Gender and power at the Burmese border, K Kusakabe, ZM Oo

Tags: Tachilek, border town, native village, Thai-Myanmar border, migrant women, Thomas M. Wilson, Cambridge University Press, London, border towns, Thailand, international frontiers, social norms, Myanmar, Hastings Donnan, border trade, implementation, Routledge, Economic Development, the state, International Borders, Burman, Abstract Tachilek, ethnic groups, gender relations, state projects, The border, rural women, Border, Verso Anderson, State Formation, London Wilson, Pamela Sharpe, Marianne H. Marchand, Thomas J. Csordas, Burman migrant women, the border town, state policy, Buddhist Burman
Content: Centre for International Borders Research (CIBR), Electronic Working Papers Series, 2004: Gender and Power at the Burmese Border Kyoko Kusakabe and Zin Mar Oo Gender and Development Studies Asian Institute of Technology Bangkok Thailand [email protected] CIBR Working Papers in Border Studies CIBR/WP04-3
Abstract Tachilek, a border town, attracted migrants from all over Myanmar after trade with Thailand was opened in 1988-89. Based on testimonies of six Burman migrants in Tachilek and their families in Sae Doe village in the interior, this study investigated the importance of locale upon the extent of social and political control over people's movement and behaviour, and their resistances to it. Tachilek provided relatively greater freedom for women with respect to their activities and behaviour. However, a gossip network linked Tachilek and Sae Doe village. Hence, they were not wholly unconstrained by the norms of their home community. This gossip network also allowed elders in Sae Doe village to perceive the border town as a space under their control allowing young women to go to Tachilek. At the same time, migrant women brought back economic power and experience that increased their influence in the native village. This study revealed how women migrants' links to the border changed their relationship with the state and the community, albeit within the cultural framework of the native village. 2
Border, state, and gender relations James Scott (1998) sees state projects as making society legible: that is, as overriding and simplifying the complex practical experience of the society in order to make it controllable. The State defines what is legitimate and what is not, what is valued and what is not. It remakes society in order to control human and natural resources. The patriarchal nature of the state comes through in these state projects (Pearson and Jackson, 1998). When there is an intention to strengthen the territoriality of the `nation-state', the mainstream social norms are strengthened. If the project attempts to create a uni-dimensional identity, those not in particular categories are marginalised (Allen, 1994). Walby (1997:189) points out that citizenship did not arrive at one moment for all people. Citizenship is used as a tool to guard mainstream social norms. The state imposes certain norms on women, either through policy, law and regulation, through court decisions, as well as through implementation of rules by `street-level bureaucrats' (Colebatch, 2002:31). As Yuval-Davis (1997) stated, the state is a guardian of the mainstream social norms. She pointed out that the `nation-state' assumes a complete correspondence between the boundaries of the nation and the boundaries of those who live within a specific state, but this is always a fiction. Nations are seen as a natural extension of family and kinship, and nationalist projects are promoted through the myth of common origin, symbolic heritage and citizenship, sovereignty and territoriality. Ethnicity becomes an issue in highlighting the collectivity of the boundaries of the `nation-state'. In order to examine the state within the context of social relations, we need to understand the state as "a network of power relations existing in cooperation and also in tension" (Rai, 1996:5). Different fractions of the state relate differently with "peak interest groups"1, and: In `weak' states the fragility of their infrastructure leads to a greater infiltration by the dominant gendered interests which impacts on the framing 3
of issues, and policies by state institutions. For the women in the Third World the state and civil society are both complex terrainsfractures, oppressive, threatening, while at the same time providing spaces for struggle and negotiation. State embeddedness, as well as state autonomy, therefore embody complex gendered relations that work against women, as well as providing resources for negotiation and struggle (1996:14-15). The term "weak" state here, following Gunnar Myrdal, refers to the levels of successful implementation of decisions. In weak or soft states, there was a `general inclination of people to resist public controls and their implementation' (Myrdal, 1968:209 quoted in Rai, 1996:14). In Myanmar, the enforcement of regulations is strict, but how much the implemented regulations follow the intent of the original political decision is questionable. In other words, since there is no clear written official announcement of many of the major policy decisions, there is ample room for lower-level implementers to manoeuvre and interpret the policy direction. In one sense, the policies are strongly socially embedded, and thus gender relations in the locale affect the implementation of state policies. The state policy is experienced differently according to the locale within the territory. In border towns, the state is `weak' or intentionally `weak' in order to derive economic benefits for large businesses and the state. But Burman gender ideologies do not seem to influence policy. On the contrary, gender norms are seen to be more relaxed. The degree to which gender ideology influences state policy outcomes are not only determined by `strong' or `weak' states, but also by women's and men's sense of identity. As Sahlins (1998) says, local-level negotiations construct the nation from the outside in. The associations of identity and locality, structure and belonging, not only offer insights into how the state manages and maintains extensions of its power (Wilson and Donnan, 1998:20), but also into how the borderland women and men negotiate their spaces in relation to the border, to the state, and to their original community in the heartlands. This study examined Burman women's agency in their relation to the state. As Gillian Youngs (2000:56) said, we need to adopt multi-locational perspectives on 1 Shirin Rai pointed out that state capacity literature (such as by Gunnar Myrdal, 1968) saw a close 4
