Neda and I visited Mae Sot last week. It’s a border town 7km from the Burmese border with a mixture of Thai, Burmese, and ethnic hill tribe peoples (many of whom come from Burma). This leads to a wonderful cultural mix with a diverse array of clothing (many men wear the Burmese longyis, or sarongs), crafts, languages, and food. But unfortunately, there is a dark side to the diversity. Outside of Mae Sot are 3 large refugee camps serving as home for over 100,000 displaced Burmese. They have fled the despotic military junta that currently reigns over Burma. We had the opportunity to volunteer at one of the migrant schools set up to educate the child refugees living in the area. The school, named Agape, is like other migrant schools in that it receives no funding from the Thai government, relying only upon international aid and donations to function.
The stories we heard about the children living there need to be heard by more people, which is why we are writing this post. Some families in Burma can’t leave but want to send their children to Thailand so that they can have a better life. To be smuggled across the border they have to pay a “transporter”the equivalent of about $90. Of course they don’t have that kind of money so they are told the children can pay back the transporter when they arrive to work in Thailand. Once the kids are smuggled across, they are thrown into sweat shop factories run by local Thais and forced to work for years to pay off their debt. Or they are shipped around Southeast Asia and forced to work as sex slaves. One volunteer told us the heartbreaking story of a 9 year old Burmese girl who had been trafficked into Malaysia. They had to stop her from teaching the other kids the Malaysian she had learned because it was all related to explicitly sexual acts. She didn’t even know what she was saying.
Mae Sot is awash in begging children. David, the founder of Agape School, told us that many of these kids are being forced to beg by their parents. Sometimes the parents live in Thailand after having crossed the border and sometimes the kids cross the dangerous river border and come across to beg, or as is more often the case, act as drug mules. The kids are less hassled by police and as such are now the most common drug dealers to be found in the streets of Mae Sot. It certainly gave me some perspective about “being put in the middle” to hear the stories of these children who are used only as tools by their parents or others.
It’s the height of injustice that the most innocent in our society are those most often caught in the middle between people’s greed and delusion. The cynic can focus on all the suffering present in the place, though the optimist can point to people like David, who founded the Agape school with nothing but grit and determination. You can read a bit about his story by clicking here and see their facebook page, set up by a volunteer we befriended, here. In the end, as with all suffering, the first step we can take is to bring awareness to it. Suffering feeds on ignorance and distraction – the more light of awareness we can bring to the children of Mae Sot, the more the momentum for change will grow.