Dreams on screen

9 January 2014

The attractiveness of youth ripples across their faces.

One smiles shyly, almost humorously, as if she's been caught sneaking into a nightclub, despite being under aged.

But she's not a rebellious adolescent.

Looking up from beneath a choppy fringe and plump cheeks, her gracious demeanour is peppered with stoicism beyond her years.

"I feel sad, not just for me, but for all Burmese," she says of her decision to leave home at the age of 15, to seek her family's fortune in Thailand.

Yee Yee is one of nine Burmese women, aged in their late teens and early 20s, who've entrusted ANU social anthropologist and filmmaker Dr Khin Mar Mar Kyi with their tales of exploitation, abuse, and merely staying alive, after crossing the Thai/Burma border in search of a better life.

The resulting Dreams of Dutiful Daughters, a 45-minute documentary with subtitles, was filmed in 2012, while Mar was completing her PhD at the School of Culture, History and Language in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

Recent estimates indicate there are around 1 to 1.5 million Burmese working in Thailand.

Although the Burmese make up the majority of foreign workers in Thailand, the Thai government provides Burmese females in particular with the least number of work permits.

As a consequence, many are forced into low paid, unregulated jobs and prostitution, making them in worst case scenarios, vulnerable to the HIV epidemic.

Eldest daughters are most likely to leave Burma for Thailand in search of work, says Mar, who grew up in Rangoon, then moved from country to country before seeking asylum in Australia.

"They want to find a job in Thailand, so they can send money to their family," she says.

"Generally, they come around 14 years of age, with little or no education."

Her 2012 documentary opens with a river scene shot on the Thai/Burma border.

As a group of young girls from Burma illegally cross the border, police watch on.

"Beautiful, beautiful, come, come quickly," one of the officers calls out.

On a wall inside the police office, the camera zooms in on a calendar splashed with photos of naked women, and a dozing colleague.

As Yee Yee's story unfolds, dreams of earning adequate funds in Thailand so she can return to her family and open a clothing shop are soon replaced with nothing more than cravings for a bowl of rice.

She eventually takes a job at a petrol station, where she works from 6am to 10pm, seven days a week, for as little as $20 a month, before quitting after three months to join a friend on a bus trip - only to meet with ominous consequences.

Mar's painstaking research into issues including child protection, trafficking and gender violence has paid dividends.

She was recently awarded a fellowship to continue her studies at the International Gender Studies Centre, Oxford University. She will further investigate issues of gender, education and leadership in Burma, with a view to modernising Burmese society, when her fellowship begins in January 2014.

ANU academic Trevor Wilson, who was Australia's ambassador to Myanmar from 2000 to 2003, described Mar as "the de-facto leader of the Burmese student community" at ANU.

"She was mentor, food mother and advocate for all of them, and her flat became a 'refuge'," he said.

She also became a leader of the Canberra Burmese community.

"She was a universal presence, but always on behalf of others rather than herself," Wilson added.

"She taught Burmese language courses at  ANU for a number of years, and also taught Australian government employees on their way to work in Myanmar."

This story is from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. For information on study programs on Asia and the Pacific visit asiapacific.anu.edu.au/students