NCL Thailand is based mainly in Mae Sot, Tak Province, which is situated just a few miles from Myanmar. Most of the schools NCL works with can be reached on a daily basis from Mae Sot — either by bike or by songtaew (line-car). Teachers at these schools generally stay in hotels and guesthouses in Mae Sot — though some occasionally stay at their schools. A few teachers both work and live at schools that are several hours from Mae Sot. Mae Sot is a reasonably large border town, and has quite a few restaurants and bars. There are many options for both food and drink. Prices are much cheaper than in developed western societies.
NCL Thailand takes place in a malarial zone during the rainy season. Virtually every day there is heavy rain in the afternoon, and often it will rain heavily all day long. Sometimes the rain will persist for several days. All participants therefore need to be prepared to work in very wet conditions.
NCL participants must take full responsibility for health cover and health insurance throughout the duration of the programme. In Thailand, the NCL programme takes place in a malarial zone during the rainy season when the risk of infection is generally high. Dengue fever is also a real possibility, and NCL Thailand registered cases in both 2008 and 2009. Although both Mae Sot and the refugee camps that NCL works in are relatively clean, all participants must consult a doctor well in advance of joining the NCL programme and must follow the medical advice they are given. In the centre of Mae Sot there is a good hospital that can be accessed on a self-paying basis. There are also clinics in Mae Sot and in the refugee camps where some participants will teach.
There are many cheap hotels in Mae Sot. Usually most participants stay in DK Hotel, which becomes NCL’s home base. However, there are many other options, and participants are encouraged to search online. In many hotels and guesthouses, rooms can be booked for THB300-400. If occupied on a twin-share basis, the cost per person per night is THB150-200.
Mae Sot and the surrounding areas do not face any particular personal safety issues. Nevertheless, foreigners are highly visible throughout the border zone, and must take necessary precautions. Personal safety is the personal responsibility of each participant.
Thailand uses the baht. 1 USD = 36 THB. 1 HKD = 5 THB.
NCL applicants will receive feedback at least one month before the start of the programme. For NCL Thailand, all selected applicants will be sent a letter addressed to the visa section of the Thai Embassy in their country of citizenship. This letter will enable them to apply for a Non-Immigrant O visa for Thailand to cover the full duration of the NCL programme. The cost of a visa varies from country to country, but is generally around US$100. All participants must cover their own visa costs.
For NCL Thailand, the main cost of joining the programme is an international flight to Bangkok. Participants also need to cover their own insurance, visa and healthcare costs. In-country costs for a stay of around 75 days are generally low. A very rough estimate of the major costs is given below. Note that actual costs may not conform precisely to this breakdown, which is presented as a general guideline only.
|Food and beverage||4500|
|Transportation including return flights from HK||4000|
|Ad hoc teaching materials||1000|
Mae Sot can be reached by long-distance coach from many parts of Thailand. From Mo Chit bus station in Bangkok, the journey takes about 8 hours either by day or overnight. For a standard seat, the cost of a one-way ticket is about THB500. Taking a taxi from Bangkok’s main international airport to Mo Chit costs about THB300 (including highway tolls). By far the easiest way to get around Mae Sot is by bicycle. Bikes are cheap to rent and can often be hired for the entire programme as part of a deal with a hotel or guesthouse. Participants who do not know how to ride a bike will be at a significant disadvantage in Mae Sot, and may find that their range of possible placement schools is limited by transportation problems.
There are several interesting tourist sites close to the border zone. Travelling down to Umphang is interesting, and there are nice waterfalls nearby. The journey takes about 3.5 hours by songtaew (and is not good for anyone prone to travel sickness). The ancient capital Sukhothai can also be a weekend destination. The journey takes about 2.5 hours by minibus. It takes about 7 hours by bus to get to the major regional centre, Chiang Mai.
NCL Thailand operates in and around the border town of Mae Sot in Tak Province, northern Thailand. It works with refugees and migrants from Myanmar. Because NCL is based in Mae Sot, many of the people participants meet are from the Karen ethnic group. However, participants also come into contact with migrants from other ethnic groups in Myanmar.
Mae Sot is a very special place providing an unusual window on the Myanmar problem. Because of its border with Karen State in Myanmar, Mae Sot is dominated by the 60-year struggle of the Karen people against their Myanmar rulers. While this is an important part of the Myanmar story, it is by no means the core theme. Also, while the Karen perspective rightly highlights the might of the military machine that rules Myanmar, it offers few insights into ways forward for an ethnically diverse nation once the army is no longer in charge.
