Co Co Mawn

August 22, 2008

A few days ago, I talked with a 52-year-old former slave called Co Co Mawn. About twelve years ago he escaped to Mae Sot. He has decided not to live in a refugee camp, and today helps to organize migrants. The interview was emotional. It was sometimes hard to understand Co Co’s high spirits for Burma and Mae Sot considering the terrible things he has experienced. When he was a teenager, his village was razed to the ground, his livestock shot. Co Co was taken away to be a porter when he was 17. For three and a half years, he hauled ammunition and supplies without any pay. He said, “I outlived everyone and had to watch my friends die one by one.” He explained that Burmese soldiers are afraid to leave sick porters behind because they could give away information to enemies. (Many of the ethnic groups, including the Karen, have been fighting the Burmese junta for decades. Some have signed armistices, but tension still runs high and war could return any day). Co Co’s best friend was too sick to walk so one soldier stood on his neck until he stopped breathing. “Because all of the porters were desperate to escape at night the Burmese chained us up like animals—they tied heavy ropes around our necks and sometimes hung them from a tree so we had to sleep standing.”

Co Co explained that while his experiences inside Burma were beyond frightening, many migrants in Mae Sot are also victims of violence and oppression. Work here is “Difficult, Dirty, & Dangerous.” Migrants are threatened, beaten, and killed for trying to organize. Last week, a 24-year-old worker was hit so hardly with a pipe that he is now blind. “What is different here in Mae Sot [vs Burma], is that laws are actually fair. The problem is corruption, implementation. But if workers remain united, they can accomplish anything.”


House of Garbage

August 22, 2008

Many of the people living with me in my guest house in Mae Sot are here long term and have dedicated their lives to helping Burmese migrants. A few are working day and night to correct one of the most unjust and heinous situations here: Approximately 200 illegal migrants, including many children, live in or near the Mae Sot dump, which, according to The Irrawaddy, “provides many with their only source of income, especially in the summer months, when there are few other jobs available.” I was unable to visit the dump, but am in complete solidarity with my fellow activists and scholars working on this project. The following Irrawaddy article, by Violent Cho, gives an overview of the situation and also documents an explostion at dump in late February 2008.

Bomb at Mae Sot Dump Injures 14 Burmese Migrants

Around fourteen Burmese migrants, including three children, were injured this morning by a bomb blast at a garbage dump located about 2 km from the Thai-Burmese border town of Mae Sot, according to witnesses.

A teacher at Sky Blue, a school for migrant children who live in the area around the massive rubbish dump, told The Irrawaddy that the bomb went off early this morning, shortly after a truck deposited a load of garbage.

Local Thai police have begun an investigation into the incident, and victims of the blast have been taken to Mae Sot General Hospital for treatment, the teacher added.

Among those hospitalized were two men and an eight-year-old child who sustained serious face, neck and chest injuries, according to a medical worker from the Mae Tao Clinic for Burmese migrants. The injured were all people living near the dump, where many migrants sift through the town’s waste to find recyclable materials they can sell.

According to a Burmese journalist in Mae Sot, migrants who make their living off the dump have expressed shock at the incident, which has raised concerns about their security.

Meanwhile, local Thai authorities and police say they are looking for the truck which they believe was used to plant the bomb, she added.

Around 200 illegal migrant workers and their families live near the dump, which provides many with their only source of income, especially in the summer months, when there are few other jobs available.

The dump, which is located on the outskirts of Mae Sot, is the size of several football fields.  The whole area is covered with plastic bags, bottles and rotting waste which fills the air with a powerful stench

Thousands of Burmese migrants live in or around Mae Sot, which lies opposite the Burmese border town of Myawaddy. Those living near the dump are among the most desperately poor.

Living conditions are worsened by fears of harassment and arrest by the police, and by a lack of educational opportunities for children.

In late 2006, a primary school was built with the assistance of the Burmese Migrant Workers Education Committee, based in Mae Sot. But some children are still unable to study due to economic pressures which force them to continue working to contribute to their families’ meager incomes.


August 18, 2008

On Saturday, I had my best meeting yet with the director of the Joint Action Committee on Burmese Affairs (JACBA), Moe Kyo. As one the best known Burmese democracy activists and one of Suu Kyi’s closest allies and friends, he was extremely vocal against Generals Ne Win and Than Shwe and the military junta throughout the 1980s and 90s. Ultimately, Moe Kyo was captured for his activities and imprisoned for 14 years. Today, now a free man, he dedicates his time to Burmese migrants working and living in Mae Sot.

