Thailand Needs Healthy Myanmar Migrants to Boost Economy

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 17 November 2021

Ten months into the crisis in Myanmar, Thailand is still scrambling for a well-balanced policy to lessen the anxiety of Myanmar’s population, both inside and outside the country.

The news of an influx of migrant workers across the border has sent a chilling message to the Thai authorities, especially those who deal with national security.

According to the Bureau of Immigration, from January to October this year, 32,170 illegal migrants crossed the border. In September and October alone, 11,101 people illegally crossed. The trend does not look good. The 10 provinces bordering Myanmar have been placed on high alert: Ranong, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Phetchaburi, Chumphon, Ratchaburi, Kanchanaburi, Tak, Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.

With the dry season, the Thai security apparatus is extremely worried there could be a new, bigger influx of those fleeing fighting.

The numbers vary depending on their mobility and whereabouts as they search safety. Some other countries which border Myanmar have sealed their frontier.

Several western countries have urged Thailand to open its border to people fleeing the conflict in Myanmar. For the time being, the Thai government has expressed readiness to provide temporary shelter along the border, especially in the areas from Mae Hong Son in Thailand’s north down to Ranong. Additional temporary shelters are planned in Tak province, which has experienced more illegal entries than other provinces. International aid agencies would like more permanent shelters.

Last week, Thailand assumed the chair of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) for 2022 and the Prayut government has come up with new economic plans to revive the stalled economy.

Opening up the country on Nov. 1 was one of several measures to begin the “next normal” so Thailand can rejoin the global economy and improve commerce.

Over the weeks, the media has focused on the arrival of tourists at key airports around the country.

Only the state-run media has highlighted that large groups of migrants along the frontier with Myanmar and Cambodian migrant workers along the eastern border have been waiting for the opportunity to cross into Thailand.

But the immediate challenge is the labor shortage. Several industrial sources say Thailand needs at least 400,000 workers to boost growth in various sectors.

The government has pursued policies regarding migrant workers in passive, old-fashioned ways.

Given the severe shortage of migrant workers, the government must work out detailed plans.

These plans must ensure migrant workers will be protected, provided with sufficient welfare and spared from human traffickers. Meanwhile, traffickers must be prosecuted.

The government must think about migrants as more than cheap labor. If they are well-treated, they can contribute to economic development for the Prayut government.

It was good news last week when Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul pledged to have all migrant workers vaccinated and non-Thai citizens for free, starting in December. It is a tall order but not an impossible task as more vaccines are becoming available.

An estimated 2.3 million registered workers from Myanmar are going to make Thailand their home. Some have already raised families in Thailand and their children speak Thai as their first language.

The government should also initiate a new immigration policy that would allow long-term migrant workers to have permanent residency so they can make plans and raise families.

That way, they could become a constructive force in rebuilding Thailand instead of having to run away or catch up with new cabinet decisions every time they are made.

Other foreigners who have better financial incentives have been granted long-stay visas.

The challenges for Myanmar’s workers will increase as economic stress and security-risk assessments kick in.

Migrants in border camps must be handled with care and the utmost understanding of the serious implications for ties with Myanmar.

Thailand is caught due to its close ties with Myanmar’s military junta and an increased dependence on migrant workers, who adore Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and back the revolution.

Both sides can induce crises that can seriously affect Thailand’s economic and social fabric and development plans.

The government must contemplate a better communication strategy with all Myanmar’s stakeholders.

More outreach programmes and activities aimed at improving the livelihoods of Myanmar’s people must be top priority and augmented.

All government agencies must help ensure sufficient information in various languages is available.

Information is currently only available in Myanmar’s languages. Their understanding and perceptions of Thailand are extremely important while Myanmar is in chaos. Updated information can soothe anxiety.

This helps to explain the country’s benign policy towards Myanmar since the crisis started.

Thailand has fully backed all efforts decided by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including the five-point consensus.

Bangkok has been the key coordinator, through the Thai Red Cross, to channel humanitarian assistance, including COVID-19 help, to its neighbour.

Mass vaccination on the border started two weeks ago.

The Thai government has asked for more vaccine donations for these groups. This effort must continue until everyone in Thailand gets inoculated.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

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