By David Hopkins
CHIANG MAI — Burmese migrants in Chiang Mai are bracing for an uncertain future as Thailand’s military junta pushes forward with new policies aimed at revamping the country's migrant worker system.
“Sometimes I worry, even though I have documents” a 22-year-old restaurant worker from Burma’s Shan State told Khaosod English. “The police would like to make money, they find fault every time.”
While the mass exodus of more than 225,000 Cambodian migrants from Thailand attracted headlines last month, the similar plight of Burmese migrant workers has received less attention.
Since early June, police in Chiang Mai have raided a number of Burmese neighborhoods, as well as markets, construction sites and other workplaces suspected of utilizing migrant labor.
Many migrants, including registered workers, returned to Burma in fear of a crackdown by Thailand's new military regime, said Sai Hseng Ya, chair of the Shan Literature and Culture Society in Chiang Mai.
Rumors continue to circulate of more arrests in and around Chiang Mai, further fuelling anxiety among the migrant community.
“There is still a crackdown in some areas,” said a Shan teacher, who preferred to remain anonymous, as did the majority of migrants interviewed for this article. “Many migrant workers are still worried.”
New policies bring hope and fear
While the military junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has recently opened several "One Stop Service" Centres around Thailand to help migrant workers obtain temporary work permits, no such centres have been opened in Chiang Mai.
As a result, a window for brokers in the north to take advantage of migrant workers remains open.
One Shan student in Chiang Mai found this out the hard way.
“This morning one of the young students told me she’d lost some money,” a Shan teacher told Khaosod English. “She went to a company and paid 3,000 baht [for identification documents], but after that, when she tried to contact them, this person [at the company] had disappeared. The police don’t take action for this kind of thing.”
According to Brahm Press, the director of the MAP Foundation, the NCPO’s move to register migrants is a positive development, but only a short term fix. The permits acquired at the One Stop Centres only give migrants two months before they must apply for more permanent documents.
“Migrants need stability, and this does not provide it,” Mr. Press said.
The NCPO has also established Special Economic Zones (SEZs) along Thailand’s borders, ostensibly to promote trade and investment. However, some fear that the boons to Thai businesses will come at the expense of migrant workers.
Mr. Press believes the zones will enable employers to “evade standard labor laws, notably by paying lower wages and keeping migrants in insecure and uncertain situations.”
The chairman of the NCPO, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, said himself on 30 May that “[the SEZs] could help prevent illegal migrants from crossing into inner provinces of Thailand, thereby giving more work opportunities to Thai nationals.”
Nowhere to turn
Thailand’s foreign labor policies have been dogged by corruption for years, forcing migrant workers to adapt to a broken system in which they must pay officials, employers, or unscrupulous brokers offering shady promises to avoid arrest.
Kanchana Di-ut of the MAP Foundation says that Thai officials often maintain cosy relationships with brokers, blurring the distinction between official and unofficial processes.
Reports of detained migrant workers in Chiang Mai who were forced to pay a fee for their release has also led to speculation that police officers are using the recent raids as an opportunity for quick cash.
According to migrant rights activist Andy Hall, police have “arrested people that were irregular but as usual they didn’t deport the workers. In general, they just extorted money from them and then let them go.”
The climate of fear among migrant workers in Chiang Mai is fueled in part by a lack of accurate and timely information on migrant policy available in Shan or Burmese languages. They are forced to rely on Thai language TV news, which they may not understand, unofficial sources on the internet, or simply hearsay to learn about the policy developments that affect their status.
After the military coup, the MAP Foundation’s Shan-language radio stationSeang Htem Heng Mai, which broadcasts information on migrant policy, was forced off the air like scores of other community radio stations across the country.
The vulnerability of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand is further compounded by the inaction and inattentiveness of the Burmese government.
The Burmese Ambassador to Thailand Win Maung told The Irrawaddy last month that he hadn’t heard of "any mass arrests of Burmese migrant workers." His declaration came despite numerous media reports detailing the arrest of Burmese migrant workers during raids in Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Mahachai, and Mae Sot.
“We cannot rely on them,” said Nang Hseng Moon of the Shan Literature and Culture Society. “Other countries are very active, countries like the Philippines or Indonesia, but Burma is not. There is no support from the [Burmese] government.”
For many Burmese migrant workers, their desire to live and work in Thailand is not based on purely economic considerations, but also on concerns for their safety and security back in Burma. The recent crackdowns on migrant workers in Thailand have caused many to grapple with a familiar sense of unease.
“When they were in Burma, they were afraid all the time” said Nang Hseng Moon. “When they arrive here, they see the [military] uniform and they are afraid again.”
With armed conflict ongoing in parts of Shan State, the prospect of returning home is not an appealing option either. However, the overwhelming majority of migrant workers interviewed by Khaosod English aspired to return to Burma in the near future.
For a young Burmese restaurant worker, his desire to eventually return home was clear, but only on one condition: “when we have democracy.”