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FTUB unionised factory workers in Mae Sot Photo: Union Aid
A little over a week ago, a young Myanmar friend of mine, let's call him Myo, found himself hiding in some farm fields, avoiding the Thai police while being smuggled from Mae Sot to Bangkok.  Unlike many other undocumented migrants who get smuggled—and sometimes arrested—in this way, Myo had applied for a passport and work permit through Thailand's legal registration process.  Myo's situation thus speaks to the dysfunction of Thailand's current migrant registration system.  But this needs some explanation.

Over the past two decades, the district of Mae Sot on the Thai-Myanmar border has seen a rapid development boom.  This growth has been based on a huge reserve of mostly undocumented migrants from neighbouring Myanmar.  A lack of documentation for legal residence and work, combined with lax enforcement of labour law, has constrained the abilities of migrants in Mae Sot to claim their legal rights.  As a result, working conditions in the area remain dreadful, with wages typically one quarter to one half the legal minimum.

A few years ago, however, it seemed things might begin to change.  In 2009, the Thai and Myanmar governments collaborated to introduce “temporary passports” with official work permits for migrants in Thailand.  Those holding these documents were to be granted legal freedom of movement and the right to seek employment across the country.  In Mae Sot, the process only really picked up in late 2011, when the number of private passport companies and independent brokers exploded.

At that time, large numbers of migrants in Mae Sot took the opportunity to legally leave the border area for higher paying jobs in Bangkok and its surrounding provinces.  The result was a sudden drop in workforce numbers at many Mae Sot factories.  If the trend had continued, the decline in the local migrant population would have presumably driven up wages for those who remained.

Worried of an impending labour shortage, the Federation of Thai Industries (Tak Chapter) appealed to the Government of Tak Province to stem the outward flow of migrants.  In response, Tak officials issued instructions to Mae Sot police in June 2012, barring migrants holding passports but not (or not yet) registered for work outside Mae Sot from freely travelling past the checkpoints on the main road out of town.

These restrictions were in violation of the Thai government's policy on the migrant passports.  To date, however, the restrictions remain in place.  To get around them, some migrants have been able to pay a 500 baht bribe to the police operating the affected checkpoints.  For the most part, however, these restrictions continue to frustrate the efforts of Mae Sot-based migrants hoping to legally seek higher paying work in Bangkok, or elsewhere in Thailand.

The case of my friend Myo is illustrative.  Earlier this year, Myo left his home town in Karen State to join the legions of Myanmar migrants working in Thailand.  His port of entry was Mae Sot.  His younger sister (who already works in Bangkok) had lined him up a retail job paying 300 baht per day near her own place of employment.
This was February 2013, during an extension period for migrant registration, which the Thai government had granted due to the large number of those yet to apply.  The Thai and Myanmar governments had also reduced their respective charges, bringing the official cost of the passport and work permit down to less than 5,000 baht.

The policy at this time was for the Mae Sot Department of Employment to receive and process the applications.  However, many migrants who tried to apply through this office were told their applications lacked certain documents or pieces of information, and they were strongly encouraged to apply with a private passport company.

Thus, like most migrants in Mae Sot, Myo submitted his application through a private company.  He was charged 11,000 baht.  That's more than twice the official cost, but still not as much as what less scrupulous brokers are demanding.

After waiting over two months, the passport company informed Myo that Mae Sot authorities would not allow the distribution within Mae Sot of work permits registered with employers elsewhere in Thailand.  The company assured Myo that they had arranged safe travel for him and the other applicants to collect their documents in Bangkok.  However, since they would be travelling undocumented, they all needed to pay an additional 500 baht “police fee” along with travel expenses.

This seemed odd to both of us.  After all, if Myo had applied through the legal process, why did he need to be illegally smuggled to collect documentation for legal residence and work in Thailand.

In any case, Myo soon left for Bangkok.  But he didn't get very far.  The passport company drove him and 60 or so other migrants to a village outside Mae Sot where they were put in an empty house and told to wait, as it was not yet conducive to travel.  After waiting two days, these migrants were taken down a back road, stopped by police and ordered back to town.  The “police fee” was apparently insufficient.

