The Tsunami’s Invisible Victims

By Tint Zar Maw

Phan-nga, Thailand – “Please help me. I’m hurt,” Ma Moe called out in her native language while clinging to a water tank floating on the sea. She felt severe pain on her face and hands but she counted herself lucky after seeing lifeless bodies of men and women strewn on the shore after being swept by giant waves in the morning of December 26.

Amidst the horrific scene, she felt relieved at seeing rescue workers walking in her direction. But heart sank when she heard one of the men say, “she’s Burmese,” then left her and headed towards other victims nearby.

“I cried. I was deeply hurt. I didn’t dare speak Burmese any more, Ma Moe, a construction worker at Pha nga’s Khao Lak sub-district, said. “At that time, I felt so bad about being Burmese,” she added, tears welling up as she recounted the incident five months after the tsunami drowned and displaced more than 200,000 people in Asia and parts of Africa.

The Burmese migrant worker was later helped by a British woman working for a non-governmental organization who made sure she was taken to the hospital for treatment. She suffered minor wounds and was reunited with her husband and two children two days after the tsunami.

Amid the outpouring of material and emotional support for foreign tourists as well as Thais who were affected by the tsunami, Burmese victims felt left out.

“We haven’t received any help from the authorities. Only Burmese NGO staff came and donated some food and a little money,” lamented So Maung, a fisherman in Kan Phon village in Ranong. “Nobody has come to rebuild houses for us. Now, we are just temporarily staying at the undamaged huts.”

So Maung was out fishing when the tsunami struck. Although he survived the monster waves, his young son was seriously injured, a friend of his died and their small village was totally destroyed. There are about 30 Burmese families in Kan Phon, waiting for their Thai employers to put things back to normal and give them fishing jobs.

“We haven’t earned any money since the tsunami hit our village. We sometimes eat only rice and water. Sometimes we share only a little rice. When we went to see the authorities who were providing aid to Thai victims, they were angry at us,” he said.

Thet Mar, another Burmese villager in Khan Phon said a few local Thais sympathized with them and shared some food.

The Thai Red Cross distributed relief goods to Burmese families and Thai authorities insist that food and other emergency supplies were given to victims without discrimination but reports said few Burmese workers went to distribution centers for fear of arrest and deportation.

History of Distrust

Reports of discrimination against Burmese victims of the December 2004 tsunami had put the spotlight on the uneasy relations between the people of these two countries that share not only borders but a long history as well.

Relations between Thailand and Burma, also called Myanmar by the ruling military junta,
have been characterized by friction and distrust owing to the historical animosity between the two neighbors that began with the invasion and burning by Burmese troops of Thailand’s old capital Ayutthaya in 1767.

Given that, occasional political spats between the two countries and misunderstanding between their peoples are almost inevitable.

“There is no plan to help Burmese migrants because they are illegal workers, so (we) just send them back to Burma,” said Sakchai Sukontachad, a retired teacher in Pha Nga, speaking on behalf of the governor of the province.

According to a report from the Pha Nga governor’s office in May, 220 million baht (5.5 million U.S. dollars) in cash had been distributed to families of victims as well as to survivors. The Ministry of Labor had allocated 53.8 million baht (1.3 million dollars) to 141 affected families as compensation, but (documented) Burmese workers were not given any assistance.

“Alien workers should not be subjected to discrimination under the disaster relief scheme. These people (Burmese) are severely affected in the same way as Thais and foreign tourists,” said a Burmese rights advocate who declined to be named. He called on the Thai government to provide humanitarian aid to Burmese workers.

While accusations of discrimination were levelled at the Thai authorities, the Burmese government was equally guilty of indifference and lack of concern for its own people who perished or were hurt in the tsunami in Thailand.

The military junta in Burma, which gave little information about the impact of the tsunami at home, has as a policy refused to recognise its own people who have crossed the border to Thailand to look for work because they have done so illegally.

Htoo Chit, the Burmese field coordinator of the Tsunami Action Group (TAG) pointed to the lack of responsibility of the Burmese government. “The Burmese regime should take responsibility first for those tsunami-affected Burmese workers. They must provide them some relief. When even the Burmese regime does nothing, how can we blame the Thai government,” he said.

Another kind of disaster

The more fortunate Burmese who survived the giant waves faced another kind of disaster. They were accused of looting business establishments and were arrested. Many who lost their jobs after their workplaces were destroyed by the tsunami were forced to return home or were deported. Others who stayed on were under constant threat.

“Around midnight on December 30th, Thai police came into our small house and arrested my husband,” Hla Yi recounted. “They accused him of looting tsunami-damaged hotels, but he knew nothing about those charges,” she said, her shriveled face revealing her grief.

That night, local Thai police raided the Khi-ket construction site where over 150 Burmese lived, and arrested nine people, including Tin Win, Hla Yi’s husband, and forced them to confess to the looting.

“I heard that they tortured my husband for two weeks, then they sentenced him to two and half years in prison on January 22, 2005,” she said. “I have no job, no money to feed my child. I don’t know how I will survive,” said Hla Yi, who has a two-year-old child.

