Needed as workers, unwanted as guests

By Joel B. Escovilla

(The names of all the Shan in this story and the accompanying sidebar have been changed for their protection.)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – The footsteps. Always the footsteps.

That is what 36-year-old Kit Tao fears hearing each night, and whenever he snaps awake in the dark, he finds himself straining his ears even as he wishes that there will be only silence.

align=”left”>One night six years ago, the sound of boots chafing the hard earth had awakened him. Then came the screams. As his small village in Nam Leip, Central Shan State, in Burma, was gripped by confusion, Burmese troops from 599 Infantry Batallion ordered everybody to line up. A volley of gunfire quelled all ambitions of dissent. Kit Tao himself would be pummeled to the ground with rifles and then left for dead.

When he regained consciousness, his village was all but empty. It took him and 10 other fellow villagers who survived similar beatings to travel through dense jungle just to get to the border, cross into Thailand, and reach Chiang Mai, a northern Thai province. Two years later, Kit Tao finally got his papers in order and secured a work permit. But his nightmares have yet to stop coming, and it doesn’t help at all that Burmese migrants like him – legal and otherwise — are subjected to harassment by local Thai authorities.

In fact, it may be one reason why Kit Tao still keeps on waking up, drenched in sweat, in the dead of the night. “Just yesterday night, the police came and intimidated us, entered our homes, and asked for our identification papers,” he recounts in Thai, which he now speaks fluently. “Two of our motorbikes were taken away.” He says the only reason why he still has his motorcycle is because he arrived home 10 minutes after the police had already left.

For sure, Thai authorities are far less violent than the Burmese soldiers whose brutality has driven hundreds of thousands of Burmese out of their own country. But activists and observers alike say the Thais have made it clear the Burmese refugees – and especially the Shan – are not welcome in their country, even as the visitors provide Thai entrepreneurs with cheap labour.

At the same time, Charm Tong, director of the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), finds it strange that Thailand has been willing to provide camps for Karen, Karenni, and Mon refugees from Burma yet denies these to the Shan, who are closely related ethnically and linguistically to the Thais. “The Shan in Burma and some people in Laos, the Shan in China’s Yunnan and the Thais speak similar language,” she notes.

Close link a curse?

“Shan” is actually Burmese for “Siam,” the old name of Thailand. But Supalak Ganjanakhundee, senior reporter of English-language The Nation newspaper in Bangkok, says this close link with the Thais could be more of a curse than a blessing for the Shan.

“That might encourage more of them to come to Thailand and stay at refugee camps,” he says, hinting that this is a situation Thais authorities want to avoid. He says that even if international aid organisations fund the refugee camps, the Thai government still has to shoulder some of the cost of sustaining these. Supalak points out that compared to the Mon and Karenni, the Shan have a much bigger population; providing them with refugee camps can create more difficulties than solutions, he says.

Laura Mclennan, program assistant of the human-rights group Forum Asia, meanwhile sees a more worrisome reason for the local attitude towards the Burmese migrants. She says that even though Thailand has an open policy on investors and foreign tourists, it treats refugees and ethnic minorities differently.

“There’s discrimination,” she says. “The Thai nationality exploits the minority so if you’re a refugee you’re way below the social stratum. There’s an impunity crisis in Thailand because if you are in the lowest form of realm, you have no rights. If you come in as refugee in ethnic groups, you are lower still.” She also observes that Thais even use the names of ethnic minorities to tease each other. “They call you Hmong or Karen and they find it funny,” she says.

Mclennan, whose focus is working with ethnic minorities, says the locals’ apparent low regard for the Shan and other refugees make them “fair game” — targets for abuse, harassment, persecution, and even sexual violence. Jackie Pollock, director of the Migrant Assistance Programme (MAP), seconds this, and adds that female refugees are particularly vulnerable. “One Shan woman was invited by the police and arrested for three hours,” she says. “It’s about being female and being immigrant. Another Shan woman was raped by her employer and he only (paid a settlement of) 180,000 baht.”

“Some of the Thais think they can do anything with these people because these people are nothing,” says SWAN’s Tong. “This impunity is not good in the long run because it creates more violence and more systematic impunity.”

