Two volunteers, a lawyer, and myself pile into the car. The passenger seat remained empty. Ten minutes later, we stopped and a woman hopped into the passenger seat.
Her face was filled with a big smile as she entered. Several minutes later she asked my name and introduced herself. "I want to learn English," she said. "I want to learn to speak Thai," I replied. "Ok. We'll practice together and teach each other," she added. "What's your name?" My name is At.
Twenty minutes into the drive, we pulled into a gas station. There waiting was another organisation that assisted migrant workers in Chiang Rai. The two vans pulled out and we continue our journey. Some fifteen minutes later, we stopped. On the other side of the highway a man on a motorbike was waiving franticly to get our attention.
I informed the driver. It was MAP's contact into the community we were headed to meet.
As we walked into the makeshift community which was nestled in the open air, sounds of splashing water could be heard as men and women use buckets of water to bathe themselves after long hard days work.
Our presence stirred a great commotion as residents looked at our group of ten to fifteen people with confusion and apprehension. Finally, we were introduced and fears started to dissipate. MAP's volunteers handed out refreshments to everyone.
All the migrant workers living here are from the volatile Shan State in Myanmar. Many came in search of work, to escape ongoing tensions and to provide a better way of life for themselves and their families back home.
Quietly, I waited near a tree until I received permission to interview several individuals about their working and living conditions in Thailand. As I waited, At approached me and began telling me her story.
At: We have many problems in Shan State because there's a lot of fighting between the Burmese government and the Shan Army mainly due to the government's opposition to an autonomous region in Shan State. Many Shan people have lost their livelihoods due to ongoing war. On a continuous basis people are literally running across the border into Thailand.
Simba: How did you come to Thailand?
A: In 1988, I joined and become a high ranking member of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy Party. We started making protests through Burma demanding an end to military rule and our desire to create freedom and democracy in our country. In 2005, I was arrested and sentenced to fourteen years in prison but I only served three years. After I was released, they exiled me from my country and I was forced to cross the border.
When I first arrived to the prison, all the women were depressed. Some were crying. Everyone looked at me as if I was strange because I was smiling. I don't regret making stand for what I believe. Fighting for truth is very important and everything the Burmese government says isn't true.
I have a very strong spiritual practice and it was this that really kept my spirits high. In Shan State, I was meditating for twelve years. In the prison, I continued my meditation practice and it was this that allowed me to cope with the difficult situation I found myself in.
There's no real democracy in Burma. The government only makes a show for the international community so that they are applauded for saying that they are making a transition to democracy but the reality is that nothing has changed for our people.
This is an excerpt of an interview from the next edition of Migrant Stories. You can subscribe here now to get each free edition delivered to your inbox upon publication. The next issue is scheduled to be released today.