Living with Burmese migrant workers

In May 2008 I travelled to the Thai border town of Mae Sot. The town has long been a haven for both political refugees and migrant workers from Burma, just across the Moei River.

I spent several days with a group of illegal workers, who were living in a makeshift settlement at a construction site.

“We had to build our own houses”, says Ko-Maung, 31, “from what we could find lying around”. His house, where we are now sitting, is a tiny, crudely constructed shelter standing in an expanse of mud and foul-smelling water, and home to his family of four.

Since leaving their village in Bago division due to a dearth of financial opportunities and illicitly crossing the border into Thailand, he and his family have been living at a makeshift settlement adjacent to the construction site where he is now employed. His two children, Ei-Pan, six, and Ayin, three, sit watching television; the television set is powered by an illegal connection to the town’s main electricity lines in the absence of a proper supply.

As Ei-Pan’s parents cannot afford to pay for school books or a uniform, he has no option but to spend his days hanging around the village. His mother, Ma-Aye, 36, pulls down his shirt to reveal sores, a result, she says, of the unsanitary conditions in which her family lives. Ei-Pan is also small for his age, apparently a result of the lack of protein in his diet; Ma-Aye says she has been giving Ei-Pan and Ayin jaggery (unrefined sugar) to eat for want of any nutritious food.

Ko-Maung with his son Ei-Pan at the makeshift workers village

The construction site, known as Ban Orr Ah Htoon, a sprawling low-cost housing estate, lies a few kilometres from the town of Mae Sot, Tak province. Security at the site is tight; outsiders, such as myself, are viewed with extreme suspicion. During my time here I find myself regularly being accosted by guards, and several times am aware of being watched from the rooftops of unfinished houses.

Ko-Maung has been designated as the leader of the group of Burmese living and working at this site. It is a position which entitles him to 80 baht more per day than his fellow workers, but which also brings many more problems. He describes a recent incident where he was given 30,000 baht by the Thai manager of the site, with which to pay the other workers. “It wasn’t enough”, he says, “less than 20 percent of what they were owed”. Fighting ensued in the village, with a number of workers being stabbed. “After that, several people left. They were starving”.

Now Ko-Maung himself is in debt, as he felt it right to help his fellow workers financially, from his own pocket. Aung Thu Win, sitting next to him, claims to be virtually penniless. His leg is wrapped in gauze, which he peels back slightly to reveal a deep gash, caused, he says, by a falling breeze block at the construction site. “I spent all of my money at the clinic”, he says. “The site manager washed his hands of the issue. He said it wasn’t his responsibility”. Aung Thu Win’s story is not an uncommon one here. During my visits I spot a number of men sporting various bandages; injuries, I am told, all sustained whilst working, and all of which were ignored by the employers.

This man was living in the half-built shell of one of the houses

A magnet for Burmese migrants, owing to its proximity to the border (it is easy to cross from the Burmese town of Myawaddy into Thailand whilst avoiding the official checkpoints) Mae Sot and its surrounding countryside are now home to around 150,000 Burmese. The local Thai population’s prejudice towards the Burmese in the area is a problem which Ko-Maung and his countrymen face on a daily basis. “If a Thai person sees us around the town”, he says, “they will often call the authorities. We never leave home without taking at least 100 baht with us, in case we have to bribe (the police)”.

Moe Swe is head of the Yaung Chi Oo Workers’ Association in Mae Sot. His organization tries to educate Burmese people about their rights in Thailand, so that they know if they are being exploited. This knowledge, however, is seldom helpful for the workers. “If a worker complains to their employer, the employer can do three things: fire them, have them beaten up or ask the police to arrest them”, explains Moe Swe. Arrest usually results in either deportation or a six-month prison sentence.

Stories of abuse are common. Moe Swe tells the story of a group of five workers at a farm, 48km from the town, who were accused of stealing from their employer. The employer shot them and later burned the bodies. This case only came to light because one of the workers miraculously survived the shooting and, in the immediate aftermath convincing his would-be murderer that he was dead, subsequently managed to escape. “Outside of the city”, Moe Swe says, “the rules are much less strictly enforced. Employers often report to the authorities that workers have died, but no cause of death is ever given”.

Working late into the night at Ban Orr Ah Htoon construction site. No overtime is paid to the workers

Although, according to the International Labour Organization, migrant workers (of which the Burmese comprise around 75 percent) have in recent times contributed around US$53 million per year to the Thai economy, the Thai government still seems unwilling to address the issue of exploitation. It seems that it is easier for them not to recognise migrant workers as being a significant part of the economy, rather than to raise questions about their treatment. Indeed, many hold the opinion that the Thai economy needs migrant workers; it is the “dirty, dangerous and demeaning” jobs, which Thai people are often unwilling to do, which are usually filled by migrants.