patriarchal forces in terms of state and market, in order to have a fuller picture of structural forces and points of structure/agency interaction. We see borderlands as a relatively ambivalent area, where the state's political control and their imposition of mainstream social norms are weaker compared to the capital and to the geographically inner part of the nation. Anderson (1996) stated that borders have a role in marking national identity, the pre-eminent identity of the modern state, thus borders are indispensable elements in the construction of national cultures. However, the state is not always able to exercise political control on borders. As Anderson himself recognises, cultural landscapes transcend political ones in border regions, thus there is a lack of fit between national culture and state sovereignty and domain. Because of its geographical remoteness from the capital, and its proximity to another nation-state, as well as accessibility to information and markets across the border, people's economic strategies and resources are open to wider opportunities and choices that circumvent and evade the political control of the state. Donnan and Wilson (1999), in covering the current debate surrounding international borders, stated: "... [A]t borders, we see the confluence of culture, power and the state ... states act as aggregations of the rules for social and economic action .... In the lives of border peoples the border is a resource, an opportunity and a barrier, but it is also a symbol of their role in the cultural value systems and in systems of economic value, which are important to the daily functioning of the states in which they live." (126-127) Borders have an ambivalent nature both for the state and for the people living in borderlands. For the state, they are markers of national identity (Anderson, 1996), and the means of maintaining state control over the movement of people, goods, wealth and information (Okin, 1999). At the same time, they are a place where states cooperation between the state and the `peak interest groups' in civil society as a feature of strong states. 5
see their political grip as most often threatened.2 For people living in the area, it is a place where they have the opportunity to escape state control, but at the same time, they feel direct obstacles to their mobility through the demarcation of the border. However, this obstacle also becomes a resource for them, since political and economic differences across the border can be exploited by those living in border areas. The state attempts to control such "irregularities" in the borderlands. This control often takes the form of punishing women who deviate from the mainstream social norm. Cheater (1998) described how female cross-border traders in Zimbabwe were seen as a threat and denounced as unpatriotic, chaotic, and required to be under control, while larger male traders were encouraged to be engaged in trade. Burman migrants who come to the border town of Tachilek face this ambivalent culture in the borderlands, different from that in their native villages. The migration of women has been seen as allowing them an escape from traditional systems of male domination and leading to an improvement in their status (United Nations, 1999; Mager, 1999; Boserup, 1970:191; Halfacree and Boyle, 1999). It is a fundamental medium for the transformation of societies and the emergence of new social relationships (United Nations, 1999). However, Bjeren (1997:242) and Sudarkasa (1977) argued that women's rationale for migration for work is an extension of their motherly and wifely responsibilities. Sharpe (2001), in her review of past migration research, pointed out different areas that researchers have been discussing: (1) Migration as individual motivation or a family strategy, or a result of family breakdown. In that sense, does migration of women lead to their emancipation? (2) Migration and identity. Can migrant women liberate themselves or are traditional gender roles perpetuated? What are the social controls that women experience, and in that sense, do they lose their legal standing when they migrate; and are they denied citizenship in the place to which they migrated? 2 Such threats can be seen in a recent comment by the prime minister of Thailand Taksin Shinawatra when he "instructed the army chief to erect fences along the border with Malaysia, to prevent separatists hiding out there crossing back to cause trouble in the deep South... Mr. Thaksin was unhappy that people on both sides of the frontier could cross back and forth without going through border checkpoints." (Bangkok Post, Feb 17, 2004). 6
(3) The emotional and physical effects of migration on women. (4) The situation of women who were `left behind', whether they become destitute or whether it enhances women's decision-making power. This study locates itself in the body of literature on the first and second of these points, but argues that migration not only provides an escape for women, but also a way for women to circumvent the state and its policy through migration. Burman migrants, whether they came to the border town to escape the suppressive cultures in their own village, or because of economic reasons (to support their family as part of their motherly or daughterly duties), slip into the borderland where the state does not offer a cultural framework that will place them in a certain hierarchy. Consequently, they maintain their relationships and identities with their native villages, but explore new social relationships in the border town at the same time. As Sharpe (2001) pointed out, women migrants are used to define collective identity of the community of migrants. Thus, the community scrutinizes their social behaviour, although not to the same extent as in the rural village. Women negotiate gender relations apart from the value of `old world' to `new world' (Harzig, 2001), but it does not necessarily become totally liberating. Chang and Ling (2000) demonstrated how Filipino migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong redefine their work in terms of devotion to God, family, and community, and embrace identities as wives, mothers, and daughters to counter the racialised and sexualised image of the service provider. It is in relation to the discrimination in the place to which they migrated, that they emphasise the ties with their place of origin; thus restricting and mutually policing their behaviours and avoid deviation from this image. Burman migrants in Tachilek do not face the discrimination as in the case of Filipina Migrant Workers in Hong Kong, but they are in a state of ambivalencestill ideologically linked to the relational places of their native village, yet also keeping up with their relationships in the borderlands. They construct a certain network of relationships for themselves that allows flexibility in behaviour while still maintaining their roots, and thus still partly constrained by the norms of their home community. McDowell (1999:5) explains the concept of relational places as locales constructed through social relations between groups and individuals. Social distance does not always imply geographical distance and vice versa. Spaces and boundaries can be 7
