Want to support Myanmar? Don’t forget about Mae Sot.
Anyone who follows politics in Myanmar knows that Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK), Nobel laureate and daughter of the liberator Aung San, is now the de facto leader of Myanmar. Things are on the up and up. SIM cards no longer cost hundreds of dollars, the banking system is taking shape, and foreign investment is on the rise.
So what is becoming of the border city Mae Sot in Thailand? Should donors and international NGOs (INGO) pack up and move inside Myanmar? Not so fast. In fact, if donors and INGOs really want to support Myanmar, they should continue supporting community-based organizations and initiatives in Mae Sot.
Along the Thai-Myanmar border, Mae Sot has served as the hub city for thousands of refugees who fled Myanmar after violent crackdowns in the late-1990s. Over the years, Mae Sot has been a focal area for INGOs, community-based organizations, and development workers – to support the over 120,000 Myanmar refugees and over two million migrant workers in Thailand with everything from healthcare, educational support, job training, and legal help.
Now that ASSK’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has won the elections, the public perception is that Myanmar is generally on a quick path to reform, making the work of community-based organizations along the border less and less relevant.
Or Are They?
There is a strong case to be made for why donors and IGNOs should consider increasing, not decreasing their support along the border.
One compelling sphere of Mae Sot’s influence is healthcare. In many ethnic minority states, healthcare is so far below a reasonable standard that it will necessitate the work of community-based organizations along the border for years to come. The government-run hospitals do not reach most of the rural ethnic areas and ones that do are of abysmal quality. In fact, several people I spoke with who decided to remain anonymous said it was better to take a boat over the border to Mae Sot and be treated at the Mae Tao Clinic in Thailand than to seek medical help in Myawaddy, the Myanmar border town across from Mae Sot.
To take a closer look at Mae Sot’s ongoing relevance for Myanmar’s development, look to the Back Pack Health Worker Team (BPHWT). Based in Mae Sot, BPHWT trains small teams of healthcare workers to travel to rural, conflict-affected areas, and provide primary healthcare services to communities in need. Since many people from rural ethnic areas do not trust outsiders, BPHWT trains and utilizes people from the communities that they will serve. Rebuilding trust with outsiders, especially regarding healthcare, will take a long time, during which organizations like BPHWT will be increasingly relevant. Mae Sot gives BPHWT the autonomy, infrastructure, and trust it needs to serve those communities.
Important to remember is that even though the NLD is in control of the government, the military still holds incredible influence. For example, the military still largely commands the armed forces, the police, the borders, and essentially the entire immigration system. This means that even though the NLD is in power, the fears of most people – especially from rural, conflict-affected areas – have not been assuaged.
Mae Sot is becoming an easy access point to Eastern Myanmar. For many years, to get to Mawlamyine, Mon State from Mae Sot required traveling along a treacherous mountain road, a vestige of British colonialism. The road was so narrow that it did not allow for two-way traffic, which meant the direction of traffic alternated each day. With the continued progress of the Asian Highway 1, Mae Sot is increasingly a key access point for Thailand to Mawlamyine, Hpa An, Yangon, and beyond. This means it will become gradually easier to support communities in Myanmar from Mae Sot.
The Thai government has requested that the approximately 120,000 refugees along the Thai-Myanmar border return to Myanmar over the next three years. According to the UNHCR, most of the refugees would like to return to Myanmar as quickly as possible. However, it is unclear if they would have a safe home or community to return to. And for Myanmar citizens who have found work in Thailand, until the Myanmar government raises the minimum wage and begins spurring productive job growth, there may be little incentive to return so soon. Thus, in this time of transition, supporting Myanmar means continued support of this important border town.
Oliver S. Crocco is a doctoral student in the Department of Human and Organizational Learning at the George Washington University. He is a 2016 recipient of the Sigur Center Summer Grant for Asian Field Research. His research focuses on adult learning and organizational change in community-based organizations in Thailand and Myanmar.