Mae Sot’s Sudden Role Reversal

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 11 May 2012

The northern Thailand border town of Mae Sot has spent the past two decades serving as a receiving post for Burmese exiles, but now it appears to have flipped to being a departure point for those flocking home—although perhaps not for everyone.

During many previous visits to Mae Sot over the past decade, the first question I used to ask my contacts and friends was always, “Who has recently arrived here?” And then they would roll off a huge list of fresh faces in town.

These new arrivals were usually comprised of Burmese activists, former political prisoners, dissident monks, writers and sometimes even ex-military officials who recently fled possible arrest or persecution at home.

I never had enough time to meet all those new arrivals. However, times have changed in Mae Sot.

Upon my return last week, my first question suddenly became, “Who left Mae Sot to return to their homes in Burma?”

Although the number of those who have gone back was quite insignificant—perhaps a dozen or two Burmese activists who had lived the area or nearby refugee camps for years—and some who had left were only doing so temporarily, Mae Sot seems to have shed its image as a “receiving town” and donned a new guise of “departing town.”

After 1988, when the military regime crushed the democracy movement across Burma, thousands of students and activists fled their homes and traveled to the Thai-Burmese border. Since then, Mae Sot has gradually become a hotspot for activists, refugees, members of armed rebel groups as well as thousands of Burmese migrant workers.

The town harbored dozens of dissident offices in the 2000s when I would often visit, but later the number dropped after many activists and their families resettled in Western countries as refugees.

Earlier this year, I received phone calls from a couple of friends who were former political prisoners and fled to Mae Sot after the 2007 Saffron Revolution. They said that they were going home.

One of them planned to leave his family behind in Thailand until the political situation inside Burma could guarantee their safety.

In his early 50s, he believed that returning would not be risky and he would be able to work openly with his political colleagues unlike in the past when their activities had to be clandestine. So far, I have not heard any bad news from either of them.

Over dinner in Mae Sot, one of my friends told me, “These days, I feel like we have less friends here even though only a few have gone back to Burma. Mae Sot seems to be drying up. Most people are asking each other ‘when are you going back?’”

Recent political changes inside Burma have encouraged those in Mae Sot to return home. So far, there are no reports of these people having to face any criminal charges. Many apparently went back after informing the local authorities.

But whether to return to Burma is still a topic of hot debate amongst the dissident community—not only in Mae Sot and elsewhere in Thailand but also in Burmese exile communities across the world.

The basic argument is that political reforms inside Burma have not yet materialized in the majority of sectors. Campaign groups have said that there are many other serious issues that President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government should have addressed since he took office in March 2011.

Their arguments concerning the thorny issues of political prisoners, conflicts with ethnic groups and human rights abuses are valid. There are a number of prisoners of conscience still being detained despite the Naypyidaw administration releasing hundreds of activists over the last year. And government troops continue to battle the ethnic Kachin Independence Army in northernmost Burma, which has forced tens of thousands of civilians to become war refugees by the Sino-Burmese border.

Thein Sein may have invited dissidents to return home during a speech made to an economic forum last year, but his government has yet to announce a general amnesty for the many thousands who make up the Burmese diaspora across the world. And for that to be possible, the government will need to announce a formal procedure on how to welcome back exiles.

I discovered from my various conversations with dissidents, teachers and journalists in Mae Sot that many of them share one common viewpoint—they want to go home with pride. One of them, Hla Phu, has lived in Mae Sot for 40 years.

“I want to go back with dignity. It isn’t finished yet,” said the political activist in his mid 80s. “I am not thinking about going back home at the moment.”

In 1972, Hla Phu came to the Thai-Burmese border to become a member of the Parliamentary Democracy Party—formed by Burma’s first premier U Nu to stand up against Ne Win’s military dictatorship. Since then he became one of the first Burmese inhabitants of Mae Sot.

Many dissidents in the area share his views, but may change their minds if Thein Sein’s government continues to carry out more concrete reforms inside the country.

Yet it is not easy for Mae Sot residents to resettle back in their home country after spending so many years integrating into this exiled society. For Hla Phu, he has nothing back in Burma—no relatives, no friends, no home, no way to make a living.

Without doubt, Mae Sot will continue to be a little bit of Burma even if these dissident groups are no longer based in the town. There are around 200,000 Burmese currently residing in the vicinity and most are migrant workers. It is more difficult for them to find jobs back in Burma than make a living in booming Thailand.

So while Mae Sot will undoubtedly continue to have a Burmese flavor for years to come, it will be a measure of Thein Sein’s reformist policies if the trickle of exiles returning across the border becomes a steady flow.