shifted and created by different people through social practices that construct social relations. The Burman migrants expand their relational places from their native village to the border by sending women and men to work there, and in return the migrants sustain their identity in their villages. The expansion of relational places further affects the societal norms in the native village, because of their exposure to border culture and also the village's relationship with the state and the market. This research paper is based on interviews with Burman migrant women in the border town Tachilek, which is located on the Thai-Myanmar border. As border regions are places and spaces of different cultures and ethnic populations and identity, and with diverse cross-border interactions, there are new roles for rural women, new problems associated with living in the border areas and the prospect of radical changes in status as well. The rural women migrants have to adjust and adapt to language differences and border cultures, and create new relationships with local communities and ethnic groups in the border town. The fieldwork was conducted in June, 2002, both in Tachilek, the Thai-Myanmar border town and in Sae Doe village, the native village of these Burman migrant women, located in lowland Myanmar. Informal in-depth interviews were conducted with six Burman women from the lowland currently working in Tachilek to get the oral testimonies of their lives as migrant workers in the border town. Data were also collected in both Tachilek and Sae Doe through participant and non-participant observation and informal conversations with the original settlers of the border town (Shan ethnic group), and relatives and friends of the Burman migrants in Sae Doe village. Thai-Myanmar border The area around Tachilek was under the rule of Lang Na kingdom in the 15th century. Different Burmese kings, the Shans and the Thai kings attacked Chiang Mai, which was then the capital of the region. Finally in 1932, Chiang Mai became a province of Siam (Thailand). The border demarcation with Siam (Thailand) was made only when Burma (Myanmar) became a province of British India in the 19th century. There never were marked borderlines until colonial powers came into the area to occupy and exploit. As Prasertkul (1989, quoted in Than, 1996:213) in his study of border trade 8
in Southwest China noted, `lines on a map and administrative centralization are not necessarily the restriction of human activities, particularly for those whose conceptual world has not been adapted to the perceptive values of modern nation-states'. Benedict Andersen (1983) argued that the notions of border in traditional Southeast Asian state (negeri) are different from those of the modern nation-state. Carsten (1998) maintained that in Southeast Asia, the traditional state was defined by its centre and not by its boundaries. Population mobility was and still is a significant aspect of social life in Southeast Asia, and she found that the Malaysian villages along the Thai borders regard southern Thailand as "very much part of their social world" (224). Border trade between Myanmar and Thailand's northern and southern borders started around 1900 (Ireland, 1907 cited in Than, 1996). In those days, the items that Myanmar imported from Thailand were timber (teak), leather, copper, mats, iron, lead, opium, salt, marine products and various kinds of grain, spices, raw silk, tobacco, marble, refined sugar, and seasonal fruits. Myanmar's exports to Thailand were animals, lime, rattan, silk, spices, drugs and medicine and woolen clothing. Since 1915, border trade between the two neighbouring countries has grown. From independence till 1989, the area around Tachilek was a war zone controlled by the Wa ethnic group. When the Wa leaders signed a ceasefire agreement with the government, the Myanmar authorities granted them generous terms, including business concessions in the region. Tachilek became part of the government's Border Areas Development Program, and an autonomous zone where one can find businesses (shops, restaurants, nightclubs) owned by the Wa leaders. The Thai currency baht dominates the market in Tachilek, even in small roadside stalls. The bilateral trade between Thailand and Myanmar grew ten-fold from US$ 31.5 million in 1988 to US$ 393.8 million in 1999-2000 (United Nations, 1997 and Thailand and Myanmar share about 2,000 kilometres of border. Although there are many crossing points along the Thai-Myanmar border, the Chiang Rai-Tachilek / Kentung road is the only paved road available. The border towns of Mae Sai, in Chiang Rai district (on the Thai side), and Tachilek, in Shan State (on the Myanmar side), are linked by a narrow stream. For the residents 9
of both sides there is no barrier for mobility. Therefore, many bi-national families reside in the adjacent border communities of Mae Sai and Tachilek. In Tachilek, most of the border residents are Shan people (also known as Tai Yai in Thailand). Since the Shan language belongs to the Tai language group, which is closely related to Thai (Siamese) and Lao (Laotian), the local residents (Shan people) from Tachilek and its neighbouring border communities have no difficulty in communication. There is a common social bond felt by many Shan residents in the two cities. In fact the residents say, "there is no border for us, and the Thai-Myanmar friendship bridge between the two towns unites rather than separates us". The constant crossings of the bridge by relatives on both sides exemplified the above saying. The social unity between many residents in Tachilek and Mae Sai also creates Culture Unity. Children born on one side may be raised on the other, while adults travel back and forth to work and visit relatives. The residents of Tachilek include ethnic peoples such as Shan, Akha, Lahu, and Wa. The Burman from the lowlands who are working as wage labourers there are regarded as visitors and migrant workers. The ethnic Shan comprise 70% of the border population and they live in the plains of Tachilek, whereas Akha and Lahu people live in the nearby mountains of Tachilek. The Akha and Lahu people are involved in agriculture work. They sell their agriculture products and livestock in the border town market. Some of them are engaged in cross-border trade, together with Shan. It is learnt that there is no conflict between the Shan and the Akha and Lahu groups. People from different ethnic groups in the border town celebrate shared social and religious activities, especially during Buddhist New Year. The lowland Burman can be found in the outskirts of Tachilek, also known as `Myothit'. The local administration sees this as a newly formed area (used to be paddy fields) for migrant workers. The local residents see the migrants as people working in odd jobs that the local Shan residents do not take up3. Most Burman migrants, both men and women, work in teashops, construction sites and other low- 3 During the British colonial days, British government separated the ethnic groups and implemented a "divide and rule" policy. This policy affects the ethnic conflict in Myanmar even today. The present Burmese government implicitly gives privilege to Buddhist Burman. Other ethnic groups are discriminated against, for example, for government jobs and promotions. This has spurred many ethnic peoples to self-declare their ethnicity as Burman. 10
