How Are Myanmar Migrants in Thailand Faring in the Face of COVID-19?

By The Irrawaddy 2 January 2021

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Anti-Myanmar hate speech has flared among Thai citizens after thousands of Myanmar migrant workers were involved in the recent COVID-19 outbreak in Thailand.

We’ll discuss what Thailand’s Health Ministry is doing to fight hate speech and provide equal treatment to COVID-19 patients regardless of their race and nationality. U Aung Kyaw, co-founder of the Bangkok-based Migrant Workers Rights Network, joins me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

COVID-19 has spread in Thailand, though the country had been able to effectively control the virus previously. The outbreak occurred at Samut Sakhon near Bangkok. As thousands of Myanmar migrant workers have become infected in the outbreak, they are being blamed for spreading COVID-19. The worst thing is even Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has blamed Myanmar migrant workers for spreading the virus. The outbreak has prompted a flare-up of anti-Myanmar hate speech among ordinary Thai citizens. However, we have heard that the Thai Health Ministry and Thai NGOs working in the area of labor rights have stood up for Myanmar migrant workers. How bad is the situation on the ground for Myanmar migrant workers?

Aung Kyaw: On Dec. 17, a food businesswoman was found infected with the virus in Mahachai, Samut Sakhon. Her family members also tested positive for the virus. And her employees—most of the workers in Samut Sakhon are Myanmar citizens—were tested and many workers tested positive for the virus. It is not a problem. If they follow health guidelines and if the Thai government provides treatment for them, they would be just fine.

But then, the Thai prime minister, the top official of the Thai government, was reckless with his choice of words when he talked about the latest outbreak there. There was no problem on the ground between Thai and Myanmar people at first. Some 20 to 30 years ago, Myanmar people were disliked by Thai employers. But later they were able to build understanding between one another after working together for so many years. Thai employers even said that they like Myanmar workers best because they are hard-working and dutiful. Thai and Myanmar people share a lot in common in faith and customs. As Myanmar migrant workers participate in doing good deeds such as sweeping at pagodas and building pagodas, Thai people had almost abandoned their negative views of Myanmar people.

The televised address by the Thai prime minister about the second wave of outbreak disrupted that harmony. Thai citizens have blamed Myanmar workers for the outbreak. And we are sorry to hear them blaming Myanmar people. Myanmar workers have achieved quite reasonable harmony with Thai employers and local residents. They had buried the hatchet and have worked together like a family not only at the workplace but also in philanthropic activities. And we have been able to work together with the Thai side to prevent discrimination against Myanmar at the workplace.

Only a small number of Thais are attacking us. After the Thai PM put the blame on us, Thai people started to bar us and refuse to sell us food. The top official of the Thai Health Ministry said Myanmar and Thais are brothers, and Myanmar workers fill the serious labor shortage; Thailand was able to make exports due to the productivity of Myanmar workers and its national economy has improved. He urged Thai communities not to make incendiary comments and said Thailand is responsible for taking care of Myanmar migrant workers in the country, whether they are legal or not, because they are brothers. Then many Thais followed suit and supported that view.

Recently, a Thai restaurant owner, after seeing that no shops were selling food to Myanmar migrant workers in her neighborhood, invited them to buy at her shop. She also said that she would provide free food if they have no money. Then two Thai businesswomen, who have visited Myanmar many times, heard of it and joined the charity. Then Thai NGOs also started to talk about the importance of Myanmar migrant workers in the economy of Thailand. As a result, hate speech has declined.

YN: We heard that Myanmar migrant workers in Samut Sakhon are being held behind a barbed wire fence, with the infected ones and the non-infected being put together. What is the situation there?

AK: The outbreak happened at a shrimp market in Mahachai, which has been placed under lockdown. At the back of the market are residential buildings. It is the first place the majority of Myanmar people settled some 20 to 30 years ago. Only some 200 workers work at the market, and thousands of others work at factories and companies. They rent apartments there. So, the buildings were fenced in with barbed wire, and Thai security forces are on guard round the clock, banning access into and out of the buildings. Around 1,200 infected people are kept in there.

We have expressed our concerns to the Myanmar Embassy, and the embassy is in the process of negotiating with local authorities. We don’t know the situation for sure because we can’t get into those buildings. As far as I know, the infected persons will be moved to the top floors and placed under quarantine, and those who are seriously ill will be hospitalized. There are no patients with serious symptoms for the time being.