Fleeing from persecution

It’s uncertain just how many refugees from Shan State – or for that matter, from Burma – are now in Thailand, although one conservative estimate places the number of Burmese in border camps at 150,000. Tong, though, says that these days, at least 1,000 new migrants from Shan State arrive daily in Chiang Mai’s Fang district alone.

Shan State is located in the northeastern part of the Union of Burma. It’s about 160,000 square kilometers of rich natural resources like gems, minerals, and teakwood. The population of Shan State is estimated to be more than 10 million, half of whom are ethnic Shan. Other ethnic groups include the Akha, Kachin, Lahu, Lisu, Palaung, Pa-O, and Wa. The Shan have always enjoyed autonomy even when Burma was still a British colony. When the British left in 1948, the Shan agreed to join the rest of Burma on condition that they would be allowed to secede after 10 years. That agreement was never implemented and a civil war soon broke out.

Over the past 40 years, resistance movements led by the Shan State Army (SSA) have operated in Shan State. In the effort to suppress the rebellion, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) – the most recent name the ruling military junta has given itself — implemented the “Four Cuts” policy, which is meant to cut off the supplies of food, funds, recruits, and information to resistance groups. But as in most conflicts, innocent civilians have been caught in the crossfire. Systematic torture, execution, extortion, pillage, and sexual harassment have become common tactics to force the villagers into submission.

According to the 2002 report “Licence to Rape,” published by SWAN and the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF), rape was used “as a powerful weapon in their anti-insurgency campaigns against civilian populations in Shan State”. The report chronicles 168 incidents of rape from 1996 to 2001 involving 527 women, 92 of whom were just girls. The report pointed out that 83 percent of the documented cases were allegedly committed by military officers; only one of the accused soldiers, it said, was eventually punished by his commander.

“In some areas in Shan State, the SPDC can just shoot anyone in sight,” says Tong. “Some people hide in the jungle for 10 years before they can relocate.”

Sine the forced relocations of 1996 that rendered more than 300,000 Shan homeless, the influx of displaced people from Shan State going to Thailand has been relentless. On 20 March 1996, more than 1,000 Shan refugees fled Tachilek in the Burmese border and into Thailand, but they were allowed to stay only for three days before being forced back to Burma. Today the Shan continue to arrive in Thailand in droves, although The Nation’s Supalak says that indications point towards Thai efforts to shut them out. One time, he says, the Thai government even pressured the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to deny the Shan the refugee status. As far as Thailand is concerned, it seems, the Shan are mere economic migrants.

The Thai government has allowed Shan and other Burmese to register as guest workers and secure permits only twice: in 2004 and in 2006. But that is as far as the Shan have been allowed to go; they have not been accorded refugee status. Still, by registering as guest workers, the Shan gain legal status and the right to apply for their own health cards for 30 baht a month.

SWAN says that 32 percent of the arrivals from Shan State have been under 18 years old and 15 percent were over 45 years old. Comments Tong: “After the massive relocation in 1996, these people (fled) obviously because of persecution.”

Guest workers, not refugees

As Supalak sees it, the claim that the Shan were asylum seekers escaping persecution and certain death in Burma has never been proven by either by civic groups and Shan leaders. He says the Thai government is also wary about the social problems like narcotics, criminalities, and diseases that Shan and other migrants might bring into Thailand, noting that SSA officials themselves have been suspected of growing opium to buy weapons and support the struggle.

Some of the Shan, though, do not want to be identified as refugees because then they would have to stay at established camps and be totally dependent on humanitarian aid support. Activists say most of the Shan in Chiang Mai can be found working in Fang – largely the result of a Thai government policy to push the migrant workers outside of the cities and towards the fringes, because of the high demand for wage labour in these parts. The local orange industry in Fang has been a beneficiary of the policy; one orange plantation could hire as much as 3,000 Shan and there are about 100 farms there.

