SOME Residents of Samut Sakhon’s Mahachai district, famous for its vast seafood market, are feeling a little culturally uncomfortable with their neighbours who hail from Myanmar.
One issue is the red globs of spit staining streets and walls, which Thais blame entirely on the betel-chewing migrant workers.
Mahachai is known as “Little Myanmar” because of the huge number of Myanmar people working there.
“Thais spit the juice into a bin, but they [the Myanmar workers] spit as they walk,” one resident fumed recently on the Pantip.com discussion forum. “I even saw a man open his window and spit on the wall of our house, and we were standing right there!”
There’s a whole thread on the community site devoted to the issue, titled “Kub kaen jai gub pama nai Mahachai” (Agonised by Myanmar people in Mahachai). The Thai woman complaining, who claimed she was born and bred in Mahachai, said Myanmar newcomers also hurled trash from their homes onto the streets.
“We [Thai people] have to endure this – we can’t do anything,” she vented. “I want the officials to crack down on these migrant workers.”
The difficulty with this is that the Thai economy relies heavily on millions of documented and undocumented migrant workers. And those from Myanmar are indispensable to several industries in Mahachai, especially fishing and seafood processing.
In fact, without them, Mahachai might well be deserted, said Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN) director Sompong Srakaew, because 95 per cent of the population is non-Thai.
Somprong has spearheaded many projects to protect and promote the rights of migrant workers in Thailand.
The province is home to more than 400,000 Myanmar migrant workers, according to the Migrant Worker Rights Network, compared to a Thai population of about 550,000.
Thais need to understand the cultural differences, Sompong said. Chewing betel nut remains common in Myanmar among people of all ages, even if it’s no longer popular in Thailand.
And the notion of cleanliness differs there because Myanmar has few public trash bins that are emptied daily, as in Thailand, Sompong said.
“Things are improving in Mahachai. There used to be trash scattered around the streets and people spat wherever they wanted. The walls at the shrimp market were stained red with spit.”
Ko Ko Naing, a Myanmar LPN official based in Mahachai who’s lived in Thailand for 15 years and once worked at a shrimp factory, is unimpressed with his countrymen.
“They [the Myanmar migrant workers] really have no clue,” he said. “We have to tell them they can’t smoke wherever they want or spit in public places.”
However, it’s not just the Myanmar people who have to adjust – Thai people also need to learn to respect Burmese culture.
Sompong pointed out that Myanmar people are greatly offended when Thai authorities searching for illegal immigrants enter their homes without first taking off their shoes. Thais might find this mildly irritating, but people from Myanmar are aghast.
They tend to be devout Buddhists and have Buddha images in their homes, and back in their country, no one is allowed to wear shoes in such places, he said. “It’s like wearing your shoes inside the Shwedagon Pagoda,” he added, referring to the Myanmar’s holiest site, in Yangon.
There’s also the distrust and fear that the migrant workers in Mahachai feel towards Thai authorities and other “outsiders”, Sompong said.
“They don’t understand the language. They’re afraid of the police, and bogus police sometimes come to search them and rip them off.”
Typically, police officers or Thais posing as such accused them of playing the underground lottery and extract “fees” as punishment.