After military coup in Myanmar, exiles find refuge in border tea shop

NEAR THE THAI-MYANMAR BORDER – At a recently opened tea shop named ‘Freedom’, tea is steeped strong, then mixed with evaporated and condensed milk by a revolutionary on the loose.

Food is cooked on a gas stove by a 53-year-old woman forced to flee her home because of her support for the Burmese opposition, and served by teenage waiters targeted by authorities for attending pro-democracy protests . Customers pay at a counter manned by a young woman with long hair and a sweet smile – a former kindergarten teacher who refused to work under the generals who seized power in Myanmar early last year.

“I will be a saint in the time of the Buddha,” reads a Burmese poem scribbled in marker on an outdoor refrigerator. “I will revolt in the time of the dictator.”

As Myanmar descends into civil war, this teahouse on the country’s border with Thailand has become a haven for exiles. Six days a week, recent migrants filter through the metal gate of this converted terraced house, settling on wooden crates that serve as tables and chairs. Burmese folk songs blast from loudspeakers placed on the floor, and the woody smell of cheroot cigars is heavy in the humid air. Over cups of tea, patrons and staff talk about what they heard about the fighting back home and the last person they know who was in hiding, in jail or dead.

As Myanmar descends into civil war, a teahouse along that country’s border with Thailand has become a haven for fleeing exiles. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Have you heard of the barn? a customer asked a friend on a recent afternoon, referring to an empty farm building along the border where Myanmar villagers fleeing military airstrikes had taken refuge.

“Stuck,” he continued. “You can bring supplies but they won’t let anyone out.”

More than 176,000 Myanmar nationals have entered Thailand since the military coup, according to the International Organization for Migration. Thousands more arrive each month through the jungle, desperate to escape the junta’s brutal crackdown on the opposition. Crossing the border, the luckiest are picked up by humanitarian organizations which put them up in hotels and help them submit their requests for refuge or asylum. But many more rely on informal support networks.

Rebel soldiers break bread with military deserters in 20-square-foot rooms rented by resistance leaders and activists. Doctors, factory workers, farmers and orchestral musicians crowd into empty shelters, sharing sleeping mats.

Like the teahouse, these places are products of Myanmar’s civil war and reflect its continued toll. But they are also places where life goes on, where people find new ways to resist the military, form new communities and, inevitably, fall in love.

“We try to stick together,” said Thet Swe Win, who leads the team at Freedom tea shop. “It’s the only thing we can do.”

Tall, with shoulder-length hair and a toothy smile, Thet Swe Win, 36, arrived in Thailand six months after the coup, taking only his laptop and a family longyi., a traditional garment similar to a sarong. He ran a non-profit organization in Yangon and was well connected to the dissident community, so he quickly became involved in the effort to support newcomers, he said.

Initially, getting people to safety and preventing them from going to jail took up most of his time, he added. But as the fighting in Myanmar worsened and prospects for returning to the country dwindled, he realized that people in the border region also needed jobs.

Thet Swe Win, also known as Thet, saved $6,700 and rented the two-story building on a dusty street 10 km from the border. He recruited a motley group of new exiles, then came up with a plan: the first floor, which had an open-air space of 200 square meters (about 2,150 square feet), would be a restaurant serving tea and simple dishes like kyay oh – pork and egg noodles – and mohinga, a fish soup. The second floor would be a free place for people to organize activities for the diaspora.

Half of the profits from the tea shop would go to support the people who worked there, Thet decided. The other half would be sent back to Myanmar to help displaced people.

The exiles set up scaffolding next to the house for an outdoor kitchen. Then, on August 1, they opened their doors.

“A traditional tea room,” Thet said one recent afternoon, beaming as he passed crowded tables. “You can eat, smoke, talk. All the things that matter to Burmese people.

As the world moves on, Myanmar faces a growing and hidden toll

Waves of Burmese have already come to Thailand. In the 1980s, for example, when military persecution drove tens of thousands of ethnic Karen refugees to flee Myanmar, Thailand allowed international agencies to establish camps that provided food and shelter. This time, advocates say, the Thai government has not officially acknowledged the influx of people, making it difficult for aid agencies to deliver aid.

“There is nothing now to welcome the newcomer,” said Aung Moe Zaw, 55, a Burmese politician and activist who lives along the border. “For our survival, at least, we must support each other.”

Thet says he learns of new arrivals almost daily, often through calls from the local jail. In mid-August, he met a gym trainer from the city of Mandalay who fled after being targeted by the military for taking part in protests. He was unshaven and told Thet he had lost 50 pounds since arriving in Thailand. The following week, the gym trainer had joined the tea room as a dishwasher. He cleaned his beard and gained weight.

Despite the security risks, the rebels are not discreet about what their tea room represents.

A mural of revolutionary Che Guevara spans a wide wall, visible to passers-by. Receipts are printed with the Burmese words for “freedom”. And the tables are labeled, with torn pieces of cardboard, with the names of the towns in Myanmar that have seen the deadliest fighting: Mindat in the mountains of western Chin State; Pauk in the center of Magway; Myaung in Sagaing next door. The effect is such that when the waiters call out the orders, it sometimes looks like they’re paying their respects to the dead – “drinks for Mindat!”

They’re not looking to get caught, Thet said, smiling slightly. But they don’t try to hide either. Even though most of the employees have spent time in detention or had their homes raided by the army, they still want to be part of the resistance. So they can’t share their names, he said, but they will share their stories. (The names of tea shop employees have been withheld for security reasons.)

Take the cook, for example, Thet said, standing by the kitchen door and pointing to a middle-aged woman wearing an apron and hairnet, sweating over a wok. She ran a thriving bus company in Bago, a town of 250,000 people northeast of Yangon, and when her son joined the resistance, she took him in.

Or meet the manager, Thet continued, turning her head to look at a small, round-faced, dark-haired woman who was reviewing accounts near a table near the cash register. In Yangon, she was a private banker, he said, married with two children to a man who worked for the central bank. When her husband joined the civil disobedience movement and refused to work, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

“Masks, please,” the manager said, looking at the kitchen staff.

She raised her eyebrows when a stocky man with piercing almond eyes came out of the kitchen. He was taking a break, he said mischievously. With a towel draped over his shoulder, he walked over to the cash register, smiling at the cashier.

“Oh, don’t get me started on that big guy,” Thet said loud enough for him to hear. “Our tea machine.”

He was 29 years old, gregarious, civil engineer from Bago. He had been an activist at university, and when the coup happened, he led students and alumni in mass protests.

Part of him balked at the thought that he’d spent so many years poring over physics issues to spend his days stirring tea, he says. But he had been trying, lately, to focus on what he was grateful for. He wasn’t in jail. And when he arrived in Thailand, he had met a girl in one of the safe houses – a former kindergarten teacher with the sweetest smile.

“He’s a fighter,” the cashier told her fiancé with a laugh. “That’s what I like about him.”

On a recent Tuesday evening, as the clients were walking out, the gym trainer picked up a guitar. Leaning against a motorbike, he played a few chords, trying to remember the chords of popular music that played in Myanmar’s towns before the coup. Putting down washcloths and brooms, others in the shop gravitated toward him.

Throughout the border region, there had been rumors that the fighting in Myanmar was about to get worse – that the army would launch an offensive once the monsoon season ended in October. For the teahouse exiles, it was hard not to worry.

But the next day, Wednesday, was their weekly day off and so for a while they let themselves relax.

While playing the guitar, they prepared tea. Then they let each other talk, smoke and sing as the sky turned dark orange.

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