paid wage jobs. Their daily wage ranges from 40-80 baht, which is quite satisfactory, compared to their income in the village. Barriers and opportunity in the border During the data collection time in June 2002, the Thai-Myanmar border was closed due to border skirmishes4, and there was no official crossing of the border. The ThaiMyanmar friendship bridge was sealed from the Myanmar side. It was reported in Bangkok Post (June 2, 2002) that "In Myanmar's Tachilek town opposite Mae Sai, security was beefed up with checkpoints being formed to screen travellers and bar non-Tachilek residents from entering the town. telephone lines were cut off for several days". There was even a shooting order if one crossed the border. But some people from the Myanmar side were seen crossing the border through the stream, explaining that they had an "understanding" (had paid a bribe) with the security guards (both from Thailand and Myanmar). There was no official cross-border trading of goods, but individuals carried as many goods as they could across the border. Many vegetable vendors who could speak Thai cross the border daily by bribing the security guards to buy vegetables from the Thai side and selling them in Tachilek market. One vendor (Aka ethnic) remarked, "I don't care if the border is closed. I can find my way through to the other side". One Shan businesswoman said, "We are used to the frequent border closure by Myanmar authorities, but the border communities from both sides do not hate each other and although there are obstacles, we try our best to carry out cross-border trade". It was observed that during the night, traders from Myanmar would cross the stream and collect the goods left by Thai traders during the day. The goods included fruits, canned food, cooking oil and other foodstuffs. Whenever there is a border conflict, the trading from the Thai side is the worst hit. The Bangkok Post (22 October, 2002) reported, "Thai products gather dust in warehouse". Thai traders mostly rely on large formal trade with the residents as well as with Myanmar government, thus are affected by official closing of the border more than small Burmese vendors. 4 Along the Thai-Myanmar border, there are some rebel groups (in opposition to the Myanmar government). There are often clashes between the Myanmar government and the rebel groups. Myanmar suspects that the Thai government is supporting the rebel groups (especially the Shan rebel group) and consequently there are recurrent and sporadic border problems. 11
The border has a loose administration, as the local authorities--the township administrative body--cannot control the activities that are considered illegal in other areas of Myanmar (such as casinos and informal border trade) in the booming border town of Tachilek. Business people and traders pave their way by giving bribes to the local authorities for the smooth operation of their businesses, including human trafficking. In fact, those who are in control of this border town are the ones who are granted several business concessions by the military, for example, the Wa who have a cease-fire agreement with the government. One local resident remarked, "the border is never an easy place to live in. You need money and power--good connections with the high ranking officials from the military, the government and the cease-fire groups5". The weak or absent political control by the state in the border is evident when compared with the capital, Yangon. The difference between the border town and the urban inner cities, like Yangon or Mandalay, is the administration and the people. In the border town, one can pay one's way by bribing government officials. Cease-fire groups and those who can afford to buy guns can carry their weapons in the town. No such scenes can be seen in Yangon. At night, border people who have money to spare enjoy karaoke bars, casinos, dance and music, and people have freedom of mobility. In Yangon, the military government exercises total control. Many residents in Yangon6 do not go out at night for fear of interrogation by the military intelligence. As the military government is cautious of underground political movements, if a person is considered suspicious, he/she can be taken away indefinitely for questioning and the family cannot get him/her back. Yangon residents are closely watched by military intelligence everywhere. Often there is recruitment of soldiers, and those roaming the city's roads are vulnerable. Therefore, the nightlife in Yangon is not lively, but on the contrary, rather scary, with limited mobility for both women and men. In the border town, although there are rumours of trafficking of women, both women and men are out moving freely even during the night. 5 Cease-fire groups are the ethnic groups that signed cease-fire agreement with the State, and are given concession for business in the area and are permitted to hold firearms. 6 Military and people related to the military and the elite are exceptions. 12
In a conversation with Burman migrant women, they explained that they decided to come to the border town not only for jobs, but also for personal freedom from social pressures, norms and hierarchy. Although some of them have never been to the city of Yangon, they have heard tales from their friends. These women have heard about the complaints, for example, harassment by men while travelling in public buses, or not being able to participate in performances by famous musicians where only the rich people and the elite can go. There is class discrimination among the people in the city. But in the border town, unlike Yangon, everyone, both local residents and the Burmese migrant workers can attend any performance or social activity as long as they pay the entrance fees. Young women migrants in the border town have the freedom to wear any outfit they like, such as T-shirts and jeans, without being stared at or sexually harassed. By contrast, if they wear non-traditional clothes in Yangon, they will be criticized by neighbours and ward leaders and will also be vulnerable to harassment by men. This is because the urban Burman society looks down on rural Burman women. If rural women come to work in the