Stateless, undocumented, exploited and fearful, they say it’s still better than going back to Burma.
Down a dirt road outside of the city, I find myself in a makeshift camp, a small clearing in the jungle, containing a handful of bamboo huts. This is the unofficial home to a collective of Shan migrant workers. Fleeing the war in Burma, they came to Thailand seeking a better life. But as undocumented aliens, they face a multitude of problems: low wages, infrequent employment, lack of education for their children, and periodic arrests by the police. But all of them said, they felt freer and safer as undocumented aliens in Thailand than they did in Burma.
In 2007 and 2008 I did over 50 articles on members of the Shan ethnic group caught in the war zone of Burma. While rape, torture, and murder touch thousands, or even tens of thousands, of Shan families each year, millions of Shan and Burmese ethnics have been displaced, relegated to eking out a subsistence living as undocumented aliens, with no future.
One of the members of this workers’ commune, Leung San, a 46 year old man from Shan State, told me he has been in Thailand for more than twenty years. “Back in Shan State, even if we worked on the farm, we had to pay money to the SPDC soldiers. The food we got was not enough to survive. So, I left.” He had no friends when he came to Thailand. He was only able to do itinerant work, construction and farming. When I asked what his daily wage was, Leung San answered, “The average is thirty Baht ($1 USD) per day, because I go days or weeks with no work. Now, there is no construction anymore, so I have to wait till construction comes back again.”
He explained that the men had formed this community 15 years ago. They can’t grow any of their own food, because they don’t own any land. They only do daily work on other people’s farms and use their meager wages to buy rice.
Leung San has one child but no wife. “My wife left me for another man.” He has found it difficult to raise a twelve-year old son on 900 Baht ($27 USD) per month. His son attends Thai government elementary school. This is a privilege Leung San receives because he possesses a limited green, Thai ID card. But his child will most likely not be allowed to go to junior high school or high school.
“My son is under my registration now. But when he turns 15, he has to do his own registration,” explained Leung San. And it is possible the child will not be approved for an ID card.
I asked Leung San and the others if they celebrated Shan New Year in their tiny community. Shan New Year is the single most important celebration of the year, and a cornerstone of Shan culture.
“No,” they replied sadly. “In this area, we are not permitted to celebrate Shan New Year.”
Even the Shan culture is being suppressed. Along with their struggle to survive, the migrants must fight to keep their culture and traditions alive.
I asked Leung San if he had any special wish for his community. First he said, for himself, he wants his child to attended high school or college. He has to pay a small fee for elementary school, but for junior high and high school the fee is higher. Even if he could obtain permission for the child to continue studying, he couldn’t possibly afford it.
For his community, he said they needed help. “We need basic electricity because we cannot find firewood to burn. And in the rainy season, it’s difficult to bring a motorcycle in here.”
Another community member, fifty-one year old Tun was also born in Shan State. In spite of having been in Thailand for twenty years, he is still undocumented. “I came to Thailand because it was difficult to find food in Burma. In Burma we had to keep moving.” In Burma, Shan villages are often forced to relocate at the whim of the army. Because of the constant movement, “It was impossible to grow anything or to live.”
So he came here and he works on a farm for 100 baht per day, on the days that he has work. When I asked if he was married, he laughed, saying he couldn’t afford to get married.
“Life is hard in Thailand, but I feel safe here. So, it is better than Burma.”
The youngest family head in the community was thirty-one year old Jai Soy, who had been in Thailand for 16 years and was still undocumented. He came to Thailand because in Burma he was subjected to forced labor. “The soldiers came to the village and demanded so many workers come and work on the railway. If the village didn’t agree, then they would be arrested.” Jai Soy said they worked, digging and carrying rocks. “The soldiers beat us and didn’t feed us enough to live. The soldiers also put shackles on our legs so we couldn’t run away.”
Luckily, Jai Soy did manage to escape from the work camp. Like millions of others, he came to Thailand. Now, he mostly does general work. Occasionally, he collects recyclables to earn a few pennies. “In Thailand, without an ID card, we cannot work legally. We work illegally and it’s irregular. It depends on the situation.”
Jai Soy has two children, aged 9 and 7 who attend government elementary school. He said even though his children were born in Thailand the children don’t automatically get an ID card. It depends on the parents. And since he has no card, his kids have no card. So they cannot study beyond elementary school.
“I wish the government would let us live free and work,” he said.
When I asked Jai Soy to compare his current life with the life he left behind in Burma, he said, “In Thailand, with no ID card it is hard, and sometimes we get arrested. When you get arrested in Thailand, it’s better than Burma. They give you food. They don’t beat you. Then you go before the judge, and he will tell you how long you have to stay in jail. Sometimes, it’s just a few days.”
After leaving the migrant community, I stopped into a local Shan temple, where I met Kraipope, a sixteen year-old novice monk. He was born in Shan State, but came to Thailand four years ago to get an education in the temple. “I came to study here because the schools in Burma are so bad.” His dream was to someday study at Rachapat, a leading university in Thailand. When I asked I asked him if he missed his family, he told me that they were all in Thailand, now. “In Burma, it is very difficult to find work,” he explained.
My next question, “Back in Burma, did you have problems with the SPDC government forces?” His answer was almost comical. “Just the usual,” he said, with no hint of irony.
Of all of the Shan I spoke to that day, I think Jai Soy said it best: “When you get arrested in Thailand, it’s better than Burma.”