Top: Chatthamon Singtankong and her husband Sakorn Kumpapan of Krua Muang Petch restaurant.
SAMUT PRAKAN — Chatthamon Singtankong was taking a stroll at a market in her neighborhood when she overheard a food vendor refusing to sell to a migrant worker.
She was angry. But instead of venting out her frustration on social media, Chatthamon decided to give away free meals to foreign laborers left jobless amid the new outbreak of coronavirus, in which 1,300 migrant workers were infected in the past week. Many, many more workers fell victims to an epidemic of paranoia and hostility from their Thai peers.
“It’s not them to blame for the virus,” Chatthamon, the owner and chef of Krua Muang Petch restaurant said. “It already happened. We can’t undo it, but we have to help solve it.”
She continued, “We should be supportive of each other since we’re in this together. We should hold hands and get through this together.”
Migrant workers are welcomed to order anything from the menu and have some takeaways for their families as well, Chatthamon said.
Her humble eatery sits in an industrial area of Pracha Uthit-Wat Khu Sang Road in Samut Prakan, just southwest of Bangkok. She usually sells common dishes such as pad krapao to fellow Thais, but sometimes to migrant workers living in nearby camps as well.
But when the new wave of outbreak struck, Chatthamon said she saw fewer migrant workers coming into her shop. Even after she announced to hand out free meals on her Facebook Wednesday night, none of the workers has come to take the offer so far.
She believed it was a result of public backlash against migrant workers, who were quickly blamed by government officials as the culprit of the coronavirus infection cluster at a shrimp market in Samut Sakhon province.
“I think they see this as a trap,” Chatthamon said. “They’re afraid that officials may set this up to arrest them. People are now wary of each other. Thais became afraid of migrant workers, while migrant workers also became afraid of Thais. People are growing paranoid.”
Another restaurant down the road was inspired by Chatthamon’s initiative. Saowanee Sae-tier, the owner of the Go Hub Gold restaurant on Soi Pracha Uthit 90, said she was disturbed by stories of Thai people shunning the migrant workers or treating them with prejudice.
“I feel sorry for the migrant workers as to what they’re facing,” Saowanee said.
Her restaurant, which sells braised beef noodles, made the announcement Thursday on its Facebook, both in Thai and Burmese, telling migrant workers who were rejected from other establishments to receive free meals starting Saturday.
Thailand is home to millions of workers from neighboring countries, most of them Myanmar. While state-sanctioned education and popular media routinely portray Myanmar as a historical enemy of Thailand, racially charged violence on the workers is very rare.
But the latest coronavirus outbreak in Samut Sakhon threatens to upend the culture of tolerance. Many incendiary comments on social media say people from Myanmar cannot be trusted; others call for infected migrant workers to remain untreated.
PM Prayut Chan-o-cha said this week illegal immigration was behind the outbreak, while health minister Anutin Charnvirakul also said he suspected the migrant workers were the source of the infection in Samut Sakhon – although the government’s task force and local officials appealed for sympathy for immigrants.
Chatthamon, the owner of Krua Muang Petch, said some Thais stopped coming to her shop after she opened her doors to migrant workers.
“I lost some customers, but most of them understand what I’m doing,” she said. “My regulars keep coming in. They know how to protect themselves.”
While her charity is taking a burden on her already small profits, Chatthamon said she is not taking any donations since she wanted the operation to be completely out of her own pockets.
Although she has not had a chance to serve them yet, Chatthamon said she was impressed by the amount of support she received, especially from Myanmar nationals who wanted to lend a hand for their compatriots.
“It took my breath away seeing Myanmar people helping each other,” the restaurant owner said. “Those who’re better off refused to take the offer and paid for their food so that the proceeds could be forwarded to others who are in need. Some Myanmar people in Bangkok also rang me offering to donate money and ingredients.”
One of the workers at Chatthamon’s restaurant said they were worried about the rising suspicion from Thai people, but he believes he has taken all the necessary precautions against the virus.
“I’m afraid,” he said. “I’ve been in Thailand for 10 years already. Myself is also afraid of COVID-19. I always put my mask on.”
Saowanee, the owner of Go Hub Gold, said she also employed five workers from Myanmar. Saowanee said she believes they posed no health risk to her, since she believes she has taken enough care of their wellbeing.
“I asked them not to leave the restaurant if not necessary,” she said. “I take care of them as if they are my family members and they all have the necessary documents.”