Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Conversations with Burmese Migrant Workers in Thailand

Earlier this week I visited my Burmese friend Atcha – she works at the human rights office for the Burmese (Grassroots) up the road. I’d interviewed her because I wanted to understand the situation in Burma. When I visited her this week I asked if there were other people who I might be able to talk with. She told me I could come along on Wednesday (today), because she was going to survey migrant workers about why they left Burma, as part of a report for the UN.

I slept in, unfortunately, because I have a terrible cough that keeps me up at night, but goes away after the sun rises, allowing me to sleep well into the morning. Pal, a friend from Australia who speaks exactly the same language as me when it comes to doing this sort of work (and is completing a fascinating degree in social inquiry) called me and woke me up, asking where I was. I got on my bike and rushed to the centre. We forgot that we were working in Thai time though… and our 10am pick up happened at about 130.

It was a long road trip, and Pal and I weren’t even sure where we were going or what we’d accomplish during the day… could we even ask questions to the workers or did they not speak English? Would Atcha and Pupu be willing to translate for us – to support our research – or would we listen in on their work? We didn’t really care what would happen. On the drive down, we asked a lot of questions about Burma…

Then we got on this road… and I thought, holy smokes, I have never been on a road like this in a place like this. We were going into the rubber plantation. The road was bumpy as hell and lasted 10 minutes, weaving and winding, and very possible to go over the edge. I trusted our driver – even though I never introduced myself to him the whole day, never made eye contact, never said hi… he kept to his role. He took off his shades at one point in the day and I sort of saw his eyes and face in the rear view mirror.

So our first stop was the little protected community in the middle of the rubber plantation. There was a learning centre there (a tiny outdoorish building) on the top of a hill. Kids inside. Two teachers, each teaching from opposite sides of the class on white boards that didn’t really erase. They were cool teachers though, making the kids laugh and stuff. But didn’t mind stopping class to do the surveys with Pupu. Atcha and Pal and I went into one of the homes and sat on the floor with a mother. Atcha said we could interview her and she would translate for us. It was fun – people came in and out, giving us pepsi, hanging out listening in on the window sill, in the doorway.

We didn’t ask her name… She is from Mandali and has been in Thailand for 4 years. Back in Burma she worked for a small company, but the salary was too small to support her family. Her and her husband contacted someone about coming to Thailand. Here, she saves her money and sends it to Burma. She wants to go back to Burma, and hopefully will in about one year – when she saves enough money. Here, she works as a teacher, and her husband works on the rubber plantation.

Her journey to Thailand should have taken 1 week, but they were halted in ktown (lookup?) for a month. Their broker took their 6000B and took off, without completing his side of the deal, so they needed to work odd jobs in this border city before they could pay another broker to take them. They crossed in a boat to Ranong with 10 other people. It was about 6 months after they arrived in Thailand that they were able to contact their family to let them know that they arrived safely and were working in Thailand.

We tried to ask her about the political situation in Burma, but she didn’t really understand. She talked about forced labour that was happening to men in her village for road and dam construction, but it was hard to grasp if this was happening to people she knew… She came for higher wages – economic reasons. She says that now she is in Thailand, she can see that there are problems with the way of life in Burma. She says that here, even the poor people have tvs. She can see the standard of living is really nice here, and she said that now she can see that Burma needs international help, and needs a democracy.


I looked around her place at that point. It’s a tin can with a concrete floor – but it did have a tv, huge speakers, loads of cds, a vcd player, a jug of clean drinking water, a religious shrine, nicely decorated. Paper posters up on the wall – of weird things! Pop stars, I think. Haha!

Her and her husband are illegal – as are most of the migrant workers – and so they stay in this little community in the rubber plantation. They have safety here – their thai employer has a responsibility for them. I asked if they have any community with the Thai people and it seems that she feels a safety with the thai manager – but the Burmese and thai don’t work the same job. No thai person works the same jobs as the Burmese on the rubber plantation – the thais are the managers. She said the work is very hard. They work 7-11, lunch 11-12, then again 12-3, and it’s difficult work. Her work in Burma was easier, she said, in an office, but the wages were not nearly as good. Here, men make 140B/day, and women 130B/day (and don’t get me started on lower for wages for women is apparently ok  ). In Burma, she was paid 2000Jaz/day but would spend it all. Here, she can save half of her wages. I gather they are quite lucky with their manager. The girls have been telling me that there exist serious problems for the migrant workers in Thailand because they are not always given their wages… and if they stop showing up to work because they aren’t getting paid, their managers call the police – and then they are deported back to Burma. Common procedure.

She has a cute daughter who had mixed emotions about the pepsi we were putting in her mouth. Her mother said she wanted her daughter to go back to Burma, and go to school.

