The winding road of life: Lives of migrant workers on Thai-Myanmar border

Tens of thousands of migrant workers without proper documentation travelled back to their homelands or were fired by their employers who feared legal repercussion as soon as the Royal Decree on Managing the Work of Aliens B.E. 2560 (2017) went into effect on 23 June.

The tumultuous, uneasy situation lasted for over a week until 4 July, when Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, as head of the National Council for Peace and Order, issued NCPO Order Number 33/2560 Re: Temporary Measures to Rectify the Problems in Managing the Work of Aliens. One of the measures delayed punishment under four articles in the Royal Decree until 1 Jan. 2018 and added a loophole for changing the law.

The Mae Sot Labour Law Clinic, under the Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF), found that during the time the Royal Decree was applied from 23 June to 3 July, 27,000 Burmese workers travelled back to Myawaddy in Karen State over the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge in Mae Sot District, Tak Province. If 4 July is included, the number may be as high as 30,000.

Many affected by the new alien labour laws do not have plans to return to Thailand, since they cannot call it “home” anymore.

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‘I don’t want to move anywhere any more’: Burmese Muslims

 

The-Bangladeshi Mosque village after tenants were told to move out

Naing Win’s rickshaw

 

Towards the end of August, a winding concrete road led me to a village in Mae Sot, Tak. Tin roofed wooden huts, raised just enough to stay out of the stagnant water below, lined both sides of the road. The Bangladeshi Mosque village is one of six Burmese Muslim villages in the area’s Islam Bamrung Community. According to the NGO Save the Children, the Bangladeshi Mosque village consists of 1,526 people in 280 households.

Bangladeshi Mosque village is so named because of its location next to the Nurul Islam Mosque II, colloquially called the Bangladeshi Mosque. Around 35 years ago, Bangladeshi traders settled in Mae Sot and were given land to build a community mosque and row houses to rent. The first inhabitants were Burmese Muslims who migrated from the often-violent Wang Pha village, Mae Ramat District in Tak Province near the Thai-Myanmar border. Later migrants eventually made this community the largest in Islam Bamrung.

Along the concrete road I walked past rows of houses until I came to a wide space that used to have 23 houses of Burmese Muslims, said my guide. All the migrants and houses disappeared until there were three left, their occupants pondering what to do next with their lives.

Naing Win, 40, is a Burmese Muslim from Rangoon. His citizen ID states that he is of Surti ethnicity, which means he is descended from people in Gujarat in western India near the Pakistan border. According to Myanmar law, citizens are still categorized based on their ethnic ancestry, no matter how many generations ago they moved to the country—one of the main factors in discrimination against non-Burmese.

Naing Win said he left Rangoon for the Bangladeshi Mosque community over a decade ago. He has a work permit from his old employer, but since the process was complicated, he didn’t bother to change the name of his employer when he changed jobs. When his work permit expires, Naing Win has virtually no chance of extending its validity since the Myanmar authorities do not issue Certificates of Identity (CI) for Muslim citizens.

Nowadays, Naing Win rides his rickshaw collecting used goods and doing an unstable flow of odd jobs. When he collects enough items he sells them for around 400 to 500 baht per load. He makes 3,000 to 4,000 baht per month.

His wife, 33-year-old Pattama Kyi, stays at home and takes care of their children since she does not have any official documentation.

The couple have four children and are currently taking care of three. Their sons Faisal, 12, and Maung Lin Lin, 8, study in third grade and kindergarten 3, respectively, at a primary school in Mae Sot. The youngest son, Duwaniya, 2, stays at home with Pattama Kyi. Their only daughter Malinee, 10, is in first grade but is staying with relatives in Myanmar due to her poor health.

The family’s heavy burdens got worse when the Royal Decree on Managing the Work of Aliens B.E. 2560 went into effect. One early morning in late June, soldiers and police raided the Burmese Muslim community, deporting some back to Myanmar but letting others stay since they had no home to go back to.

The troops came for Naing Win and Pattama Kyi’s family, too. They let Naing Win go because he had a work permit, but detained his wife and children. Naing Win had to ask his sons’ teacher at the primary school to confirm with the authorities that the children did indeed go to that school, and that his wife was their guardian. Only then did the police let Pattama Kyi and the kids go.

Although they were released, troubles continued to pile on. The local landlord gave an ultimatum that his tenants had to move out by September because he didn’t want any further trouble with the authorities. Naing Win planned to move onto another landlord’s land, since the current landlord decided to only put 10 houses up for rent and most households moved out.

Pattama Kyi said she constantly worried about the move. Naing Win was also afraid to collect second hand goods since the authorities were cracking down on the immigration law at that time. Without Naing Win’s income, the children had to stop going to school.