I arranged to meet Moe Kyo at the 7-Eleven in town at 8:30 in the morning. He arrived on his bicycle wearing a hot pick t-shirt and a pair khakis (he eventually changed for some unknown reason!) I shook his hand warmly and thanked him. Speaking very little English, Moe Kyo smiled gratefully and told me follow him towards the JACBA safe house. It was about a five minute ride away, near many of the garment factories. The house was full of Burmese migrant workers, mostly teenagers. They all were in a dispute with management at their factories and needed a place to stay. The two-story safe house was quite small, probably only 700 square feet. Instead of chairs or furniture, the floors were lined with straw mats and a few pillows. The house had one bathroom, no hot water, a small library, one computer, and a three bedrooms.

We began our interview right away (with Li, an interpreter, some workers, and other staffers). I couldn’t possibly describe everything that I was told. I haven’t even had the time to go back through all of my notes. The best nugget of information that Moe Kyo shared with me was about arbitration. My initial plans did not include research on arbitration but, as I am discovering, field research exposes unexpected, interesting things! In short, Buddhist monks are actually becoming involved in migrant worker disputes in Mae Sot. They are allowing workers to use the monasteries for meetings, training, and temporary shelter. In some cases, the more prominent, elder monks are acting as arbitrators between workers and management. This is an important find. I will hopefully be able to get an interview at a monastery sometime tomorrow or Wednesday.

After our interview, I was invited to stay for Burmese-style lunch. I must admit, I wasn’t a fan of everything. The Burmese, like the Thai, use some spices and flavorings unfriendly to the average American tongue. During lunch, I was able to interact more directly with many of the workers. One 19-year-old boy recently severed two of his figures off when working in a local steel mill. Factories in Mae Sot provide virtually no safety training to its workers, provide very little safety gear, and do not post signs to warn workers of danger. His story, like so many I heard that day, was upsetting and disturbing. I left JACBA overwhelmed and with mixed feelings. It would take me the rest of the weekend to process everything I had learned that day.

Meeting at JACBA

Meeting at JACBA

The Labor Law Clinic

August 15, 2008

I have been spending quite a bit of my time at the Labor Law Clinic (LLC) here in Mae Sot. The LLC was established in late 2005 by the Human Rights and Development Foundation. It is funded entirely by the AFL-CIO Labor Solidarity Center. Below I have listed the LLC’s objectives, as stated in their brochure:


In cooperation with government agencies and private sectors to promote and protect the human rights of labor, to increase the standard of human rights of migrant workers in Mae Sot and surround areas, to provide legal aid and to provide knowledge and understanding on labor law and human rights to migrant workers.

Even though the LLC has been in existence for less than three years, its staffers have extensive knowledge about the area and Burmese migrants. They also have been able to introduce me to several garment workers. Fortunately, the LLC also has a large database documenting over one-thousand cases. Unfortunately, the database is in Thai. I have been working with a translator to try and pull out all of the information that I need. It’s been difficult and frustrating at times, but I think we will be successful in the end.

One of my objectives here in Mae Sot is to distinguish and analyze the factors which make a successful versus an unsuccessful organizing effort. Through my interviews and database research at the LLC, several factors are coming into play.

(1) Age and gender: The average age of a garment worker in Mae Sot is about 21 to 23. Most workers are also female. Some factories employ much younger girls, sometimes as young as 14. By employing a younger, more passive workforce, employers discourage organizing. Successful campaigns are led by organizers in their mid to late 20s with no dependents.

(2) Number of workers involved: In campaigns involving only a small percentage of the total workforce, employers are more willing to compromise. Large-scale (and often public) campaigns are more difficult to win.

(3) Size of the offense: Larger offenses (for example, not being paid for 2 months) have more leverage and are easier to win.

(4) Type of factory: It is easier to organize workers in Thai-owned factories. Chinese and Taiwanese-owned factories are described as very “authoritarian” by workers.

I also have been researching both present and more emergent organizing challenges including the influx of migrants into Mae Sot as a result of Cyclone Nargis. Interesting, interesting stuff.

Additionally, I have been working closely with the Federation of Trade Unions—Burma (FTUB). I’ll discuss my work with them in a later post.


