Oliver Friedmann reflects on his experience on the Thai/Myanmar border.
The Thai–Myanmar borderlands are vibrant, dynamic and often confusing. The people who are attracted to these areas, mostly unskilled and unregistered migrant workers or refugees, often occupy a volatile social space, where their careers and future livelihoods are constantly threatened by unpredictable government policies and ethnic discrimination from both sides of the border. However, some of these communities have also thrived as multicultural centres in their own right, and on the surface it seems as if people from many different ethnic groups are able to coexist.
In June 2015, I was lucky enough to take part in the Southeast Asian Frontiers course run by the ANU, which allowed me to engage with these issues on an academic and personal level. I have chosen a few images that most profoundly illustrate my experience.
At a migrant school in Thailand’s Samut Sakhon province, we met children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, most of whom had travelled from neighbouring Myanmar in search of education. Downstairs, new arrivals to the school spent their first few weeks learning basic hygiene and Thai language, before graduating to the normal classroom. The Thai curriculum was nationalised in 2001 and is offered free to all students, regardless of their background. Here, children are taught about Thai culture. Reverence for the nation, Buddhism and the monarchy were also recurring themes. Many of us began to question with whether this system was assimilationist, or simply an attempt to prepare these kids for a life in Thai society. From some, we heard stories of near-ethnocide: Shan people who believed their race would be “extinct in 500 years” because of the destruction of their history in Myanmar and the impact of forced migration. Others were incredibly grateful for the opportunities that Thailand offered.
Education was a prominent theme throughout the Southeast Asian Frontiers course, and nowhere was this felt more than in Chiang Mai at a university for retirees. These people expressed many profound sentiments about the nature of education and the Thai nation. “Education is the most important thing. First, you must develop yourself. Then you must develop the nation.”
In Wiang Haeng province, in Thailand’s north, we spent some time at a camp for displaced Shan people. Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention; however, over the four weeks we spent in the country, we came to appreciate that, in most instances, the Thailand expresses greater compassion for them than states who are signatories.
This young man left his Shan village aged 17 and trekked through the Myanmar jungle in search of an education in Thailand. He could not speak Thai or English. Now, five years later, he speaks both languages fluently and is studying at university. He hopes to return home and open a school. The camp in Wiang Haeng where he spent most of his time is technically illegal. The Thai government refuses to recognise Shan displacement camps for fear of antagonising the Myanmar government, which has previously accused Thai government of using these camps, such as the Karen camps further south, to fuel the civil war. However, local authorities are very accommodating, allowing these refugees to work and live in society as normal citizens: the camp seemed like a small local village.
The One-Stop Service is the Thai government’s latest attempt to address illegal migration. Workers are able to sign up for legal migration status for one year regardless of whether they have citizenship. At first glance, this seems like a reasonable system. However, the main aim of this policy is to get these illegal migrants ‘above the surface’ so that authorities can identify them. For the thousands of stateless migrant workers from Myanmar who are unable to prove their citizenship over the coming year, their future is unknown and their livelihoods are extremely vulnerable.
In cases like the Shan displacement camp in Wiang Haeng, local authorities are often quite accommodating to migrants. However, when the system cannot provide for these people, NGOs step in, with mixed success. On the outskirts of Chiang Rai is Ba Na Na, an orphanage that looks after troubled children and young people.
The orphanage’s operations are unique: each child is allotted a rice paddy to tend. We found that the most successful NGOs were those that worked in Thailand rather than Myanmar. The Myanmar government’s bureaucracy means that development organisations struggle to reach areas of Myanmar that need the assistance most. Organisations such as Dr Cynthia’s Mae Tao Clinic and the Burma Children Medical Fund train Karen people on the Thai side of the border, sending them back with health supplies and training to areas Western NGOs can’t reach.
Here are a few things I learnt from these experiences. What you hear from one organisation or government institution is often not a reflection of reality. Several institutions we spoke to claimed that human trafficking does not exist, or that, even if it does, it is rare in Thailand. However, hearing first-hand from people who had experienced years of abuse on Thai fishing boats led us to question this claim. I came to appreciate that Thailand often receives more criticism for its policies towards migrants than I think it deserves. We saw so many instances where authorities were accommodating towards refugees.
The Thai government see migrants as a ‘burden’, but a ‘burden’ they have an obligation to protect. In fact, most issues in the borderlands arise from the Myanmar side of the border, perhaps because of the country’s abominable health and development record, the continuing civil war or the central government’s stringent nationalistic agenda. There are issues that cannot be solved in these neglected regions without significant Myanmar government attention, and I am hesitant to believe that the current focus on democracy is producing any concrete change in Myanmar’s fringes.