Still, the family is adamant that they will not return to Myanmar. In their native land the situation is even worse, they said, with no chance of their children getting an education there.

“Mobile Children” affected by authorities’ policies

The example of Naing Win’s children who had to suddenly quit school is one of the troubles that befall “mobile children,” or stateless refugee children in Mae Sot District, Tak Province. According to data from Tak Public Health Office, in August 2017, there were 71,690 stateless refugee children under 18 in Mae Sot while the five border districts in the province have 200,000 in total.

The Child Protection Network Mae Sot (CPN), one of the non-government social development organizations in the region that focus on children's’ rights, expressed their concern that mobile children in the area are vulnerable to health risks and human trafficking without legal protection.

Human rights experts: children must not be detained or deported.

Vitit Muntarbhorn, Professor at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, and expert on international human rights law and refugees, said that Thailand has two laws that already offer legal protection for refugee children: the Child Protection Act B.E. 2546 and the Act for the Establishment of and Procedure for Juvenile and Family Court B.E. 2534. Vitit said these two laws effectively help manage the “mobile children” situation.

The two sets of laws should prevent mobile children from being detained or deported. Officials of child aid organizations such as the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, NGOs and trade unions should also aid the individuals since it is a social welfare rather than immigration issue.

Vitit said that Thai education law should be open and not be affected by interpretations of the new immigration law. Under the National Education Act and resolutions by the 2005 cabinet, everyone, regardless of nationality, has the right to free education.

“Therefore, we should allow both official and unofficial schools to remain unaffected by the new immigration law. We have to put the children’s benefits first and reject discrimination against their development and protection by considering their basic needs and fundamental rights,” [AB1] Vitit said.

Thai laws should be looked at from a big-picture perspective: no Act stands alone, he continued. “We have to respect labour policy and law but they’re not the complete answer. … We have an obligation under the international Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to take a general and broad view and look at laws and policies on children in general together with other related laws,” said the international human rights law professor.

When democracy is deferred

The transition from military to semi-civilian rule in Myanmar has been a rocky one. General elections in November 2015 that put in power the government led by Htin Kyaw and Aung San Suu Kyi did not lead to democratic reform.

The Myanmar army still maintains political power under the 2008 Constitution. The seven-decade-long wars between the army and ethnic groups are still raging due to stalled peace talks. The Rohingya humanitarian crisis in Rakhine [AB2] State, according to October data from the UNHCR, has resulted in 600,000 refugees streaming into Bangladesh.

Widespread discrimination, prejudice and general distrust of Muslim minorities in Myanmar severely discourages Muslim refugees since the era of military rule from returning to the country.

Refugee schools

Sa Muang and his students

In the Bangladeshi Mosque village in Mae Sot District, Tak Province, the sound of dozens of schoolchildren reciting lessons from the blackboard floats on the wind blowing through. On the plastic sheets covering the raised wooden floorboards, some sit with their legs to the side while others sit cross-legged against the tin walls. The curriculum and teaching is done completely by volunteer teachers. The school, called a community learning centre in the area, is one of 50 in Mae Sot.

This wooden schoolhouse has been open for four years, attended by local refugee children. One of the teachers is Sa Maung, 55, a Burmese Muslim. Sa Maung was one of the democracy activists who marched in the 8888 Uprising in August 1988. He was arrested, jailed for four years and released in 1992. Sa Maung used to live in a refugee camp in Phop Phra District, Tak Province. As the years passed, his friends got visas approved and moved overseas while he decided to go and live in Mae Sot District, where people encouraged him to teach refugee workers’ children.

When asked why the community had to open a school even though many children in the community are eligible for enrolment in public schools, Sa Maung said that the community leader told him that there are many other children who do not have any education at all and he was afraid they would grow up without any future or would be led to misbehave. Therefore, he asked parents in the Bangladeshi Mosque community to send him their children until they have enough money to send their children elsewhere.

Sa Maung’s school currently has 42 students of varying ages sitting comfortably together in the 6-by-8 meter wooden hut. School runs from 2 pm to 5 pm on weekdays, with lessons including English, Burmese, Maths 1 and Maths 2. Sa Maung said that 3 to 4 years ago, a volunteer teacher taught Thai too but this year there have been no volunteers. In the evening, children go learn Islamic subjects at the mosque until 8 pm.

Sa Maung said that although elections have been held in Myanmar, he has had no chance to go back to his home country. A Burmese Muslim like him, he said, is basically stateless. Although not Rohingya, he says Burmese Muslims have encountered so many problems when they have to prove their citizenship to get their citizen ID.

If he could plead with Aung San Suu Kyi, Sa Maung said he would ask her to do something about radical conservatives in Myanmar. Nowadays when a problem crops up in Myanmar, people from these groups do things that affect Muslims, which is undesirable. “Before, if the higher-ups did something bad, we could teach them. But now there’s no one to teach anything, so they are free to cause all the problems they want,” he said.

