THE ROAD TO MANDALAY – Human trafficking in the Great Mekong

THE ROAD TO MANDALAY is set against the backdrop of the Mae Nam Khong, meaning the Mother of Waters in Thai, or the Great Mekong. This immense river boasts 4,000 kilometers of navigable waters winding their way across China, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Crossed every day by thousands of illegal migrants, it’s Southeast Asia’s equivalent to the Mediterranean Sea. Another highway for human trafficking.

The Greater Mekong region holds the dubious record for illegal immigration in the area. The men, women and children who are often the victims of unscrupulous traffickers are mainly heading for Thailand. Thousands of lives have been forced into domestic service, prostitution or forced labor in the fields and factories due to human trafficking. This perverse division of labor is a source of pure economic enslavement, not interdependence.

THE ROAD TO MANDALAY by the burmese filmmaker Midi Z is one of these stories of human trafficking, and a true one. Presented at the Venice Days of the 73rd Venice Film Festival and at the Toronto Film Festival, THE ROAD TO MANDALAY takes a jaundiced view of reality. It tells a heart wrenching and sobering tale that doesn’t give you any reason to hope that things will change.

On a summer night, a group of young Burmese set off down the Ruak River from the town of Tachileik, along the border with Thailand. The journey is broken up into several legs with money changing hands in order to ease the wheels of corruption, the majority being paid as bribes to local police.

Among the group young “travelers” are Gou, who is kind and considerate, and Lianqing who is decisive and courageous. Gou falls in love with Lianqing at first sight. Their relationship deepens when they arrive in Bangkok. What brings them together though isn’t any real connection but a shared bond of daily misery. They are very different, Gou and Lianqing. Most importantly they want different things.

Although seemingly fragile, her backpack full of her mother’s sauces, Lianqing is an extremely tough young woman. She’s determined to do whatever it takes to make it. Bangkok is only the first part of her journey as she wants to go far away. Maybe as far as Taiwan.

Gou and Lianqing work in factories outside the city. They don’t have any identity, rights, and are not even persons, just numbers on a uniform.

“From now on, you’re not Lianqing. You’re number 369.”

Isolation, alienation, extortion. Fragility. Illegal immigrants are fragile in every area of the world. At the mercy of everybody and everything. Gou takes amphetamines in order to keep pace with the required factory rhythms, while Lianqing drugs herself with her dreams. Her self-belief is simply unshakable.

The keys to her paradise are made of papers, false documents. Gou follows Lianqing without conviction. If it was up to him, he would continue to work in the factory in order to set aside that million baht (about €25,000) which he’d use to open up a clothing store in Myanmar.

“What you need the papers for?” (Gou)

“I could work in the city, get a passport, go to Taiwan.” (Lianqing)

“Do you believe that working in Taiwan is any better then here?” (Gou)

Cheated several times with “fake” false documents, Lianqing doesn’t give up and even starts to think about selling her body, dreaming about it in one of the most suggestive scenes of the film.

The words of the director Midi Z, accompanied by actors, Wu Ke-Xi (Lianqing) and Ko Kai (Gou) at the Venice Days Venice 73 make the plot of THE ROAD TO MANDALAY even more starkly real.

“If I hadn’t had the chance to study in Taiwan, I would have most certainly ended up like the characters in my film […]. Lianqing seeking security in documents. Gou in love.” (Midi Z)

And it’s this difference between the two characters which gives the film its tragic twist.

Thailand is a real magnet in the Greater Mekong region. The official borders may be crossed easily on foot, by boat or scooter thanks to the illicit collaboration between public officials and traffickers, who are the undisputed winners of globalization. The majority of economic migrants coming in from the villages travel in small groups of about four or five people and carry no documents.

Since the early 1990’s, millions of workers (as many men as women) have migrated to Thailand to find work, especially in agriculture and the lightly regulated fishing, construction and textile industries. The majority come from Myanmar (Burma). Burmese migrants to Thailand are mainly concentrated in the north and south of the country. There are approximately 2 million Burmese illegal workers in Thailand. The ruinous state of its economy after decades of military rule and international isolation are the main causes of immigration. Burma is still a poor country despite the economic recovery witnessed in recent years, where 70% of the population are still dependent on agriculture, often subsistence farming.

There are not only economic reasons for the exodos of Burmese. Over the last 40 years of military rule there has been a rising tide of discrimination and violence against Muslims. This has pushed thousands of men and women onto makeshift boats to Thailand or Malaysia. The latter is the preferred destination for the Rohingya, one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world.

There are about 800,000 people who are ethnically Rohingya. They’re mainly concentrated in the state of Rakhine in the west of the country, where their segregation is institutionalized. According to UNHCR statistics, the majority of the 94,000 people who illegally crossed the northern border with Bangladesh are from the Rohingya ethnic minority. Yet more victims of human trafficking.

Rohingya are considered by the Myanmar government to be foreigners from Bangladesh and continues to deny them citizenship. They have no right to vote, are not allowed to work outside their villages, and can’t marry or travel within the country without permission. Even if Aung San Suu Kyi is a global icon of non-violence, the inter-ethnic and religious tensions in today’s Burma have gone unresolved.

THE ROAD TO MANDALAY ends with the finale of a romantic drama. Unexpected, silent, and dry.

“I based the film on a true story that happened in 1992. In fact, the two young people return to Burma, and he ends up killing her to prevent her from returning to Thailand.” (Midi Z)

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