Photojournalist and friend, Daniel Tepper spent the past two months travelling around Thailand exploring issues facing the region and taking photos. He went there to take part in the Foundry Workshop, a photojournalism workshop taught by some of the most prestigious names in the industry. (Daniel studied under Mike Chavez, a photographer who has made a name for himself with his conflict work and concentration on South America)

Daniel spent a couple of weeks along the lawless border with Burma taking photos and documenting stories. He spent a week hanging out with migrant workers who were building a police station, and passed by a lawless village where police won’t  even go. Here’s his latest story and some photos from the adventure.

Mae Sot, Thailand

Scrappy. That’s the word that comes mind when I think of a way to describe Mae Sot, a district in Northern Thailand that sits along the Moei River, across the border from Burma. There are other words I could use; diverse, colorful, bustling, but this place, to me, is defined by its sheer scrappiness; a chaotic mix of cultures and social-classes operating in a state of unruly consonance. There’s a sense of purposeful disorganization here that allows for the business of daily life to occur just below the level of any formal regulation. Mae Sot is a humming gray-zone of activity that functions from day-to day without a hitch…just as long as you don’t consider a porous border, human trafficking, exploited workers, ethnic conflict, thousands of refugees, widespread corruption, organized crime, or the narcotics trade hitches.

A boat taking Burmese passengers across the Moei river into Thailand. Thousands of people move across the river between the two countries everyday. A large amount of unofficial trade takes place on this waterway as well, with everything from rice to opium slipping into Thailand through its porous border.

A boat with Burmese passengers arrives on the Thai side of the Moei River. There are many landings, known as gates, stretching all along the border in this region. There is a notable absence of any Thai authorities or security forces in these areas.

Buildings along the Moei River in Myawaddy, Burma. The prospect of an economic boom from a new highway that will connect India to Thailand through Burma has caused a sharp rise in the cost of living in this border town, forcing the poorer residents out of the city while creating opportunities for underground industries to flourish. The white-building on left with nice windows is a brothel.

Heavy rains in August caused some of the worst flooding in years along the Moei River. No Man’s Land, the area of riverbank between Thailand and Burma, where many Burmese live in shack-houses, was completely deluged.

No Man’s Land, along the Thai-Side of the Moei River. The area is said to be extremely dangerous, rife with drug markets and warring-gangs but there are also many families who live there. The area recovered quickly from the flooding, residents started rebuilding their homes as soon as the floodwaters receded.

Boys in rubber tubes offered rides to and from No Man’s Land for a bhat or two. The bhat, the Thai denomination of currency, trades with the US dollar at around 30-35 to 1. The man with the bike decided to save his money and walk through the murky floodwater.

A makeshift store set up under the Friendship Bridge in No Man’s Land. The bridge is the main overland connection between the two countries. More than half of all goods officially entering Thailand from Burma come over this bridge.

Burmese merchants set up little stands at the very edge of No Man’s Land and sell goods literally over the border into Thailand. The most common items for sale are liquor, cigarettes, pornography, sex toys, and some very suspect male enhancement medication.

A taxi-bike takes two passengers through the city to their destination. These large, red, tricycles are everywhere in Mae Sot carrying goods and people, usually both at the same time, from one place to the next.

I spent just over two weeks in Mae Sot and saw only a tiny fraction of what it had to offer. But in that short time I recognized that it’s a special place. The city has a wild energy that I didn’t feel anywhere else in Thailand. Mae Sot was described to me by a local as changing all the time but never really changing. There’s some truth to that. Mae Sot still faces a lot of the same problems it has grappled with for decades. The nearby Mae La refugee camp, established in 1984 for persecuted Burmese minorities, is still around and is now the largest such camp in Thailand with over 30,000 residents. Corruption is rampant and there is a busy smuggling trade that brings everything from rice, to uncut gemstones, to opium into the the country.  The unprecedented political reforms now taking place in Burma are bringing big changes to Mae Sot. But exactly what the outcome of these developments will be remains to be seen.

Two Burmese men in police custody, in front of the city jail. The police in Mae Sot set up check-points around the city and stop Burmese people, looking to see if they have work papers. Those without the proper documents who can’t afford to bribe the police on the spot are arrested and brought to the jail where they are held for a few days. They are allowed to contact friends and family in an effort to raise enough money to pay for their freedom. If they cannot pay, they will be deported back to Burma.