August 14, 2008

Twenty years ago, millions of Burmese took to the streets to defy the dictatorial government led by Gen Ne Win. The uprising is known as the four 8s, or 8.8.88, because student activists called for a nationwide uprising on August 8, 1988. Thousands were killed on that day, including monks and students.

I was here in Mae Sot on the 8th, the event’s twentieth anniversary.  And it was surprisingly quite. I spent the evening in a Burmese restaurant, Aiya, with a few other expats listening to some live, “peace” music. Aiya’s owners and staff are former political prisoners and students from the 8.8.88 uprising.

Aiya is a special, funky place. Its bamboo walls are plastered with artwork, photographs, and posters of Aung San Suu Kyi, the only imprisoned Nobel Peace Price Recipient and “Burma’s Nelson Mandela.” She is joined by paintings of Burmese monks and temples as well as colorful photos of Che Guevara, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Mahatma Gandhi. The back corner is lined with bookshelves, filled with literature about democracy, Burma, migrants, and social movements. Days later, when trying to access the Internet, I learned that Aiya’s wireless password is victory07, a melancholy reminder of the initial excitement behind September’s Saffron Revolution and its ultimate failure. September’s failure, coupled with the devastating effects of Cyclone Nargis, has drained the Burmese. According to a friend of mine, only about 150 people participated in the 8.8.88 demonstration in Bangkok. Some say the movement needs time to re-energize and re-fuel and is looking now towards a 2010 victory. I hope they are right.

Also, watch the youtube video posted below. It’s quite powerful.

Karen Wrist-tying Festival

August 13, 2008

I have been in Mae Sot for several days now. I will be writing about my findings and experiences in the next day or so. Sorry for the delay. Until then, enjoy some photos from the annual Karen Wrist-tying Festival.

Rooted in ancestral beliefs in spirits, the ceremony began at about 8:00 in the morning and was held at Watpa Kao, a Buddhist monastery, on the outskirts of town. Most of those in attendance were Karen migrant workers from Burma.

Traditionally the festival takes place at the time of the August full moon, when the Karen tie white threads around the wrists to ward off illness and to contribute to the continuation of Karen culture. The yearly ritual gives Karen elders the chance to pass on the Karen language, customs and traditions to the youth. This year the festival was held early on a Thai national holiday so that factory workers could come and enjoy the event.

I was one of the only farangs, or white people, at the festival. I went alone as my translator friend, Min Lwin, couldn’t come. At first, I felt a bit disoriented and out of place. When the wrist-tying began, however, I was fully accepted into the community. Everyone wanted to tie a thread around my wrist. It was a simple, nonverbal way of saying “Welcome.”

In addition to wrist-tying, dozens of groups and individuals performed traditional and modern Karen songs and dances. The Karen youth absolutely love Linkin Park and American rock bands (as well as American fashion…skinny jeans and sunglasses included). Many play guitar and performed their own rock and rap songs on stage to thousands of onlookers.

I spent several hours at the festival, talking to migrants the best I could. I also was able to join them for a simple rice, cabbage, and pork lunch provided by the monastery.

Overall, the festival was an important, powerful experience. I was glad to see the Karen enjoying themselves on their day off from work.

Bus Ride to the Border

August 10, 2008

My cab ride to the bus terminal was overwhelming. Bangkok during rush hour is like nothing else I have experienced. Thai police, dressed handsomely in their black and red uniforms, literally stand at all major intersections and on all highway ramps and junctions directing traffic. Public buses, trucks, and tuk-tuks spill black pollution all over the road. The trip, a mere four or five kilometers, took two hours.

When I arrived at the massive three-story terminal, I bought my ticket to Mae Sot for 450 baht. About 13 US dollars. The inside of the terminal was a mix of new and old. Hundreds of yellow chairs, probably installed 20 years ago, were fastened to the tile floor. Flat screen televisions hung from the ceiling, playing Thai pop music videos. People were everywhere and dime-sized cockroaches were a common find.

The cafeteria offered a variety of eating options: Stir-fried meats and vegetables, soups, hot tofu, fried fish, and baked goods. Also available: KFC served with french fries. Fried chicken is a very popular dish in Thailand and KFC in Bangkok is about as common as McDonald’s in the States. I quickly ate a bowl of some fried tofu and mixed vegetables with a liberal helping of Beer Chang and then made my way over to platform 118.