“In Myanmar, there are the Shan, Karen, Mon and other states. In the country there are people who follow many religions, including Buddhists, Christians and Muslims.  In the past, the government took care of only the Burman ethnic group. People of other ethnicities, like those who practice other religions, are oppressed,” Sa Maung said.

Although he exists as a stateless person without a citizen ID, he says it’s not a big deal for him, as long as the children eventually get statehood and receive an education without being deported. That’s enough for him, said the teacher. Still, he believes that if the children had an ID card they would focus on their education more and have a better chance at a good future. Even people of different religions and cultures should be able to coexist, because all religions teach people to live peacefully, Sa Maung said.

Stateless, existence-less: Refugees from Karen State to the edge of a field on the border

Mue Mue’s family hut

Not far from the main road in Mae Sot District, Tak Province, I weaved through the concrete paths into a village and walked along the earthen ridges to a flat space where there were three huts close to each other. I talked to a Karen family of 14 with no nationality who lived together. The family is part of the Karen refugee population that moved from border camps to live in Mae Sot.

Mue Mue, a 42-year old Karen woman, was born in a village near Dooplaya District, also called Kawkareik in Myanmar, not very far from Mae Sot. Unrest in Karen State made her decide to flee to Mae Sot in 1988, or when she was 13. Later, her mother followed. Mue Mue only went back to Myanmar once, when she was 30, to bring over her elderly father.

Struggles and Starvation in Dooplaya during the Civil War with the Myanmar Army

Map shows location of Kawkareik District, also known as Dooplaya, in Karen State.

Since the late 1980s the Myanmar army has conducted intensive operations in areas of Karen State occupied by the Karen National Union (KNU). In December 1994, some Karen troops collaborated with the Myanmar army and established the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), weakening the KNU and taking their bases at Manerplaw in February 1994 and Kawmoora a year later.

After taking those strategic bases, the Myanmar army invaded further into Karen State. According to a report in 2000 by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), villages in Dooplaya District that occupy thousands of square kilometres formerly under KNU rule came under Myanmar army control by 1997 after Karen troops defected to them.

From 1997 to 1999, the Myanmar army burned down villages and forced Karen villagers to move away from Dooplaya to weaken the support network for the KNU. Villagers had to settle in neighbourhoods strategically located close to Myanmar army bases. People had to get permission to do farm work outside of the village area. The army drafted local people as coolies. Those suspected of collaborating with the KNU were detained and tortured—a fate that often ended with execution.

In December 1999, Karen villagers had to hand over their entire year’s harvest to the army, which the army later redistributed as daily rations to each family. This resulted in widespread starvation all over Dooplaya. To survive, many went into the forest and dug for taro roots. Some escaped into the wilderness, and the army declared they would shoot them on sight. Others escaped across the border to Thailand ... where an uncertain future awaited them.

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Today, Mue Mue lives with her Karen husband and their three children. Her eldest daughter is 25, her son 16 and the youngest daughter is 9. When her eldest daughter married and moved out, she gave her then 4-year-old son from her first marriage to raise. [AB3] One of the other huts belongs to Mue Mue’s older brother, while the other belongs to her younger sister and her family. No one in the three huts has any official identification, save for her younger sister’s husband who has a work permit.

Mue Mue said that when she first moved to Thailand, she earned 300 baht a day working as a farm hand. She would move around wherever there was work. Mostly she worked in Mae Sot, but she had travelled as far as Mae Charao Subdistrict in Mae Ramat District and Mae Kasa Subdistrict in Mae Sot District, all in Tak province. One job often lasted weeks or even a month. After it was over she would come back to Mae Sot, and the cycle continued. Most of her work was in cornfields, sifting corn kernels or field work. In this season, she said she was mostly husking corn into sacks, for which she got paid 15 baht per sack. On a good day, she gets 200 baht. On bad days, 80 baht.

When the Royal Decree on Managing the Work of Aliens B.E. 2560 (2017) went into effect, the landowner told Mue Mue and her family to move out because they were liable to be caught by the police and soldiers. The family escaped into the forest for three days and nights and only returned to live in the huts when news of the raids dissipated.

Since she has chosen to settle down in Thailand and the Myanmar government’s reorganization of the administration of Dooplaya District (Kawkareik), Mue Mue has no official documentation from the Myanmar government. Trying to prove her Myanmar citizenship would be impossible. Mue Mue even said, “If we went back to Karen State we would have no way of surviving. But in Thailand there’s still a way. I’ll live in Mae Sot until I die. Even if I get arrested and sent back to Myanmar I’ll get on a boat to come back to Thailand.”