Burmese and Thai men offload vegetables at the market in downtown Mae Sot. Many Burmese come to Mae Sot seeking employment and better wages than what they could find in their own country. The local Thais are happy to have a cheap and mostly undocumented workforce whom they can treat however they please. It’s a situation that leads to widespread exploitation and abuse of the Burmese workers.

The morning commute for Burmese workers in downtown Mae Sot. It’s unclear exactly how many Burmese live in the district but most estimates put the number at over 200,000, which would mean they outnumber the local Thai population at least two to one.

Mae Sot is now a boom town. The planned Trilateral Highway project, that will connect Thailand to India, through Burma has sparked a rabid construction spree. Everywhere you look in Mae Sot there’s a new building going up. The work is a big draw for Burmese laborers who can make as much as five times the daily wage they would receive in Burma. This amount, still below the official minimum wage in Thailand, is around five US dollars for a hard day’s work.

 

The new police station, under construction, in Mae Sot. Investors are betting that there will be big payoffs to be had when a when the Trilateral Highway project is completed and Mae Sot becomes a trade hub with India. Even the police are getting in on the building spree.

 

While in Mae Sot, I spent a week taking photographs of a group of Burmese workers, who were in Thailand without papers while they built the district’s new police station. Like many other construction sites throughout Thailand, the workers lived on the site with their families, either in a long shack-house or in the unfinished building itself.  The irony of having a group of undocumented migrants working and living in the unfinished police station was accentuated by the fact that right across the street from the site was the city jail where Burmese immigrants without papers (and too poor to bribe the police) were kept in an outdoor cell before being deported.  Even though they don’t have work papers, the Burmese migrants I was with enjoy some protection from police harassment. If stopped at a check point, they can call their Thai boss who will talk to the police and, the workers will be let go.

 

No saftey equipment is used on the work site. The workers simply don’t have the money for hard-hats, eye-protection, gloves, or harnesses and there are no inspectors here to enforce the use of such items. The threat of injury is serious, the workers have no insurance or workers comp. If someone gets hurt and they can’t work, then they lose all their income.

All the workers hail from the same village in central Burma. Most of them live in a long shack-house that they built on a far corner of the site. Those who don’t live there stay in the police station. Directly behind the shack-house, across a small dusty street, is the city jail where Burmese people with no work papers are held.

One of the workers, giving her baby daughter a bath. She is wearing thanaka on her face, made from ground sandalwood, it has been worn by Burmese men and women for over 2000 years. It is not only decorative but acts as a sun-block and an anti-fungal skin cream.

 

After the day is finished the younger workers play takraw, a competitive game of Thai-Malay origin that is like an acrobatic cross between soccer and volleyball.

When it gets dark the workers play cards, watch movies, or listen to music before they go to sleep. Despite the protection this job affords them, the workers are weary of the Thai police and only leave the site to go to the market or work on other construction jobs around the city.

A makeshift room for a couple of the Burmese workers, inside the unfinished police station. This is a common practice all over Thailand, wandering into construction sites usually reveals a family or two of migrant workers living in the building they are working on, with tarping and mosquito nets used as makeshift walls.

The Burmese workers whom I photographed accepted me into their lives with great kindness. I just showed up with my camera one day and started shooting. They didn’t speak any English and the only Burmese I knew was “Hello” and “Thank you”. After a week I brought a Burmese friend to the site so I could communicate with the people whom I had spent so much time with. I found out that they were all from the same village in Burma and they were self-taught, “Learn by doing, do by learning,” they said when I asked them how they became construction workers. I thanked them for allowing me to photograph them at work and inside their homes and they shrugged off my appreciation, “Hospitality is the Burmese way,” they told me.  They expressed a desire to return to their village but that the lack of jobs and low pay inside of Burma made this an impossibility for now. They had been working on the site for six months and expected the project to take at least another year. They were happy to have steady work, nice bosses, and some protection from the police. But they were worried about the future. What will happen to them when this job is complete? They didn’t know.

The holding cell, an outdoor cage really, for Burmese migrants without work papers, in the jail right across the street from the police station worksite. Those who cannot pay to secure their release will be deported back to Burma after a few days. Most will likely re-enter Thailand as soon as they can.

Daniel Tepper is a photographer living in Brooklyn. He is helping teach classes at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan. He updates his blog daily... www.dtepper.tumblr.com

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