Refugees and Migrants
Nobody knows how many refugees and migrants from Myanmar now live in Thailand. The best guess is about 2 million. Only a very small minority — little more than 100,000 — are refugees living in the 10 refugee camps on the Thai side of the Thai-Myanmar border. The Thailand Burma Border Consortium website provides comprehensive information about the camps — www.tbbc.org. The rest of the 2 million people divide into two roughly equal groups of legal and illegal migrants based mainly in border towns. Legal migrants have papers that allow them to live and work in Thailand. Illegal migrants do not, and can be shipped back to Myanmar at any time — though in fact many stay in Thailand on a long-term basis.
Exactly why 2 million citizens of Myanmar are now based in Thailand is a very complex issue. For many years, the push factors inside Myanmar included an entrenched military regime, ongoing slow-burn civil war between the mainly Myanmar army and some of the ethnic groups along the border, economic failure and limited opportunities for work, and pervasive political repression and human rights abuse. The pull factors inside Thailand included escape from the Myanmar army and a heightened degree of personal security, job openings (almost always low grade and low paid) and, for some, the possibility of resettlement to a third country. The facilitative factors included a porous border that can be crossed in five minutes on an inflated inner tube, and a Thai police force that will often turn a blind eye to illegal migrants because of the benefits they bring to local businesses. As Myanmar transitions to democracy, many of these factors are now changing.
Anniversaries and Festivals
One way of getting to grips with Myanmar is working through key dates in the national calendar. These are often shrouded in controversy, and minority ethnic groups have their own special dates that are yet more contested. But the national anniversaries and festivals open an important window on this complex society, and for some key dates NCL participants will be working in Thailand and will find commemorative events going on around them. These are the biggest anniversaries and festivals:
|January 4||Independence Day (marking the end of British colonial rule in 1948)|
|February 12||Union Day (marking the interethnic Panglong Agreement signed in 1947)|
|March 27||Armed Forces Day (marking the Burmese army revolt against Japan in 1945)|
|April||Water Festival/Burmese New Year|
|July 19||Martyrs’ Day (marking the assassination of General Aung San in 1947)|
|August 8||Unofficial commemoration of the Four Eights democracy uprising in 1988|
|September 26||Unofficial commemoration of the crushing of the Saffron Uprising in 2007|
|November||National Day (marking the birth of the nationalist movement in 1920)|
|Dec/Jan||Karen National Day (the only minority national day with official recognition)|
The Thai-Myanmar border is an intriguing and special area in its own right. On the Myanmar side live individuals both from the Bamar majority, and from minority ethnic groups such as the Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan. Directly across the border from Mae Sot is Karen State.
No single book adequately describes life on the Thai-Myanmar border, and it is doubtful that any one book ever could capture the extreme diversity of the border zone. The most readable entry point is Mac McClelland, For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma’s Never-ending War. Probably the best attempt to document life in "the lands in between" is Richard Humphries, Frontier Mosaic: Voices of Burma from the Lands in Between. This can be quite a tough read at times, but it contains plenty of excellent material and is worth reading from cover to cover. Also very good is Phil Thornton, Restless Souls: Rebels, Refugees, Medics and Misfits on the Thai-Burma Border, which was written in Mae Sot and looks from there at Myanmar’s ethnic problem and the people who have gathered along the Thai side of the border as a result of it. This is also an easy read, and is highly recommended for NCL participants. Another Mae Sot book, published in 2010, is a history of the first 20 years of Dr Cynthia’s outstanding Mae Tao Clinic (which is one of NCL’s partners on the Thai-Myanmar border). A free download is available here. Finally, Forced Migration Review has an outstanding April 2008 special issue on Myanmar’s displaced people, with about 30 short articles covering many aspects of migrant life. The articles can all be accessed here. Other issues of FMR are also worth checking for Myanmar material.
Several books on crossing the border and working or fighting with Myanmar’s ethnic minorities are also interesting. Mike Tucker, The Long Patrol: With Karen Guerrillas in Burma, a short account of a brief foray into Karen State, will be of interest to many NCL participants. Shelby Tucker, Among Insurgents is a decent read. Benedict Rogers, A Land without Evil is useful.
Cast in a totally different context, but actually very evocative of life in a contemporary refugee camp (such as those found along the Thai-Myanmar border), is Dave Eggers, What is the What. This epic account of the Sudan refugee crisis of a decade or two ago – pre-Darfur, but no less horrific – provides perhaps the best description of the challenges faced by Myanmar refugees and migrants.