While I was talking to Mue Mue, La Kor, her 16-year-old son came and sat next to her. Like other children of refugees, he does not have a Birth Certificate or a Certificate Of Report Of Birth. Although the Thai government has allowed stateless children to attend public schools since 2005, La Kor has had no chance to go to school since he has become an important source of income for the family. His work at a car wash in Mae Sot brings him 3,000 to 4,000 baht per month.

When I asked Mue Mue whether she wants her children to go to school, she said she used to not want her son to go to school because he is the only one who helps his parents work. She doesn’t know if her daughter wants to go to school, but she would like her to. A few months later, Mue Mue talked to a human rights worker in the area and then decided that she would plan for all of her children to go to school.

Surapong Kongchantuk, an expert on nationality law at the Social Action for Children and Women Foundation (SAW) said Mue Mue and her family’s stateless situation could be helped under Thai law.

Although Mue Mue was not recorded in the Person Without Registration Status survey by the Ministry of the Interior between 2006 and 2011, Article 38 Paragraph 2 of the Civil Registration Act (No.2), B.E. 2551 was amended in 2008 to say that those without Thai citizenship could register their status if they lived in Thailand. This Article was then subsequently implemented in Mae Sot district.

Therefore, in Mue Mue’s case, if she can prove that she has lived in Thailand for a long time and that she has no ties to the Myanmar state, she can register her status on the TR 38 immigration form. She would get in return a Registration Status card which would have a 13-digit ID number. The number would begin with a 0 and the 6th and 7th digits would be 00. The card signifies that the holder is a Person Without Registration Status but still has no rights of habitation and public healthcare.

However, children of two Persons Without Registration Status, even if they are born in Thailand, do not yet receive Thai citizenship. To get Thai citizenship they must qualify according to the cabinet’s Dec. 7, 2016 resolution and the Ministry of Interior’s Mar. 14, 2017 announcement. Mue Mue’s children, who were born in Thailand,[AB4]  can receive Thai citizenship if they 1) obtain a Certificate of Report of Birth that states they were born in Thailand and 2) complete a Bachelor’s Degree.

As for Mue Mue’s children that have not gone to school, Surapong says it is the parent’s duty to take the children to school and the schools’ duty to accept them, whether or not the children want to learn. It’s everyone’s collective responsibility to make sure that children get the highest level of development in their formative years. The law stipulates that parents should enrol their children so they can have Thai language skills. Children without any Thai language ability fall behind when compared to other children their age.

The Thai state must protect ethnic refugees

Authorities should not use a blanket approach when coming up with policies that apply to ethnic groups from Myanmar, including Burmese Muslims that live along the Thai-Myanmar border, said Surapong.

Indeed, such people should be categorized into three separate categories. The first group are foreign labourers who have immigrated to Thailand for work and can return to their own countries. With this group, the state should treat them as a foreign workforce. The second group are people who have settled in Thailand for a long time, such as ethnic groups or refugees. This group cannot return to their native countries and they left Myanmar a long time ago and the political situation there is still unstable. With this group, the state should treat them as ethnic minorities or refugees. The third group are refugees’ children who are born in Thailand. They are not foreign labour nor did they escape here. According to the former idea, this group may qualify for Thai citizenship, which the state has not granted them.

Therefore, the state should treat these three groups differently, but currently they paint a broad brush across all of them, accusing them of illegally entering the country and using deportation as a punitive measure, creating a long-standing problem.

The state must tackle the problem at its source rather than detaining people based on the new Royal Decree on Managing the Work of Aliens B.E. 2560 (2017) by seeing which category a person belongs to. If they are a refugee they must register as such, if they are foreign labour, they must register accordingly. Children born in Thailand must be treated as that—children born in Thailand, because they are neither refugees nor foreign labour. If processed correctly, they could stay in Thailand legally under regulations and with guardians. Even if they are declared illegal and deported, they will just enter into Thailand again.

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Back at the yard in front of Mue Mue’s hut on the edge of a field, the sun started to set as we continued to talk. Towards the main road, we could see twinkling lights from malls that outlined the horizon. We ate dinner and Mue Mue’s family cleaned their house and got ready for bed, saving their strength for the hard new day ahead.

Before I said my goodbyes to Mue Mue and La Kor, I asked her what she thought was most necessary in life.

“Number one, a citizen ID. It would allow me to find work anywhere. If we have work then we have food,” Mue Mue answered. “If we have money but no ID card, then we can’t travel anywhere and have to hide here and there.”

Mue Mue believes that if her family obtained citizenship or at least registration status, their lives would improve since they would not have to hide from authorities. Her son could also do other kinds of work, such as factory work. Previously, when he applied at a factory no employer would hire him since he had no status.