LET me tell you about Mae Sot.
It is a Thai-Burma frontier town and full of spies.
Just a few kilometres away is a bridge known in English as the Thai-Burma Friendship Bridge.
Via that bridge commerce is facilitated.
It breaches the Moei River.
Some people walk across that bridge with slivers of Burma’s incredible natural resources and make their fortunes.
Others walk across that bridge with a pig on their back, or some chickens in dome bamboo cages with their faces painted in circles of clay and make virtually nothing.
It is a bridge of inequity.
There is a blasé attitude to humanity as it tramps its way back and forth carrying things to be bought and sold.
At one side of the border it is all Thai pop music, pickup trucks and sellers of Burmese timber.
On the other it is predators, rickshaws, people bought and sold and billboards warning of the dangers of AIDS and shortly thereafter, jungle.
On one side of the bridge there is a substantial cluster of Thai businesses selling Burmese commodities – everything from fine timber furniture to gems and horrible pirate cigarettes whose packets are perfect but the contents make you gag in the mornings.
On the other side there is Myawaddy, a Burmese town that has lived under curfew for decades.
If a foreigner wants to go to Myawaddy they are limited to one day.
The bridge opens early in the morning and closes at six in the afternoon.
If you want to visit you must surrender your passport at the immigration post at the Burmese end of the bridge. It used to be bamboo, but they’ve upgraded to brick.
You are then free to walk around town, spend money and are mostly watched by spies.
If you don’t turn up at the checkpoint by six o’clock there will be a manhunt.
Back on the other side of the border, in Mae Sot, poor gem traders spread their wares on crinkled pages of Thai broadsheets from days past and sit on the footpath trying to sell them, but only in the dry season.
In the streets of Mae Sot gems are another currency, a hedge against the Burmese Kyat and its utter instability, as is gold.
At Aiya, a restaurant on Intharakee Road in Mae Sot, Myat Thu, an ethnic Burmese exile of the 1988 student revolution speaks to me about his experience.
Aiya is staffed by ’88 students who fled for their lives after their protests were violently put down by Burmese soldiers.
They remain dissidents to this day and their hearts long for home.
You get the sense Myat Thu is just biding time until the SPDC becomes a footnote of history.
He is a born politician and speaks with a passion unknown in the West.
He was present at the birth of the All Burma Students Democratic Front, a military force that eventually became armed and trained under the tutelage of the Karen National Liberation Army. The ABSDF didn’t undertake missions of their own, they shadowed the KNLA.
Myat Thu fought with the ABSDF alongside KNLA troops in Karen State.
At the time of our interview, early July 2008, there were rumours of an impending uprising slated for August 8, the 20th anniversary of the protests that saw Myat Thu take his first steps towards an eventual life of exile in Thailand.
Pamphlets were earlier this year being distributed inside Burma appealing to SPDC soldiers to respect their families and stay in their barracks on that day.
Myat Thu said believed any uprising was unlikely to spread through the ranks of the SPDC to any great extent.
‘You see any Burmese who joins the army, they have families they must leave behind and that makes it very difficult to believe that any uprising would be significant, it makes it very difficult for soldiers to deny their orders [when their families are left vulnerable].
‘That’s a problem, in fact that’s the main problem, money really doesn’t matter at this point in time.
‘For us, the students of ’88, we asked for a change because we found out there was injustice and then we requested, and later demanded, justice.’
I pushed him on these persistent rumours of an impending uprising.
He said he really doubted any such appeal to the armed forces would have any effect.
‘You see the problem is, in ’88, we requested, have particularly three times, that the army return to barracks.
‘We were on the streets, we appealed to the “the people’s soldiers, the people’s army, our army” and then they gave us bullets.
‘That was the first time, then the second time around, in 93, they brought a lot of bad people to make trouble for the NLD, including the leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
‘I imagine people might try to appeal to the army, but it won’t work.
‘Look again, just in September [2007, the Saffron Revolution]], the monks were on the streets appealing to the soldiers not to do this [quash the protests].
‘So when you say “army” I say to you “I don’t trust them”.’
‘But there is one thing, it is there we need a spark.
‘It is a good thing to do [any protest, particularly one marking an anniversary of the 88 protests], to organise people.
‘Actually a lot of people, even in the army, especially in the classrooms, they know [the regime must fall], but they are waiting for the time.’
I told Myat Thu that a senior KNLA commander had recently laughed and told me that the SPDC troops really didn’t have it any better than them, their living conditions were just as bad if not worse.
‘Well that’s true you know, and once somebody joins the army they have no way out.
‘They join the army and there are conditions, say that person has to find more soldiers for the army before he can leave, to get permission to leave the army.
