But as the story of Lipoh’s past unfolds: saying goodbye to her frail mother, Shata; leaving her village and embarking on a journey with her “auntie”, the commanding, matriarchal Soon Nu; crossing the Meh Nam Khong, or “Great Mother River” into Thailand by foot; working in a brothel and sending money home so her family can survive, Emma discovers that grave atrocities are being committed by the Tatmadaw military against the Kachin people of Burma. But these atrocities are being overshadowed by a narrative about trafficking that serves the needs of the anti-trafficking NGO, rather than the women it is trying to help.
Emma scrambles to help Lipoh without putting her own assignment at risk. Digging deeper, she learns about sex workers union organizers immersed a decades-long struggle to claim their rights; female combatants who brave jungles riddled with landmines to transport cash across the Thai-Burma border and fund an armed resistance; and mama sans who become like family to the ethnic migrant women of the north—their last hope in an unforgiving country that sees them as disposable, immigrant “others.” Caught at the center of this world of activism, resistance and struggle is Lipoh, whose determination to return to Burma and fight for her people’s survival grows stronger by the day.
As she confronts her failure to be the savior she expected herself to be, Emma realizes that in order to help Lipoh she must accept the truth: that everything she thought she knew back in Indiana—about trafficking, Thailand, and the women in the crosshairs of its notorious sex industry—has been turned on its head.
With time running out, and facing a choice between helping her new friend escape or following the status quo while more Kachin people are killed, Emma makes a risky decision that will alter the course of her and Lipoh’s lives forever.