"DO YOU WANT A CIGARETTE?" I ask Htan Dah, holding up a pack of Thai-issue Marlboros. We are sitting on opposite sides of a rectangular table, talking over the spread: three bottles of vodka, two cartons of orange juice, plates of sugared citrus slices, nearly empty bottles of beer and bowls of fried pork, sweet corn waffles, pad thai, a chocolate cake. We share the benches with two guys each, and half a dozen others hover.
The men are all in their 20s. Most of them are solid and strong and hunky; their faces shine because they're drunk, and it's July. They could be mistaken for former frat boys unwinding after another tedious workday.
Except that they're stateless. They are penniless. They speak three or four languages apiece. Two of them had to bribe their way out of Thai police custody yesterday, again, because they're on the wrong side of the border between this country and the land-mine-studded mountains of their own. Htan Dah's silky chin-length hair slips toward his eyes as he leans forward. My Marlboros are adorned with a legally mandated photographic deterrent, a guy blowing smoke in a baby's face, but it doesn't deter Htan Dah. Nor is he deterred by the fact that he doesn't smoke. Tonight, he is flushed with heat and booze and the virility and extreme hilarity of his comrades. Tonight, as always, he is celebrating the fact that he's still alive. He takes a cigarette. "Never say no," he says, and winks at me.
I'D ARRIVED AT Mae Sot a few weeks before. This city in western central Thailand is a major hub for people, teak, gems, and other goods that enter the country illegally from Burma. The place is rife with smugglers, dealers, undocumented immigrants, and slaves. My bus arrived in the late afternoon. I wasn't connected to any aid or charity organization—I'd just happened on a website of a group that said it was promoting democracy in the Texas-size military dictatorship of Burma, and eventually volunteered, via email, to help its activists living in Thailand learn English. (As I was to discover, the particulars of their mission were far more dangerous, and illegal, so I'll refer to them as Burma Action.)
At the station, I was met by The Guy, whose name wasn't The Guy, but whose actual name I didn't catch when he mumbled it twice and then just shook his head and laughed when I asked him to repeat it one more time. After a brief ride in a three-wheeled tuk-tuk, we arrived at a gold-detailed black gate that stood heavy sentry at the road. Behind it stood Burma Action's local HQ, a big but run-down house, two stories of worn wood and dirty concrete with a balcony on the left, cement garage on the right. The Guy gave me a quick tour. The "kitchen" had a sink and some dishes; cooking took place out in the dining room/garage. He took a few steps farther. "Bathroom." He gestured into a cement-walled room through an oversize wooden door. There was a squat toilet set into the floor, and in lieu of toilet paper a shallow well with a little plastic bowl floating on top. There was also, running the length of the left wall, a giant waist-high cement trough filled with water and dead mosquitoes.
"What's that?" I asked.
I looked at it, jet-lagged. "How does it work?" I asked.
He exhaled hard through his nose, a whispery snort. "Like this," he said, pantomiming filling a bowl with water and dumping it over his head. "Are you hungry?"
I asked The Guy what was in the soup he offered me.
"I don't know the word in English," he said. "Leaves?"
Close. Twigs, actually. The Guy pulled a stump of wood up next to me at the table, and watched me chew through the sautéed woody stems.
"So, where are you from?" I asked.
"I am kuh-REN. Everybody here, we are all kuh-REN."
Oh, man. It was starting to come together now.
When I'd landed in Bangkok, a Burma Action employee had picked me up at the airport to make sure I found the bus station and the right eight-hour bus north. She was tiny and Thai and heavily accented, and repeatedly told me during our cab ride that everyone I was about to be working with was Korean. It seemed sort of weird that a bunch of Koreans would move to Thailand together to work for peace in Burma, but I thought that was nice, I guessed, and even wrote in my journal, relievedly, "Koreans tend to have excellent English skills."
When I'd arrived at the Mae Sot bus station, The Guy had asked if I was his new volunteer.
"Yes," I'd said. "You're not Korean."
I'd done my homework before leaving the States. I had read about the Karen. But I'd only seen the word written down, and had assumed that it sounded like the name of my parents' blond divorced friend. I didn't know how it was pronounced any more than most Westerners would've been certain how to say "Darfur" 10 years ago.
WHEN I TURNED the corner from the kitchen into the large living room, four pairs of dark eyes looked up from a small TV screen. I smiled, but The Guy, leaning against the wall with his arms folded, didn't make any introductions, so I sat on the marble floor among the legs of the white plastic chairs the guys were sitting in, quiet amid the rise and fall of their soft tonal syllables, deep, bubbling, like slow oil over stones. The TV blared Thai. Mosquitoes sauntered in through the screenless windows, possible hosts to malaria, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis. I'd no natural resistance to the latter two, and I'd opted against taking the sickening drugs for the former. Not wanting to be the white girl who ran upstairs to hide under a mosquito net at dusk, I watched the guys laughing and talking, like a partygoer who didn't know anyone. I pulled my air mattress out of my bag and started blowing it up. I got bit. I scratched. I shifted my sit bones on the shiny tile. Finally, I stood up.
