I am sitting in a hotel in the Golden Triangle in northern Thailand waiting for an opportunity to cross into Burma and wondering what is happening at home. I live in Mae Sot and spend most of my time there, so it is strange to be hundreds of kilometers north of the war zone I dedicate much of my time to. In some ways it is a welcome release, but most of the time I spend wondering just what is happening with my friends back home. Are they safe as I kick back in front of the television in a cushy hotel, or has new fighting begun? My friends are members of the Karen ethnic group of Burma and are part of a war that has now spanned 62 years. It is the world’s longest-fought armed conflict.
I am sitting in the Navy Hotel and the establishment has a semi-nautical theme, mainly consisting of the odd print on the wall, but mostly refurbished shells of varying calibre lined up in displays about the place. There is weaponry outside the front door; there is weaponry in the lobby and weaponry takes centre stage in the dining room. It strikes me as odd that Mae Sai is home to the Navy Hotel. Mae Sai, even by conservative estimates after a quick glance at the map, would have to be at least 1,500km from the nearest ocean as the crow flies. The closest body of open water is the Andaman Sea, and to get there directly you would pretty much have to be a crow, for it would mean traversing Burma, across Shan and Arakan States. Any human being attempting such a journey would raise the suspicions of the foot soldiers of the paranoid military junta now ruling Burma.
The reason I am in Mae Sai is to renew my Thai visa. I have a 12-month visa, but Thai law requires that I leave the country every 90 days. That I must live in a neighbouring country to cover a war that has been a constant in my life for more than a quarter of my lifetime speaks volumes about the state of play in Burma. Along the border more than 100,000 refugees languish in camps, corralled by barbed wire and bamboo fences, mostly victims of a relentless campaign of violence by their supposed ‘government’. Some have never been to their home country; they were born in the refugee camps. An entire generation born after 1984 has not had the opportunity to go home. The Thais grudgingly accept the refugees’ presence, or at least have done so in the past. But time is running short for the illegal aliens, as Thai patience wears thin and they seek to put an end to hostilities once and for all.
The Thais want border hostilities done with, so they can get on with the business of making money. And there is easy money to be made from exploiting Burma’s natural resources. Thai traders buy Burmese raw product cheap, be it timber, gem stones or minerals and sell it on at a profit, often in a value-added form. At another level Burma’s human resource is exploited, with people willing to perform menial tasks for a rate of pay far less than the Thai minimum wage. Also, there are plans for great agricultural ventures in the border region, in which Burmese workers would farm crops for a pittance and the Thais would sell the produce. There is much cropping land available because most of the trees along the border have already been felled and sold off. It is understandable the Thais want to make money and further develop their economy and they have suffered refugees along at least one of their borders since the 1950s. What is more difficult to understand is how they can justify the exploitation of a neighbouring country having already exhausted their raw resources.
The first intelligence reports I receive after returning home to Mae Sot, having bid the Navy Hotel goodbye, are upsetting. I have just been told two people have been killed in a bomb attack against a restaurant in Myawaddy, about five kilometres from where I now sit typing. Sporadic gunfire has been audible from the Thai side of the ‘Friendship Bridge’ during my two-day absence. The town in which the latest round of fighting began in earnest on November 7 - Burma’s election day – is again an urban theatre of war. But does the outside world hear of this war? Very little news leaves Mae Sot, because foreign editors around the world predominantly don’t want to know about it. As I relay to family and friends news of the latest atrocity, or the fact there are 10,000 refugees stranded on a river bank to the south of here, they exclaim: ‘I can’t believe we hear nothing of this!’ Well the choke point is your news outlets - they’re not interested, so you don’t get the news.
Daniel Pedersen is the author of Secret Genocide, which will be released in February 2011.