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Situation in Thailand

Mass Deportations Mass Misery

(Article from CFOB’s quarterly newsletter Burma Links – Jan/Feb 2000)

by Corinne Baumgarten

Last November 1999, the Thai government started mass deportations of thousands of migrant workers from Burma back to lives of certain fear and misery in their homeland. I arrived on the eve of the crackdown November 6 in Mae Sot, a Thai border city, separated from Burma by the Moei river. At first I did not suspect what had befallen the town.

For most Burmese in Thailand, life is full of poverty, uncertainty and risk. But, in the next weeks, everyone was astonished by the scale of arrests and deportations. Some estimated 20,000 were moved back across the river in just a few weeks. The Thais exhibited complete lack of regard for the safety and humanitarian concerns of the deportees. In several instances the Burmese army threatened to shoot the deportees if the Thais brought them across the river. Then, Thai officials would simply ship their human cargoes further downstream, where there were no visible soldiers. Some people were reported to have drowned when they tried to swim back to Thailand.

Hiding in the jungles on the Burma and Thai sides, many deportees had no access to food, shelter, or medical treatment. Sometimes, Thai soldiers sent men workers’ wives and children first, to pressure the male workers to return. Civil rights groups reported of Burmese soldiers raped women deportees as soon as they reached Burma’s river banks or while they were hiding in the jungles.

Although Mae Sot area was the hardest hit, the Thai policy had far reaching effects across the country. In addition to migrant workers, political activists, and those registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees were detained and in some cases forced across the border. People I met both on the border and in Bangkok were afraid to leave their homes for fear of being approached by a Thai police officer. Speaking broken Thai was enough to bring on arrest. Burmese had to be spoken quietly even at home. No one knew who might be listening in, ready to turn friends in for a few Thai bhat.

Although most of the migrant workers fled human rights abuses in Burma, most are not recognized as refugees. Some of them, the sole supporters of their families still in Burma, need to work to ensure their families’ survival. Most work in foreign-owned factories, whose owners thrive on the cheap labour of people who don’t have a choice.

Ironically, many of these factory owners were the workers’ biggest allies. Burmese workers have become indispensable because of the shortage of workers, especially around Mae Sot. Most Thais will not accept the brutal work conditions.

While the worst of the deportations is over for the time being, “normal” life is still full of uncertainty. Since they’ve been deported, many of the migrants have already returned to Thailand to find work. However, because of the factory closures, many of them cannot return to their old jobs. With no alternatives, the number of Burmese women who have turned to prostitution has increased. Even the 100,000 registered refugees in the camps along the Thai-Burma border are facing uncertainty as the Thai government has started negotiating with the UNHCR regarding their eventual deportation.

Since the Burmese student hostage-taking at the Burmese embassy in Bangkok last October, Thailand has tightened its grip on the Burmese. But ultimately, the people of Burma are victims of a brutal military regime that refuses to relinquish power by any means. Nevertheless, I was often amazed by the people’s strength, warmth and their hospitality despite their extreme conditions.

In the face of such obstacles, even a simple smile inspires the spirit and the will to persevere.


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