A look into the life of a Burmese Refugee in Thailand.
Ka Go is a tout. ‘Where are you going?’ His question is more of a challenge than a query.
‘Just walking,’ I reply. I have no interest in hiring a guide nor being challenged.
‘There is nothing there,’ he tells me.
Nothing there always piques my curiosity. Nothing there implies a secret or a macabre spectacle. Like a cop telling you to move along: ‘Nothing to see here.’
‘Myanmar?’ I ask.
Ka Go scrutinizes me. His gaze tells me that he is unsure whether I am a do-gooder NGO or just a foolish tourist. ‘I am a traveller,’ I tell him. It is important, at least for me, that he know I am not a tourist. There is an ocean of difference between the traveller and a tourist. But the distinction is likely not impressed on Ka Go.
I resume my walk to nothing there. Ka Go joins me. ‘I don’t need a guide. I have no money with me,’ I tell him.
‘No problem.’ No problem always means a fee is expected. This time there will be a problem.
We walk in silence and cross a fetid creek. It is a shit ditch. You can smell extreme poverty before you see it. It has a distinct odour of shit and garbage and exhaustion.
A feral dog rushes at us barking and gnashing its teeth. Ka Go dismisses the canine delinquent with a wave of his hand and a harsh ‘glock.’ It is a deep tonal clucking sound that discourages the dog from its assault. I am appreciative now of Ka Go’s company.
We enter a grey neighbourhood. Everything is grey: the squat concrete buildings, the dejected laundry, the dogs. Casually strewn garbage lend notes of color to this drab, dusty landscape. I can feel wary eyes clapped on me.
I am unsure of why I came here other than what can be described as a pornographic fixation with the extreme other. Maybe it is a way of confronting myself. I do not know. Travel unwraps me. Ancient slights and wounds bubble up unexpectedly and fall away, freeing me of their weight.
Ka Go invites me to his home. I accept.
His home is a concrete room, the second last in a row of perhaps a dozen identical rooms. The building looks like an undisciplined army barracks. Threatening graffiti is scrawled in black spray paint on the walls. I cannot read the graffiti, but I understand its message. Ka Go’s door is secured with a padlock.
Ka Go offers me a drink and pours out two large servings of a foul and harsh liquor. It is a home-brew of some kind and packs a mule’s kick. I am uneasy about getting skanked in an unfamiliar and harsh neighbourhood of desperate people. The $1,500 emergency funds secreted in my khaki pants would be a life altering score — a unique dash toward renewed hope. Slicing a machete into my skull would be well worth the risk. Undoubtedly my khakis would be whisked off and searched before my corpse is rolled into the shit ditch where my white buttocks would gleam and glisten among the fecal debris, casually drifting toward the Andaman Sea.
‘Let’s get drunk,’ Ka Go invites.
‘Okay,’ I assent. ‘Bottoms up.’
The liquor slams into my head and an accordion pressure successively compresses then expands my numbed brain. I can see in Ka Go’s eyes that he, too, is fighting the home brew polka and losing.
This concrete box demands a monthly rent of 3,000 Baht plus 600 for water and electricity. My hotel room at the Sintavee is twice the size of this 14 by 14 foot box and is 200 Baht a night. Without bothering to negotiate a discount my hotel room at 6,000 Baht for a month essays an uncomfortable comparison. Ka Go and I are worlds apart; the velocities of my travel are a personal compulsion; Ka Go’s is an involuntary displacement. Our worlds in Ranong are separated by $80. And a shit ditch.
My drink’s kick is pressing onto my right eye and closing it.
I ask Ka Go about the illegal Burmese migrants: how do they manage?
‘They go to jail,’ he replies dully. Ka Go offers me a burnt orange pill. ‘This will wake us up.’
‘What is it?’
I am in a fix here. I do not know Ka Go and this could be a set up. I am not a drinker and find myself heavily intoxicated and vulnerable. If I am robbed now I will be in serious trouble. Everything – my passport, credit cards, money – is in my secret pocket but still easily found with a simple pat down. I curse myself for allowing this situation to develop.
Ya Baa is known as crazy medicine here. It is a concoction of methamphetamine and caffeine and is made by cooking common household cleaning products, salt, distilled cold medicines, and lithium from camera batteries.
Ka Go’s eyes are lit up by the Ya Baa and he becomes animated. I am struggling to stay awake. I accept a pill for no other reason than to keep the playing field even. This situation can easily careen out of control.
‘My wife will be angry,’ Ka Go giggles.
‘My wife will be more than angry.’ I do not giggle.