"I'm going to bed," I told The Guy.
He nodded, and looked at me for a second. It was 7:30. "Are you okay?" he asked. I'd just taken 27 hours of planes and automobiles. I'd glanced at the phrases "Forced marriage" and "Human trafficking" on a piece of paper taped to the wall behind the computers in the adjacent room. I said that I was fine and headed upstairs. I dropped my air mattress under the big blue mosquito net and lay down. I had no real idea who these people were, or what they did here, or even what I was supposed to do here. I appeared to have my work, whatever it was, cut out for me, since The Guy (real name: The Blay) seemed to be among the few who spoke English. My digestive system had its work cut out for it, too, since these guys apparently ate sticks. Lying there, listening to my housemates laugh and holler downstairs, I comforted myself with the thought that these Karen seemed nice. I couldn't have guessed then, drifting to sleep to the sound of their amiable chatter, that every last one of them was a terrorist.
IMAGINE, FOR A moment, that Texas had managed to secede from the union, and that you live there, in the sovereign Republic of Texas. Imagine that shortly after independence, a cadre of old, paranoid, greedy men who believed in a superior military caste took over your newly autonomous nation in a coup. Your beloved president, who had big dreams of prosperity and Texan unity, whom you believed in, was shot, and now the army runs your country. It has direct or indirect control over all the businesses. It spends 0.3 percent of GDP on health care, and uses your oil and natural gas money to buy weapons that Russia, Pakistan, and North Korea have been happy to provide. It sends your rice and beans to India and China, while your countrymen starve. There is no free press, and gatherings of more than five people are illegal. If you are arrested, a trial, much less legal representation, is not guaranteed. In the event of interrogation, be prepared to crouch like you're riding a motorbike for hours or be hung from the ceiling and spun around and around and around, or burned with cigarettes, or beaten with a rubber rod. They might put you in a ditch with a dead body for six days, lock you in a room with wild, sharp-beaked birds, or make you stand to your neck in a cesspool full of maggots that climb into your nose and ears and mouth. If you do manage to stay out of the prisons, where activists and dissidents have been rotting for decades, you will be broke and starving. Your children have a 10 percent chance of dying before they reach their fifth birthday, and a 32 percent chance they'll be devastatingly malnourished if they're still alive. What's more, you and 50 million countrymen are trapped inside your 268,000-square-mile Orwellian nightmare with some 350,000 soldiers. They can snatch people—maybe your kid—off the street and make them join the army. They can grab you as you're going out to buy eggs and make you work construction on a new government building or road—long, hard hours under the grueling sun for days or weeks without pay—during which you'll have to scavenge for food. You'll do all this at gunpoint, and any break will be rewarded with a pistol-whipping. Your life is roughly equivalent to a modern-day Burmese person's.
Now imagine that you belong to a distinct group, Dallasites, or something, that never wanted to be part of the Republic in the first place, that wanted to either remain part of the United States, which had treated you just fine, or, failing that, become your own free state within the Republic of Texas, since you already had your own infrastructure and culture. Some Dallasites have, wisely or unwisely, taken up arms to battle the Texas military government, and in retaliation whole squads of that huge army have, for decades, been dedicated to terrorizing your city. You and your fellow Dallasites are regularly conscripted into slavery, made to walk in front of the army to set off land mines that they—and your own insurgents—have planted, or carry 100-pound loads of weaponry while being severely beaten until you're crippled or die. If you're so enslaved, you might accompany the soldiers as they march into your friends' neighborhoods and set them on fire, watch them shoot at fleeing inhabitants as they run, capturing any stragglers. If you're one of those stragglers, and you're a woman, or a girl five or older, prepare to be raped, most likely gang-raped, and there's easily a one-in-four chance you'll then be killed, possibly by being shot, possibly through your vagina, possibly after having your breasts hacked off. If you're a man, maybe you'll be hung by your wrists and burned alive. Maybe a soldier will drown you by filling a plastic bag with water and tying it over your head, or stretch you between two trees and use you as a hammock, or cut off your nose, pull out your eyes, and then stab you in both ears before killing you, or string you up by your shoulders and club you now and again for two weeks, or heat up slivers of bamboo and push them into your urethra, or tie a tight rope between your dick and your neck for a while before setting your genitals on fire, or whatever else hateful, armed men and underage boys might dream up when they have orders to torment, and nothing else to do. And though you've been sure for decades that the United States can't possibly let this continue, it has invested in your country's oil and will not under any circumstances cross China, which is your country's staunch UN defender and economic ally, so you really need to accept that America is decidedly not coming to save you. Nobody is.
Now your life is pretty much equivalent to a modern-day Burmese Karen's.
Reporting for this story was supported by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.