By any standards, past or present, the problems – indeed
the human tragedy – facing Burma ranks with any in the world, in Zimbabwe or
other parts of Africa, in North Korea or the Middle East. It has lasted for
decades and a once prosperous country is being stripped of its resources and
future to satisfy the greed of its non -elected ‘leaders’ and generals.
Over the past decade it is estimated that around ten
million Burmese have left their homes and barely a million have returned: a
startling figure, especially with a population of only 50 million. Of those
who have migrated some two million, possibly more, have fled to Thailand.
The exodus across the borders into the Kingdom continues at the rate of
2,000 each day.
When they arrive here, they face an uncertain future,
living in conditions that are often little better than those they left
behind. The only thing they have is hope of some future and the prospect of
a job- any job.
These and many other startling and worrying statistics
were given during a special event held last week at Payap University, where
a photographic exhibition, a video film and a series of talks on Migrant
Workers in Thailand were given in the ongoing series of lectures and
discussions which are held regularly at the Mae Kaew Campus.
The round table talks concentrated on the economic, legal
and educational problems facing the incomers and ended with a
straightforward and moving account by a ‘migrant worker’ who had left Burma
many years ago for a new life here and in the process had learned Thai,
English and now holds down a job in Chiang Mai. Even so after years here, he
still has little status and security. Unlike other countries he is regarded
as a ‘migrant worker’ rather than a contributing Overseas Contact Worker.
And yet such workers contribute between five and seven per cent to the
economic output of Thailand and greatly help its continued growth.
One of the intriguing aspects discussed was the seemingly
unspoken collusion between Burma and the countries which facilitate the
illegal exodus. The Burmese authorities do little to discourage people from
leaving (mostly unskilled but also including professionals and political
opponents to the regime). Considerable amounts of money return from those
overseas and many workers pay a daily charge to enter Thailand to earn a few
baht each day.
Most of the two million or so workers who have crossed
into Thailand come to work, taking jobs which the indigenous population are
reluctant to accept designated as the three Ds: dirty, dangerous and
degrading. Pay is invariably below the Thai minimum wage, without holidays,
accident liability or any security.
The situation is, of course, far from unique to Thailand
and Burma. World wide it is estimated that 190 million migrant workers are
found throughout the world, many in far worse conditions than here. Of those
in Thailand about a million plus are registered, but such registration and
the prospect of a four year ‘passport’ ended this March. The complications
inherent in this and other processes to achieve some sort of ID were
outlined at the seminar.
One other important point was made and that was the
prospect of further complications in the coming years: variously put as
about between five and 15 years ahead. This was dependent on the
relationship between Burma and China, with the prospect of the former
country becoming an economic satellite of the vast neighbouring country. And
in the middle of the developing situation are human beings at the mercy of
strong forces. In the powerful and informative 30-minute video which
preceded the talks one such person spoke succinctly of the problem: “It’s
not fair, but it is ‘nature’. My government does not care about us, so why
should we expect anyone else to care?”
(NB. Next week a report on the accompanying photographic
exhibition and the related publication: In Search of a Job… any job by John