Migration and Exile at the Thai-Myanmar Border

A short account of a trip that I went on between 28 July and 6 August 2011 along with Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman and Brian Orland. As all good trips go, it was decided at virtually the 11th hour. Mirza and I met at a coffee shop pretty much decided we were headed to Northeast India in a few days time. There must have been something in the coffee, for we swung from Tripura to Thailand in the space of a few minutes and Brian then joined us because he happened to be in the neighbourhood. The account below was originally written for a strategic affairs think-tank and so does not do full justice to our trip that was full of interesting people, places, and happenings. Perhaps another time.

Thailand has been involved in a number of ways in developments across the border in Burma. While trade and commerce through multiple points on the border form a very big part of their bilateral relationship, also coming through the borders has been a steady stream of Burmese refugees and migrant workers. Prominent points of contact include the Three Pagodas Pass and Mae Sot, both in western Thailand and Mae Sai in northern Thailand.

Thai companies are among the biggest investors in Myanmar and involved in building hydroelectricity dams as well as in mining and timber operations. Thailand therefore, has a significant interest in keeping links open with both the Burmese military and the various ethnic armies on the Burmese side of the border.

Just as significant, are Thai attitudes to Burmese refugees and political exiles on the one hand and to Burmese migrant workers on the other.

Burmese market in Mae Sot, Thailand

Thailand is not a signatory to international refugee conventions and nor does it recognize many NGOs operating on its territory in support of Burmese refugees and workers. In general though, Thai attitudes to refugees and political exiles are tolerant. Political exiles, especially prominent leaders of the 88 generation, carry out their pro-democracy activities openly on Thai soil but the Burmese military has frequently tried to pressurize the Thai government into giving these exiles up. For instance, the Burmese authorities closed the Friendship Bridge at Mae Sot – a hub of Burmese political activity – over a year ago, in an attempt to pressurize the Thai government to crack down on the political activities of the exiles. Simultaneously, however, Thailand is also under pressure from the United States and other Western governments to treat its Burmese refugees well.

Meanwhile, the Thai government is also under pressure from traders and businesses in the Tak province, where Mae Sot is located, to give in to the Burmese authorities since the closure of the border means a reduction in the flow of cheap labour to work in their factories and workshops. This demand for workers in fact, has resulted in Burmese workers continuing to cross the river by ferry under the gaze of plainclothes police and customs officials on the Thai side. And not just workers but goods too, make the crossing. Further south, at the Three Pagodas Pass, officially closed because of fighting on the Burmese side, workers live in camps just along the border inside Burma and use identity cards issued by their Thai employers to cross over for their work every day. The crossing between Mae Sai and Tachileik in Shan State, Burma is however, open.

crossing from the Burmese Side seen from Mae Sot, Thailand

Burmese workers in Thailand, whether legal or illegal, usually do what is known as ‘3D’ work – dirty, dangerous, difficult – and there are various forms of institutional discrimination built in against them especially in access to health and other labour rights. For example, while Burmese refugees usually have access to health care provided by international agencies within the designated camps and for the more serious cases at Thai public health facilities (where they have to pay), illegal migrants do not have the same degree of access. Further, they are also wary of accessing Thai public health facilities for fear of being asked for documentation.

Burmese migrants travel from inside Burma to the borders and then try to travel from the borders to Bangkok in search of higher wages. In both instances, they often have to rely on human smugglers. There are thus frequent police and army checks for illegal migrants on vehicles headed to and from the border areas. Thai border areas are likely to have a higher concentration of whatever Burmese ethnic group lives across the border in Myanmar, but the Bamars are to be found all along the border.

a Burmese child from Tachileik, Myanmar goes to school in Mae Sai, Thailand

The Thai government’s general tolerance of political exiles and willingness to accommodate Burmese refugees must be appreciated. However, Thailand’s own politics has been prone to instability and there are now fears of a still greater refugee influx from Burma if current ceasefires between the Burmese military and many ethnic armies break down or if ongoing conflicts between the Burmese army and other ethnic armies escalate. Under such circumstances, Thai-Burmese relations are likely to see difficult times and their border areas especially likely to become flashpoints.

The original was published as a photo essay in the Southeast Asia News Review, Vol. 1 No. 2A, May 2012, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), pp. 20-23.

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