A dpa despatch published by the Bangkok Post editorial page on May 13, 2008
A hard life here for illegal Burmese workers
by Kim Gooi
The hot noon sun beats relentlessly down on scores of Burmese citizens packed aboard long-tail boats on the Andaman Sea, sailing from Burma’s Victoria Point to Thailand’s Ranong harbour.
These border-crossers sit in the open boats holding umbrellas to protect them from the sun. Some have come to Thailand to shop, others to find work.
Going in the opposite direction are groups of western tourists, mostly backpackers, in search of pristine beaches or a renewal of their Thai visas.
Ranong lies on the borderline between relatively prosperous Thailand and Burma, where 46 years of military misrule have impoverished the population.
Surrounded by low hills on all sides like a tilted bowl facing a sheltered seafront, Ranong is a prosperous border town. The hills around the town are planted with rubber and cashew trees.
But for Tin Aung and many other Burma national here, Ranong’s bustling harbour has become a place of fear – fear of arrest and deportation and fear of hunger.
Dreams shattered, down and out, he sleeps in a park in the day time and ventures out at night to seek work. He’s not picky. He’s willing to wash cars, wash dishes and or do other manual labour the Thais shun.
Three months ago, Tin Aung’s family sold half their house north of Rangoon to pay a job broker the equivalent of US$635 (20,257 baht) for his passage to Phuket island in southern Thailand.
He was told that he could recoup the money quickly after he found a good job on the thriving tourist island.
Tin Aung travelled by us from Rangoon to the coastal town of Mergui and then by boat to the border at Victoria Point, near the Thai town of Ranong.
The organisers of the people smuggling racket put him in a safe house and told him to wait for a boat and the right time to make the final run to Phuket.
“A week alter I was put on a boat in the middle of the night and told we were going to Phuket,” said Tin Aung. “Instead, the boat headed out to open sea and for a month I was made to work like a slave on a fishing boat.”
He had no choice but to work, fearing he would be beaten and thrown overboard if he refused. “There were news reports of scores of bodies washed ashore along the southern coastline in recent months,” said Tin Aung.
After a month the boat landed at Ranong, and Tin Aung escaped. Now, like many of his countrymen under similar circumstances, he is in a limbo, unable to work legally in Thailand and unable to return home to Burma.
Unlike the majority of Burmese citizens from Victoria Point, who can come and go freely acorss the border, Tin Aung would be subject to arrest and imprisonment if he went back, on charges of leaving Burma without permission.
“But it could be worse. Like the 54 who suffocated to death in the cold storage truck. I could have been one of them,” he said.
On April 9, a group of 120 Burmese illegals were packed like sardines into a cold storage truck bound from Ranong to Phuket to find work. Two hours later, after travelling 90 km and repeatedly ignoring the victims’ banging on the walls of the truck and their frantic mobile phone calls saying they could not breathe, the driver of the truck pulled over to the side of the road.
When he opened the door he found 54 of his passengers were dead, among them two children. Another 66 escaped death, with a score of them hospitalised.
The story shocked Thailand and focused attention on the trade of illegal Burmese workers in the country. “It is very cruel and horrible,” said police commander Colonel Kraithong Chanthongbai. “I arrived immediately after villagers reported it at 10.30pm and didn’t sleep the whole night.
“There were screams, moaning and weeping and the stench of death. Some of the survivors helped to carry out the dead from the truck. When they saw the dead were their wives or children, they were screaming and wailing. It was a horror of the dead, half-dead and the living,” the commander recalled.
“And it wasn’t necessary for this to happen,” said Col Kraithong. “We have ways of letting them work in Thailand legally.”
There are 1-2 million Burmese citizens working in Thailand, but the majority of them do so illegally. Although it is possible to obtain an official work permit, many complain that the process is time-consuming and confusing, and leaves them at the mercy of their employers.