Friday, May 12, 2006

A Trip to Tong Hong

From the village of Tong Hong the setting sun falls into Shan State. Tong Hong, Thailand - 2000.

The small village of Tong Hong is located on Thailand’s far northwestern frontier with Burma.

A scattering of thatched huts and a few cement buildings are shaded within a bamboo forest resting on the top of a small mountain.

In the evening, the day’s fading light filters through the haze of slash-and-burn agriculture and the sky glows in brilliant shades of golden red.

Looking west, towards the setting sun, a series of mountain ridges shimmer in the golden light and continue rolling west beyond the horizon.

Although it is a tranquil view, the sun is setting over more than a half century of armed rebellion, an ever changing mixture of ethnic/ideological armies, vast poppy fields, heroin and methamphetamine refineries, and a huge population of internally displaced people that have been forced from their homes and are surging against the Thai border.

The sun is setting upon Shan State, Burma and the village of Tong Hong has a front row view of the border's humanitarian crisis.

How small Thai towns and villages like Tong Hong experience border issues and conflict in Shan State might be best understood as either internal or external.

Issues inside the Thai border commonly revolve around the various ethnic minorities or ‘hill tribes’.

Although the majority of them were born and have lived their lives in Thailand they are not officially citizens of the state.

Under a staggered citizenship scheme most peripheral minorities are not classified as actual citizens but classified as residents whose rights and movements are severely curtailed.

The major challenge for residents without the same rights as regular citizens is the cycle of poverty linked to the absence of government provided education and health care.

Even though education or health care are not provided the state further discriminates against minorities by restricting their movement.

If minority groups wish to migrate for economic reasons or to access state funded education and health care they are prohibited from leaving either their districts or provinces.

The residents living along the borderlands have literally been locked out culturally and economically from Thai society.

Common external problems, emanating from Shan State, that border villages experience are refuges fleeing conflict, economic migrants fleeing poverty, and a steady flow of drugs – heroin for the international market and methamphetamines for the Thai market.

(please see previous post for description of conflict and drug production in Shan State: Between Armed Factions,Drug Production,and International Borders).

The combination of internal poverty stricken residents and the external forces of refugees, economic migrates, and drugs has resulted in both a humanitarian crisis and a heavy military/police presence.

Although there is an extremely limited effort to address humanitarian issues the frequency of police patrols and military road blocks gives the impression that the full might of Thai law enforcement agencies have been unleashed upon the borderlands.

In response to humanitarian issues revolving around the international border, the village of Tong Hong has opened a free medical clinic.

The clinic, a small building with a cement floor and a thatched bamboo roof, was opened and run by an ethnic Shan resident named Sai Sam.

Although he is not an official doctor his clinic is often the sole medical centre that minorities and migrants have access to.

Sai Sam’s clinic is operated with an extremely frugal budget supplied by international donors (one of those donors, the group that introduced me to Sai Sam, is a Canadian group called Medical Mercy Canada –

Both internal and external border issues are evident at the clinic.

Each morning a group of 20-30 patients can be seen mingling around waiting for medical assistance.

Migrant workers from Shan State make up the majority of clinic visitors.

Thai employers have a nasty reputation for exploiting migrant labour and, if labourers complain of low or withheld wages, employers are known to call immigration and have those complaining deported.

Due to the precarious legal and economic situation that migrant labourers exist in they have no access to state assistance and no resources to pay for medical assistance when they become ill.

The situation in the surrounding villages is similar to the economic migrants – a lack of medical access or the inability to afford it.

Sai Sam treats many of the ethnic minorities at his clinic but also makes ‘house calls’ to the surrounding villages.

Taking medical care to the various villages is a necessity due to the fact that there is no public transportation and patients often have to walk for an entire day to reach the clinic.

A common ailment for both migrant labourers and the region's minorities is malnutrition.

Although the hills are teeming with orchards and valley floors are partitioned into lush rice paddies basic sustenance is a constant challenge.

Migrant labourers often receive less then half of the legal minimum wage which barely affords them enough to eat.

The situation for minorities is more complicated but a combination of their remote locations, no access to fertilizers, and the 'bleaching' of the soil results in small crop production with limited nutritional value.

Although the bulk of Sai Sam's patients are economic migrants and minorities there are often refugees arriving from the frontline of conflict in Shan State.

The stories of why they have fled often revolve around gross human rights violations by the Burmese army - the Tatmadaw.

The residents of Shan State are often 'recruited' at gun point by the Tatmadaw to act as porters transporting military equipment and supplies.

While transporting supplies the porters are forced to walk in front of the armed columns to act as both human shields and mine sweepers.

Because the of the high likelihood of being killed either in conflict or from physical exhaustion/malnutrition many porters flee to Thailand.

The porters that reach Sai Sam's clinic are often severely malnourished, suffering from untreated injuries, slightly dependent upon opium used to relieve pain and fatigue, and deeply traumatized.

The curious fact of the border region is that the internal and external issues of the region are not actually locally driven issues but issues influenced by politics of countries and distant economies.

Shan State is locked into perpetual conflict because of its resistance to becoming subservient to a large state dominated by ethnic Burmese.

Thailand's minorities are forced to be residents of a large country that is alien to their culture, language, and beliefs yet is also a country that actively discriminates them.

And finally, the drug based economy of Shan State is directly fuelled by the global thirst for illicit drugs.

Although this posting has focused upon one village and how it is influenced by border issues it should be noted that Tong Hong is one of thousands of villages lining Thailand's periphery.

Each one of those villages is intimately linked to the internal and external issues that revolve around borders.

Tong Hong may have a front row view to the humanitarian crises that exists along the border but, unfortunately, so do the thousands of other villages.

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