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The Lottery of Life? - A reflection by Br Paul S Murphy


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09/05/2019: Thailand


Talad Thai Market - Pathumthani Province, Thailand

The eight-lane, north-bearing mirage of motorway leapfrogs the struggling world below. I fly like a bird soaring above the reality and melee. This speedway could take me to charming, exotic and even reverenced places like the old Siam Kingdom’s Capital Ayutthaya sacked in the 14th century by the Burmese but never rebuilt, or to the tourist mecca of Chiang Mai or much further on to the new attraction at Chiang Rai made famous by the exploits of the cave boys (the ‘Moo Pa - Wild Boars’) football team and the heroism of those called upon to save them. But none of these interests me today. I am heading to the province of Pathumthani an hour or so north of Bangkok.

I glide down from the plateau of unreality to the highway underneath and then via a series of mesmerising twists and turns find myself at Talad Thai which must be one of the largest ‘wet and dry’ distribution markets in south east Asia. Chaotic, yes to an unperceiving western mind. So, may you ask the question which initially bedevilled me: ‘Why come here?’

This vast market has a population of about 50,000 underpaid, extorted Burmese migrant workers doing thousands of menial jobs controlled by a legion of brokers and corrupt officials who instead of protecting them, aim to maximise profits every which way they can. So where to start? Tulu, my mentor-translator and I go to the first little food stall we see and nonchalantly sit down on the messy footpath for a drink and a talk. The temperature is ready to hurdle the 40C mark but despite that there is busyness all around us and beyond.

Dora comes forth from her inner-sanctum patchwork oven of a room. I notice she is carrying a plastic bottle attached to her. I assume correctly that the fluid is her urine. She is jovial but that’s the mask and front that belies her true self. Her husband is present too, scoring fish and rubbing in copious amounts of MSG to ready them for frying.

In a relay of rattling Burmese each describes the immense difficulties of life. Since they are Burmese, they are not officially allowed to run this food stall. Burmese are forbidden to run a business or own property but, corrupt officials turn a blind eye if extortion money is paid to brokers, police, local mafia and government officials. Life is tougher than hard. All in all, I calculate that the income from the first 35 little $2 meals of fish, rice and sauce sold each day is required to pay off various nefarious groups. The remaining meals, maybe a further 35, are used to buy gas, electricity and all the ingredients required - only then can the word ‘profit’ be meaningful. There are hundreds of such food outlets run by fellow Burmese, so competition and corruption are rife.

Their attractive Grade 9 daughter is helping too. She is the last of six daughters all of whom except her, barely as teens ran away, got married, never to be seen again. Tears gently roll down Dora’s face while the husband’s voice is breaking. Where has Jesus gone? Is there a Buddha? This challenges me no end. Dora is adamant that this last daughter will get a life through education. Despite all her fellow Burmese stall workers calling on Dora to have the daughter work and not attend school, she claims her honour and holds her ground. This positive attitude to education is quite unusual among migrant families. Then astonishingly, like a zephyr of Pentecostal breeze in this scorching heat exacerbated by Dora’s sad stories, descends in the form of a young lad named Tobias. He comes to the side-walk cafe, sees me and speaks to me in impeccable English. Good Lord, no one can speak anything other than Burmese or Thai! Where did he come from? Astonishingly he tells me he has just returned this summer to help his family here in Talad Thai market from his studies in New Zealand and Australia! No seeking a permanent NZ residency visa for Tobias – he is home! Is he the third son, the unknown one, the converse, a remake of a new ‘lost son’ story? – the one who left to seek his place in life with his father’s blessing and astonishingly returned home without condition as a blessing to and for ‘a poor’ father and family? I take Tobias aside, and in a similar way as I have done in the past with the children I helped make good from the streets of Manila, say how honoured and proud I am to have met him and to see him return to his roots so unconditionally. I beg him, as he takes up employment, to never forget his family or his ‘roots’ so finely tempered in the forge of Talad Thai.

Now I know the answer Why come here? – Tobias and Dora have taught me - it was no accident!

Tu Lu, Living Water Foundation’s glue and guts, lays out her plan to me on how to assist Dora when she goes to hospital next week. Tu Lu will ensure that Dora, with little money at all, gets the best possible care, rehab and help to manage her challenging medical repayment. Tu Lu’s amazing work when migrant workers and their children are sick in body and spirit is the substance for much reflection. She is amazing, a saint, the embodiment of the incarnated Jesus made present. I need to be more attentive. As Marists this is what we do, as Marists this is who we are!

The Lottery of Life – we, Aussies, are the winners but how do we spend the prize?

Paul S Murphy. Thailand.

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