‘Workers Are Now Very Afraid’

By The Irrawaddy 20 June 2014

In this week’s “Dateline Irrawaddy” show—first aired on the Democratic Voice of Burma—panelists discuss the recent crackdown and expulsion of Burmese, Cambodian and other migrant workers in Thailand.  

Lin Thant: This week we are going to cover the arrest and expulsion from Thailand of migrant workers from Burma and other countries. I am Lin Thant, a reporter for The Irrawaddy magazine, and joining me this week are Ko Kyaw Kha and Ko Yan Pai, fellow members of The Irrawaddy team.

After the military coup in Thailand, the ruling military council, the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council, made a plan to arrest undocumented migrant workers, and as a result we are seeing the continuous arrest of migrant workers, both documented and undocumented. And most of the detainees turned out to be from Burma, although there are also migrant workers from Thailand’s other neighboring countries, like Laos or Cambodia. Some Burmese migrant workers who were arrested are documented, while some are undocumented. Organizations and actors working for the migrant workers are addressing the issue. However, they are not happy about the lack of cooperation and protection from the Burmese Embassy in Thailand. Just this morning, there was a protest outside the Burmese Embassy over the embassy’s lack of support and protection for Burmese migrant workers. Can you tell us more about that, Ko Kyaw Kha?

Kyaw Kha: Yes. The current operation is arresting documented migrant workers as well as undocumented ones. There are reports that they have been arresting some workers with valid documents. The Burmese Embassy gives no support in these instances. That was the reason why a solo protester protested outside the embassy a while ago. The embassy talked with him later, and he presented the embassy with a video and photo evidence of how Thai police are extorting money from Burmese migrant workers, despite their legal status, so that the embassy can take action. But the embassy failed to respond, and that is the reason he decided to protest.

LT: I just learned yesterday that the embassy’s officer for migrant worker affairs issued a handwritten memo, which is quite strange and disappointing to see. The memo urges Burmese migrant workers, both documented and undocumented, to contact the phone numbers mentioned in the document in the case of arrests. How many Burmese migrant workers know about this? According to the studies, Burmese migrant workers comprise the majority of the migrant work forces in Thailand, numbering about 3 million and making up 85 percent of the total migrant workers. Therefore, how effective can the letter be?

KK: Just think about the nature of that memo. Instead of issuing a typed letter, they just made do with a handwritten one. We also have to see how well the letter has been distributed. If they are doing this in good faith to spread information to migrant workers inside Thailand, they have to distribute it through media and migrant affairs organizations. So far they have just spread it through people they know, and only because of social media like Facebook have some others came to know about it. The reality is that they have been weak in addressing these issues effectively.

LT: There are other migrant workers in Thailand, apart from the Burmese, and they are also facing arrests. Now hundreds of thousands of Cambodian migrant workers have already gone back home. What do you want to say, Ko Yan Pai?

Yan Pai: Thailand calls migrant workers from neighboring countries dtàang dâao (ต่างด้าว). After the military coup on May 22, Thaksin Shinawatra hinted that he would help rebel against the Thai coup-makers from Cambodia. Rumors related to this matter are spreading, and that has led to tension between Thailand and Cambodia. Another thing is that the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council has tightened law enforcement since taking power. They have launched operations against drugs, illegal arms and undocumented migrant workers. That’s how some Cambodian migrant workers were arrested and why others have run away from Thailand. Then we saw the political play of Cambodia. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen went to the Thai-Cambodia border to welcome the returning migrant workers, and he told them that there are now jobs for them at home, like what Burma did before. Because of that, over 120,000 Cambodian migrant workers went back by train and other means. People accuse the Thai government of driving away Cambodian migrant workers. Although it might have been intentional, the Thai government didn’t drive them away. They just run away because of the series of arrests.

LT: Yesterday, I saw that the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council made an announcement stating that they are not arresting these migrant workers, and that they are forming committees to provide work permits to them systematically, and if there are any arrests, detentions or instances of extortion, complaints can be sent to them.