News of the arrest of Tin Win and his friends spread fast, prompting most Burmese in the area to flee into the deep jungle, hiding in small groups. The interior and immigration police had launched joint patrols in Takua Pa district in response to Thai villagers’ accusations of looting. Later they deported about 1000 Burmese migrants through Ranong, the small border town on the southwestern coast of Thailand.

Pranom Somwong, project coordinator of the Migrant Assistance Programme (MAP) condemned the discrimination. “Instead of helping Burmese victims, the Thai society, especially government officers and media thrashed them as thieves, arresting and deporting them,” she said. She also criticized her government for leaving Burmese victims to starve.

According to Soe Tint, a Burmese merchant in Ranong, over 650 Burmese victims were sent back to Burma via Ranong within a week after the tsunami. He said that the local Thai army and an international humanitarian group distributed relief goods prior to deportation.

Undocumented Workers

According to unofficial estimates, there are about one million Burmese in Thailand, most of them undocumented. The majority had fled their country following the 1988 bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Rangoon. Many more continue to cross the porous borders in order to escape political persecution or poverty at home.

There are 60,000 officially registered Burmese migrant workers in the six southern Thai provinces including Phang-Nga, Phuket, Krabi, Trang, Satun and Ranong. The exact number of Burmese in these places is unknown but it is believed that there are hundreds of thousands more who are undocumented.

These migrant workers are in so-called 3-D jobs — dirty, difficult and dangerous — in the fishing, construction and rubber plantation sectors. Some are employed in hotels, restaurants and other service industries.

The estimated total number of Burmese migrants in Phuket before the tsunami was 36,000 and 30,000 in Phang-Nga, according to the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB), a Burmese non-governmental organization that teamed up with other Burmese and Thai groups to provide assistance to Burmese victims of the tsunami.

The numbers decreased by about half after the tsunami struck both areas. There have been no official government figures of dead and missing Burmese although Thai newspapers have reported 800 deaths.

The HREIB initially reported a figure of between 700 and 1000 dead and at least 1,000 missing based on information from eyewitnesses and relatives of the victims. Six months later, the Tsunami Action Group estimated that over 2,500 Burmese could have died in the tsunami.

Bodies unclaimed

“There are over 500 corpses in our Site No-1 body keeping centre in Takua Pa. It is probable that over 400 are Burmese, but nobody claims them,” said a Thai officer, who wishes to remain anonymous, adding his senior officer might have informed the Burmese government to take responsibility for those bodies, but there has been no official response until now. “We will keep those corpses and wait for claimants for 2 years, after that, we are going to bury them as ownerless,” he added.

Htoo Chit of TAG explained the real situation regarding the unclaimed bodies. “No sooner than the tsunami hit these areas, some Burmese found their loved ones dead. They wanted to cremate or bury those bodies, but local authorities did not allow them because they were worried that they couldn’t separate Thai bodies from Burmese,” he said.

Ma Myint was home when the tsunami struck but other family members were at work. “Since the day the tsunami hit Nam Thong construction site in Khao Lak, I’ve not seen my husband, younger daughter and two grand-children again. At first, I wanted to go and find their bodies in Takuapar Site, but I have no ID, no money to get DNA or dental data as well. Now, I have given up my desire,” she said.

Many Burmese who lost family members and friends were reluctant to check and claim bodies
for fear of arrest and deportation after losing their own identification papers and work permits
to the tsunami.

Registration cards

The tsunami has exposed the vulnerabilities of the Burmese migrant workers, who have for a long time been an invisible but significant segment of Thailand’s labor force.

Many Burmese migrants lost their registration cards during the tsunami, while some lost only photocopies as their employers keep the originals. This registration card has not prevented the Burmese from being arrested by the Thai police, but they are more vulnerable without it.

“We lost our work permits during the tsunami. We haven’t got even our salary for December, and the authorities failed to provide us some assistance or compensation. Although we are legal workers, they always treat us as illegal. For me, there is nothing different between being legal and illegal,” said Khin Maung Kyaw , a helper of a Thai fish vendor in Ban Nam Kem.

He estimated that there were about 1500 Burmese migrants in Ban Nam Khem before the tsunami, half of them with work permits that cost at least 4,200 baht (105 U.S. dollars) a year. The workers have lost their registration cards in the tsunami, he said.

In Khao Lak, many Burmese workers who keep only photocopies of their registration cards,
have not had the chance to land new jobs and some fled to rubber plantations looking for work in order to survive.

“Under Thai labour law, all workers must be protected. Registered workers are entitled to receive at least minimum wages, social security protection or compensation when work related accidents occur. The registered workers have a chance to keep their legal registration cards and move to other employers. If the employers prevent them from those rights, this is abusing the civil and political rights of migrants,” said Pranom Somwong, a Thai human right lawyer and activist.

“What’s happening now is Burmese migrants are totally isolated and have not received enough assistance. The Thai government has to provide proper relief to Burmese tsunami victims, regardless of their legal or illegal status. The police have to stop arresting and deporting them and their employers should provide them with appropriate compensation according to Thai labour law. The Thai society has to forgive the mistakes between Thais and Burmese in the past and respect Burmese migrants as the workers who are a major contributor to the Thai economy,” she said.

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