The overnight bus ride was bearable yet unnerving. Mae Sot is reached by long scenic roads which twist and turn through forests, hills and valleys. The driving was aggressive and fast. It was also raining most of way (mini mudslides included). Seated in the first row of second level of a double-decker bus, I had a perfect and intense view of the ride.

We arrived into Mae Sot at about 4:30 in the morning. It was still dark and raining. As required by law, the bus stopped for police inspection on the outskirts of town. My friend Meg, who I met for coffee in Bangkok hours earlier, explained that the Thai police have becoming increasing aggressive getting migrants (read Burmese) out of Mae Sot. Meg explained that many Burmese, regardless of if they have travel documents, are being deported. Most Burmese, particularly those without papers, are afraid to leave their homes in Mae Sot. One explanation is that the Thais are trying to “clean up” for Mae Sot for the recent dignitaries and celebrities that have been coming to town, including Laura Bush and Mia Farrow. Ironically, Laura and Mia are huge supporters of the Burmese democracy movement and came to town to meet with Burmese refugees. Many, however, are unaware of how Burmese migrants are treated in town and in the factories.

Several people without documents were told to get off the bus by the Thai police, including two young men sitting directly behind me and a woman with a baby. The baby, obviously frightened by the situation, was screaming the entire time. In Bangkok, I noticed a man handing the women a roll of money before she entered the bus. If lucky, she should be able to bribe the police to allow her to stay.

After some time we arrived at the bus terminal, which lost all power about five minutes later. A normal occurrence I was told. I waved down a tuk-tuk for a ride to my guest house. Still jetlagged, I was ready for a nap.

The AFL-CIO in Bangkok

August 9, 2008

On Wednesday afternoon I met with the AFL-CIO Labor Solidarity Center in Bangkok.  The office is located a couple blocks from the Sala Daeng stop off the BTS Skytrain in the Thanon Silom district. Simply put, Thanon Silom is one of the liveliest, busiest and most interesting areas in the whole city. Something for every taste can be found here – pirated music and movies, great restaurants, crowded clubs, sleazy sex shows and more. Frankly, I was surprised that the office was in this neighborhood.

The office itself is quite big and probably has at least 2 dozen employees. Framed photographs of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, and Executive VP Arlene Holt Baker hang on the wall in the waiting area. Sitting there, looking at the photographs and paging through their literature, was a powerful, exciting moment for me. It fortified my belief that a worldwide labor movement is underway.

Framed photos of AFL-CIO officers at Solidarity Center in Bangkok

Framed photos of AFL-CIO officers at Solidarity Center in Bangkok

I met with Mem, a charming and very knowledgeable senior staffer, for about two hours discussing the Solidariy Center’s activities throughout Thailand and in Mae Sot. About two years ago, they founded a labor law clinic in Mae Sot to specifically work with Burmese migrants. This is a great contact for me. I will be visiting the clinic frequently when I am in Mae Sot.

As an interesting side note, the director of the office, Rudy Porter, is an ILR alum. She was in Malaysia for a conference when I was in the office. I will be meeting her towards the end of my trip when she returns to BKK.

Below is a background on the Labor Solidarity Center from their website:

To tackle the enormous challenges workers face in the global economy, AFL-CIO launched the American Center for International Labor Solidarity in 1997. Solidarity Center is a non-profit organization that assists workers around the world who are struggling to build democratic and independent trade unions. They work with unions and community groups worldwide to achieve equitable, sustainable, democratic development and to help men and women everywhere stand up for their rights and improve their living and working standards.

The Solidarity Center and its union partners promote democracy, freedom, and respect for worker rights in global trade, investment, and development policies and in the lending practices of international financial institutions. Their programs raise public awareness about the abuse of the world’s most vulnerable workers. Above all, their programs help the world’s workers secure a voice in the developing global economy, and thus in their own future.

Bush to speak about Burma

August 6, 2008

On Thursday, August 7 (Wednesday, August 6 in the US), George Bush will be visiting Thailand to celebrate 175 years of Thai/US relations. He also will be meeting with “Burmese activists” in Bangkok. According to the Market Watch Report of a press briefing, Bush will then “be interviewed by the press in Thailand that broadcast into Burma, so that he can give a message directly to the Burmese people.”

