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Trip Start Sep 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Thursday, November 3, 2005

"Hello Jack?"
"Yes, Khangsai."
"Jack, police arrest me."
"Sh*t, where are you?"
"I'm at police station, but no problem, I can pay."
"How much?"
"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. Like my other students, she watches for police everywhere. When the cops are in a good mood they extract bribes from those they catch. When they're in a bad mood, they send em back across the border where there's a good chance they'll get jailed, tortured, and/or killed. The same might happen to their relatives. This morning I sent Khangsai out on a motorbike to pick up a computer whose power supply had been replaced. The computers are for editing radio programs, and I can't tell you where these programs will be broadcast. I can't tell you her real name, the ethnic group she belongs to, or the name of the town I'm working in. Should make a swell travelogue: Enjoy your next Thai holiday in scenic CLASSIFIED.

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. While perhaps not causing a direct impact on the policies of the Burmese government (called Myanmar since 1989), the aid workers do seem to be the only method of communication between the oppressed and the western countries who could conceivably put enough pressure on the tyrannical Burmese government. (Insert your cynical American "where the f*ck is Burma?" comment here). No, the US isn't going to carpet bomb Burma with democracy. Their natural resources (opium, endangered teak wood) aren't PC with the American public, although there's a natural gas pipeline going in, with Burmese soldiers clearing out the villages in its path at gunpoint. Thank Unocal for supporting rape and ethnic cleansing.

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. The US did agree to accept 9000 refugees from the border communities of Thailand in 2005, but with over 140,000 living in limbo like Khangsai, most just want a legitimate homeland with no persecution. The ones who get to leave are the educated doctors and teachers, which means massive loss of skills among those who don't get picked.

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.
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bartek on

Bartek from Poland
Hi Jack, sounds interesting, hope you are safe working there. Send some photos if you can, or, even better, recordings. Take care

tashagold on

fuck yeah
ever since we were teeny boppers in the jcc reality, you have been an inspiration, seeking the real out of the mundane with a poetic heroic keroac ish freedom....just wanted to write to yout thanking you of keeping me in the loop and honor who you are...this life is a wonder...so big and getting smaller...sending you love and aloha fromt he hawaiian islands

doilney on

Long Time Brother!!
From an old friend to another, this is inspiring shit! I miss the life that you are living. Keep up and stay with us, perspective is a beauty-full thing!! Peace and love... MAX

tulasi on

vive la verité
moi, j'ai dur de croire que votre patron a les idées sympathique dans sa tete. il me semble que queq'un profiterai de la revolution a venir, si les gens sont bien informés et organisés. ça m'ettonerait si un pays qui a fait tellement beaucoup des choses qui montent que ils vraiment haisent les democraties vont maintentant soutenir la liberté dehors du liberalisation des marchées. mais, je sais rien. bon courage, et bon chance aussi, Monsieur Chance. merci de vos photos, elles sont belles.

reslawyer on

shrinking the reaches of the globe
Bless you dear j for shedding light on those corners of the world less seen and bringing their light out. I love reading about your travels and miss you terribly! You better keep in touch w me more when you can. Much love to you - rachel

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