Burmese Boatmen Enslaved by Drugs in Southern Thailand

By Khin Oo Tha 23 September 2014

PHUKET, Thailand — Amidst the hustle and bustle of Ongkan pier, located in the largest fishing port in Phuket, southern Thailand, hundreds of Burmese workers were as busy as bees, unloading ice blocks from trucks and stacking fish into pushcarts with a plump Thai woman of Chinese descent giving instructions.

Among the workers were ethnic Mon, Tavoyan, Arakanese, Burman and others, some who had been there for more than a decade. Gorragot, the deputy chief of the port, said that Burmese workers accounted for 90 percent of the 300-strong workforce.

Every day at around 10 am, fishermen arrive at the port to deliver the fish they have caught the previous night. After unloading their catch, they have lunch, take a short rest and then head back out to sea at around 2 pm. This is their routine, although, sometimes they have to stay at sea for two to three months.

Fishermen tend to drink due to the nature of their work and often engage in serious quarrels and violence, port authorities and fishermen told The Irrawaddy. Homicides were also not uncommon.

“In the past, four to five people were killed in one month when workmates got drunk and fought,” said Kyaw Win Hlaing, the leader of a fishing boat. “But the number of homicide cases has decreased gradually because they no longer drink that much now. Instead, they use illicit drugs,” he said.

Some fishermen secretly deal in the stimulant drug ‘ice’; ‘Asean’ (a mixture of ten kinds of substances named after the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations); Ya ba; and speed, said Gorragot. Since they generally deal amongst themselves, it is difficult to take action against those involved, he added.

An illicit drug capsule or tablet costs 400 to 500 baht (around 15,000 kyat) while the minimum monthly salary of a fisherman starts from just 7,000 to 9,000 baht.

Since violence has decreased, port authorities may feel compelled to turn a blind eye to drug use. However, some abusers suffer from mental disorders, which may cause them to leave their jobs and become destitute.

Port authorities said more than half of the fishermen use drugs, while some of the fishermen themselves think the figure is even higher.

Some migrants have been in Thailand for more than a decade but have never earned enough to support their families back home despite years of toil. A number have blown their salaries on illicit drugs and lost contact with their families or fallen victim to human traffickers.

Htein Win, a fisherman originally from Manaung Township in Arakan State, said he hadn’t spoken to his family for more than 10 years. “Lately, I called my family in Burma and I was told that my father and mother died more than four years ago and that my wife died just recently,” he said.

He felt that he had lost his future and now passes the time using drugs, unsure whether he would return to Burma.

“I have to find a way to get my late wife out of my mind,” said Htein Win. “In the past, I befriended alcohol. But now, I try drug sometimes.”

A chicken-feed salary combined with homesickness often drives fishermen into a downward spiral of alcoholism and drug abuse. Some are saving money to go back to Burma because of the hardships associated with their work.

Some fisherman came to Thailand through employment agents who painted a portrait of ample jobs and high wages. They were willing to risk the journey after struggling to earn a living back home.

“I used to have a few acres of farmland (in Burma), but that was grabbed by the military and sold to cronies,” said Myo Myint, from Bogale Township in Irrawaddy Division. “Then I found myself having no work to make a living. So I made up my mind to take the risk and come to Thailand.”

But Myo Myint found his troubles had followed him. “The situation is worse here. Our lives are at risk,” he said. “Now, I’m saving money and I will go back home as soon as I have saved enough.”

Myo Myint said he would like to urge Burmese migrant workers to reject the inclination towards drugs and alcohol. “If not, we will not be able to free ourselves from wage and drug slavery,” he said.