A few days later, they tried again.  This time, while waiting at the same village as before, the migrants were suddenly told the police had been tipped off and they (the migrants) needed to immediately flee and hide in the nearby fields, which they did.  When things settled, they all returned to Mae Sot, where, for the moment, my friend Myo remains stuck.  The passport company is now saying they may no longer be able to arrange work permits registered for employment outside Mae Sot.

While these restrictions on the travel of migrants out of Mae Sot remain in place, there are several implications that deserve consideration.  The first is that thousands of migrants who want to legally leave Mae Sot continue to be denied freedom of movement to access higher paying work elsewhere in Thailand.  Second, these restrictions serve as an important means of suppressing wages in Mae Sot, by maintaining the area's pool of reserve labour.  Many of those planning to stay in Mae Sot have thus opted not to apply for passports, remaining instead in a precarious situation as undocumented migrants, since they can either not afford this documentation or else they see little benefit to it in terms of higher wages.  Third, human smuggling from Mae Sot to Bangkok continues despite the formal existence of legal alternatives.  The going rate for undocumented migrants to get smuggled from Mae Sot to Bangkok is 15,000 baht (or 8,000 baht if you're willing to walk the first three days).  The smuggling business (to say nothing of trafficking) is only viable because of barriers to above ground alternatives.

For the moment, it remains unclear how the situation will develop.  Employers in Mae Sot do not appear keen to pay the legal minimum wage or to follow Thailand's labour law more generally.  At the same time, there are employment opportunities for migrants in Central Thailand paying the legal minimum, or at least closer to it than what is offered in Mae Sot.  Migrants will therefore continue to seek ways out of Mae Sot, regardless of the restrictions in place.  What these restrictions do, however, is increase the viability of far more precarious alternatives.  The resulting situation is a far cry from the goal of regularising migration, which these passports were meant to achieve.

Stephen Campbell is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, currently based in Mae Sot.
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Col. R. HariharanMyanmar’s fledgling democracy faced yet another obstacle to its progress when anti-Muslim violence flared up in the central Myanmar town of Meiktila in March. It quickly spread to six other smaller townships in Thayarwaddy District in Bago Region. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), it also spread to 11 other townships in Mandalay and Bago divisions, where Muslim neighborhoods were ransacked.

According to the government a total of 43 people were killed and 93 were injured in the riots, most of them in Meiktila; 1,227 homes, 77 shops and 37 mosques were destroyed. Police said 68 detainees were being charged for their role in the acts of violence.

Close on its heels, a fire in a Muslim boarding school in Yangon on April 2 left 13 dead. Though the police have identified electrical short circuiting as the cause of fire, some Muslim community leaders suspect it could be a case of arson. If this is established after the enquiry, it would indicate the virus of communal violence has arrived in Myanmar’s premier city.  

These riots have unnerved the Muslim community which had been watching with unease when Rohingya Muslims became the target of ethno-religious violence in Rakhine State in November 2012. Their sentiments were echoed by the HRW report on Meiktila violence. It said, “The destruction [in Meiktila] appears similar to satellite imagery of towns affected by sectarian violence in Arakan [Rakhine] State in 2012, in which arson attacks left large, clearly defined residential areas in ashes.”

The anti-Rohingya Muslim riots left about 140 killed and rendered 100,000 homeless. They became the latest boatpeople fleeing Myanmar to find refuge wherever they can as neighbouring Bangladesh refused to accept any more of them to the 110,000 Rohingya refugees already there. Police present on the location initially did not react at all. It took action only after much of the damage had been done. Rohingyas had alleged that the local border militia and police colluded in perpetrating the violence. This would indicate local authorities tend to condone such communal acts rather than act quickly to defuse the situation.

Muslims in Myanmar

Muslims have been in Myanmar for over a thousand years. Islam came with Moghul invaders from India and Sultan Suleiman of Yunnan. Anti-Muslim sentiments among Burmese Buddhists have their roots in the persecutions and forced conversions carried out among Buddhists during the Moghul rule.

Though Buddhists consider Muslims a single entity, there are distinct Muslim communities with their own ethnic linkages and cultural history. The distinct groups include: descendants of Burmese [Myanmar] converts to Islam; Muslims of Indian descent who have settled in Myanmar; Muslims who had migrated from East Bengal (now Bangladesh); Zarbari Muslims who are children of South Asian Muslim fathers and Burmese mothers; Panthay Muslims of Hui Chinese origin from Yunnan who settled in Myanmar’s northern border areas; and Rohingya Muslims inhabiting Rakhine State bordering Bangladesh.

