In 1962 Myanmar, or Burma, underwent a coup d’état that put the army in charge of the state. The infant nation, having only ceded from Britain 14 years earlier, was comprised of one group of people as a majority with several large minority populations spread around the country, as was the case in many post-colonial nations. One such minority was the Shan people, who had obtained some degree of autonomy after the British left Myanmar, but quickly found themselves subjugated and persecuted under the new regime.
Guerilla campaigns against the Myanmese army saw brutal retaliations, with many villages burnt to the ground. The last round of conflict flared up again toward the end of 2015. Even in times of relative peace, men could find themselves conscripted in to the army indefinitely, or bound to borderline slavery working in labour camps around the country. For this reason, there is now a large community of Shan who live abroad, in border towns around Laos, China and in particular, Thailand.
However, many families in these communities are undocumented, leaving them in a vulnerable predicament. Even those who are registered find it difficult, practically financially impossible, for them to go on to higher education, or leave the country to find work elsewhere. Many are eking out a living on farmland or in factories, earning a small pittance in order to survive.
Today there are estimated to be between 4-6 million Shan people, and many have come together in the face of adversity. There are communities all over Asia who are responding to the diaspora of their people not with malice but with dignity and kindness. In Fang, the Shan have secured jobs in the local public service, where they are particularly devoted to helping other Shan with little understanding of the Thai language translate documents, apply for birth certificates, travel permits and they carry out other administrative duties to help the Shan people settle in Thailand. There is also not much tourism in the area, with most backpackers going overland to Myanmar in the West rather than through Tachiliek in the North, and whilst there are National Parks nearby many tourists visit others that are closer to Chiang Mai.
But the Shan are determined to make a life here for themselves and their children. Many young Shan head up a community centre where English classes are held and local Shan teenagers and young adults can come together to work for the betterment of their community, or just relax, play some music, complete homework or play football in their very own ‘stadium’. Even as I type, local children from the surrounding area are arriving to spend their evening playing on the tyre swings and jungle gyms in the playground. A lot of the community work is based on improving the lot of undocumented migrants, teaching them about their rights and about how to stay safe; human trafficking, drugs, diseases and illegal pay are all major concerns for the Shan people.
Centres in countries like Thailand, where wages are very low, are vital to the migrant communities. Sai Mu, the man who I am primarily working with here, used to work on a farm for 150 baht a day, roughly equivalent to £3.80 in England. For a whole days work. New laws have been implemented by the Thai government to try to alleviate this issue but it is difficult to monitor each individual farm, especially in such remote areas. One group of children who I am working with, helping them learn photography skills, all live on the same farm, across six or seven families who cannot afford their own plot of land.
Whilst there are schools here to give children an education, many families rely on the production of cheap onions and oranges for income and therefore simply cannot afford the money or time to take their children on trips to explore the country, buy them a musical instrument or take them to play football. Therefore, these centres which run many day trips to surrounding towns and sights, helping the children connect and identify with their new country, are vital.
Run mostly by young adults – many of the team members of the Fortune Centre who run the projects and outreach are in their early 20’s – they provide other projects devoted to extra-curricular learning, such as photography but also attempt to get them to explore and share their emotions and experiences. There are similar classes surrounding sex, drugs and mental health. Whilst this is just one centre, it is brilliant to see the youngest in the community taking such a pivotal lead role.
I hope to bring some interviews with some of the people involved and some insights into some of the classes soon.