As people traverse the Friendship Bridge—the official border crossing between Myanmar and Thailand—they see below them colourful tarps lining the roofs of dozens of ramshackle huts.
Hundreds have sought refuge on the long narrow stretch of land along the banks of Moei River between Mae Sot in Thailand and Myawaddy in Myanmar. In English, it’s called “No-Man’s Land” because neither country officially controls it.
Many of its residents survive selling food, cheap cigarettes, alcohol, expired Viagra and even sex videos to the meandering Thai and foreign tourists along the border.
Others ply more illicit trades.
At night, after the Thai soldiers patrolling the area go back to their base, the dealers cross the Thai border to peddle their drugs. Human traffickers use an unofficial border crossing on the river to clandestinely transport undocumented Myanmar workers to Thailand for labour and sex work.
Despite its seedier elements, many residents of No-Man’s Land are simply poor folks struggling to survive. Decades of conflict and successive military dictatorships has resulted in economic ruin in Myanmar. Seeking better lives, many have become trapped on the margins of the country.
Aung Kyaw Lin (not his real name) had moved to No-Man’s Land for security four days before I met him. The 12-year-old was sick of getting beat up by police for sleeping on the streets in Myawaddy on the opposite side of the river.
Now, with a roof over his head and a hot meal every day, Kyaw Lin says he is happy living in his new home, even though he was hungry when I met him.
On the Thai side of the border, Kyaw Lin begs every day and carries travellers’ bags for tips. All his earnings are given to a woman he calls his step-mother, even though they aren’t related. His friend, also living in the house with the woman, introduced him.
Criminal outfits force children and the elderly to beg for them in Myanmar and Thailand. Between working on the street and helping his new step-mother with the domestic chores, Kyaw Lin says he’s too busy to attend school.
Before, Kyaw Lin lived with his father and mother in Myawaddy. Later, his father abandoned the family after meeting another woman and moved to the Thai capital of Bangkok. Kyaw Lin’s mother was an alcoholic and drank every day. After she died, Kyaw Lin lived with his aunt for a while and then ran away, ending up on the street.
After dark, Kyaw Lin doesn’t dare to leave his new home in No Man’s Land. The shouting and fighting that happens every night makes it difficult to sleep, he says.
Brennan O’Connor worked for Canada’s leading media publications before dedicating himself full time to cover self-generated under-reported stories in the mainstream press. In 2010, he left his native country to move to Southeast Asia to follow a long-term photo project on Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups. O’Connor’s photography was recently projected at the prestigious Visa Pour l'image in Perpignan and honoured with the 2017 Prix Lucas Dolega Award in January. As part of the award, the series was exhibited in Paris this January. His work has been published in Foreign Policy; Paris Match; L’Obs; Al Jazeera; The National; Burn Magazine; and The Walrus and screened at Angkor Photo Festival and Yangon Photo Festival in 2015 and the Fotograf Vakfı 3rd Documentary Photography Days in 2016.