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People on the Move

Decades of economic and political crisis push the Burmese people out of their country

Burmese Journalist

After living more than two years in Thailand as an illegal migrant worker, Aung Wa, 34, came back to Yangon in 2004. He carried with him a haunting experience and little money. He received low or no pay, worked like a slave, slept little, and always lived with fear.
“Every time I saw police, I was afraid out of my wits,” he said.
But in two years he earned more money than this whole family of more than five could earn in Burma. In September 2004, three months before the Asian tsunami hit the region; he came back again to Thailand.

Like Aung Wa, many people from Burma leave their homes “to escape dire economic conditions, risking their lives for opportunity,” according to an International Labor Organization (ILO) report in 2002.

            Over the past 15 years, Burmese people have suffered from a declining economy, political oppression and conflict between the Burmese Army and ethic groups. As a result, the number of the people leaving Burma has grown to one of the largest migration flows in Southeast Asia, according to a research paper on Burmese Migrant Workers by Mahidol University.

            “Hope for a better economic future is a main driving force for Burmese people to cross  the border and come to Thailand,” said Myo Thant, a volunteer with the Rak Thai Foundation, an NGO that helps migrants all over Thailand. “But life as a migrant worker in a foreign land is a hard life.”

            Nam Mo Khan, 36, works at a Chiang Mai construction site and earns about 4,000 baht per month. She moved her eyelids to keep her tears from falling and said, “I will work hard here for my son’s future in Burma. If I don’t work here, my son can’t go to school.” Then she smile as the tears came down. “He is bright; he is now in fourth grade”

            “Most of us think we live better in comparison with our lives in Burma,” said Myo Kyaw, who works in a shrimp factory in Samut Sakorn, a seaport near Bangkok. The area has a large fishing industry and the largest concentration of Burmese migrant workers in the country.

            “In Burma, one day’ wage (barely $1 US) are just barely enough for the next day. Here in Thailand, one day’ wages (more than $3 US) are enough for three days,” Myo Kyaw said.

            Burma’s economy has been struggling for the last five decades. Burma gained independent in 1948 and has been under military control since 1962, when General Ne Win  imposed socialism with complete isolation  from outside world.

Once one of the richest nations in Southeast Asia, Burma slid down to the list of least developed nations in 1997 as designated by the United Nations. Average personal income fell from $670 US per year in 1960 to $200 per year in 1989.

In1988, a popular uprising against the Burmese government happened throughout the country. A new military government crushed the uprising and then strictly controlled power. The opposition party, National League for Democracy, won a 1990 election in a landslide, but the military government ignored the result.

Starting from the 1990s, the military government tried to open up the economy. That allowed for private investment and also foreign investment. But economic growth and living standards did not improve much because of continued political and ethnic problems as well as economic sanctions from Europe and the United States.
These days in the streets of downtown Yangon, roadside platforms are filled with sellers. Most of the sellers are young men and women who can’t find appropriate jobs after they graduate from university. Regular power cuts, always-crowded buses, price instability of basic commodities, daily petrol rations for car owners – everyday life in Yangon shows a picture of economic decline. Poverty can be easily witnessed in rural areas, where 70 percent of Burmese live.

Many people who live along the Thai-Burma border opt to go to Thailand for a long time. There was a massive influx to Thailand after 1998 from various parts of Burma. Burma shares a long border with Thailand and it is relatively easy to cross. Between 1 million and 2 million people from Burma now live and work as legal and illegal migrant workers in Thailand by current estimates.

The economic gap between Thailand and Burma is very clear: Thailand’s GDP per capita in 1999 was more than $6000 compared to just over $1000 in Burma.

Even though he doesn’t know GDP, San Lin from Burma’s Karen State learned about the better wages in Thailand from a friend who came back seemingly with a lot of money. With the help of this friend and his mother, who sold her small farm to support his son’s travel costs, San Lin now works in Samut Sakhon.

Every day he works hard by carrying loads of fish from boats to trucks. Even though he has now lived and worked in Thailand for one year, “I still need to keep my promise to mother,” he said. “I told my mother that I would send money to re- buy her own farm land.”
Brahm Press, a researcher from Raks Thai, noted that most of the people from Burma migrate to Thailand by what he called the ‘Chain Migration Pattern.’ “Former migrant workers pass the information about contact persons to other people when they come back home and sometimes they become the broker,” he said.

San San, 23, became a migrant worker in Mae Sot by contacting her friend by phone. In 1999, San San came from the central Burma town of Nyaung Lay Pin to Yangon to work in a garment factory. After one year, some of her friend s moved to Mae Sot, and they could get higher wages than in Yangon.

San San said, “I didn’t want to go there because I knew that some of my friends ended up in prostitution and there is a lot of harassment in the work place.”

But her factory in Yangon closed down in 2002 because of U.S. sanctions against Burma. Knowing that her parent and sister depend on the money she send, San San went out to a public telephone booth and called her friend in Mae Sot to help her get there.

But not all migrants who come to Thailand do so for economic reasons. Some come because of the prolonged political and ethnic conflict in Burma. The conflicts have gone on for more than 50 years.

Recently, renewed fighting between the Shan ethnic army and the Burma Army has prompted the daily migration of hundreds of Shan refugees to northern Thailand.

Whenever fighting break out between the Burma Army and ethnic groups, many people become displaced and end up as migrant workers.

            Economic or political, legal or illegal, most of the Burmese migrant workers give one similar answer when asked about their future plans – they want to go back home one day. Rarely can they give the exact date of return to Burma.

For the political migrants, the Burmese political situation is still bleak. There is no solution for the political deadlock, and opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, while fighting rages in ethnic areas, especially in Shan and Karen States.

For the economic migrants, they simply can’t save enough money to go back. For some, they don’t know what they can do for a living in Burma. “The Burmese economy is still falling back, “U Chan Aye, a Burmese economist said recently.

Ah Ja, 30, from Burma’s Kachin State has worked in Chiang Mai as a housemaid for more than eight years. She married another Kachin migrant and now has a 9-month-old-daughter.

To look after her daughter, she had to stop working for almost a year. Now she is trying to find a job again. Clutching her daughter between her arms, Ah Ja said she is anxious about her family and her daughter’s future.

“I remember my home every minute of the day,” she told a small group of journalists. Then she asked, “How can you help me to improve our life here and to go back home to Burma”?
Silence in the room.

Copyright 2009 IMMF.