Thai authorities planned to convert a university into a temporary hospital, but locals in the neighborhood objected, saying that there are too many elderly persons and children in the neighborhood. Local authorities then announced on Dec. 26 that a temporary hospital will be built in a stadium. The temporary hospital will be built in three days. It will be similar to temporary hospitals in Myanmar built with tents. Then, all the patients will be moved to that hospital.

YN: You said the Myanmar Embassy is also helping the infected persons. How effectively is it helping?

AK: In cooperation with Thai authorities, Myanmar embassy officials as of Dec. 20 asked Myanmar migrant workers there to follow health regulations and also comforted them.

Embassy officials said they would take all the necessary actions on their behalf in cooperation with Thai agencies, that they could ask for help anytime, and that they would visit them from time to time. Embassy officials including Myanmar’s ambassador to Thailand and incoming and outgoing embassy officials held talks with the Thai Labor Ministry and authorities of Samut Sakhon. The embassy officials are working in two groups and have asked the Thai Labor Ministry not to take legal action against undocumented workers. When Myanmar’s ambassador met with migrant workers, he noted their difficulties and coordinated with Samut Sakhon authorities. In addition, the Myanmar embassy officials brought basic food supplies along with them and distributed those to migrants.

YN: Thailand’s government said 22 provinces are at risk of COVID-19 infections. You have to stay at home now. Myanmar migrants work in factories, offshore fishing, markets and farms across Thailand. How much has the outbreak impacted them?

AK: Taking a look at the operation of the shrimp market where COVID-19 broke out, marine products arrive at the market around 2 a.m. daily. Dealers from different provinces come by cars and buy the products through bidding to distribute them to other provinces. We don’t know how long the Thai employer was infected before she had a COVID-19 test. We don’t know how many Myanmar migrant workers there might have been infected. The Thai employer was still working at the market before she fell sick, and we don’t know how many dealers could have been infected and to how many provinces the virus has spread. Thailand’s government should find out how many provinces are dealing with the market, identify the dealers who regularly buy at the market, and those who have come into contact with them.

If they effectively track her contact history, they will be able to control the pandemic. If they fail to do so, the outbreak could be serious. This is what concerns us. I don’t accept their argument that the virus was spread by Myanmar migrants. The market is not a retail market, but a big wholesale market that supplies fresh marine products to the whole country. It is not a market where low-income people buy food. So I don’t think the virus was carried by Myanmar migrants.

There were no COVID-19 cases in Samut Sakhon previously. But there were cases in other provinces. So, the Thai government should check to see if the provinces that do business with the market are the ones that brought the infection to the market. So, Thai people should not blame Myanmar migrants. I am not accusing Thais from other provinces of spreading the virus. I mean the Thai government should examine the possible causes. If the Thai government tracks down the contacts, it will be able to control the virus.

YN: Thailand’s Health Ministry plays the most important role in the government’s efforts to control COVID-19. The ministry is curbing the pandemic without discrimination against Myanmar patients. It is easy to track down registered migrants, but it would be difficult to track down undocumented migrants. There are millions of them. So, how do you think the Thai government will handle undocumented workers?

AK: Under the laws of Thailand, documented employees must register on the social safety net. The social security funds are contributory, and set up with contributions from employers, employees and the government. So, they have access to free medical services. And some employees have bought health insurance. So, they don’t have problems.

At first glance, it appears that we should be worried about undocumented workers. But the Thai Health Ministry said it would provide the same treatment it gives to Thai citizens to all the other COVID-19 patients in the country regardless of their citizenship.

Recently, a small plastic recycling business owner from Samut Sakhon abandoned Myanmar migrant workers in Samut Prakan, a province near Bangkok, after he was no longer able to employ them. The incident was widely circulated on social media. Thai health officials went there, provided medical check-ups, and kept them in quarantine.

Some Thai people criticized the Thai employer and called him inhumane to treat people like that who are already in deep trouble. This forced the Thai government to intervene and the Thai prime minister officially announced he would issue pink cards, which give temporary permission for living and working, to all the illegal migrants who have been in the country for various reasons. What the Thai Health Ministry has said is humane. We feel assured because the Thai Health Ministry has said everyone has equal access to COVID-19 treatment and support regardless of their race, religion and nationality.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!

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