By Jacob Goldberg
The people of Thailand are in need of a reality check, and a new exhibit titled Myanmar Up-Close at Bangkok’s Museum Siam claims to offer one.
The walk-through exhibit, decorated in red and white—the two colours common to the flags of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and the Kingdom of Thailand—asks visitors what they know about Myanmar and its people.
“Doctors and nurses at big private hospitals, university lecturers, religious leaders, office workers in high-rise buildings, interpreters and billionaires,” rattles one section of the exhibit. “Do you have these images of Myanmar people in your head?”
Stereotypes about Myanmar people in Thailand are fuelled by local media in the Kingdom and by the way the two nations’ shared history is taught in Thai schools.
Thai media pay special attention to crimes committed by Burmese migrants, leading many Thais to think of their Burmese neighbours as troublemakers. Last year, this culminated in the controversial conviction of two young Burmese men for the murder of two British tourists in Koh Tao, even in the absence of evidence connecting them to the crime.
Meanwhile, nationalistic Thai governments over the last few decades have filled schools with educational materials cast the Burmese people as an aggressive, imperialist enemy. The 1917 book “Our Wars with the Burmese” by the nationalist Siamese prince Damrong Rajanubhab remains popular today and presents centuries of war between Burmese and Siamese kings as clashes between the two civilisations.
For Myanmar people, though, the current relationship between the two peoples is necessarily more complex. Myanmar people sometimes refer to Thailand by the name ‘Yodaya’—the Burmese translation of Ayutthaya, the Thai kingdom that Burmese rulers sacked repeatedly throughout the second half of the last millennium. Yet, in an a great reversal of fortunes, the Yodaya of today is home to the largest Burmese diaspora community in the world, with official Thai figures putting the number of Myanmar migrant workers in the Kingdom at around a million, though perhaps a million more live in the Kingdom as refugees or undocumented workers.
At once a perennial rival and a land of promise, Thailand draws immigrants from Myanmar in a variety of ways, including the promise of higher wages, educational opportunities and greater civil liberties. Myanmar Up-Close challenges its visitors to think beyond soundbites and to consider the push and pull factors that bring their westerly neighbours across the border.
One poem on the wall of the exhibit reads:
Dream of freedom and peace from political crises;
Dream of a job in Thailand, and perhaps a chance at being a boss back home one day;
Dream of being true to self in a society that welcomes gender diversity;
Dream of taking care of other Myanmar dreamers;
Dream of finding the dream here in Thailand.
The poem’s reference to gender diversity is not the only one in the exhibit. A lack of tolerance in Myanmar for people of marginalised gender identities as well as sexual orientations is featured in the exhibit as one of the most prominent pull factors drawing Myanmar people to Thailand.
One wall is decorated with dozens of balloons organised in neat rows, with each balloon emblazoned with a quote explaining why one Myanmar person sought to build a new life in Thailand.
“In Myanmar, I couldn’t come out that I like men. My mother didn’t like it, and people would tease me. Here, I have more freedom, and I can be myself,” says Ko Aung.
In addition to explaining the reasons Myanmar people move to Thailand, Myanmar Up-Close also recreates the journey across the border.
The entrance to the exhibition is decorated to resemble a songthaew, a common mode of transportation in some parts of Thailand that has also been used by Myanmar migrants to travel to Thailand since the 1980s.
A wall of the lockers showcases the objects Myanmar people bring with them and incorporate into their new lives in Thailand, including medicine from Myanmar, steel lunchboxes, thanaka wood, football jerseys and Myanmar newspapers.
Another section of the exhibit is called the Guest House, and Myanmar migrants are the guests. An explanation drives home the vision of the future the exhibit aims to create:
“Thailand is comparable to a big house, frequented by guests. Certain stereotypes make us look at them as strangers, despite the fact that we all live in the same house. If we could get to know each other and learn about each other through hopes, dreams and paths to success, we can make new friends. Thailand will become an excellent ‘Guest + House’, where its residents complete each other’s lives.”
Myanmar Up-Close will remain on display at Museum Siam until July 31.