They have neither the visibility nor the support that these groups attract, and few people are aware of their plight. The forgotten ones are also men and women who refused to be cowed by the Generals, who did whatever they could to reclaim their country’s stolen freedoms, but who are now hunted persistently by soldiers and organized informers.
They are the unnamed heroes, the ones who dared to speak out against the coup plotters, who knelt outside the homes of those too frightened to speak, pleading with them for support. They are the ones who in the early days of the resistance stood boldly in the streets, unarmed, behind feeble and hastily assembled barricades. The ones who faced down scores of brutal, well-equipped soldiers and police, risking their lives to prevent them from occupying wards and villages. But they have been identified and are on the run, hunted to this day by a relentlessly ruthless regime. With no choice but to slip away from their families, friends, homes and possessions—the very lives they once knew—they have disappeared. They are the ones whom few of us know, who hide not in the shadows, but deeper, in the shadows’ recesses. They are the forgotten ones who have been forced to forsake their cause and flee abroad.
These freedom fighters now spend their lives travelling along a twenty-first century version of the Underground Railroad, often alone, constantly on guard, forever watching over their shoulders, trying to stay one step ahead of the junta’s bounty hunters. Initially they move frequently from place to place, hiding in a shed or holed up in a stuffy attic, in search of a trustworthy and sympathetic face, someone caring and daring enough to provide assistance.
Some make it to safety, others are not so fortunate. Many are forced to surrender because their family members are held hostage. Any hopes and dreams they might have had for the future become a forever unfulfilled dream. Concealed in a clandestine Burmese existence, crossing a border into a neighbouring country is their last resort.
They travel in private cars and in buses, hidden within the cargo on the back of a truck, or under a load of straw in a bullock cart, or they walk. They are frequently stopped and searched at military checkpoints, their fake identities scrutinized. They often spend nights in a field or on the jungle floor. Many are too ill to carry on, but afraid to ask for help for fear of encountering a dulan, an informer, or a policeman in civilian clothes. They are continuously weary and continuously vigilant.
For those who succeed in reaching the border of Thailand, the most common country of refuge, what lies beyond is not a land of freedom, but merely an unknown territory with untried contacts or perhaps some former associates. There is only one way to enter this foreign nation, where they cannot understand the language and whose culture is alien, and that is illegally.
On the eastern border of Burma, refugees might stare across the Moei river, a tributary of the mighty and better known Salween, into Thailand. Here, likely somewhere near the Myanmar town of Myawaddy, they must find a ticket agent who will arrange their transit across the river on the Underground Railroad. On the opposite bank, Thai police constantly patrol. Refugees caught illegally entering Thailand face arrest and possible extradition back to Myanmar. Currently, and at this stage of their journey, deportation across the border is not a common occurrence, but coercion and extortion are.
Refugees, once on Thai soil, are frequently seen as a source of revenue by Thai security forces. Thai police will insist that refugees, once caught, must pay a “passage fee,” typically about US$30, but sometimes as high as $100. If unable to pay, they will likely be arrested and detained until someone can be located who will pay the “fine” for their release. Should no one do so, they face the very real threat of extended detention or deportation.
Any hesitation a refugee might feel in crossing the river is tempered by the alternative, which is to return from whence they came and expect to be constantly hunted by Myanmar authorities. If captured, they are almost certain to be beaten, tortured, imprisoned, or forced by soldiers to be porters, human shields, or minesweepers advancing ahead of military assaults on villages. Later, having served their purpose, many a time they will simply be executed, disposable. In light of this stark reality, there is really no choice for those fleeing the Tatmadaw. The only question is how to cross the Moei.
People smugglers at the border need to be familiar with each of the possible crossings points, whose status is always fluid, constantly changing. These agents of misfortune invariably have in their pockets a few border guards who, for a price, will be willing to look away at the time of the crossing. If the smugglers are also able to make arrangements for the safety of their passengers when they arrive on the opposite bank, so much the better—but at extra cost.
Fortunately, such well connected “facilitators” are not difficult to find in Myawaddy, nor across the river in Mae Sot. Some are expats from Burma, others are amenable Thais. Nonetheless, caution must be exercised at all times because not every agent is trustworthy. Some will talk the talk, pocket the client’s money, and never be seen again.
There are two ways to get across the Moei: by road over one of the few bridges in the area, or by water over the river. Crossing a bridge that leads into Thailand, like crossing the water, involves unknown and potentially grave risks. At some of the smaller border posts where there are few, if any, immigration or customs personnel, a smuggler will be able to pay somebody in uniform to ensure the safe passage of his clients. In such cases, most refugees will be able to ride openly as passengers in a vehicle. If not, they might be secreted among a load of goods, such as construction materials bound for Thailand, with the hope that not too much attention will be paid at either end of the bridge.
For water crossings, there are numerous launch and landing sites. Which one will be used on any given day depends largely on the location of the border patrols on either side of the river. Some of the crossings involve a ten-minute walk, some an hours-long trek up steep hillsides and through swampy terrain, and still others might require an overnight in the jungle. Once at the water’s edge, refugees might cross by swimming, in a small boat or raft, or on a large inflated inner tube. During the dry season, certain stretches of the river can be forded by wading. Whichever route is chosen, there are never any guarantees.
Having successfully crossed by road or by water, a refugee is faced with the question of what to do next. Wherever they end up, Burmese refugees in Thailand quickly understand that they are not viewed as such by the Thai government and, generally, are not welcome. Rather, they are received as unwanted visitors in a country that grudgingly tolerates them. The best they can hope for is to be ignored. This is not the freedom they seek; it’s only the next station on the Underground Railroad. Having crossed the border they are again forced into the shadows, into a life of safe houses or camps, which are merely another form of house arrest, for to wander outside is to risk being detained as an illegal alien.