Saturday, November 3, 2007

Live-blogging the crisis from the Burma border

It's 20:30 in Thailand (20:00 in Burma)

Today I traveled through some of Thailand's last remaining old-growth rainforest, passing craggy hilltops; jungles thick with vines, bamboo groves, a few palms and banana plants. I was approaching a border town on Thailand's wild west; it's frontier with Burma.

Well inside Thai territory, our vehicle passed a Thai immigration road check. I believe the official was on the look out for undocumented Burmese; Burmese souls on their way back home from a sojourn of employment in Thailand. If any were on our bus, they might be loaded with cash to take to their impoverished relatives across the border. Easy prey. After a quick inspection the guard let us through. I suppose none of us looked Burmese.

I got settled into a hotel room. In the late afternoon I took a tuk-tuk along the six lane highway -- largely devoid of traffic -- that leads to Burma. The Thailand border checkpoint is at one end of a long bridge. I saw that you could walk along side the bridge right up to the river that formed the border between Thailand and Myanmar. That's what I did.

Standing under the bridge on the riverbank, I looked across the river into Burma -- a stone's throw away. I was about to head up the shore when a Burmese man with bad teeth approached me.

"Don't go that way by yourself. There may be some thieves over there."

Frank (not his real name) explained that just around the bend in the river where I was headed, the Thai soldiers would no longer be able to keep an eye on me. Frank suggested I could get robbed by one of his desperate countrymen lurking in the reeds. Frank proposed escorting me a short ways up the river. In his company, he assured me that I would be safe. A suspicious looking Indian man sat on a bench nearby, watching us. It didn't sound like a bad idea.

But I was not sure how much I should trust Frank. Maybe there were no thieves; perhaps Frank was just looking for an excuse to make me feel dependent on a guide. Or more ominously, maybe this was a set-up? Perhaps Frank was leading me into some kind of trap. The sun had almost set.

Frank made it clear he expected to get paid something for serving as my guide. This actually had the effect of putting me at ease; it almost seemed to rule out my biggest fear. And Frank seemed to have a lot he wanted to say.

"You are very lucky you met me here," Frank said. "Here's my Myanmar identity card." he added. "Do you want to take a picture of it?"

Frank would later indicate that possession of the small green card gave him special privileges. For one thing, he was free to cross the bridge and spend the day in Thailand. Frank put his thumb over the name -- but not his photo. And I obliged.

The Indian man walked past us.

Frank spoke quickly, he mentioned how rotten his government was; he proceeded to point out some Burmese commuters. On the other riverbank, four young men were boarding a truck inner-tube. They pushed it into the river and then they piled in. Paddling with their hands the river carried them straight towards us. We watched them disembark on the sandy bank directly below where we stood.

"In total, they pay one thousand to get across, half goes in the pockets of the Burma soldier." It was clear from Franks tone of voice that Frank didn't like Burmese soldiers. But the Thai soldiers were an entirely different matter. A group of Thai soldiers stood under the bridge beside two jeeps. On top of one of one vehicle was mounted a heavy-duty machine gun.

"Those guys know me," he said.


Update: Check out my video, Gamblers! Thieves! Robbers! posted at It's related to the above account.

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