interior cities wearing nontraditional clothes, they are branded as being of loose character. French (1994), in his work on amputees in a Cambodian refugee camp, showed how the authority structure constructed emotional experiences. The authority structure, together with the unspeakable recent past and the structures of power and domination that is supported by the karmic view of the universe, creates a unique "local moral world" in which "certain behaviours and responses were expectable, certain affects and emotions all but impossible" (p.93). In Tachilek and Yangon or other areas in the interior, the "local moral world" can be different, depending on the state authority structure. A migrant's life in the central urban cities can be stagnant, as there is no way out. But in the border town, depending on the situation, migrant workers, both men and women, can cross the border to join the labour market in Thailand. Therefore their journey may not end at the border town, unlike in the cities in the interior. Women can be vulnerable to violence when crossing the border, as there are cases of women being trafficked into neighbouring countries. But there is less social restriction on women, unlike the Burman-dominated central urban cities where women are subject to many social restrictions. For example, in the central Burman-dominated societies, 13
women are not expected to go out with male friends, or go out alone late at night, and are expected to wear traditional clothes. Although Shans and Was that dominate Tachilek town have less strict restrictions on women's behaviour and mobility compared to the Burman, in the border town, their norms become even more lenient. Thus, the border offers a particular culture of its own. However, it is noted that Burman migrants, both women and men, live in a close community, where most know each other's village and even families. With such connections, Burman migrant women are not wholly unconstrained since the gossip networks extend between the two places. Their "local moral world" in Tachilek can be shaped by their native village people. Life in the native village Sae Doe in Mandalay division, known as central Myanmar, is composed of a cluster of villages with approximately 1,000 households. All the residents are Buddhist Burmans. The communities have relative homogeneity, and limited mobility with no opportunity for venturing outside the village or village cluster. Women are generally discouraged from contacting male outsiders, thus women's social contact is limited to women in the same village. There is a traditional Burmese saying for women: "Thar ko thakin, lin ko paya" (Husband is God, son is master). Such gender norms define women's functions and reinforce their secondary positions in the household and society, and therefore act to keep them at home, and give them a lower social status. Special emphasis is placed on women as the protectors of traditional culture. One prohibition on women's behaviour involves dress--women have to wear the longyi7 very long, almost to the ankles. Women and girls wearing trousers or short skirts are seen as "loose" women and criticized. A girl in a rural household is expected to be obedient to her parents and elders, docile in her manners and efficient in carrying out her domestic chores. The village girl's outdoor activities, labour participation, and freedom are more or less restricted even after marriage. Her reputation depends on the opinion of the village community (Khaing, 1984). Women are not allowed to 7 Traditional Burmese dress--a wrap-around skirt. 14
travel alone outside the village. If a woman wants to go somewhere outside the village, she has to be accompanied by her brother or a male relative. One of the Burman migrant respondents recalled the attitude of village people as: "In my village, whenever I want to go to the pwe (festival) in the nearby village, I have to ask approval from my parents and go with my cousin brothers or other male relatives. This is because village elders say that woman travelling alone is not safe". Arranged or coerced marriages are still practiced in both rural and urban areas, the parents and the village leaders doing the honours. A high value is placed on women's virginity at marriage. Divorced women are often viewed with suspicion rather than sympathy by their communities, regardless of the conditions of their marriage. A traditional saying has it that, "a woman who has changed two or three husbands is full of deceit". Among the respondents was a woman whose husband had left her. She shared her feelings on why she came to the border town: "When my husband left me for another woman, the village people criticized me, saying that I don't behave well and that is why he left me. My husband drinks a lot but the village people do not see his weaknesses. In the end, all the blame is put on me. I feel very angry, no one understands me. I am not happy in the village anymore. So with the help of a friend who has been to the "Ne-Zat" (meaning border town8), I decided to leave for the border town". 8 Ne Zat literally means international borders. Myanmar has borders with China, India, Bangladesh and Thailand, with the Thai border being the longest. The word Ne-Zat was commonly used to refer to Tachilek before 1988. Tachilek was known for its illegal border trade with Thailand, and had a bad image. People did not like to refer to Tachilek or tell others that they are going to Tachilek. Thus, when necessary, they used the word "Ne-Zat" to refer to Tachilek. Recently, with the prosperity in Tachilek and the increasing number of people migrating to Tachilek, more people are using the word Tachilek instead of Ne-Zat. Thailand is called "the other country" because of its linkages with trafficking of women and drugs. So, the campaign of the government will say, "Do not go to the other country" while what they are really saying is: do not go to Thailand. 15