Laura Bush will also be visiting medical clinics and the Mae La refugee Camp the following day, August 8, the 20th anniversary of the 8.8.88 massacre in Rangoon. Home to over 50,000 refugees, Mae La Camp is located only a few miles outside of Mae Sot. I will be in Mae Sot while Mrs. Bush is in town. It will be certainly be an interesting and powerful time to be on border!

Read this article from the Bangkok Post for details about the Bush’s trip.

Bangkok Nights

August 6, 2008

After twenty-seven hours of traveling, including a four hour layover in Toyko’s Narita Airport, I finally have arrived at the  Hotel Atlanta in Bangkok. This is not my first time to Thailand or the Atlanta. Built in 1952, the Atlanta is the oldest unaltered hotel in Thailand. It is situated in the heart of Sukhumvit, one of Bangkok’s most notorious sex tourism districts and is a self-proclaimed “bastion of wholesome and culturally responsible tourism.” It is a beautiful, charming, and civilized oasis in wild Bangkok. Check out their hysterical website:

Foyer--Hotel Atlanta, Bangkok

Foyer--Hotel Atlanta, Bangkok

My taxi ride from the airport to the hotel was near flawless except, of course, for the speeding and lack of seatbelts. The driver, who spoke very little English, carelessly (yet skillfully) raced his green and yellow Toyota down the expressway at over 140 kilometers per hour (or about 85 to 90 mph). He neglected to wear a seatbelt. And, sitting in the backseat, I didn’t have one. The experience, while unnerving, is not uncommon. Bangkok taxi drivers are some of the most aggressive drivers in the world. They are also some of the most superstitious. Garlands and amulets in honor the journey goddess hang from most rearview mirrors. Images of the Buddha are often taped to the dash.

In Thailand there are only two ways of avoiding death on the road: pop pong and pop gun. Pop gun signifies the more traditional safety measures like wearing a seatbelt and not driving too fast. This approach is obviously ignored by most Bangkok cabbies. Pop Pong, on the other hand, is spiritual protection. Done properly, pop pong not only protects your life but will also punish those who threaten it. A well-known Thai urban legend tells the tale of a road-rager who cut in front of taxi driver, only to be flattened by a truck five minutes later. Thais call this gam or karma.

A taxi-filled road in Bangkok

A taxi-filled road in Bangkok

Despite all of my traveling, I was not immediately tired and decided to take a late-night walk to calm my nerves and use my muscles. Like most major cities, Bangkok does not sleep. The Atlanta is near one of the busiest areas of the city. It is walking distance from the skytrain, shopping malls and markets, and several wats (or temples). I decided to take a short cut, passing the Marriot Hotel and a Thai Baptist Church. I immediately found myself outside several go-go bars and a massage parlor. Dozens of Thai girls lined the streets, all wearing tight pastel-colored t-shirts with jeans or mini-skirts. Trying to hide their darker skin complexion and thin Asian lips, many covered their faces with whiting powder and thick, red or pink lipstick. They looked like clowns.

The girls were aggressive and particularly excited to see me. (Most of their customers are old men). They started to stampede towards me, shrieking Sawatdee Kha! Sawatdee Kha! or Hello! Hello! I kindly waved back, careful not to make eye contact, and quickly moved on towards the wat in the distance.

Red light district

Red light district

Before I entered the wat, I found a street vendor in a side soi (or lane) with a rickshaw piled high with lotus garlands, kreung sangha tan (monk baskets full of goodies like soap, fruit, instant coffee; you buy one and donate it to your favorite wat as way of making merit), wind chimes, bamboo, cut flowers, and candles. I bought two lotus garlands, entered the wat, and lit some incense that I held between my hands and mindfully (and nervously) wai’ed the golden Buddha. A monk I met in Chiang Mai two years ago showed me how to wai properly. I was proud to have remembered the process and relieved that I did not embarrasses myself.

Buddha at local wat

Buddha at local wat

After wondering the temple grounds for some time (it was particularly beautiful at night), I walked back to the Atlanta, thinking about my time here in the Land of Smiles. About how different Mae Sot will be than dynamic Bangkok. About the people I will meet and places I will see. About the migrant students I will be working with in just a few short days. About their parents and sisters and mothers who work in those awful, hot factories. To be honest, I was and still am a little overwhelmed. I have a lot to do in this next day and half before my long bus ride to Mae Sot. I’ll be ready though. I have to be.