Most, if not all, of the Shan would probably want to register just so they would have their papers in order. But registration itself poses several problems, not least of which is its cost. To register or renew their work permit each year means parting with nearly 4,000 baht. It’s a steep fee for the Shan, whose daily wages range only from 60 to 80 baht (about $2) for women and 80 to 100 baht ($3) for men, compared to the minimum wage of 135 baht in Chiang Mai.

Many Shan thus remain illegal workers – which means they have to rely on the protection of their employers, who either pay 500 baht to police officials to look the other way or just hide them within their massive farms. This protection comes at a price, however; the Shan have been practically reduced to being slave labourers, taking on dirty and dangerous jobs that few locals want to do, and for paltry pay. In Fang, for instance, a Shan may take on work that would require carrying on one’s back a 100-kilo sack of rice or handling pesticides with no adequate safety gear.

“The working conditions are pretty bad in a nutshell,” says Pollock. “People are working long hours, the construction sites have very little occupational safety standards, (and) the living conditions are actually appalling. People live on site and you can see the migrants living in very crowded houses with no sanitation.”

What workers’ rights?

In March 1998, the Thai government ratified the Labour Protection Act, which among other things guarantees minimum wage to all workers, including those who are illegal migrants. Thai labour laws also mandate employers to provide occupational health and safety standards for their workers, but this is routinely violated whenever the worker is Burmese. Pollock says of the country’s observance of workers’ rights, “On paper, it’s very good, but in reality it’s not.”

Indeed, even efforts to help abused migrant works seek redress through the courts have often gone nowhere. Pollock points to the border town of Mae Sot, where the batting average for prosecuting violators of labour laws is very low. There, she says, “you have all these big factories making it a vibrant economic town” and “not completely unbiased judicial system”. Employers of migrant workers in Mae Sot obviously wield “a lot of power,” she says.

The fear of deportation also renders the Shan workers voiceless. After all, the slightest complaint could lead to dismissal from employment, which in turn makes the worker immediately illegal. That exposes the migrant worker to the risk of being sent back to Burma. In Mae Sot in 2006, activists say, Shan workers were victims in some 50 cases of violence – 28 of them sexual in nature. The perpetrators were allegedly Thais, many of them employers of the victims. Yet activists say only 10 of the cases were reported to the police. Not a single suspect served a jail sentence.

Still, MAP says it has made headway in nailing down employers for non-payment or underpayment of wages, unfair dismissal, and insurance compensation. From 2003 to 2006, MAP has assisted 1,587 workers and so far has wangled a total of more than seven million baht from errant employers.

But MAP and similar organisations have been unable to let authorities allow migrant workers to form unions. The guest workers are also prohibited from leaving the work site and in most cases, their employers withhold their registration cards. Their movement is restricted, and they are not allowed to have a driver’s licence or to open bank accounts.

“We can buy motorcycles using the names of our friends, but we are not allowed to drive them,” says one young Shan.

And if for some reason a local is irritated with one or all of them, their makeshift communities can well become the targets of raids. Which is exactly what happened to the “camp” where Kit Tao and about 100 other Shan stay, and resulted in the confiscation of two motorcycles.

Nestled in the middle of a posh subdivision locals dubbed as Pimok, a 30-minute motorcycle ride from downtown Chiang Mai, the Shan’s shanties of tin and odd pieces of lumber are hidden from view by tall cogon grass and a hollow-block “gate”. But the local homeowners association in Pimok has long considered the Shan camp and its residents an eyesore; that the Shan were tolerated was only because the property’s owner – who also happens to be their employer – allowed them the use of the land.

Several accounts indicate that the recent raid was prompted by a report that motorcycles had been spotted in the camp, which meant the Shan could be using them illegally. No less than the president of the homeowners’ association had tattled on them; Nang Soam Chan, one of the camp’s residents, says that the president even told them afterwards that he would tell on them again if they refused to leave.

But the 42-year-old Nang Soam Chan looks hardly shaken. She says she’s “seen worse”. She also says they will all just have to lie low for a few days and warn their children against playing outside the camp to avoid stirring up more trouble. So long as their employer finds them useful, she reasons, they can stay at the camp.