Because of the social roles and gender stereotypes, women are trained to believe that men are born leaders and breadwinners of the household, while women are dependents and therefore necessarily secondary. In Sae Doe village, men used to migrate to the border town and other urban cities for wage work. They would go individually or in groups, later followed by some family members. By observation and through conversation with the villagers, it came to be known that some families are settling well in the border town and they would bring this news of a `better future' of better job opportunities in the border town. Women who followed their male family members, would return to tell their friends in the village about the plus points of the lifestyle in the border town: women earning independent income from wage work, freer mobility, how they enjoy their days off by going to shopping centres, movies, bazaars and so on. These women would rarely mention the flip side of the border town such as trafficking of women, women in commercial sex work and gambling dens. Many women from the village are attracted by their peers' testimonies about the environment in Tachilek and therefore leave the village seeking a better life, many against their parents' will. The market-oriented economic reform policies of the government have taken various forms. In Tachilek, it manifested itself as the opening of the border and freedom in engaging in various businesses, some of which are illegal in the interiors, such as brothels. In the rural areas, such as the villages where the Burman migrant women came from, it was manifested as a land reclamation policy and forceful increase in rice production through compulsory selling of rice to the state. In the rural areas, these economic liberalization policies have brought serious problems since 1988. Farmers have to double and triple their rice crop and need to fulfil a certain quota to sell to the state. Many farmers even had to buy rice to fulfil the quota. The land reclamation policy made farmers landless, since some land was reclaimed by the state, depriving farmers of access to ancestral land. Because they have lost their right to land, they cannot use their land rights to access credit9, thus making it difficult to invest in order to increase production. Therefore a large number of farmers became landless labourers. Both women and men abandon farming and look for wage work 9 Before, rights to ancestral lands were commonly acknowledged, and thus, these lands could be used for collateral in the locality. Now that some farmers have "officially" lost their land, they are not able to even use the land for production. 16
in the cities and the border town depending on their contacts10. Banks (1983 quoted in Carsten, 1998:223) described that migration in the 19th Century Kedah was led by heavy demands of forced labour, military services and taxation, and created a second style of life that were somewhat freer from the Sultans. Burmans migrating to Tachilek can also be seen as a quest for second style of life defying state control in the place away from "near the Royal Court" (Carsten, 1998:223). One female villager expressed her feelings on migration of women in her village by saying: "Now in our village, you will notice in most of the houses that women family members of the houses (mother, sister, wife etc) go to Tachilek and work. Some followed their husbands but most of the single women go with their friends. Before 1988, going to work in the border town (known as dark city) was not popular at all. People felt ashamed to work in the border town. Women who went to work in the border town were called `loose women' with bad character. Nowadays, women and young girls from our village do not care whether they will be called "bad". They need to earn the money to support the family and they need a better future for themselves". The mother of one respondent tells her impression of the border town as: "When my daughter asked her parents' permission to go to the border town, we did not give her permission unless she travels with friends. We let her go when she arranged to go the border town with friends. I and my husband believe that the border town is not safe for a young woman to travel unaccompanied." One migrant woman who is currently working in the border town recalled her memory of leaving the village: 10 Informal contacts among relatives, friends and others known to have migrated previously to the border town are called upon for guidance. 17
"Life in the village has little hope for the future. Therefore, I came to the border town to work and earn independent income. I would like to have a life free of social restrictions with freer mobility, unlike in my village". Challenges to traditions and social networks In contrast to the rural environment where a woman's life has limited mobility, fewer role models and fewer decisions to be made, the environment of the border town Tachilek has greater heterogeneity and mobility. This provides new models and experiences, and fills social spaces with increasing numbers of strangers belonging to different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Women migrants are engaged in wage work or small business, which they never did before. Since it is easier to buy prepared food in border town, they cook less at home, and buy more food. Women's role in the household changed, as they spent less time doing household work. Unlike in rural villages, husbands helped in the household work. Such a deviation in the gender division of labour would have been severely criticized by neighbours and relatives in their native village. As migrant women spend more and more time in wage-earning work, they have less time to mingle with their friends and relatives, or to go to pwes (festivals), weddings and pagodas. Lack of time makes it difficult for them to maintain the socially acceptable roles and behaviour that they would have strictly adhered to in their native villages. Unlike in the village, it is normal for women in border towns to go alone to the town, meeting friends or shopping. The migrant women can cross the border to visit Mae Sai. Although there is no conflict between the local residents and the Burman migrants, many Burman migrant women prefer to have contacts and friendships with members of their own ethnic group. One reason is the respondents' lack of language skills. Furthermore, in choosing the wage job, the respondents choose a workplace where their friends and relatives are working. The presence of friends or relatives in the border town plays an important role in Burman migrant women's adjustment. 18
"I chose to work in this garlic cutting place where some of the workers are my friends. Although the work conditions are not goodcrowded and unhealthyI continue to work there. Whenever I feel homesick, my work mates from my home town give me moral support." Most of the migrant women feel safe and comfortable within the same dialect group, and therefore tolerate low salaries and long hours with poor working conditions. Although some women actively associate with Shans to advance their economic perspectives, most stick to their own group. This gives them comfort by reaffirming where they belong, as one respondent said: "The modern urban life and the western looks of the local people are rather cold and indifferent. I feel comfortable staying and working within the same dialect group. I feel the friendliness and openness among them." Border culture is seen as alien as well as secondary culture, since they, coming from the interior, still consider the border as a marginalized illicit place. They do not want to raise children there, since they consider the culture inappropriate for children. Therefore, they maintain relationships and identity with the native village. Because of such relationships being extended from the native village, it is difficult for women to change their affiliations. One respondent shared her feelings of not being comfortable in the same dialect group. This is because she feels that people spread gossip to the native village. They do not want to let their family know about their working conditions and their lifestyle. Sometimes, customers in restaurants misbehave with them, and they do not want such things known back home. For this respondent, she just wants her family to know that she is fine and doing well. She expresses her experience as: "Unlike most of the Burman migrant workers, I chose to work in the restaurant. I have to serve food and sometimes alcohol to customers, according to their orders. I am the only Burman woman working there; the other workers are Shan and Akha women. I heard many Burman in the border town talking 19
