Authorities in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, have been rounding up more than 200 Burmese migrant workers on allegations that they are involved in crimes or lack legal permits to stay in the country.
Migrant rights groups complain however, that Thai authorities have started a major crackdown on registered or unregistered Burmese migrants.
Last week, police began setting up checkpoints around Chiang Mai in order to identify migrants and dozens were arrested in subsequent days.
Toom Mawk Harn, a coordinator at the Migrants Assistance Program, said authorities were carrying out a city-wide operation that targeted Shan migrants from Burma. “It has been over a week that we hear about the detention of the migrants, mostly near the Shan communities,” he said.
Provincial police chief Lt-Gen Suthep told Thai media on Wednesday, “Officials only arrested illegal migrants. They arrested 215 migrants and seized 21 motorbike, pistol or gun on Monday and Tuesday, July 1-2. Those arrested include ones that committed crimes and those without legal documents.”
Suthep denied that migrants were being targeted because they were part of a supposed criminal youth gang calling themselves the TaiYai (Shan) Samurai gang, which may involve both Thai and Shan. The officer said “there is no such gang called TaiYai Samurai.”
Local Thai media have been covering several crimes that occurred in Chiang Mai in late June, when one Thai man was stabbed to death at night. The reports claimed that a TaiYai Samurai gang of ethnic Shans from Burma were responsible for the crimes.
Although authorities deny that the migrant arrest is related to the media reports, previous crackdowns have also coincided with crimes that were supposedly carried about migrants. In 2009, a large crackdown in Chiang Mai got under way after a Thai student at Mae Jo University was allegedly raped by several Shan men.
Many Shan migrant workers from northeastern Burma stay in Chiang Mai, where they provide a source of cheap labor for the construction sector, restaurants, shops, domestic cleaning work and agriculture. There are approximately 80,000 registered migrants in Chiang Mai and many thousands of unregistered workers.
Among the Shan community in Chiang Mai the arrests have sparked fears and some have decided to not go to work or Thai language classes, as they want to avoid travelling during the crackdown. Even migrants with legal documents are arrested they are only let go if their Thai employers demand their release, some Shan have said.
“There is fear among migrants as police check every day on all the streets,” said Saengmaung Mangkorn, the chairman of the Tai Yai Education and Culture Association, a Shan group based in Chiang Mai.
A Thai official at Chiang Mai Immigration Office, who declined to be named as he was unauthorized to speak to the media, said the wave of arrests only targeted Burmese migrants. “These arrests of illegal migrant are not related to the Samurai gang problem,” he said.
Shan community leaders are collaborating with Thai authorities in order to end the crackdown and will meet with Chiang Mai police next week.