Walking the streets of Tachilek, Burma, a grubby border town near Mae Sai, Thailand, involves a fascinating little pantomime. Whenever a compatriot approaches, the guide accompanying this reporter on Saturday lowers his voice, raises his brows and changes the subject. At one point he even suggests, "Let's talk about something good." One never knows, he later explains, who is a spy for the government. He asserts, without any sourcing, that some 6,000 of his fellow citizens report on their neighbors.
The man's behavior may well be a product of paranoia, but such is daily life in this and other municipalities across Burma, where people have grown accustomed to watching what they say—and to whom. For the approximately 150,000 residents in Tachilek, staying out of trouble—and out of jail—is all about being cautious. And that prudence is very much in evidence as events unfold in Rangoon, the country's main city. As the ruling junta clamps down on monks and citizens who dared to take to the streets to demand food and democracy, there aren't many people talking about it here in Tachilek. No one mentions the democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who languishes under house arrest in Rangoon. (Late Saturday, Thai television was reporting that Burmese authorities were expected to close this border crossing on Sunday.)
"It looks like people don't care, but they cannot care," says the guide, an ethnic Karen who ekes out a living showing the few, and dwindling, foreigners around. "They already gave us an admonition that we better not try to do anything—try to show any support for the people in Rangoon. The military here has been cracking down."
Such an admonition is just one of the routine restrictions visited on Tachilek residents. The town, just across the Mae Sai Creek, a tributary of the Mekong River, from Thailand, once was a cloak-and-dagger-type redoubt for opium dealers. It reportedly was the base of Khun Sa, the legendary drug kingpin who for years famously skirmished with Burmese authorities. Now it is a crossroads for merchants and tourists going back and forth between Burma and Thailand. There's not much to see, apart from a few Buddhist temples and a golden stupa that was built in 1997.
A curfew here requires residents to be indoors by midnight. As a consequence, virtually everyone is off the streets by 10 p.m.; only those with cars tend to stay out later. Young people also are inclined to challenge the deadline, but the young men in particular face a peculiar punishment: If they encounter military cadres on their way home, they face impression into the army, according to one 50-something man who has lived in the town for four years. "My landlord's son was stopped by soldiers who 'invited' him to join up," the man says. "He took off running and managed to get away."
Another man offers his e-mail address for a foreigner to "keep in touch." But he warns that he only checks his account twice a month—and then only across the border in the Thai city of Mae Sai. "There's an official at the Internet cafe here who checks e-mails before you can send them," he explains. "If anything is out of order, you have to edit them."
Residents trade freely using the Thai baht and even Chinese notes, but using American dollars—or worse, British pounds—is not allowed. Money changers will not accept the greenback and those caught with dollars have them confiscated and often are arrested as well. Unsuspecting tourists complain about this hardship—there aren't any ATMs either, except in the largest cities such as Rangoon—but it is a much greater burden for the Burmese, many of whom have relatives abroad who might send them stipends in American notes. The local currency, the kyat, pronounced "jack," is not much in evidence. Many Burmese here earn the equivalent of about $2 a day, mostly working in construction, or the underground economy … as unlicensed guides, tuk-tuk drivers, cigarette sellers, purveyors of fake watches and entertainment hawkers offering "boom-boom" (sexual encounters with women).
It is a bitter reality in a country gifted with many natural resources, including gas and precious stones. Tachilek residents say they are very much aware that the generals live well in Rangoon and their new capital, Pyinmana, a vanity project costing millions and millions of dollars. "They don't care about our stomachs, but they care about their stomachs," says a 23-year-old unemployed man who has to look after a 21-year-old wife and 18-month-old son. He scrapes together money by selling in a street market what appears to be genuine Viagra tablets and generic knockoffs of the drug made in India.
"Danny," a middle-aged Burmese man with a philosophical mien, lived in Rangoon during the last uprising in 1988, when the military opened fire on the Burmese, killing more than 3,000 people. Asking that his real name not be used, Danny says the current efforts have been "mild" compared with then. "Burmese are sensitive, passionate, but they have no long-term strategy," explains the man, a former electrical and marine engineer who now wanders about, chewing kunya, a chewing stimulant made up of betel leaf and other ingredients that leaves the teeth stained a reddish brown, and accepting kindness from strangers. "This is pretty negligible compared with the past, so the generals will be able to maintain their position."
People live day to day, says the tour guide, who had not had a client in five days. And they have few outlets. Many watch American wrestling on Sundays, he says. "I think they like [wrestler-turned-action star] John Cena," he muses.
Danny, the street philosopher, though, remains positive in the face of the opposition's "disorganization" and the junta's ruthlessness. "The generals grow more and more apart from the public," he says. "And we do have this culture in Burma of a kingly ruling system; a directorship system. The junta are just continuing it.
"But there's a proverb here. If you want to be king you have to kill the king. I am optimistic because with each incident the generals grow weaker."