YP: Thai police are also part of the problem. If the migrant workers are working in another place other than the place listed on their work permits, the police not only arrest the workers, but also extort them. That’s why Burmese migrant workers don’t dare to go out while Cambodian migrant workers are returning home, and that might be the reason why the director-general from the Ministry of Labor issued the statement yesterday that you just mentioned.

LT: How is the situation of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, and how many of them have been arrested already?

KK: After the military coup, they started arresting Burmese migrant workers in Mae Sot, and within a week they started arrested arresting migrant workers in Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Mahachai. At first, they targeted undocumented migrant workers. But a few days ago in Chiang Mai, they arrested those with valid documents. When the workers asked the police why they were being arrested, even though they are documented, the police said they were just cleaning up the garbage. Workers are now very afraid. The police are probing areas where these workers work, like markets, construction sites and even in the workers’ quarters. The workers are moving to other places and some are even afraid to go to work although they are documented.

YP: Whether the workers are documented or not, the police always find them as easy scapegoats for extortion.

LT: I saw in the news that some cases have been reported by migrant workers and migrant rights activists in which the police ripped the papers of documented migrant workers. The Burmese Embassy needs to address cases like these, although the embassy says it has urged the Thai government not to arrest Burmese migrant workers. One thing I have noticed here is that there are many Burmese citizens in Thailand overstaying their four-year stay permits, and their plans to extend their stay, which requires the cooperation of both countries, have been delayed because of the political instability in Thailand. The Burmese Embassy’s appeal was mainly intended for these workers. Among the arrested migrant workers, there may be workers in this situation as well as those without any documents. How big is this issue?

KK: There are about 3 million Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, and only 1.7 million of them hold temporary passports that were issued since 2009. Since the passports are only valid for four years, most of the passports have already expired, and 1 million of those 1.7 million passport holders may already be illegal by now. I think only about 200,000 to 300,000 of them are holding valid temporary passports. When their passports expire and they can’t get extensions, they will become illegal. The Thai government and the Burmese government have to solve this, but now they are facing arrests.

LT: The arrests are carried out in military operation style, in places like Mae Sot, Bangkok, Chiang Mai and in southern Thailand.  Migrant workers rent land either from their employers or from other landowners and build huts where they can live. Now Thai government forces are destroying their huts and they have lost their livelihoods as well. Their situation is worrisome. Burmese migrant workers are working in Thailand because the economic situation at home is not good. But with the recent arrests of Burmese migrant workers, the authorities are also cracking down on the sale of yaba tablets, and that may make the matter worse. What are the root causes of the problems, and how can leaders of both countries, the migrant workers themselves, and other actors working on migrant workers’ issues respond?

KK: The National Peace and Order Maintaining Council just formed a committee to issue work permits to the migrant workers. This is good news. The commander in chief also told the workers not to return home, as they are not going to arrest them anymore. But on the other hand, the police are still arresting them, especially Red Shirt supporters. Police are arresting them as a political game. Burmese migrant workers are scapegoats in this case, like Cambodian and Laotian migrant workers. The reality is that Burmese migrant workers don’t want to return. When they are arrested and sent to the border area in Myawaddy and Mae Sot, they don’t return to their home. They find a way to come back to Thailand.

YP: Since they can only make their living in Thailand, they have to return.

LT: Thai authorities are urging the migrant workers, whether they are documented or undocumented, not to go back, because most of Thailand’s industries depend on migrant workers, and if they go back Thailand’s economy will be highly affected. The Burmese government should take responsibility to protect them. We want to close our discussion this week by calling on the government of Burma and other organizations to provide more protection for migrant workers. I am Lin Thant, a reporter for The Irrawaddy magazine and joining me this week are Ko Kyaw Kha and Ko Yan Pai fellow members of The Irrawaddy team.  Thank you all for watching.