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The Cost of Being a Beggar

“Sawadee Kha….Sawadee Kha.”

I looked back when I heard the voice of a woman on a street very crowded with people, motorcycles and other vehicles, just before dark.

I saw the woman I heard. She was wearing a dirty, tattered shirt and sitting on the street near the Night Bazar in Chiang Mai, embracing her four year-old daughter. There is a cup in front of her.

Curiosity made me stop walking.

Mostly, she sits silently on the edge of a bridge, head bowed, eyes blank, and looking dejected. However, when pedestrians walk near her she looks up at them quickly. “Sawadee Kha”, she says, trying to catch their gaze, palms together under her chin, bowing to them respectfully in the traditional Thai manner, as she begs for money.

BeggarThere are also Burmese children sitting nearby, with a cup in front of them, begging.

It reminds me of similar scenes in Bangkok.

These beggars come illegally to Thailand from different places in Burma because of economic and political difficulties. It’s sad for me to witness our Burmese people begging in another country.

When I put 20 baht to the cup in front of the woman holding the child, she said “Khorp Khun Kha”, which is Thai for, “Thank-you.”

However, she is obviously not Thai, judging from her accent.

She was afraid when I asked her, “Aunt, are you Burmese?”

She looked at me in surprise. Then she clutched her child and attempted to leave quickly.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“Don’t arrest me,” she said in response. When I heard her request, it made me sad in my heart.

“I don’t want to be a beggar; but I don’t have choice. So, I have to beg for money from people walking on the street. Please, don’t take my child. I have nothing to eat. That’s why I beg on the street. I want to work like other people. But, I cannot get any job. A motorcycle hit me and I have lost one leg, so employers don’t want me. I don’t want to beg but I don’t have any choice,” she told me.

I learned her name is Daw Cho. She told me some people don’t want to work like other people do, so they choose to be beggars. However, like her, many are old or cannot work for various reasons, so they have to push aside their shame and beg on the streets.

“It’s not easy to beg for money from other people. Sometimes, I almost cry when I beg. Sometimes, I have to tell travelers I have no food, to get their sympathy. I feel very sad. Sometimes, I want to cry. I feel pain in my heart.”

I asked her, “Why did you try to leave without talking to me a few minutes ago?”

“I thought you came from Mae Sot and cooperate with Thai police to arrest us. I heard Thai police arrested students and parents from SAW school in Mae Sot. That’s why I thought you came to arrest me. If we are arrested, police will take my child from me. I will be sent to jail. Then, they will deport me back to Burma,” she replied.

“They told us not to beg for money on the street with children. I know Thai children do not beg on the street. Their children go to school. We cannot provide anything to our children for going to school. So, we have to take them with us, even when we beg. It’s like, we are poor, so, our children are also poor,” she added.

According to other beggars who work the streets near the Night Bazar in Chiang Mai, Thai authorities cooperating with child care groups have arrested beggars who have their underage children with them on the street.

As I am talking with Daw Cho, I look around the Night bazar. I know many sellers in the Night Bazar are Burmese because they are openly talking to each other in Burmese.

But, Daw Cho whispers in Burmese because she is afraid authorities will hear her and know she is not Thai.

“I came to Thailand looking for a job. However, I have become a beggar. When I was in Burma, I was a daily laborer. I was afraid to beg like this inside Burma. I cut firewood and made charcoal. But the forests are disappearing in our country. We had nothing to do. It was really difficult to earn money for daily food. That’s why we left for Thailand. Government troops destroyed my paddy field. I lived in Shwe Kyin-Kyauk Gyi, Township, Bago Region. We couldn’t work because we were running all the time to avoid government forces,” she said.

She doesn’t want her three children to be beggars. So, she has saved some money and has attempted to send her children to school.

“I have to do whatever I can. I am a beggar but I don’t want my children to be beggars. I have no wish to see my children beg on the street. I won’t push them to beg on the street. If they can read and speak Thai, they can work as a vendor. As well, they can be a vender in Tarlay, in Burma,” she said.

Most beggars seen at the Night Bazaar are women and children.

Maung Aung, age 13, begs on the street near the Sunday market in Chiang Mai. He worked collecting plastic bottles in Burma. However, he could not earn enough money for daily food. Therefore, he came to Thailand, where he has become a beggar in Chiang Mai, which is difficult because he is so shy.

“I was born in Mandalay. My dad already passed away. I still have my Mom. I feel shy about talking about my story. I worked collecting plastic in Burma. When I arrived at Chiang Mai, I collected empty plastic-bottles. I had a problem. Here in Chiang Mai, there are many people collecting empty plastic-bottles. They each have territories. So, they forced me to leave their area. I have no choice. I became a beggar,” he said.

According to Maung Aung, he gets at least 150 baht a day. Even though he gets some money, he doesn’t want to be a beggar. He wants to go to school.

“I don’t want to do this. When I grow up a little bit, I will work another job. I’ll work and go to study at a free school when I grow up a little bit,” he said of his future plans.

 I asked an eight year-old beggar in the Night Bazar, “Will you be a beggar for the rest of your life?”

She said, “I won’t be a beggar in the future. No one will hire me now because I’m only eight. When I am 13 or 14 years-old I will work in a shop like a restaurant.”

The economic and political struggle inside Burma makes me wonder how many more of my people will be forced to follow these unfortunate ones to the streets of Thailand, to beg.

Pondering that question left me very sad, as I walked in the Night Bazar in Chiang Mai.