More on the Mae Sot rubbish dump

The last post, 2 days ago, was a very short look at the Mae Sot garbage dump in Thailand. The problem with the people living on the dump (when I say “on the dump” I really mean it literally – most of the homes are actually on the piles of trash) is that they have no documents permitting them to be in Thailand. They live on the dump for a reason: it’s better than the life they left behind in Burma.

For a number of reasons, which are far too complex for me to explain in a concise blog post, the Thai police regularly arrest ‘illegal’ Burmese migrants in Thai cities and deport them back to Burma. The dump has not been the regular focus of police efforts, until recently.

On January 23rd, my friend and I found out that the police had raided the dump site early in the morning and arrested any inhabitants who weren’t quick enough to run away. They took the arrested people to the police station, where they sat them down in rows outside, and eventually drove them in a caged truck to the border crossing nearby where the migrants were handed over to the Burmese authorities. They were given no food during their detention in Thailand, and we found out later that they were also given no food during their detention in Burma, despite many toddlers and young children being among the hundred or so people arrested.

Here’s a scan of the photo that was put in a national Thai newspaper the next day. The caption reads “Aliens: On the 23rd of January, 200 members from the Mae Sot police force, volunteer forces, municipality of Mae Sot, and Tak immigration department arrested illegal immigrants in the Mae Sot area. They arrested 116 people in total, made up of Burman, Bangladeshi, and Karen people.”

Of course, there was no news story to go with it, just the caption. The official story was that they were illegal migrants who had crossed into Thailand and were working in the city, whereas we had met a number of the people recognisable in the newspaper, so we knew better.

The following are a few photos of what the dump looked like on the afternoon of the 23rd, after the police had left and a few of the migrants had returned from their hiding spots. As I mentioned in the last post, the Hyundai excavator normally used to keep the trash organised, was used for something else this time around: to destroy their homes.

Here’s the “theatre” that was demolished. The dump residents had saved up to get a generator to show videos on occasion, mainly for the children, a huge expense to try and add some normalcy to their lives, and something of which they were immensely proud. The police stole the generator, fuel, television, etc.

Homes partly demolished. The excavator simply punched them in from the top, causing them to collapse. Of course, that was after the police kindly stole any food items, electronics, cooking equipment like pots and pans, from the homes.

Some of the homes in this row were left standing, supposedly because of confusion over a property line nearby, not wanting to upset the owner of the land.

The home in the foreground and some of the homes in the background were demolished, and the residents’ few belongings lay strewn about, left in the frenzy of trying to run away.

This man was able to avoid arrest and is disassembling his home, to take the useful parts with him back to Burma. He will try and start over again in the jungle there, and hope for the best.

More destruction:

This man has loaded up everything he can salvage and is walking back to Burma. He’s tired of the treatment in Thailand, but doesn’t know whether life will be any better in Burma, which he left because of the impossibility to earn a living and the danger ordinary people face at the hands of the Burmese authorities.

We talked a lot with the few people who were around in the afternoon, and they asked us to return and spend the night, in case the police came back (they threatened to burn all the houses, and had even brought a fire truck with them on the first raid), to witness and perhaps moderate the potential for excessive use of force by the police. So we left, bought some food for ourselves and the small number of people who would be staying on site at night (most of them went into hiding at night), and returned. We slept for a few hours in someone’s home that hadn’t been destroyed, though the family wasn’t there. At 4am we got up and went to the ‘central’ area of the dump to sit around and wait, and hoped that we were waiting for nothing to happen.

This young man woke up and started a fire around 5am to warm up (it gets very cold at night in Mae Sot in the winter). There’s no shortage of old tires, which burn very well once you get them started, though the black rubber tire fumes are probably terribly unhealthy. He kept the fire from getting too big by throwing water on it occasionally.

One of the few homes left standing:

Another fire close-up. The wires are from the tire. The dump is littered with these fine metal wires which tried unsuccessfully to trip me constantly.

Two 30-second exposures. The second one is me with my headlamp, and my friend pushing the shutter release on my camera which was resting on the Hyundai excavator track (the linked plates on which it rolls).

Our friend warming his hands (it was really, really cold)

As daylight slowly arrived, people began to straggle back to the dump site to start searching for recyclables to earn money for food. Before starting, they generally sat around various tire fires to warm up a bit after a long and cold night. These are by far my two favourite photos from my visits to the dump:

Tire fire smoke and morning fog ensured the air
was not clear in the morning…

The dump residents’ pigs managed to evade the police quite easily the previous day. The people at the dump don’t eat the pigs, as it’s better for the community to sell them to local restaurants and use the money for cheaper food, which can feed more people. So, if you’ve been eating pork in Mae Sot recently, it might be one of these guys. What’s the best thing about them, according to the dump inhabitants? There’s almost no work involved in rearing them, as they don’t stray too far and they don’t need to be fed – they get very large by finding their own garbage to eat! Everybody wins :-)

Normally, when a garbage truck arrives, there are quite a few more people to sort through the new delivery, but many were still in hiding. The good news is that the women and children held in Burma were released later the same day. Most of them then walked back to the dump, which took quite a while. The men, however, remained detained, and I don’t know even now whether or not they were all released eventually.

Working hard to help themselves, rather than joining the beggars in the streets of Mae Sot:

Everybody works. This is the same boy from the background of my two favourite photos above, a very nice kid:

The sun rising in the east, while dogs scavenge for scraps of edible trash:

There’s a long and complicated story that follows this event, but you’ll have to ask me in person to find out the details, as it’s not really suitable at this point in time to be telling the whole story online.

4 Comments

  1. Pieter-Henk van Wijk April 1, 2009 at 05:27 #

    Hey these pics are pretty f’in cool.
    I really like them.

    nice work

  2. James Heaton April 5, 2009 at 22:23 #

    intense dude. great work

  3. Mark September 22, 2012 at 22:13 #

    Great photography you have, it shows the sadness and hope of these poor refugees who escaped the poverty and conflict of their lives in Burma. Your photos captured the hardship and hope of these living situations, very sad. I will be going to Mae Sot dump in December for photography, is there any organization I should donate to while I’m there?

  4. The PhotoDiarist September 25, 2012 at 22:21 #

    Thanks Mark! There are a number of organisations with offices in Mae Sot who do very good work with migrants from Burma. I can’t easily suggest one over another; your best bet is to ask around when you’re there, get an idea of what each organisation is doing and how they’re doing it, and decide which one fits closest with your values. I 2009 there was a group that was working to help the dump residents move to better location where they could grow their own food and live in cleaner surroundings, but I don’t know if they have a formal organisation name. Ask around in Mae Sot and someone will be able to tell you, or take an interpreter with you to the dump and ask the people directly. Best of luck!

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