast Asia), p. 11; also see Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, 2012. The ‘Other’ Karen in Myanmar: Ethnic Minorities and the Struggle without Arms. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

[4] Christian Karens make up only about 15-20% among Burmese Karens, whereas 70-80% are Buddhists, like the majority of Burmans. Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, 2008, p. 3.

[5] Mizzima News, 2012. ‘Thai employers fear exodus of Burmese migrants’. June 29th. [Accessed 17-08-2012].

[6] See e.g. Jonah Fisher, 2012. ‘Rapturous welcome for Aung San Suu Kyi’s historic trip’. BBC News, May 30th. [Accessed 17-08-2012].

[7] Based on The World Factbook 2011 estimates for Thailand and Myanmar according to PPP (purchasing power parity).

[8] Zaw Aung, 2010. Burmese Labor Rights Protection in Mae Sot. Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University, p. 25.