CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Burmese migrant workers in Thailand are living in fear, with some of their fellow laborers having been arrested in recent weeks and an unknown number of others returning to Burma as the Thai junta intensifies its crackdown on illegal foreign workers.
Amid the ongoing crackdown—which has focused on Cambodians migrants, sending as many as 200,000 of them in Thailand streaming back into their home country—both documented and undocumented Burmese migrant workers say they fear that they might be next. Many are staying away from their places of employment, forgoing wages as the Thai army and police intensify nationwide inspections in places where migrants live and work.
Inspections are taking place in cities heavily populated by migrant workers including Bangkok, Mahachai, Chiang Mai and Mae Sot. Migrant workers have been questioned and arrested if they lack proper documents.
According to migrant workers’ rights groups, despite the absence of official figures on the number of detained Burmese nationals, inspections and arrests by Thai authorities are ongoing. Though a far smaller disruption to livelihoods than that brought on the Cambodian migrant population, potentially thousands of Burmese have been arrested or returned to Burma since the crackdown began earlier this month.
Maung Tu, a Burmese migrant worker in Mahachai, Samut Sakhon Province, where many Burmese work, said the Thai army has visited his workplace, a fish processing facility in the port town.
“Some who are afraid of inspections have returned home through border points such as Ranong and Mae Sot. Some dare not go into work. They hide in their compounds,” Maung Tu said.
Thailand relies heavily on cheap, unregulated labor supplied by its poorer neighbors Burma, Cambodia and Laos. Estimates of the total number of Burmese migrants vary widely, but up to 3 million Burmese are said to be working in Thailand, often performing unskilled jobs in the construction sector, restaurants or the fishing industry.
Mai Mai, a migrant workers’ advocate with the Migrant Assistance Program (MAP) Foundation, a Chiang Mai-based NGO that provides assistance to migrant workers in Thailand, confirmed that raids and inspections of Chiang Mai migrants’ workplaces and housing compounds were taking place.
“Some migrant workers have called us and sought advice from us on whether they can stay or whether it is better to return home. We don’t have an official figure of the arrested people, but we know that Thai authorities raided their workplaces and compounds and arrested several dozen of them,” said Mai Mai.
A labor rights organization in Mae Sot, Joint Action Committee for Burmese Workers Association, estimates that about 1,000 Burmese workers in Mae Sot alone have been arrested and deported since early June.
The Thai government has provided no information on the number of migrant workers arrested, and NGOs that work with migrant workers were reluctant to estimate how many may have been arrested across Thailand so far.
Some migrant workers are even reporting problems despite having all their legal paperwork in order.
Si Si Lwin, a labor rights activist with MAP Foundation who lives in Mae Sai on the border with Burma’s Tachileik Township, said five legal Burmese migrant workers were detained in Chiang Mai and then repatriated. The workers said the trouble stemmed from their employers’ unwillingness to vouch for them.
“I got many calls from migrant workers. Five of the workers came to seek help from me. They all have documents. They gave the phone numbers of their employers to police, but when the police called to confirm, the employers denied [their employment]. So, they were arrested, detained and paid 9,000 baht [US$300] for their release,” Si Si Lwin said.
“They paid for [valid work] documents. But in the end, they could do nothing. So, there is no safety for our Burmese migrants in Thailand,” she added.
Despite the climate of fear among the migrant population, many Burmese workers in Chiang Mai, especially ethnic Shan, are equally reluctant to return to Burma, where they face the prospect of settling for low-paying jobs or unemployment.
Ethnic conflict and a dearth of economic opportunity has for decades led Burmese workers to seek better-paying jobs in neighboring countries like Thailand. Many cross the border into Thailand illegally and lack official identity papers, Thai working visas and other legal documentation. As a result, many work as unregistered laborers, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by employers and authorities.
Win Maung, the Burmese ambassador to Thailand, told The Irrawaddy that he had met with Thai officials including a Thai army official, Gen. Thanasak Patimaprakorn, in Bangkok on June 6 to discuss the crackdown on migrant workers.
“We discussed with them [Thai officials] not to arrest Burmese migrant workers who are overstaying their visas. They also asked us to extend visas for the workers, so that they don’t have to arrest the migrants. They asked us to ensure that all migrant workers have the required documents,” Win Maung said.
“Currently, no arrests have been made in Bangkok,” the ambassador said. “They [Thai authorities] said that they have already released the arrested migrants in Chiang Mai after questioning them.”
The Irrawaddy reporter Kyaw Kha contributed reporting.