Finding Hope in Burma
by Liz Ream
“Photography has the ability to move people and strike a chord in ways that writing and video don’t.” This statement by photojournalist Jack Kurtz can’t be argued, although writing struck a chord for Jack in it’s own way seven years ago.
It was 2006 in Cambodia, and inspiration came from the hand of renowned author George Orwell in his book “Burmese Days.” After reading this and Emma Larkin‘s “Finding George Orwell in Burma,” Jack’s interest was piqued and he made his first trip to the Thai-Burma border in 2008. Thailand is home to over 130,000 Burmese refugees, all of whom have fled decades of ethnic conflict and persecution in Burma, home to the world’s longest running civil war.
The Burmese reside in Thailand in one of two ways: as refugees in camps with little freedom and thatched huts jammed atop of each other; or as illegal immigrants providing the muscle that powers the Thai fishing industry, working long hours for meager pay and living in fear of deportation.
Once the refugees land in the camps, it’s very hard to get out. Therefore, many who may qualify as political refugees choose to live as undocumented immigrants or economic refugees because they have more options open to them. The situation that exists in Thailand with illegal immigrants is strikingly similar to that going on in the US. Thai business owners hire Burmese immigrants for work that Thai people are not willing to do. They work 14 hours per day, seven days a week, making about $5 US/day. Their future is tied directly to their jobs and they can’t speak out against abuse for fear of deportation. On the Thai side, Jack said that an industry has sprung up to take advantage of the Burmese influx:
There’s an energy in the border towns, a vibe that’s hard to describe. Mae Sot is in Thailand but it’s not like you’re in Thailand. When you’re in Burmese parts of town, which is most of the city, Burmese music plays in the shops. Burmese food is being cooked in the restaurants. The language spoken on the street is Burmese. Just as Mexican culture and music and the Spanish language is more frequently used in American border towns in the Southwest.
Ironically enough, as the political situation in Burma/Myanmar improves, the situation for refugees in Thailand gets worse. The camps are supported by government organizations, many of which are moving their operation to Burma. Therefore, aid flowing into Burma reduces the amount of aid available to Burmese refugees in Thailand.
As we’ve seen first-hand in the US, true immigration reform is a long and very difficult process; one that has eluded Americans for decades. However, Jack has reason to believe that there is hope for Burma:
Even from the relative distance of Bangkok, it’s exciting to watch what’s happening in Burma. The papers here everyday are full of stories about business opportunities in Burma and what Thais are doing to invest there. It’s going to be years though, before the Burmese economy improves enough to support the country’s population.
Getting back up to the Burmese border is one of Jack’s first priorities in the new year.
In the case of the Burmese migrants, I was drawn to it because of the similarities to immigration stories in the western hemisphere and the universality of the human condition. The camera has given me a passport to go into world’s many people never think about. It’s important for me to be honest with the people I’m photographing and not betray the trust they show me. I’m not telling my story, I’m using my cameras to tell theirs.
For more of Jack’s work, check out his website.