Months after the coup, why the Thai junta's struggle to manage illegal migrants from Myanmar remains a losing battle

Lawlessness in the Thailand-Myanmar border area, along with inconsistent immigration policy in Thailand, has led to a situation where illegal migrants who have no papers are left in limbo

Jared Downing
10 September 2014

Mae Sot border market, Thailand. Flickr/Axel Drainville. Some rights reserved.The squatters knew a raid was coming, but they were used to raids. Every so often the Thai authorities would round up a few working men, ethnic Burmese or Karen from Myanmar, and hold them for a bribe. It wasn’t legal, but then again neither were the migrants, and at least they got to return to work. 

But this raid was different. “It was like a war,” said Do Twe Tan, a Burmese woman who had spent the last two decades squatting in Mae Sot, a city on the western border. “It was military, police and immigration all together, and they took everyone, even the babies. They even had dogs that could smell us out when we tried to hide.” 

The dogs had been reared to sniff out narcotics, not people. The cluster of plank and steel shacks stood on the land of a drug trafficker arrested shortly after the military coup last May. Thailand’s ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) had vowed to crack down on corruption, not migrant laborers, but that didn’t protect a village where the street dealers and pimps were nestled in with construction workers and farm hands working for five or six dollars a day. 

Now, after more than two months in the western border region, a junta focused on restoring legitimacy and the rule of law still struggles to adjust to a society decades ingrown with bribes-paid and blind-eyes-turned.

The famous Friendship Bridge across the Moei river stands in clear view of dozens of illegal ferries shuttling passengers for less than a dollar each, and it took only a day or two for Do Twe Tan and her neighbors to find their way back to Thailand. She said the uncertainty of military rule is still better than life on the Myanmar side, an attitude that may explain why the 3 million migrants from Myanmar didn’t join the mass exodus of foreign workers in the wake of the coup. Roughly 200,000 are settled in or around Mae Sot, a key trade hub that is home to the nation’s largest IDP camp and a cauldron of smugglers, rebels, foreign businessmen, human traffickers and western aid workers. 

“For every 200 people who cross the bridge, 2000 cross on the boats,” said Myo Zaw, director of the Yuang Chi Oo Workers’ Association, a Burmese labor advocacy group. The ferries were initially shut down but started running again after a only few days, as the junta’s strategy shifted to more gracious immigration policies. “They can’t send 3 million people back to Burma. So instead of doing this, they’ve started make it easier to become legal.” 

For one textile factory owner, the military issued each of her undocumented employees a one-year work permit for 300 baht (about $9). “Local police, immigration, tourist police from Bangkok, 17 different groups would come every month, and I had to pay,” she explained. “The military called all of the business owners together and gave us a number, and they said, ‘If anyone comes asking for money, don’t pay them. Call us.’”

By now, Myo Zaw believes the junta is doing more good than harm. Police are still making arrests, but now employers can’t bribe their way out of responsibility and leave their workers at the mercy of the corrupt officials. But he admitted the strategy of legalization plays out differently in the mountains outside the city, where small-time farmers answer to village leaders who in turn deal with the authorities, a system of local custom and responsibility that can vary from hill to hill.

This is the context for many students under Kyaw Pyae Sone, who began working with students in migrant and refugee schools after spending three years in an IDP camp himself. For him, the junta made a bad first impression when officials alerted him and his colleagues of a mass arrest of more than 100 families and warned them not to interfere. Although things have calmed down, he still has little faith in the military’s ability to function in the less-than-formal border society. “If the commander says something’s black, then it’s black. This is their philosophy. They are interested in having one system and making everyone follow it…But that’s not how it works out here. How can you come in and try to get involved in something if you don’t understand it?”

Even in the city, the latest red tape means little to workers like Do Te Wey, who moves from one construction site to the next for a day’s cash wage. He can’t read, speaks little Thai and has no single local employer to handle the immigration red tape. “After I was sent back they let me back into Thailand for one day and told me, ‘Now you need to get papers,’” he said. “But I just went back to work…I still don’t have papers. Nobody cares.”

Incentivizing legitimacy may be a rigged game. It doesn’t matter how easy or inexpensive it is to obtain a work permit if people can’t trust the rule of law in the first place, explained Myo Zaw. “A one-stop service, a temporary passport, and now they’re talking about giving everybody a free two-month permit…But it is still more complicated and expensive than being here illegally. And why would you spend the time and money getting the right papers when the rules might change next month?” 

Thus, simple apathy could be the NCPO's greatest adversary. And with elections scheduled for late 2015, it has a little over a year to change an attitude many migrants have held for decades. But it has no choice: A straightforward immigration crackdown could mean a labor shortage on the Thai side and a surge of jobless people across the river, something neither Thailand nor Myanmar is equipped to handle.

Myo Zaw said part of him hopes they try it, if only to see without a doubt that the migrants are here to stay, legal or not. Do Twe Tan, for one, has plans neither to leave nor obtain papers. After watching her share of coups both in Thailand and her native country, she’s learned to survive one day at a time, whatever comes.

Whether this is endurance or just learned helplessness, before Thailand’s migrants are going to accept any rule of law, military or democratic, they’re going to have to believe in it.   

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