about me as a bad woman. They even spread this news to my family in the village and my mother wrote to me that she was very worried about me. I know what I am doing. At the same time, I feel very angry with the people who gossip about me. So I stay away from the Burman community." Her social life centres on mixing with Shan or Akha women who are her work mates. Although she is socially isolated from the Burman communities, she is able to socialize with non-Burman friends and therefore is adapting well to the border town. In one sense, she is subverting the control of the state and the community that she came from, first by trying to exit the relational space of the native village, and second by trying to be more like Shans and Akhas who are defined by the state as inferior, thus going against the values of the state. New roles and behaviour When rural women gave up agriculture by joining the labour market in border towns, their role in the household changed from unpaid family labour to income earner. They began to share some of the decision-making power in the household. There were changes in the attitudes of family members towards women. One respondent shares her experience about her better relationship with her mother-in-law who used to reside with them in the rural village home as: "My mother-in-law controlled me a lot in the rural home. All my time was spent doing housework and I had no free time. My husband is the eldest son in his family and he went to the border town seasonally, when there was a break from farm work, to work at one of the construction sites. When he told me about other Burman women working in the border town, and seeing some of my friends leaving the village for wage jobs, I was interested. As the income from farm work was not enough to feed the family, I told my husband that I would like to go to the border town like other women. He let me go but told me to come back soon. But my mother-in-law strongly opposed this idea and she even got angry with my husband. In the end, I was able to come to the border town with other women from the village and able to escape from my domineering mother-in-law. As I am working in the border town, I am now able to send money home to my children. With the money sent, my husband 20
was able to repair our house. I am able to send some herbal medicine for my mother-in-law. Seeing these changes, my mother-in-law's attitude towards me changed. Now she is offering to take care of my children during my absence". All the respondents agree that by working in border towns, their personality has changed for the better--they have become more flexible, independent, mature, forward looking and self-confident. They are aware of lawlessness in the border town such as organized crime, hired killings, alcohol and gambling, illegal migration and trafficking of women and girls. However, the border also provides them with better economic opportunities, mobility, information and new perspectives of way of thinking and behaviour. With all the advantages in the border, the migrants do not attach their identity fully with the border, but maintain the relationships among friends and relatives both in the village and the place of destination. Although they are criticized for dressing in modern clothes, because of their exposure to information, migrant women can form new types of relationships in their native villages. Based on their personal experiences, the respondents are able to share the pros and cons of living and working in the border town with new arrivals from the village and their peer groups who are thinking of migrating to the border town. The women's role in the village community is expanded, as they act as mentors to other women in the village who are thinking of going to the border. The following sharing by the respondents show that they are proud of themselves for being able to share various kinds of border information with their friends and neighbours in the village. "I am glad that I was able to share my life experiences in the border town at the village meeting. I was able to tell the village elders that I am concerned about our innocent young girls being betrayed by strangers or brokers at the border town. I told them how many young girls and women in the rural villages are being sold to the neighbouring countries in the border town. Because of my sharing, the parents in the village are aware of the unexpected situation that could be encountered by any young woman. After the village meeting, the villagers came to thank me for sharing such information. I feel happy that I could contribute something useful for my native village." 21
"Traditionally, the rural women are very quiet and not used to actively participate in the village meeting. I was among those who feel diffident about speaking in village meetings. Now that I am working in the border town, it has broadened my horizons. I have come to know and learn many things about the border town. Now I feel confident to talk in meetings as I have some knowledge about the border town to share with the village community." "When I was a peasant woman, I did not have enough courage to participate in family discussions. As my husband is the breadwinner of the household, I just listened to what he and my in-laws said. I had no say in family matters. When the income from my wage work became a supplement to my husband's income, the situation changed. I am now able to have my voice in the family discussion and decision-making. For example, when I send money home, I could say `x' be used for children's school fees and `y' for investment in the farm work. Now I feel I am part of the family." Changes observed in migrant women's native village It is noted that in Se Doe village, approximately 80% of the households have at least one member living and working in Tachilek. There are some who work in urban cities like Mandalay and Yangon. Now most of the village people have a positive outlook toward female migration to the border town. Return visits underline the commitment of female migrants to the village. Bringing money home and supplementing the living expenses at home is also seen as an expression of filial piety and commitment to the native village. There is material development noted in many of the rural houses as migrants' houses are decorated with modern appliances. Durable goods such as locally made generators (inverters), cassette players, televisions, VCD players, electric fans, rice cookers and so on are brought back by the migrants on their return visits. As pirated VCDs are available cheap in the border town, many bring them home for others to watch. It is observed that some migrants' houses have become video houses for other villagers to come and watch the movies for recreation. Seeing all these developments in the rural village, the elderly members of the village feel the threat of gradually losing their village 22