We said thank you in Burmese when we left, and everyone got a big kick out of that! Haha! Gi su timaray!

I started to feel like the work at Grassroots is totally valuable because it’s about human rights. And so often here at the tsunami volunteer centre we all question our position as westerners here helping… are we imposing western solutions… all sorts of questions… but I think when it comes to human rights, there is no such thing as a cultural division to look out for.

Back in the truck we started we all got a little goofy ‘cause we were all trying to speak Thai. Realized I’ve got a lot in common with the Burmese… we neither of us can speak Thai! It does rather show the power of the Burmese communities here that they live here and never need to learn it. The girls said that only a few, if they stay here for years and years learn some Thai. But usually they live in these hideout spots like the rubber plantation communities, and really don’t have the need.


Next stop was Safari Island! A tourist elephant riding place, and a hotpot for Burmese workers, training the elephants. We goofed off at first, had ice cream, watched the monkey-on-leash do tricks (Atcha grabs me and jokes “animal rights ne?”). The Burmese were all dressed in blue uniforms for their work and they all followed us as a group out to the back of the park and we sat on the ground to do the surveys that the girls had prepared. We were just interviewing one guy, but everybody else gathered around. The man, from Mandali, left in 2003 because of lack of work and a concern for his family. He came to earn more money to support his family. Back home he worked on a bus as a ticket-taker. The government forced him to leave his home because his family had a skin disease, so they were forced to leave the city and move out to the country side.

I think that the workers wanted to get home, so they told us to come with them and do the interviews at their home rather than in the back of the park. I think that’s what happened ‘cause we got back in the truck and drove the long way around (they were on motor bikes so just drove on the wrong side of the road). There were about 3 homes in the middle of a field – and then another 3 homes a bit further over. And a few elephants behind the homes (chained??). The houses were built from wood and plants. We sat on the porch and everyone sort of listened in. Different than surveys back home. No closed doors… no asking for confidentiality. No informed consent sheet. Sometimes one person would do the first half of the survey and someone else would finish it. One of the girls would sometimes hit the person they were surveying to get them to pay attention again if they got giggling with the others.

The girls asked the questions of the survey and wrote the answers, translating for us as they went along. We threw in the occasional question too, and people were happy to answer. One man said he’s been here for 7 months. Came to avoid forced labour and heavy taxation. He couldn’t feed himself and his family. Back home he was a farmer. On his way through Burma to the border, he had a lot of trouble, was stopped many times at many check points and had to pay a lot of money. 12 others from his village were doing the same thing along side him.

As a farmer, he was forced to grow cotton. Then he was forced to sell the cotton to the government at a cheaper price. Then he was evicted from his home so the government could begin a development project on that land – a dam. That’s when he decided to leave Burma. Others left with him because of money, lack of work, to avoid forced labour and other human rights abuses. He said that the army would try to force them to be soldiers. If they refused, they would be beaten and tortured. He knows people from his village in this situation.

Another man, from Pyee Bew township, Mandalai Division, came in June 2006 after 6 days of traveling. He talked about problems with his ID card. It seems that in Burma, you have a birth certificate and a student card until you are 18. They you apply for a citizenship card. But this costs a lot of money (although the price seems to be dependant on your situation). Without a citizenship card, you can’t travel outside the province. People are arrested if they don’t have this card.

As much as I was saying before that you didn’t need to shut a door to talk about these things with the people, you could tell it wasn’t a breeze. The best I can describe the way people were talking was that they weren’t really breathing when they were talking.

I asked if they were happy to be in Thailand. They said no, not happy. But the income was their reason for being here. They are saving up to go back to Burma. Then I asked (finally) what I was dying to ask: …but aren’t you scared to go back? Are you nervous about the forced labour. They said yes, yes they are scared. But their family is there.

Their journey across the border involved them laying on the boat, covered in a sheet. They said they couldn’t breath. 5000B/person to the broker.

I’ve got the names of the towns near where they crossed, but I’ll have to look them up. Small places though, Pupu said.

I asked if they felt like their country needed international help. (I asked this a bit for myself – do you want my help? My country’s help? Tell me if you think there is trouble that needs fixing here. I see trouble… but do you? Do you just want to me stay away?) I noticed when Pupu translated she said ‘tsunami’, comparing I think the amount of international help that the tsunami received. They all nodded their heads. Yes. International help. Help. They mentioned education for the kids. And health care – they say there are a lot of diseases in Burma: HIV, TB, Malaria.

The reception that I felt as a foreigner was much different from the Burmese than I usually feel from the Thai – perhaps because we’re both outsiders – albeit in very different ways. Noticeably a different relationship though.

Ming Glaba (good day), for now.

1 comment:

nawnaw said...

thz naw, very good task naw