A few days before, he had left the refugee camp to make a rare clandestine trip to the city of Chiang Mai. He wanted to see an old family friend about getting help with immigration papers. Leaving the camp and nearby town always carries a severe risk: If Samy gets caught, he faces deportation to Myanmar, where he’s wanted by the military junta.
It’s especially dangerous to travel great distances, past checkpoints on the Thai highways. A few months ago, when Google Latitude alerted me to the fact he was suddenly in Bangkok, I panicked, and immediately feared the worst. He turned out to be fine; he was making an (unsuccessful) appeal to the United Nations for resettlement.
This time, in Chiang Mai, Samy spent the bulk of his stay hiding out at his friend’s house. Chiang Mai is the largest city in Northern Thailand, a hub for commerce and tourism. While he was there, some unrest struck the city, as the bloody riots erupted in Bangkok, and security probably continues to be a top priority. Nonetheless, after days of laying low—and likely in dire need of a change of scenery—Samy made a mundane trip to the market to buy groceries.
Samy is from a northwestern region of Burma, closer to the border with India, and is clearly not of Thai descent. He could be picked out of a crowd with relative ease, if the authorities opted to engage in racial profiling. That's exactly what happened.
He was standing on the street corner when the Thai police approached him. They asked him if he was a Thai citizen. He said, "No." They asked him if he had migration papers. He said, "No." Then they arrested him.
By now, Samy has been in so many tight spots, and had his life threatened so many times, that I wonder how he felt as they brought him to the police station for questioning; as they led him to the detention cell. He's been in Burmese jail—after being wrongly accused of thievery by an unhinged military officer—and he's escaped. He eluded the military for years as they came after his family before being forced to flee. He’s crossed the border, eluding armed guards and patrols on both sides.
Like most of you reading this, I am totally incapable of empathizing with the kind of fear he must have endured: Samy has lived, for years, with a true existential threat. Every day, he has had to cope with a fear that the military would find his family, kill his family, and then kill him. He had to do something with that fear, respond to it somehow. It was there, unrelenting.
And after Samy successfully made it to Thailand, that omnipresent fear of getting killed was maybe, after time, replaced with a fear of getting caught, getting thrown out of the country—where the fear of getting killed was waiting for instant reprisal. Having lived with the former for so long, perhaps, in a twisted way, made it easier to cope with the latter. It’s maybe why he’s willing to take risks like these cross-country trips.
As a white, financially secure, middle-class American, I have no fear like that fear—any nightmare, any horrifying incident I’ve ever had, any brush with death, even, has always resolved into a safe, routine existence where I and my family and friends are not at risk of being rounded up and separated from our loved ones, and certainly not pursued by a death-dealing regime. I hate the idea of even writing about this (if Hemmingway’s "write what you know" policy were to have any merit, this page would be blank. But that’s part of this). Samy does have to live with the fear of getting killed, of getting caught—and addressing that, even with a few striving, unavailing words, at least feels like somewhere to start.
That is why I want to know how scared Samy really was, when he explained to the officers in Chiang Mai why he was there, that he was a refugee, that he posed no danger to anyone. Was it the fear we might feel when our car breaks down on the highway late at night? Was it the will-I-make-it fear? Or has he stopped feeling the fears we know altogether, as situations like this one became too routine in his life? Was this just white noise? Or did he let out a whooshing sigh of relief when the authorities decided to let him go, to leave him with just a warning?
He is perfectly calm when he tells me over the phone that “Oh yes, I was frightened.” His tone barely fluctuates as he speaks, betraying no hint of an answer. Like I would know what to do with one anyway.