A razor-like clarity cuts into my brain. Shards of glass pierce the back of head before fusing into a lens. I see this room brightly lit and its ugliness is magnified, the hopelessness of Ka Go’s existence is sharply articulated.
Ka Go is a university graduate. I have no doubt about that, his English is impeccable. He also speaks French fluently. He is a small man of about 30 years who looks closer to fifty. He wears the worn out face of the displaced.
The Ya Baa has loosened his inhibitions and fears. He talks freely now.
The Myanmar army pressed him into service three years ago as a porter, lugging steel boxes of ammunition through the rugged terrain next to the north east border with Thailand. ‘Porters are chained together and if the soldiers are angry they set the chains up high at night so that you have to sleep standing up. You cannot get sick if you are a porter,’ he tells me. ‘The soldiers are afraid to leave you behind. Porters who cannot work are killed. Ammunition is expensive so they use a plastic bag and tape.’
I am doubting Ka Go. Myanmar’s regime has relaxed its grip and has even allowed a democratic election. The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi, is a member of parliament now.
‘Where do you think the Ya Baa comes from?’ I am asked. Ka Go senses my doubt. ‘Almost every Burmese uses Ya Baa here. You visit our home and we offer you Ya Baa. The army makes it. It is easier to control a people with meth than with guns. Yes?’
‘You use Ya Baa, too.’
‘Why not.’ It is a statement, not a question.
Ka Go calls his wife on his cell phone. Everyone has a cell phone here. Except me. I have no one to call. He invites me to stay for supper and I accept.
Ka Go’s wife arrives a half hour later, greets me warmly and sets about preparing our meal. The sizzle and smell of frying chicken perks me up. I have another drink. I feel safe now although unsure of how I will get back to my hotel room. It is the feral packs of dogs patrolling the streets at night that unnerve me.
Supper is ready and we are summoned to sit on the floor mat in the center of the room. I recognize this dish. Crap! It is chicken ankles.
Ka Go tears into his meal; this is a rare treat.
I pretend that I am eating calamari. It is easier that way and the texture is vaguely similar. Ka Go’s wife watches me and smiles. She can see that I am a quiet drunk.
Not everyone on this side of the shit ditch is an easy drunk; violence is endemic — its bursts forth on rage birthed by despair. The wives bear the brunt of the fists and kicks.
Prompted by the Ya Baa’s bravado I ask if Burmese girls are still pressed into the brothels. Ka Go is silent. I fear that I have asked an impertinent question. A fog of shame hovers over our meal. I have gone too far and regret it.
‘Yes,’ he tells me. ‘Many young girls come here thinking they will get a job in the market. They are called chickens.’ Ka Go’s wife smiles and refills my glass. I am far too gone to refuse. She neither speaks nor understands English and has no idea of the dark confessions Ka Go now offers.
Girls as young as 12 years old are brought here by longtail boat — a 40 minute, skulking passage across the Pak Chan River from Burma. Virgins are highly prized. The ‘packing opening’ of a young girl is either offered as a gift or sold to the highest bidder. A girl’s value decreases significantly with each unpacking. After her third sale she is regarded as a common whore.
Her customers then are mostly Burmese fishermen. After long sojourns at sea they celebrate their journey’s end with the purchase of a fuck. To blunt the excruciating boredom of a life lived on a fishing boat heroin is the preferred escape. Needles are shared. So, too, are the favours of fellow fishers.
Many fishermen refuse to wear a condom and if a girl insists on it she is beaten senseless.
‘Some girls lose an eye in the beating and are sent back to Burma. If a girl is tested positive for HIV she is executed. The army is afraid that soldiers will get infected. The army does not waste ammunition on these girls. They use plastic bags.’
I am unsure whether Ka Go is telling me the truth or entertaining me with exaggerations. But some UNHCR reports indicate that Burmese refugee prostitutes have an infection rate of 35% for HIV and 70 to 90% for an STD.
It is late now. The Ya Baa has worn off and I feel queasy. I need to get back to my hotel room so that I can vomit and expel this day’s excesses from my body.
The following day I set up my easel near the Sangla pier at what proved to be a not so surreptitious landing dock for illegal Burmese migrants. They regard me with suspicion and fear as they clamber up an unsure ladder into the unwelcoming arms of freedom.
After finishing A View to Myanmar I take a sawngtaeow, a red pick-up truck converted into a bus of sorts, back to my hotel. We pull up next to a black truck inscribed with large white block letters: Department of Immigration Deportations. In the back of the truck are about fifty or so young men and women cooped behind heavy wire mesh.
‘Myanmar?’ I ask to no one in particular. Several nods confirm my query. For these young men and women their short lived escapade has ended. They are being returned to an opaque future.
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