Welcome to Classified
Trip Start Sep 2005
15Trip End Ongoing
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"Jack, police arrest me."
"Sh*t, where are you?"
"I'm at police station, but no problem, I can pay."
"200 baht." (5 dollars)
"Just get a receipt."
"Ok, Jack I see you in an hour."
Khangsai is one of my students here in a border town in western Thailand. Born in a refugee camp for those fleeing the ongoing war in Burma, she has no legal ID papers here in Thailand; a woman with no recognized nationality
CLASSIFIED is a classic border town. When I arrived in Thailand, my employers repeatedly referred to it as "the wild west," except the cowboys and outlaws speak Thai, Burmese, and various ethnic languages. On the surface it seems like a bustling Asian city of 50,000. But most of the action is underground. Illegal timber, gems, drugs, guns, and people are smuggled through CLASSIFIED. Western aid workers for various causes live here and the odd tourist passes through on his way to waterfalls, elephant rides, and ethnic villages. In my travels I usually make fun of aid workers and other tourists, the tourists for obvious reasons and the aid workers for their cushy lives and bureaucratic contributions to places where people might just prefer food.
But here it's different. The aid workers are just as likely to get deported as the refugees if they get their fingers in the wrong pot. One Australian journalist told me he's found hand grenades rigged to his front door. Makes the malaria and dengue seem tame by comparison
For once, the US government isn't the obvious bad guy around here (although some of dubya's 2004 campaign jackets were supposedly made in Burma, technically illegal since he signed a trade embargo - http://www.earthrights.org/news/Bushcampaignclothing.shtml). Our stance has been to support the embargo, which has hurt the Burmese economy (hurting the military government but also turning many Rangoon factory workers into prostitutes), but doesn't stop pillaging of villages or natural resources. Burma used to be the world's largest exporter of rice, but these days the farmers' rice is mostly confiscated by soldiers, who are then free to rape, burn, and use the farmers' kids to test for landmines
There aren't really any good guys either. The leadership of Khangsai's ethnic group also lays landmines and engages in relentless propaganda campaigns, including the oppression of members of their own group suspected of dissent. Their leadership is divided and this has perhaps led to the failure of numerous ceasefires with the Burmese military. Part of my job is to keep the propaganda out of the broadcasts, while understanding that even my students play a role in their fight for a free homeland (one even has an official title, (secretary-general of some department, or something to that effect).
Khangsai's ethnic group was fiercely loyal to the British back when Burma was one of their colonies. They stuck with the UK through World War 2, when the Japanese occupied Burma. They assumed their loyalty would pay off in an independent homeland after the war, but the Brits got out quick and the power was taken in 1962 by a military junta in Rangoon, which has killed more people than live in your town, practices forced labor, persecutes Nobel Peace Prize winner (and democratically elected president) Aung San Suu Kyi, and is ranked among the top five most corrupt governments in the world. Their propaganda makes FoxNews look like the Muppet Show. No free speech, no free trade, no uncensored internet, no frothy lattes. I've heard all English-language music must be rerecorded with Burmese translations
So I was dropped off here in CLASSIFIED, two miles from the river that separates Thailand from Burma, hired as a trainer for radio journalists, most of whom were born in refugee camps and have no legal status as citizens of any country. We're trying to make radio programs with more than just the depressing news. Lots of music and traditional folk stories. I am teaching them recording and interviewing techniques, training them in digital audio editing, fixing their dusty computers and soldering cables, in addition to bailing them out of jail on occasion. And yes, the cops give receipts.
My girlfriend Jo is with me, we've rented a nice house with a garden. She's learning to speak Thai, playing with kids in the Muslim district and talking with monks in the Theravada Buddhist wats (monastics temples). She's also brought a small gnome which gets painted in local costume and photographed with people we meet. Kind of like Amelie or those travelocity commercials. He's currently dressed as a monk. Jo's looking to do some volunteer work, but might just get a free ride so long as my employers pay the room and board.
My work here is seven days a week and quite frustrating at times. I don't get to do much sightseeing. If I go out to the bars, it's mostly to gather information to help my students or talk with someone who knows the current situation "inside." I was given very little information before I arrived, only told my responsibilities and a warning never to mention the name of my organization. My boss got dengue fever days after I got hired, so I'm on my own to unravel the acronyms of the various factions (SPDC, UNHCR, KNU, CIDKP, KWO... WTF?). I'm told that the Thai Military Intelligence already knows me and my whereabouts. They know my students and will turn a blind eye so long as the bribes get paid and we don't say anything bad about the Thai government. By the way my work here has nothing to do with the recent bombings in southern Thailand, which you may or may not have heard about. That's an entirely different war.
I hope this doesn't sound too depressing. It's kind of inspiring to be helping students who are the direct source of communication with their people, especially in places with no internet and censored newspapers. And it beats the repetitive American life of brushed aluminum envy and SUV machismo. The people I'm working with are for real and that means alot.