I’ve finally arrived in Mae Sai! I took a bus from Chiang Mai and arrived about four hours later. I had a window seat in the VIP upper deck complete with a recliner chair, foot-rest and individual a/c. Eat your heart out, Greyhound. Mae Sai is the most northern city in Thailand, an authentic Thai city bordering Burma. There were several police check-points along the way. The police would come onto the bus and ask to see people’s tickets and/or documents. Mostly, they are asking Burmese passengers. They have never once asked to see mine. The police have guns here – something I’ve haven’t seen anywhere else in Thailand, but I do not feel unsafe. I’m in a border region now and there are tensions between the Thai and Burmese governments. Just as when I traveled to Belfast in 1997 when tensions were high between the Sinn Féin and Northern Ireland, I feel as if the political problems do not involve me and I’m treated as such. I do not profess to understand the complexities of Thailand’s relationship with Burma, but I know it changes daily and the border is often closed as a result. Burma has suffered a military regime and internal conflict since 1948. The conflict is largely between the Burmese government and the ethnic groups that live throughout the country. Opium production is widely rampant and the Thai government has done a lot to eradicate its production and distribution in Thailand. For more on the ethnic minority groups and the impacts of their migration to Thailand, see my earlier post “Ethnic Minority Hill Tribes.”
I’m surrounded by mountains, tropical forest, and dense vegetation. The plant life alone is diverse, tropical, green and lush. The air is cleaner and the mountains are breathtaking. I can even see the stars! My volunteer coordinator retrieved me from the bus station, set me up in a resort for a few nights while I await my apartment – it will be ready on February 1st. My resort is off the beaten track. I have a private balcony overlooking the mountains, which are much closer to me than they were in Chiang Mai. Spoken English is pretty wide-spread in the touristy areas of Thailand. Outside of them, not so much. I can tell I’m in for it now! Tourists typically only venture to Mae Sai to do visa runs or shop in the border markets – most don’t stick around. The only Westerners that stay for any length of time are those who are doing what I’m doing – volunteering or doing paid work with NGOs.
There are many things to love about Thailand but the music, I have to say, is not one of them. The streets are dotted with bars, restaurants, hotels and massage parlors. Only here many of the massage parlors are obviously venues to purchase sex. In Bangkok, sex is highly visible in the red light districts. In Chiang Mai it is the same and if you don’t venture out of the Old City, you won’t see it at al. Prostitution is everywhere in this country. It is highly visible if you are looking for it yet it can remain largely hidden if you aren’t. Therein lies the contradiction. I desperately want to venture into the border brothel areas to see them with my own eyes and talk with the girls directly, but I need more Thai under my belt. I also want to be culturally sensitive, not put myself in danger, nor compromise the work DEPDC is doing in this area.
My work at DEPDC will primarily be on the prevention side of trafficking – providing education programmes and vocational training for migrant youth. I am incredibly excited to be here. I can’t say for sure how things will go over the next few months and I’m not idealistic enough to believe that DEPDC is without its flaws, but I’m ready to roll up my sleeves to learn and do everything I can while I’m here.
Mae Sai is not Chiang Mai. It is not a quaint walking city with Western restaurants, coffee shops and wide-spread English. The signs are in Thai and many people do not speak English. Mae Sai is really spread out, a city existing along a three-mile stretch of four-lane super highway with no decipherable city center other than the border area. I will definitely need a motorbike while living here so I can get around. According to the guidebooks, the population of Mae Sai is approximately 21,000. Unofficially, the population is much higher, with many undocumented Burmese migrants living and working here.
I had a tour of the DEPDC last night. It is a large compound that provides many things to this community: accommodation for underprivileged children, free education and English courses to youth ages 5 to 20, a youth leadership program, a local radio station, a 24-hour child help line, vocational training, as well as education into the dangers of human trafficking. It also serves as a community center. There are classrooms, an international department, TV and radio stations, a library, security guards and a large open field for physical activity. The children at DEPDC performed a hip-hop show last night. The boys were ages 9-14, most of them stateless Burmese, all incredibly cute and talented.
It’s difficult to obtain accurate statistics when it comes to prostitution as it is technically illegal yet ubiquitous throughout the country. It seems to run through every fiber of society even down to the smallest village. It’s like a cancer that plagues the region. In Thai culture, the duty of providing for the family falls on the girls – many do what they have to do in order to adhere to their familial obligation. Certainly there is a large number of Thai women who become prostitutes voluntarily. And then there are those who are doing it involuntarily. It’s a highly complex subject. There are many factors involved and there are many who profit from it – border police, immigration officials, touts, traffickers, brokers, brothel managers – making it difficult to combat effectively. Sex is cheap in Thailand and available all over. Local and international demand drives the industry. Where there is money to be made, there are those who will fight to keep the industry alive. Add corruption and bribery to the game and you’ve got a bloody mess. Drug trafficking is a highly profitable market too. But a drug can only be sold once. A human can be sold numerous times, making it incredibly more profitable. Capitalism and globalization play a significant economic part as well. To successfully combat trafficking, we need a world-wide web of individuals doing their part – NGOs working on the grassroots level serving individual communities, an international agency like UNIAP monitoring the global industry, political action from governments, criminal prosecution of human rights violators, and perhaps most importantly, the creation of legal, sustainable, economic opportunities for impoverished and stateless individuals so that they may provide for their families and not be seduced or coerced into exploitative labour.