No end to hardships

At 12 years old, Nang Soam Chan had seen the head of their village shot in the head by Burmese soldiers. A decade ago, SPDC troops attacked their village, forcing Nang Soam Chan and her family to flee. They wound up in the Mae Hong Son district near the Thai-Burma border, where Nang Soam Chan and her husband found work at a rice-and-bean farm. Each of them was paid 70 baht a day. When their daughter found work as a waitress in Chiang Mai some three years later, they followed her. Now Nang Soam Chan sells vegetables. A migrant’s life is obviously not easy, but Nang Soam Chan says, “I can find work here, unlike in Shan State where we are always scared of the SPCD troops to rape or kill us.”

Yet even in Thailand, things may worsen for the Shan before getting better. Mclennan, for one, notes, “Considering that Thai identity often excludes minority groups, minorities have trouble negotiating their identity with the larger society.”

Chiang Mai University social science professor Pinkaew Laungaramsri also says in his paper “Boundaries, Nation States and the Path of Displaced Women’s Struggle” that the Thai government has “discriminated against, oppressed, and restricted the rights of these refugees”. He adds that the refugees have been pushed aside outside of Thailand’s social structure. “Consequently,” Pinkaew writes, “Thais know about the lives and struggles of displaced persons only through illiberal phases such as ‘alien workers’ who know only to ‘cause problems’ or to ‘steal jobs’ from Thais.”

SWAN’s Charm Tong says that this discrimination also stems from the lack of knowledge about what is happening in Burma. Without a deeper understanding of what the Shan and other Burmese fled from, she says, the distrust will continue.

SWAN, along with SHRF, has thus been working been working to spread information about what has been taking place in Burma by way of newsletters, forums, and guestings at radio shows.

For all these efforts, though, there may still be more trouble ahead for the migrants in the coming months, perhaps even years. As this was being written, for instance, discussions were underway in Chiang Mai to follow the lead of Phuket province, where the governor had issued a decree imposing, among other things, an eight p.m. curfew on migrants and a prohibition on more than five migrants gathering together. Under the decree, migrants are not allowed to own mobile phones and carry a driver’s licence. According to Pollock, these restrictions tie the migrants “more to the employers”. (To date, the provinces of Rayong, Ranong, and Surathani have also issued their own decrees on migrant restrictions.)

Convenient scapegoats

There may also be even less sympathy for the Burmese migrants now that economic projections in Thailand are gloomy, with the growth expected to hover around a low of four percent in 2007 and unemployment rates to breach two percent. Experience has shown that whenever the economy sputters, refugees and migrant workers become convenient scapegoats on whom the blame is heaped for the sudden scarcity of jobs.

Yet as Tong points out, the Shan and other Burmese migrants can do little about their situation. “They know that they are not welcome by both (the Thais and the current rulers of Burma),” she says. “They can’t go back and they can’t stay here. They are stateless, unwanted, and unwelcome.”

And so they put up with just about anything thrown their way in Thailand. A day after the raid at their camp, Kit Tao has decided to hide his motorcycle at the back of his shanty under a clutter of russet-colored sacks and old plywood. He says he will wait until the tension with the homeowners dies down before he uses it again.

“I’m scared that the police will take away my motorbike,” says Kit Tao. “I saved months for it because I need it for my work and feed my wife and three children.”

Kit Tao says that he earns quite well for a non-Thai worker. At 200 baht a day, he is earning more than what he has ever gotten in Shan State. But he says, “If the situation in Burma improves, I want to go back to our own culture, to our own land. Back there we can do everything like the Thai people.”

Nang Soam Chan agrees. Even if she is earning much more in Chiang Mai by trading vegetables and other goods, she longs for the day when the Shan are given autonomy. She concedes that her children have practically grown up in Thailand, which may make it difficult to convince them to go back to Burma one day. But she has no doubt about how she will feel if and when the SPDC loses its grip on power and the Shan are able to rule their own state.

“Then I can go back home,” says Nang Soam Chan. “Alone if I have to.”

 [Joel Escovilla is the associate editor of “Mindanao Times” newspaper in the southern Philippines. The above articles were produced under the 2007 SEAPA Journalism Fellowship.]

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