For Ko-Maung and his family, the future remains uncertain. “Two years ago, we saved enough money to go home”, he says, “but when we arrived there was no work for us. Having spent nearly all our money on the trip and left with virtually nothing, we were forced to return to Thailand”.

Watching football abroad: Thailand

Just because you’re travelling it doesn’t mean you have to miss out on your weekly afternoon on the terraces — in a series of articles we look at how. First up: Thailand…

The Thai Premier League has undergone a massive revitalisation in the last few years, largely thanks to acceptance into the Asian Football Confederation. The arrival of more foreign players hasn’t hurt either, perhaps the most notable import being Robbie Fowler, currently player-manager at Muangthong United.

The standard’s still not that high — roughly equivalent to League 2 in England, but it’s a much more technical, entertaining game to watch.

For visitors staying in Central Bangkok, the most convenient stadium to get to is probably that of Thai Port. English supporters will also notice a different style of atmosphere, with no animosity whatsoever: fans sing their rivals’ songs and good-naturedly congratulate each other in the street after the game.

Plus, fans are allowed to stand up all game and can drink beer on the terraces. Result…

The world’s greatest festivals: Bun Bang Fai, Thailand

Booze, reckless behaviour and high explosives: a fireworks display, Isaan-style… 
Photo by Santo Chino via Flickr

Around the beginning of the rainy season in Thailand’s bucolic north east, drunken men climb 50-foot scaffolds to prepare rockets – usually consisting of a nine-foot plastic drainpipe stuffed with gunpowder – before lighting the fuse and running for their lives before the crudely constructed missiles surge into the sky, amid frenzied cheers from the assembled spectators.

In the parched north east (Isaan), the Bun Bang Fai festival is part of an ancient rite: once fired into the air, the phallic rockets explode, “fertilising” the sky with sparks and debris in the hope of producing rain. As such, it’s an excuse for locals to cut loose before the arduous planting season begins, downing lao khao in huge quantities and exhibiting ridiculous behaviour: grown men dance around in women’s clothing and mud wrestle, all to a bawdy morlam soundtrack.

This being Thailand, gambling also forms a large part of the festival, with betting on both the height and distance achieved by the rockets.

Given the alcohol consumption and lax safety standards, there are fewer accidents than you’d expect, the most notorious being in 1999, when five spectators were killed by a prematurely-exploding rocket.

With danger, alcohol a-plenty and a healthy amount of superstition, Bun Bang Fai is a very Thai celebration.

How to get off the tourist trail in Bangkok

The tourist mecca of Khaosan Road (photo by Bfick via Flickr)

With its bustling markets and golden temples, the Thai capital promises visitors many exciting cultural highlights.

The thrill of exploration can be tempered slightly, however, when it turns out that several hundred other tourists decided to visit at the same time as you.

Fortunately there are still a number of places to visit which feature little in the guidebooks and where few, if any, other westerners are to be found. 

The time-warp department store

The years have not been kind to this once-grand emporium, and with its crumbling facade it’s something of an anomaly in a city now dominated by gleaming mega-malls.

Having somehow remained in business against the odds, Nightingale-Olympic is now a bizarre forgotten realm, with flaking mannequins modelling 1960s fashions and hilariously outdated products (wooden tennis racquets, rusting musical instruments) on display, and still for sale.

Look past it’s undeniable weirdness, though, and it’s a genuinely touching monument to a more sedate, innocent era.

The ghost temple

Thais are obsessively superstitious and go to great lengths to avoid contact with ghosts – from the ubiquitous spirit houses and amulets to bizarre innovations like this $2000 electric ghost-repelling machine.

There is an encyclopaedic list of Thai spirits, and Wat Mahabut has a shrine devoted to one of the most feared: Mae Nak.

The junk market

At Klong Lod market, vendors, many of them homeless, set up stall alongside a stagnant canal to sell virtually anything they can get their hands on, including items scavenged from rubbish tips.

Among the garbage though are often such rare items as out of print books and old film posters, as well as a large selection of Buddhist amulets.

The macabre museum

Originally intended as a teaching resource for medical students, Siriraj Medical Museum treads a fine line between the educational and the truly grotesque.

It gives an insight into the Thai appetite for the macabre, with grisly specimens such as conjoined twins, a halved head showing the path of a bullet, and even the mummified corpse of notorious 1940s cannibal, Si Quey.

The country music club

Those who want to sample north-eastern rural life, but don’t fancy a seven hour drive, can visit one of Bangkok’s nightspots playing the Isaan music genres of Lukthung (lilting country songs about the hardships of rural life) or Mor lam (earthy songs about unrequited love, often with sultry female vocals).

One of the most popular clubs is Tawan Daeng, a cavernous barn-like structure open seven nights a week, regularly playing host to popular bands like Carabao.

Backpacking to the future

What happens if you go backpacking around Southeast Asia using a 37 year old guidebook? Interesting article on CNNGo…


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