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Kiss of the Killer Waves for Burmese Migrant Workers

Burmese Journalist


Shirtless Maung Phone, 33, a Burmese migrant, was playing traditional cane ball with his co-workers, including Thais, in the golden rays of the ruby sun. The ball hopped from one player to another amid shouts, as several people watched. This sort of scene was rare two years ago.

Five-foot-tall Maung Phone works in the fishing industry in Nam Khem village in southwestern Thailand along the Andaman Sea. The tsunami survivor has lived in Thailand for more than seven years and, like other migrants, has had his share of hardship, insecurity and uncertainty. But today he feels more like a whole person than ever.
“I never, ever imagined I would get a stable job, good shelter, and a friendly atmosphere. Strangely enough, within a year after the tsunami, I got all of them without demanding or praying,” Maung Phone said. He now gets free housing, free meals and other facilities provided by his boss, while enjoying a monthly income of 3,500 baht.

About 1,000 migrants from Myanmar (formerly known as Myanmar) were killed, and thousands left hopeless and helpless as the killer waves scorched six coastal provinces in December 2004. But within months after the killer waves retreated, many migrant tsunami survivors have seen surprising changes. Although they had already poured out tons of tears for their losses, their lives have improved in many ways.
“I don’t know if the killer waves cursed us, or blessed us,” said Naung Me, secretary of the Social Welfare Association in Nam Khem. “But I would say that our troubles are widely heard, and taken seriously.”  The Social Welfare Association, established shortly after the catastrophe, gives food and shelter to jobless Burmese and also shares information on labor affairs.

“Never before had we noticed how our human rights are violated,” Naung Me said. “And also, we lacked information on labor affairs in Thailand, and social and political affairs back in Myanmar. Now we feel our horizons are broadened by the newsletters and some periodicals.” He thanked NGOs like Grassroots HRE (Human Rights Education and Development) for their efforts to inform fellow Burmese.

Grassroots HRE, established in Kanchanaburi province, moved to Khao Lak after the tsunami. It provides a safe and productive environment for Burmese migrant workers in southern Thailand. Not only did the NGO assist migrants who survived the tsunami but lost everything, it also has helped migrants find work and supported those who have not been paid wages by their employees.

In addition, Grassroots HRE has other programs on rehabilitation, human rights, education for migrant children, training on women’s healthcare, a mobile library, temporary shelters, and so on. With updated notices and official announcements issued by the Bangkok government tacked on to its notice board, the conference room at Grassroots seems more like an embassy.

Besides Grassroots, migrant survivors are lucky to have TACDB (Thai Action Committee for Democracy in Burma).  The lobby group was founded in 1989 to promote democracy in Myanmar, and also played an important role in aiding migrant workers after the tsunami. It published a book, “Helpless Before and After the Wave: The Plight of Burmese Migrant Workers in the Andaman Tsunami.”
“Now we have more chances to tell the world about the real condition of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand,” said Htoo Chit, a founder and director of Grassroots. “We can highlight now how they are neglected by the Burmese government, and how they are ill-treated in the Thai community.”

Htoo Chit, a political exile, has collected information about human rights violations along the Thai-Myanmar border, and provided health care, emergency assistance, capacity building, advocacy and education to migrants. “We came here to solve the problems of our Burmese migrants. At the same time, we intend to build bridges between Thai and Burmese through a public relations campaign.”
A majority of the estimated 1.6 million migrants crossed the border by bribing police. Being illegal, they are at the mercy of Thai employers. Some bosses don’t want to provide registration cards, instead assuring their workers they won’t be arrested. While some bosses are humane, others are keen on exploitation. One common problem is that a boss won’t pay salaries to workers for several months. When the workers demand it, the boss calls the police and asks them to arrest the workers.

“Sometimes, as many as 20 migrant workers come to our office in a day to complain that they haven’t been paid,” Htoo Chit explained. One human right activist said that just because there are more complaints doesn’t mean that the condition of workers is worse than before. It means that more and more migrants are finding a way to demand what they deserve, because they know where to get help after the tsunami.

