In Thailand’s north-western town of Mae Hong Son, I am waiting in a safehouse to be transported to a camp for teaching English to ethnic minority Shan people in Burma, on the Thai-Burma border. Soon, I will be crossing illegally into an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Loi Tailang.
Around the time I agreed to cross the border and undertake a task of teaching English at one of the schools, the Thai Prime Minister of the day, Samak Sundaravej, was in Rangoon, meeting leaders of Burma’s State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) as part of an effort to develop closer relations between Thailand and Burma on all accounts except for humanitarian matters and pushing the issue of improving human rights. All effective border crossings were closed.
For months, I had been following the course taken by Shan human rights activist and author Antonio Graceffo, who was in Loi Tailang documenting human rights abuses against the residents of Shan State by the Burmese military junta, the SPDC. Graceffo is a man who has dedicated much of his time and energy to raise awareness of the gradual destruction of the Shan people while the international community looks away.
Loi Tailang is located in the mountains of Shan State on the Burma-Thai border. It is the site of an IDP camp for ethnic minorities who are residents of Shan State. Following Burma gaining its independence from Britain in 1948, the Panglong Agreement saw the Shan protectorates (separate principalities under British rule) become Shan State, and along with other ethnic minority groups in their respective states, agree to the right to secede from Burma after 10 years.
However, with the arrest of the last Shan Sao Pha by the Burmese military and his subsequent disappearance, Burmese General Ne Win’s coup d’etat in 1964 meant the end of the Panglong Agreement and established military domination in Shan State. Despite a sustained campaign of resistance by the Shan State Army, including a call for independence by its government-in-exile (one that was opposed by ethnic Shan living elsewhere in Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party), the Burmese military continue to brutally suppress all ethnic minorities living in Shan State.
According to Andrew Marshall’s book “The Trouser People” going to Burma and going into Burma are two different concepts, and this is something I need to get right. Going toBurma, according to the author, implies being a tourist, oblivious to the harsh realities of tragedy that is inevitably a part of war. Going into Burma indicates entering borders with a mission to achieve a specific goal such as delivering medical assistance, teaching or reporting on the conflict. By Marshall’s own definition, I have used the latter explanation to qualify my reasons for undertaking a risk to enter Loi Tailang village.
My travel escorts arrive in the form of two motorcyclists. One will carry two backpacks that I am taking, and the other will carry me. Between now and whatever time I land at my destination, my safety and well-being is in their hands.
For what feels like hours, we travel through a number of hills and small villages in Thailand. Then suddenly in the distance, I spot an unmanned checkpoint up ahead signifying an exit from Thailand heading towards to Shan State, Burma. My stomach ties in knots as I realize that I am entering a land that time, and sadly, the world at large, has forgotten about.
There are no border patrols up here and apart from overtaking a disused, burnt out oil tanker and several convoys of oxen straying everywhere, the road is deserted. I can hear gunfire from beyond the hills, but I cannot establish whether it is a military training exercise or actual shelling across the Thai-Burma border between the two armies. It is here that I begin to come to terms with the fact that I am actually in Burma, a country that rules its people by pointing a gun at their heads.
The motorcyclists take an unorthodox route through forests and farms full of laborers bearing machetes used for cutting trees and slashing grass. Occasionally, I am required to hop off the motorcycle and walk through some very difficult terrain, predominately forests and steep winding mountains. We constantly avoid Thai soldiers patrolling the area. I rely on a system of catcalls and whistles to communicate with my guides and local farmers serving as lookouts.
Occasionally, I am told to walk further ahead; something that petrifies me because I think of the possibility there might be landmines. Being my first time in the region, how was I to know what areas can be considered safe? Everywhere I step, the thought of unexploded landmines terrifies me, and I step as lightly as possible.
As the night closes in, I dread being asked to let the riders take their bikes up the hills, switching on their lights to ride over inhospitable ground in the pitch-black darkness. The moment they are out of sight, thoughts enter my head about being left alone with only the clothing on my back and something going horribly wrong.
The final hour of the journey causes the most anxious moments, for I sit with my eyes shut remaining perfectly still. On more than one occasion I fear the possibility of a head-on collision as we go around the mountainside, with nothing to break a fall of hundreds of meters rolling down the face of the mountain. I would later refer to this stretch as “the catwalk” because the path was so narrow.
Then my heart skips a few beats as I hear the sound of a few motorcycles in the distance and sense some individuals in military uniform passing by. This is the end, I think to myself. Thankfully, I am incorrect.
After 4 hours of travelling, I finally cross the border into Shan State at 7:20 pm local time. Immediately after passing the checkpoint, I hop off the motorcycle and simply stare through the gates to Loi Tailang. I feel tiny and insignificant as I gaze upon the Shan State coat of arms. Two flags are directly above me; one the Shan flag of three vertical stripes of yellow, green and red with a white sun, and the other the Shan State Army flag of double crossed swords on a red flag with the army emblem.
Although the arrival is somewhat unceremonious, I can feel adrenalin rushing through me and I express a massive sigh of relief as the dusty old bike splutters down a rocky hill and heads into what I perceive to be the main street, where the villagers live.
On my first day of teaching, I collect my village attire and discover that my uniform is unlike anything I had ever possessed; a bright new Shan State Army soldiers’ uniform, consisting of an olive green hat with a triangular yellow, green and red embroidering on the front (the colors of the Shan State flag), and a matching set of dark green shirt and pants. The school director and male student dormitory owner, Kyawn Myi, tells me that if I wear the military uniform, I will have good luck for the period of my stay.
The Thai border post is approximately 500 meters from the kindergarten where I will teach, and although by my own estimations there is a low likelihood of being spotted, who would not be willing to undertake every precaution?