Notes from the Field

Burmese Immigrants in Thailand ‘Want to Go Home’

August 8, 2012

Hours before her expected arrival at the Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) office in Mahachai, Thailand, southwest of Bangkok, hundreds of people began to assemble around the building, hoping to secure a good spot to greet or at least catch a glimpse of “the Lady.” Inside the room where the much-anticipated meeting would be held, a nervous mother instructed her young daughter on how to properly welcome the honored guest and deliver a symbolic bundle of white lilies.

Aung San Suu Kyi meets with migrant workers, journalists, event organizers, and local politicians at the Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) office in Mahachai, Thailand. Photo: Perla E. Parra De Anda

Aung San Suu Kyi meets with migrant workers, journalists, event organizers, and local politicians at the Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) office in Mahachai, Thailand. Photo: Perla E. Parra De Anda

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent visit to Thailand marked her first international trip after spending 15 of the last 24 years under house arrest in Burma (also known as Myanmar). With over four million registered and undocumented immigrants currently living in Thailand – of whom approximately 85 percent come from Burma – her visit was both momentous and symbolic. The migrant workers felt “loved and respected” by her presence in Mahachai: “It feels like someone is finally paying attention to us,” said Nai Khek, 35, a Mon migrant worker from Burma who came to Thailand six years ago and currently works in a shrimp processing factory. “My wife cried when she heard Daw Suu Kyi was coming,” he added.

A combination of anxiety and excitement swept the room as the vehicle transporting Daw Suu Kyi approached the MWRN building. Five Buddhist monks draped in burgundy robes stood with fixed expressions; strategically aligned inside the room to be the first to welcome her. “No security is needed on this side of the entrance,” an organizer of the event said. “Burmese people have high reverence for monks; they will not try to enter the building through this side as long as the monks are standing here.” Drenched in sweat, pre-selected reporters representing five networks ran up and down the stairs to secure the best locations to capture the historic entrance while organizers frantically scrambled to finalize last-minute details. “We forgot to buy bottles of cold drinking water for her!” a woman cried out.

Daw Suu Kyi waved from her car as she approached the MWRN library. She emerged – picturesque like so many of the posters that bear her image – dressed in a red traditional Burmese skirt, a soft, flower-patterned blouse, with a light white scarf and a matching strand of delicate flowers adorning her hair. Despite the pushes and shoves hindering her steps, she smiled and waved, calmly forging a path toward the entrance. The masses continued to push indiscriminately, producing strong waves that pressed against everyone already inside – Buddhist monks, police officials, staff members and children alike felt the pulse and energy of the growing crowd attempting to enter. The metal curtains descended to secure the building as soon as she passed through, trapping some intruders on the first floor.

The pro-democracy icon and Nobel Laureate was escorted to the third floor where she addressed the chanting crowd from the balcony. Over 3,000 braved the heat and dust to cheer “Mother Suu;” many carried placards that read “We Want to Go Home.” Daw Suu Kyi asked for patience with many of the changes that were yet to come in Burma and warned them against “reckless optimism.” She also promised to listen to their woes and raise these issues with the appropriate authorities. Despite living in foreign soil, she assured them that they were “not forgotten.”

Only 50 people were allowed inside the private meeting room for the one-hour session; 30 migrant workers, the remaining 20 consisting of journalists, event organizers, and local politicians. Daw Suu Kyi listened attentively to the stories shared by the migrant workers, expressing deep concern – the hint of a frown on her face and eyes wide-open fixed on the subject. Nai Htun, a 28-year-old migrant worker from Sa-Gaing province in Burma, told her about his struggles to gain lawful compensation after a work-place accident took his right hand three years ago. Saa, another migrant worker and member of the MRWN, explained some of the challenges involved with completing the National Verification Process (NV) to work legally in Thailand. “The process is confusing and expensive,” she said, forcing migrants to use the services of brokers. Although in theory the procedure should cost no more than $20, migrants often pay up to $400 to complete the NV. Other stories followed – passport confiscation by employers, hindrance of mobility, and cases of labor trafficking – highlighting the human-rights violations migrant workers have reported in Thailand.

However, Burma has a multitude of domestic troubles; a great deal of work is required before the Burmese refugees can return home. (An estimated 130,000 Burmese refugees live in camps in Thailand.) During a speech Daw Suu Kyi delivered at the 101st Session of the International Labor Conference in Geneva on June 15, she warned that labor rights concerns similar to those encountered by migrant workers in Thailand should also be monitored in Burma. She also addressed the issue of peace and security for migrant workers in Thailand, calling for a human-rights-based framework to better manage all migration in ASEAN countries.

Another challenge for Burma consists of developing political and racial integrity – the two concepts closely aligned in the country. As Daw Suu Kyi prepared to make her exit from the MWRN library, a migrant worker from Burma’s northern Shan State – which represents a third of the land mass and is home to several ethnic minority armed armies – whispered to the side: “She has never worn a Shan skirt.” Given the country’s political and racial history, it was not surprising to find that her attire could be interpreted as a political statement. “She wears the traditional clothes of all the other minority groups – Karens, Mons, and Kachins – but she has never worn a Shan outfit.” A simple assertion that underscores the multiplicity of the challenges involved in the true unification of Burma. Late last month, Daw Suu Kyi used her first speech in parliament to call for laws protecting the rights of the country’s ethnic minorities.

Though long regarded as a popular icon of hope and longing, “Mother Suu” may not be able to fix all her country’s problems or those of her countrymen abroad. However, like her father, Daw Suu Kyi has managed to revive a space for dialogue to address contemporary challenges and issues that are centuries old. As she departed from her Mahachai meeting with the migrant workers, some were overcome with emotion, unable to hold back their tears, while others hastily jotted down the license plate number of the car that carried her away. “I’m going to play the numbers in the lottery,” one of them said. “I believe everything Daw Suu Kyi told us, but maybe my fortune will change sooner.”

Perla E. Parra De Anda was a 2011-2012 Luce Scholar at the Human Rights and Development Foundation in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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