Some workers say they remain unprotected, however, and that Thai police are still victimizing them by deporting, arresting and extorting money as usual. “I had a labor registration card,” said Aung Naing, 28, who works at a restaurant in Phuket. “But the tsunami took away my card, and the police deported me as they knew I had no card. But I came back to Thailand. Now I don’t have enough money to make the registration card on my own.”

Similarly, Kyaw Swar, who works with Aung Naing, said that while Thai locals were compensated for their property losses, migrants were given nothing except emergency aid. He said he had saved money under his mat for his family, but the tsunami swept away all his savings. While Thai locals got good care and better houses, Burmese migrants didn’t even dare to claim the dead bodies of their family members or friends in case the authorities deported them, Kyaw Swar added.

Still, there is a bright side. “A lot of jobs, especially on construction sites, came up right after the tsunami,” said Nyi Win, 21, a construction worker in Ban Nam Khem, the hardest-hit village. “Before the tsunami, job opportunities were really poor for us.”

The killer wave swept away Nyi Win’s sister and one-year-old nephew. “Till today, I can’t forget their plight. But, the killer wave taught me how to survive in this underprivileged condition,” he said, looking sadly at the toy car that once belonged to his nephew.

Like Nyi Win, there are many migrant workers who took advantage of the job situation. One shop assistant on Patong Beach in Phuket said, “I got this job easily. The local people here are scared of ghosts. So, my boss was kind enough to appoint me as the assistant for his Men’s Footwear Shop, where five dead bodies were found in the aftermath of the tsunami. I am scared of ghosts, too. But ghosts are not as cruel as Thai police.”

The majority of migrants interviewed agreed that job opportunities were booming thanks to the tsunami, especially in construction and fishing.

Another blessing from the giant waves is that attitudes of some Thais to Myanmar migrants in the tsunami-hit areas have turned positive and constructive, even though many Thais can’t totally forget the bruises of history. Thailand and Myanmar have been historical enemies, and many Thais still think of Myanmar as the country that destroyed their ancient capital.

But in Nam Khem during the tsunami, Myanmar workers and Thais helped each other, stuck together, worked together and survived together. “One Thai woman was screaming for help as I was roaming in the neck-high wave near her residence. I went to her, and together we tried to escape the killer,” recalled Nyi Win.

Even some Thais who viewed migrants in a negative way came to change their attitudes. One Thai woman, 40, from Nam Khem, said she was rescued by a migrant. “I viewed Myanmar migrants in my village scornfully because of history. Now, I can see them as my neighbors. We can share everything,” she said.

Ma Thidar, 30, who lost her sister and niece in the tsunami, said, “My boss, the phuyai ban (headman), saw me when I was in Takuapa hospital getting treatment. He rented a room for me and other migrants to stay for some time. Besides, my boss assured me that I should not go back to Myanmar, and he would give me a job in his house. …His mother and I ran together in the tsunami. I helped his mother then.” 

Challenges remain, however. “Other migrant workers from Cambodia and Laos are not in the poor condition in which Myanmar migrants are drowning, because they have good governments. So, I think without the cooperation of the Myanmar government, it is not easy to solve the problem,” said Htoo Chit.

Yutaka Sagara, a former associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, had a different view. He came to Thailand after the tsunami to help migrants as a fund-raising officer for Grassroots. He said the lack of education is the root problem for migrants, so the issue can’t be solved easily even if there is a regime change in Myanmar. Giving education to the children is only one way out, and would be undeniably beneficial not only to their parents but also to the Thai government, Yutaka added.

Looking at the children in the learning center of a two-story wooden building in the middle of green rubber plantation, Yutaka said, “The Thai government should keep in mind that America was developed by migrants, so it should allow the children of migrants to get the same rights as Thai children do. And also, it’s important for Myanmar migrants to make the best use of opportunities given by the tsunami.”

Copyright 2009 IMMF.