traditions and culture. But the majority see practical benefits in having village women working in far away places. Despite this, women still face criticism, but as one migrant woman said: "Because of the current country's situation, every family in this village has at least one person working in the border town and other inner urban cities. It is not a big deal like before. After all, whether you receive respect in the village depends on whether the individual is successful or not." Success, here, for her, means economic success, specifically contributing to the family's material well-being, and observing her role as a dutiful daughter. Such "success" changes the attitudes of the rural parents, as they even encourage their daughters to follow other migrants. The parents of one of the respondents express why they are interested in sending another daughter to the border town where the elder daughter is working: "Since it is getting harder to farm and there is no profit, we encourage our children to look for a better job in the border town. One of our daughters has been working there for over 3 years. She is supporting the other younger children in schooling. This hot season we are going to send another daughter to join her sister there. Although we have been hearing about young girls being trafficked in the border town, we are confident that the two sisters can look after each other." It is noted that even though mothers encourage daughters to go, they are supposed to go with relatives and friends. The general acceptance of the border town developed not only because of the material benefits that they receive but also because of the extension in relational spaces. With more and more people going to the border town, villagers feel that their relational spaces are extended to the border town, that is, they have more cultural/ behavioural control in the border town than before. Earlier, Sae Doe village perceived Tachilek to be a dangerous town, out of the control of both state and community. With the influx of migrants to Tachilek, and the migrants' connection and commitment to Sae Doe village, Sae Doe village elders are able to 23
extend their relational space to Tachilek. In one sense, from the Sae Doe village elders' point of view, Tachilek is increasingly coming under the influence of Sae Doe village. The migrants need a sense of identity, which they cannot find in the border town. So they bring with them the identity of their native village. Concluding discussion The testimonies of migrant women and the villagers of their native village have shown that going to the border town for work has changed the relationship between these two places. The concept of relational space is relevant in describing the relationship between the border town and the interior, that is, the migrants' native village. With the state's policy on market-oriented Economic Reforms, the villagers of Sae Doe experienced difficulty in making ends meet. As a coping strategy, they began sending out sons and daughters to the border town, at first against their will, but later encouraging them. In one way, for the Sae Doe villagers, sending out migrants to the border town was one of their strategies to resist the statethe state, through its policy, had destroyed their livelihood. Going to the border town where the state control is weaker is symbolic of their resistance to the state. In the border town, the political grip of the state is weaker, because of its remoteness and difficulty of communication, and because it has until recently been a war zone, and has been controlled by the Wa. In 1990s, the Wa defected to the government, and thus state control came in, but not as fully as in the capital. The control is also intentionally weak for economic purposesit allows the state and state-related large businesses to thrive through an active border trade. Such weak control, added to the multi-ethnic composition of the area, has made class hierarchies and gender ideology more lenient than in the native villages or in the capital city. Burman migrants enjoy such "freedom" from class and gender restrictions as well as the economic opportunities that the border town offers. However, they are not able to associate themselves with the multi-ethnic border culture and maintain close ties with their native village. This helps in expanding the relational spaces of the people in Sae Doe village to the border town. In one sense, because they maintain strong linkages with the native village, women are not free of the cultural restrictions imposed on 24
women in the native village. However, at the same time, because of their economic "success", they are able to have a different standing and influence in the native village. By balancing the two spacestheir native village and the border townwomen gain breathing spaces of their own. They can enjoy the freedom of movement, behaviour and dressing in the border town, and at the same time, try to look as if they have not culturally changed by dressing conservatively in traditional outfits in their native village. In one sense, women migrants, by balancing the two spaces, are able to circumvent the gender norms imposed on them in the native villages. Women's links to the border have changed their relationship with the State. The case showed the transformation of poor women peasants who were exploited by state policy and the traditional gender ideology, to a border town entrepreneur who can circumvent the state as well as influence changes in the native community. Acknowledgement: The authors would like to thank ASEAN Foundation for making this research possible. We would also like to thank K.C. Meera and Veena N. for helping in English editing. Our thanks also go to the two anonymous reviewers who have provided us with useful comments. 25
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K Kusakabe, ZM Oo

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