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Challenging prejudice: Thai attitudes to Burmese migrants

Ali Fowle

Aug 6, 2008 (DVB), The media coverage of the horror of Cyclone Nargis which devastated parts of Burma in May this year provoked a sympathetic response all around the world.

Shocking images of the disaster and the reaction of the Burmese government have stunned other countries and attracted global support for the Burmese people.

The response to this coverage has increased interest in and understanding of the situation in Burma. But what about the two million Burmese migrants living in Thailand? Have attitudes towards them changed?

Historical hostility

Immigrants all over the world are often victimised by the residents of their host countries who resent their presence, and Thai attitudes towards the Burmese have been no different.

Hostility between Thailand and the Burmese is deeper rooted than many people realise, stemming back over 300 years, to the battle of Ayutthaya in 1767 when the invading Burmese army destroyed the old capital completely, forcing the government to relocate.

Young Thai students learn about the conflict with Burma as an integral part of Thai education. Numerous films have also been made about the battle, most famously, The Legend of King Naresuan, released last year. The 700-million-baht film is the most expensive Thai movie ever made and has proved incredibly popular.

Relations between the two countries worsened over a series of events between 1999 and 2003 involving border disputes, sieges, hostage situations and media slander. Conflict has also arisen from the fact that most of the drugs that enter Thailand come from Burma's Shan state.

These events caused a great rift between the Burmese and the Thai governments who began to distrust and dislike each other. Subsequently the Thai government has done little to contradict negative Thai attitudes and use Burma as a common enemy to unite Thailand with nationalist propaganda.

Many of these attitudes and feelings are reflected in the media and used to justify and support negative feelings towards migrant workers.

Rakawin Leechanavanichpan, Asia Programme Officer for the International Labour Organisation, says the media has a lot to answer for.

"The Thai attitudes are very much affected by the media. Whatever people hear they will also believe," she said.

However, the media coverage of Cyclone Nargis has shown Burma in a completely different light and has clearly had some positive effects.

Highlighting oppression

The world has suddenly woken up and taken notice of a country run by a xenophobic government that would potentially deny dying people aid rather than cooperate with other countries for fear of foreign influence.

Publicity surrounding this situation has encouraged people from Thailand to question the actions of the Burmese government.

"At least the aid issues have put questions in people’s minds. They think, ‘Why would the government do that?'" said Aphatsorn Sombunwattanakun, a Thai Masters student from Chiang Mai University with first hand experience of Thai opinions of the Burmese.

Along with several others she launched a group called Friends of Burma that raises money for victims of the cyclone on the streets and awareness of Burma’s ongoing human rights abuses, and she sees the publicity in the aftermath of the cyclone as having opened people’s eyes to the Burmese situation.

"Before Nargis people didn’t really give much attention to Burma," said Aphatsorn. "People feel more emotionally connected with the situation now because Thailand has suffered its own natural disaster [2003 tsunami]. They sympathise."

Aphatsorn feels that attitudes towards the Burmese have changed and this can be seen in the generosity of donations.

"In three hours we collected 25,000 baht at the Sunday Market in Chiang Mai. Many people wanted to help but they didn’t know how," she says.

She has also observed an increased interest in Burma as people now take the group's information leaflets and ask questions.

The cyclone, and more importantly, the junta’s reaction to it, has highlighted how Burma is being run. But has this softened the image of Burmese migrants in Thai eyes by helping them understand why they have had to leave Burma?

Rakawin Leechanavanichpan, from the ILO says there has been a change of attitude on the side of the Thai authorities as well. There were notable changes in the number of deportations immediately after the cyclone as the Thai government stopped sending so many migrants home to a country in a state of crisis.

"The Thai authorities also became more relaxed for a while," said Rakawin.

Short-lived sympathy

However, Rakawin also thinks that the sympathy that Thai people are feeling for the Burmese has already begun to wear off.

"Before the period of registration they went back to how it was before and were just as bad, or even worse," she said.

Tin Tin Nyo, general secretary of the Burmese Women’s Union, thinks that although people are sympathetic, there has been no real change.

"Some of them have shown empathy towards the victims of Cyclone Nargis but nothing has changed in their attitude towards the Burmese migrant workers," she says.

Although the media coverage of the cyclone has spread some awareness, in reality, the natural disaster is dissociated from Thai attitudes towards migrants and the situation in Burma that causes them to migrate.

