Smiles are generally subdued here, with the wholehearted ones coming mostly from the kids. People are not eager to talk to strangers, for good reason. In their faces, there is always a mixture of optimism – things can’t get any worse here than they are back home – and anxiety, bordering on resignation.
After Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Thailand, Mahachai, unofficially known as “Little Myanmar”, has gone back to playing its familiar rhythms. It is located southwest of Bangkok and crowded with migrant workers from Myanmar. They are working at seafood factories and employed by Thai employers, for minimum wages of Bt200 per day. Accord-ing to a memorandum of understanding between the Myanmar government and the Thai Labour Depart-ment, Myanmar workers are now able to hold documents and labour cards to work in Thailand legally.
During her visit, Suu Kyi called for better protection of migrant labourers from her homeland. Their community has been growing, and, as things stand, there is plenty of room for social welfare and legal improvements. Like other places crowded with Myanmar people coming to seek a better life, Mahachai needs to strike a proper balance of humanitarianism and maintaining good legal order.
Some workers still don’t have identification verification. Many of them have been living here for some time already, some even managing to run small businesses like restaurants, bookstores, photo galleries, clothing stores and hair salons. Although they own small businesses, they still live in fear.
The area is officially under the control of the Thai police department. Migrant workers have to pay a fee to Thai police officers monthly to avoid arrest. Police officers usually charge Bt800 per month for a shop owner who does not have any verification on hand. A migrant worker can get arrested easily by police who make up stories about their illegal activities. When that happens, a price must be negotiated between the worker and police. The price could be anywhere between Bt4,500 and Bt25,000. Commonly trumped-up charges by police include the playing of illegal three-digit lotteries and drug-related offences.
For factory workers, there is no regular schedule. They have to work early or late depending on how much work there is. Occasionally, Thai gangsters prey upon the workers. The robbers know that Myanmar workers are reluctant to report crimes to police, as they are migrants.
“Of course gangsters like to rob migrant workers rather than Thais. Myanmar workers are not filing a report to police since they are scared of getting arrested. I even got robbed once when I was a factory worker. It was late at night after my shift; I was riding my bike home. Two motorcycles passed by me and blocked the street. There were three guys on each motor cycle. One of the guys pointed a gun at me and spoke in Thai. I was shocked for a moment and realised that I was being robbed,” said Kyaw Zaw Lin of the Human Rights and Development Foundation.
“A couples of months ago, four migrant workers were raped by bogus police officers. Two workers were able to run away as soon as they found out the police officers were pretending. The girls were ‘checked’ for identification and verification purposes. Lacking verification, they were taken to a place where they were raped,” said a staff member at the foundation.
“So many rape victims are here in Mahachai among the Myanmar workers. Most rapists are Thai. Many women have been violated, even housewives. We are so afraid to live alone at home while everyone is going to work. Usually, rapists knock on the door and ask for something. They know when the victim is alone in the house,” said migrant Ma Mo Mi.
Being murdered is another fear of migrant workers, though it is not that common. However, it has occurred in the area, often in connection with robberies or rapes.
“People have been robbed, raped and killed. You name it; we have all crimes around here. Crimes happen very often,” said another migrant worker. “I have a 5-year-old boy. I sent him back to Myanmar to study. I can provide anything for his education by working at a factory. I just want my child to be educated one day and have a professional life. This is all I hope for. And one day I hope I can go back to my country and live peacefully,” said migrant Ko Khin Maung.
Mahachai is a place where migrant workers with no education can get a job and live. Now, Myanmar workers wish their children to be educated, but their children are not allowed to study in Thai state schools.
There are small community schools sponsored by NGOs. However, at the high school level, students will not get a certificate or a diploma. This makes it very hard to enter community colleges or universities. Fear and hope exist side by side for migrant workers.
-2 million Myanmar workers in Thailand are legal and 700,000-800,000 have become legal through the nationality verification process.
-Almost 1 million others are illegal.
-120,000 Myanmar migrants are working in Samut Sakhon province legally.
-Tens of thousands of other Myanmar workers there are illegal, but 80,000 are joining the nationality verification process to become legal workers.
Source: Human Rights and Development Foundation.