‘That’s why some people are trying to cheat civilians into joining the army.
‘There are a lot of people with proof of this.’
I told him I had once interviewed two teenagers who had defected from the SPDC, one of whom had been snatched off the streets when he was 12 and I asked him how, as a Burmese citizen, he felt about that.
‘You know some of those boys when they are trained, the guns are bigger than them,’ he said glumly.
‘The worst thing is, they increase their age so they can join the army.
‘I have one person here who fled the army after Nargis and he has the papers, he can prove it, how he was cheated into the army, I know already about this situation.
‘So they’re just trying to avoid the accusations of the outside world.’
I asked Myat Thu whether insurrection from within the army’s own ranks would be necessary for change to occur in Burma.
‘Look I personally believe the army will never change.
‘There’s not enough will, we have been hoping for 20 years that one day the army will change and it hasn’t, I mean look back on the evidence, we can say milestones, and I realise everything, that the army will not change by themselves.
‘I know one thing – we must fight, all the people must fight. If there is no fight, then no [nothing will change].
‘All of the people are responsible for fighting now – I’m talking as an ’88 generation, the only way is to fight.
‘We can’t hope for anything now, we have to hope only for the people, we have to trust the people.
‘We have to bring the people to the front – people power, that is the only way to fight such military regimes.
‘When you talk about Burma you are talking about the people who live inside Burma’s borders. There are 106 ethnicities living in Burma, including Burman.
‘But when we say “the army” there are so many different ethnicities in the army, we must be careful not to only say Burman.’
Questioned as to whether the SPDC concentrated particular ethnicities in their own regions for linguistic advantage, he said: ‘They only use the army they trust for the particular operation they want.
‘So in 88 they brought a different army to Rangoon to put down the protests.
‘And then that army didn’t work, so then they brought Light Infantry Regiment 22 to make trouble among the protestors.
‘They went around saying that the people on the streets were all communists, this had happened not only in Burma, but in so many countries, but it happened again to Burma.’
He said it was basically a process of importing soldiers to particular regions of the country for a particular job, ‘you know because they don’t dare send their Karen soldiers into Karen State’.
Under that assumption I asked him about the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, an ally of the SPDC, and where they fitted into the greater scheme of things.
‘I think they know, I think they know very well [that they are being used]. They own their lives now and they have to make a decision, I think they know very well about the situation. They also suffer.’
I asked Myat Thu how change could be effectively forced in Burma and he said ‘for me, it can be today or tomorrow as long as we [the Burmese and the ethnic minorities] start working together, but the thing we need first is trust.
‘Trust, this is very important, and the people’s belief.
‘The most important thing is the students, because the students are always right.
‘[If] the opposition here doesn’t trust the students, then we won’t win.
‘The students are the bridge.’
I mentioned to him that, in recent conversation with a KNLA soldier, he had lamented the fact that many of the KNU leaders were old and not educated, while many of the KNLA soldiers who were taking up guns against the SPDC were young and had been educated. He had mentioned a form of lethargy he perceived to have crept into the leadership while the young men were fighting and trying to make a difference in everyday people’s lives.
‘Well I think the situation has forced the students to pick up guns, I don’t think there’s any way anyone really wants to kill anyone else.’
He said the philosophy behind students taking up arms was to defeat the notion in the ruling generals’ heads that they could militarise the whole nation.
‘That will lead to war in the future, and that won’t leave a good seat for the generation to come. That’s why the students who could mostly stay at home, just study at school and they would be fine, but they choose to fight for the people.
‘Everyone should know this, no one likes to stay away from home for 20 years.
‘The most important thing is trust, when people are thinking about movement they should bring at least one student for every area.
‘And you know that student could find a way for all of them.
‘And then they all need to set up a real country, peacefully, together, no more fighting, no more.
‘Everyone is tired of fighting.’
Myat Thu said the most critical issue facing his country at this time was getting rid of the SPDC.
‘Then we can all come together and discuss things, everyone knows about democracy, everyone knows about human rights.
‘But I will tell you one very important thing: I left home from the front door, I’m not going back through the back door, I’ll wait as long as it takes, but I am sure I will see my people happy.’
Dan’s book will be published by Maverick House, an Irish publisher of non-fiction. The book’s title is Secret Genocide, The Karen of Burma.
Daniel Pedersen in Mae Sot. An extract from Dan’s soon to be published book, Secret Genocide
‘You see the problem is, in ’88, we requested, have particularly three times, that the army return to barracks. ‘We were on the streets, we appealed to the “the people’s soldiers, the people’s army, our army” and then they gave us bullets.