"People separate the cyclone from the other problems in Burma," said Aphatsorn.

At the end of December 2006 the ILO and the United Nations Development Fund for Women commissioned the ABAC Poll Research center at Assumption University to conduct a survey on "Thai Attitudes Regarding Foreign Workers in Thailand".

From a sample of 4148 respondents from eleven provinces across Thailand the poll showed that 58.6 percent did not agree that Thailand needs migrants.

"A big factor that contributes to attitudes is fear, especially when the economy is not so good , people feel threatened by the incoming migrants and worry they will take their jobs or bring wages down," said Rakawin.

Aphatsorn believes that people can’t see past the huge numbers to the reality of the way many migrants are treated.

"There has been a big social impact from the migrants," she says. "The Burmese are seen in a more negative light because the media shows stories about bad things they do. It is all negative and they don’t show the story behind this, like if they were being tortured or abused."

The media are also sometimes said to exaggerate and portray incidents in a very negative way, reminding Thai people that Burma used to be the enemy and claiming the Burmese are still causing trouble.

"Thailand continues to treat the people of Burma with absolute hatred and discrimination," said Tin Tin Nyo.

In southern Thailand, there have been reports of gangs torturing and killing migrant workers. On 1 July, a Mon migrant worker was shot and killed by an unidentified Thai gang in Tha Chana Township, Surat Thani province. This follows an incident in the same area earlier this year when some Burmese migrants were shot at while they were working in a rubber plantation in February.

Lack of integration

Both Thailand and Burma are Buddhist countries that believe in karma. In a recent article, Reuters quoted from a forum website that expressed harsh opinions about Cyclone Nargis that reflect these beliefs.

"After all they have done to Thailand since ancient times, this is the karma they deserve," one commenter wrote.

Although these views are held by a minority, they show the extent to which Thailand’s historical relations with Burma have influenced people and why there is such prejudice against Burmese migrants.

Many migrants are aware of these prejudices and as a result are often scared to go out. This means that they never integrate into Thai society and are unable to interact with Thai people.

Fear of deportation, arrest and ridicule means many migrants live in isolated communities separate from the rest of society and are viewed with suspicion.

Not communicating with migrants means Thai people are unable to learn the truth about why they have come and the contribution they make to society.

Sompong Srakaew, founder of the Labour Rights Promotion Network, outlines some of the Thai concerns.

"People who are not connected with any Burmese think that they are a big problem for Thailand, bringing disease, and crime and stealing Thai jobs," Sompong said.

In reality, there are huge numbers of Burmese working in Thailand in menial jobs that Thai workers would not accept.

Challenging prejudice

In order to change the attitudes of the people towards Burmese migrants, the attitudes of the government officials in Thailand also need to change. The government needs to control the biased attitude of the media and contradict the negative stereotype.

Rakawin thinks that the answer is to draw attention to how much Thailand benefits from Burmese migrant workers.

"A strategy that we need to promote is more on the studies of economic contribution," she says.

Thailand's economy and many employers directly benefit from the low-wage labour of Burmese migrants in areas such as manual labour, the fishing industry and factory, domestic and farm work.

Sompong believes that employers already treat workers slightly better than other sectors of society.

"People who make a profit from the Burmese want to take care of them better," he says.

Thailand's whole economy profits hugely from migrant workers and spreading this message may help attitudes to change.

Aphatsorn thinks that the publicity and sympathy focused on the Burmese after the cyclone will help these ideas spread and make more people take notice.

"Now is a good opportunity to build up understanding about the Burmese," said Aphatsorn.

If public opinion does change then perhaps the contribution of migrants will be recognised and they will be given more rights, and life for migrants in Thailand could begin to improve.

"If you can’t change the public opinion then you can’t infringe the policy that much," said Rakawin.

Ancient prejudice and government conflict mean it will take more than the sympathetic reaction to the cyclone for Thai attitudes towards Burmese migrants to begin to change.

Thailand’s migrant workers are a major part of the workforce that drives the Thai economy, and the demand for more workers is still there. However, this need is not reflected in Thailand’s policies on migrant workers, who continue to be deported, neglected and abused.

The publicity from the cyclone has helped Thai people put aside their differences to give money and aid to help the Burmese begin to recover. If the Thai people can also come to realise how much they benefit from migrants in the country then it may help them be accepted as part of the community.


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