During British colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century, anti-Indian sentiments started rising among local people when Indians started dominating business and bureaucracy, Chettiar moneylenders seized control of lands, and cheap Indian labor deprived the ordinary Burmese opportunities to earn a living.

In that period, nearly half the Indians in Myanmar were Muslims. As a result of this, anti-Indian sentiments had anti-Muslim sentiment as an inevitable part. So when anti-Indian riots broke out in Yangon in 1930 killing hundreds of Indians, Muslims also suffered. On the other hand, Muslims were also seen as symbols of British colonial rule; according to historians the nationalist-inspired anti-Muslim riot of 1938 was actually against the British rulers.

In the run-up to independence, the Burma Muslim Congress (BMC), the nodal organization of Burmese Muslims, fully supported the Gen. Aung San-led Anti-Fascist Peoples’ Freedom Party’s (AFPFL) national struggle. Though Muslim leaders were included in the post-independence cabinet, a few months later Prime Minister U Nu’s attitude towards Muslims underwent a change. The BMC was asked to leave the AFPFL. Subsequently when U Nu made Buddhism the state religion, it was much against the wishes of Muslims and other ethnic and religious minority communities. Restrictions were imposed on Halal slaughtering of cattle.

When Gen. Ne Win seized power the attitude towards Muslims further hardened. He expelled Muslims from the army. Islamist violence perpetrated in Indonesia and actions like the destruction of Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan are also said to have touched off anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar.

As anti-Muslim sentiments among sections of population have a long history in Myanmar, it remains a potential destabilizing force. This is yet another issue that could provide a level of legitimacy for the army to take charge of the situation reminiscent of its foray to capture power in 1962.

What do the riots indicate?

Both the anti-Rohingya violence and anti-Muslim riots in Meiktila were triggered by minor incidents involving individuals from the two communities. Such incidents were quickly exploited by fringe elements to whip up anti-Muslim sentiments among the Buddhist majority resulting in well-organized acts of violence.

In Rakhine and Meiktila, Buddhist mobs led by some monks spearheaded the anti-Muslims violence. The destruction was systematic and well planned. As violence spread quickly in different regions, a level of networking and coordination probably exists between Buddhist fringe elements in different parts of the country.

In the case of Rohingya violence, a number of sporadic incidents preceded the outburst of violence. These incidents were ignored by the authorities presumably because officially, Rohingyas are not recognized as Myanmar citizens.

Though they have been living in the region since pre-independence days, Myanmar’s discriminatory citizenship laws are weighted heavily against people of foreign origin. This would indicate that xenophobic tendencies continue to influence official thinking.

Local political leaders including those of the National League for Democracy (NLD) were either helpless or ineffective in taking any action to curb the violence. Unless political constituency and democratic government show themselves capable of handling such critical situations, they provide an opening for the military to prove themselves as an essential component of "democratic rule". This is what happened during the anti-Muslim riots when the army had to step in to control the situation.

Even Aung San Suu Kyi, who commands wide popularity across the board, disappointed many with her inability to handle the issue when ethnic question got mixed up with religious extremism. Coming in the wake of her demonstrated reluctance to take positive action during anti-Rohingya riots, it showed a lack of self-confidence in taking action on issues affecting the majority community.

This could have a far-reaching impact not only on her leadership credibility but also in the NLD’s political credibility particularly when vested interests kindle divisive elements for gaining political advantage in times of election.

The sooner the democratic elements organize themselves to prevent such communal flare-ups, the better it is for democracy. This is more so when Myanmar is coming out of its shell and needs the goodwill of the international community for its peaceful development.

In the context of Myanmar, anti-Muslim violence has two international dimensions. The first is it could antagonize a prosperous segment of Asian investors among the Gulf countries from investing in Myanmar's development. Secondly, Islamic extremism which is staging a last-ditch fight in neighbouring Bangladesh and in some of the ASEAN countries, might find a potential opportunity in Myanmar to spread its tentacles.

Col-R-Hariharan-sCol. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia and its neighborhood, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail:   This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. " Blog: www.colhariharan.org. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect Mizzima’s editorial policy.
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