Myanmar & COVID-19

Myanmar’s Migrants Face Discrimination Amid Surging COVID-19 in Thailand

By Nyein Nyein 9 January 2021

Less than a month after Thailand’s leaders blamed Myanmar migrant workers for the latest COVID-19 outbreak in Samut Sakhon’s wholesale seafood market, discrimination has become a part of Myanmar migrants’ daily lives in everything from transportation to banking.

Ever since Dec. 17 when a 67-year-old Thai vendor working in Mahachai’s shrimp wholesale market tested positive for COVID-19, the market, where many Myanmar migrants work, has been in lockdown. In news reports over the following days, Thailand’s health minister and then prime minister accused illegal Myanmar migrants of transmitting the virus.  Some 300,000 to 400,000 Myanmar migrants work in seafood markets and seafood processing plants–the epicenter of current outbreak–in Thailand.

Within days, discrimination in the use of public transport became evident and online hate speech against Myanmar migrants flared up, driven by fear and disinformation.

One incident involved a Burmese couple who were forced to get out from the Green bus, leaving to Koh Chang (Trat) at Mo Chit Bus station in Bangkok on Christmas Eve. The man, known as Saw Htoo Htoo, posted on his Facebook page: “We got kicked out of the bus because we are Burmese.”

When the post went viral online, the Thailand ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson publicly apologized on Dec. 27, saying, “This is not (our) policy. We regret that this happened and hope it won’t be happening again.”

Ma Oo, a member of Myanmar Migrant Network-Bangkok told The Irrawaddy last month that some Myanmar migrants from other provinces of Bangkok were denied the use of money transfer services at some areas because some bank staff believed they might be virus carriers, even though they might never have been at Samut Sakhon.

Since that time, many Thais have condemned the recrimination, hate speech, and discriminatory treatment against Burmese, stressing that the COVID-19 pandemic is a global problem.

Panpimol Wipulakorn, director-general of the Thai’s Department of Mental Health, urged Thais to give migrant workers moral support and not blame them for the new wave of infections in the kingdom.

A Myanmar migrant, who tested positive with COVID-19 to move to temporary field hospital in Mahachai on on January 8, 2021. / Myanmar Labour Attaché Office / Facebook.

In the last week of December, Thailand’s leadership changed its tone and avoided using “Myanmar migrants” in its coronavirus updates. In any event, the number of cases related to Myanmar migrants has also not been publicized.

But the problem still persists.

On Friday, two Myanmar migrant workers were denied entry to a Krungsri Ayudhya bank branch in Bangkok.

Ko Hein Htet, a migrant whose ATM card was swallowed by the ATM machine when he was checking on his salary, said he was not allowed to enter the bank to obtain a new ATM card after it became known he is Burmese.

“They don’t let us into the Krungsri Ayudhya bank or use its services because we are Burmese,” said Ma San, a migrant who speaks Thai and helped Ko Hein Htet, told The Irrawaddy on Friday.

“The manager told me that there is a Thai rule that they don’t allow Burmese into their bank. If he wants his new ATM card, he must bring a Thai person to sign on Monday and he will get it then,” said Ma San.

Before the new COVID-19 outbreak in December, Ko Hein Htet, who has been working at a factory in Samut Prakan province for three years, could make use of the bank’s services without complication.

Many of the migrants use bank services because their salaries are paid electronically and many remit a portion of their income to families in Myanmar.

According to Thailand’s Department of Employment, there are 1.8 million registered Myanmar migrant workers in the country as of 2020 and an unknown number of undocumented workers.

Ma San said the discrimination creates a hurdle for the migrants’ daily expense and remittance process.

Both said they did not believe some Thai banks were engaged in discrimination until they encountered it firsthand. There have, however, been a number of social media posts (Facebook and tiktok) citing complaints about Thai banks not allowing Burmese access to services.

“I want to ask, is this disease [COVID-19] only infecting Burmese?” said Ma San.

Discrimination is not limited to Bangkok.

A day earlier, a Myanmar teacher and a friend of this author in Chiang Mai, a northern Thai city, faced discriminatory treatment at a Siam Commercial Bank branch.

She told The Irrawaddy that it was, “too obviously discrimination.”

Myanmar migrants and their accompanying children wait to be transferred to the temporary field hospital in Mahachai on January 8, 2021. / Myanmar Labour Attaché Office / Facebook.

She said that when the bank staff at the counter saw her ID, the staff shouted, “This is a Khun Phama (a Burmese in Thailand).” She heard the word “COVID” and a senior staff member quickly arrived on the scene.

“As they spoke in Thai, I did not fully understand, then they took a picture of my ID, bankbook and withdrawal slip with my face in the background without asking me. I told them I have been in Thailand for six years and have not travelled out of the country since last year. With the help of a Thai friend, the manager soon offered an apology, but it was really uncomfortable for me,” she said.

The Irrawaddy tried to contact both banks for comments but was unsuccessful at the time of publication.

The Irrawaddy also tried to contact the Myanmar embassy for comment but was unsuccessful. However, an embassy source said when complaints are received, the embassy would raise the issue with the respective authorities and companies.

Since Thailand’s new COVID-19 outbreak linked to Samut Sakhon was reported in Dec.17, many Myanmar migrants who tested positive for COVID-19 have been quarantined in their homes rather than being admitted to a government hospital. Their communities are under lockdown until temporary field hospitals are established.

Two field hospitals for treating migrants were completed in Mahachai at the end of December. A third one is underway and a fourth one is setting up for construction, according to Thai media.

Minister-counsellor U Maw Bala of the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok explained to the Myanmar migrant community in Mahachai Shrimp Market during a meeting on Thursday that “those who tested positive would be placed under hospital quarantine for the next ten days and after you are free of disease you can go back to your current place.”

Migrants in the seafood wholesale market lockdown areas are given color wrist-bands with red for COVID-19 positive, green for those who have recovered COVID-19 disease and white for those who are free from disease.

U Maw Bala assured meeting participants that Thai authorities have guaranteed that they will not arrest those workers who are undocumented or have overstayed their visas.  But he urged his fellow Myanmar citizens to follow the rules of the host country and to appear for the COVID-19 test.

“But those who have little children would rather stay home even if they are tested positive, because they are afraid to leave their children at home,” said U Aung Kyaw, the director of Mahachai-base Migrant Workers Right Network (MWRN).

A number of the participants in Thursday’s meeting with the Myanmar diplomats also raised that issue. “What would happen to our child if the mother is tested positive?” said a woman with a toddler.

On Friday, the Myanmar Labor attaché office said diplomats have helped move the COVID-19 positive patients, including the women with young children to the temporary field hospitals in Mahachai.

Thailand has reported a total 9,841 cases with 205 additional cases on Friday, and 67 deaths.

Since late December the infections were mostly linked to Samut Sakhon, gambling dens in Rayong, cockfighting rings in Ang Thong and several entertainment venues in the Pin Klao area of Bangkok.

In addition, new infections were expected to rise over the next two weeks, according to the Bangkok Post, which cited Thailand’s director of the Communicable Diseases Division under the Department of Disease Control (DDC) on Thursday.

Thailand’s government also vowed to take decisive action against state officials and anyone else involved in illegal labor smuggling, as well as officials who are negligent or complicit in allowing illegal gambling dens to operate, which has been blamed for new clusters of COVID-19 infections, the Bangkok Post reported.

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