Originally published on Mohinga Matters
Recent developments at the Thai-Myanmar border are alarming. On April 4, Thai authorities detained three resistance fighters who were on their way to a hospital in Thailand. They were handed over to the regime’s Border Guard Forces (BGF), putting their lives in grave danger. As recently as April 28, Thai immigration officers arrested 23 Myanmar workers for illegal entry. While the border has traditionally been a safe haven for Myanmar’s revolutionaries, recent events suggest that the Thai government may not always be a friend to our resistance movement. This month, we spoke with a political activist who had to flee the country to escape the regime’s repression, and now lives in Mae Sot without legal documents along with his family. We asked his opinion regarding the latest developments and what it could mean for asylum seeking Myanmar families and immigrant labourers at the border.
MM: Myawaddy-Mae Sot border crossing was reopened in January 2023 after three years of suspension due to COVID-19. How do you feel about it?
A: There are safety concerns among the families. Many new faces have crossed the border since its official opening and we don’t know if they are the regime’s lackeys or pro-resistance. We do know that there are plenty of spies on this side of the border that are keeping tabs on us. We are here and safe but we are not living here legally, and some of our family members remain in Myanmar so everybody has to be vigilant following the border opening. On a positive note, it is now easier to communicate with the Myanmar side of the border, and transportation of goods is cheaper now.
MM: How has the political instability back home impacted Myanmar immigrant laborers at the border?
A: Myanmar immigrant laborers have been in Mae Sot for decades. The political instability back home has had some impact on them too. Perhaps, we can call the Myanmar and Thai military government partners. So, when the Myanmar military wants, Thai authorities impose fresh policies and regulations, doubling down restrictions on Myanmar nationals including migrant workers, political asylum seekers, and even tourists at the border. There are three types of permits that allow us to stay here. The first one is called a 10-year visa that allows immigrants to stay long term, normally it is issued for those who were born or attended school in Thailand. The second one is called a pink card or a labor card that allows people to work here legally. The third and the most common one is called a police card which is not technically legal but sufficient for one to move almost freely in the area. If someone holding a police card is in trouble, they can seek help from Thai authorities. So, when the Thai government authorizes more thorough checks on Myanmar people at the border, those with police cards are subject to harassment and extortion, which usually ends up in having to bribe the police.
MM: Is it possible for Myanmar nationals at the border to apply for legal identification in the near future?
A: I doubt very much that Thailand will issue any kind of identification to illegal Myanmar families any time soon. We must understand that the current government in Thailand has also come to power through its own military takeover. And hence Thai authorities and the Myanmar military will never turn their backs on each other. An identification will let us move freely in its country and that will surely be seen by the Myanmar military that Thailand is helping the resistance. So, I don’t think the Thai government would ever go there. I even suspect that organizations like UNHCR have a hard time negotiating with the Thai government just to help the Myanmar refugees as openly as they would like to.
MM: What are the biggest challenges you are facing now, and how do you think they can be addressed during this time of political unrest?
A: Other than struggling to make ends meet, these days, we have seen more arrests of Myanmar illegal immigrants at the border, either by Thai police or immigration officers. And the reason is usually for not having legal identification during random spot checks. If someone gets detained as such, Thai police would check their phones and make a fuss over it if any politically sensitive content is found. And then they would blackmail people by threatening to deport them. I think UNHCR (U.N. Refugee Agency) and other international organizations could put pressure on the Thai government to create leeway for Myanmar asylum seekers.
MM: The recent case of Lion Battalion rangers was alarming. Do you think the Thailand government is showing its official stance on Myanmar’s situation or it is just a one-off unfortunate event?
A: Myanmar and Thailand share a long border from Tanintharyi Region to Shan State and all regions on that borderline are resistance-strong. Prominent forces such as the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), Karenni National Defense Force (KNDF), Lion Battalion, and Ye-Belu, have become stronger from the aid through the border. So, it’s true that Thailand’s position is significant for our resistance as it has been throughout the history of uprisings against the successive Myanmar tyrannies. However, we must keep reminding ourselves again that the Thai government is also made up of military personnel in suits, they cannot be entirely relied on. The arrest and handover of three rangers of the Lion Battalion was an example. Recently, the National Unity Government (NUG) went after Thailand’s state-owned PTT Exploration and Production Public (PTTEP) by attempting to take it into an international court for associating with the regime. Maybe this event was Thailand’s way of showing the NUG what it was capable of. At the same time, I personally believe that the power and drive of the revolution still come from within the country. If you look at the central part of Myanmar, people in the Anyar regions are suffering from the regime’s offensive, atrocities, and airstrikes on a daily basis. Yet, they are still putting up a good fight for freedom and it’s where our chances of the endgame rely on. We must keep a good relationship with Thailand, yes. But it alone will not define our density.
MM: Do you foresee any possible turn of the resistance that could have a significant impact on the livelihood of Myanmar families on the border?
A: Yes, very much. If the resistance ends in our favor, at the very least, our migrant workers at the border will receive much better treatment and policy from the Thai government. If Myanmar’s economy is set to grow, the majority of the migrant labor community is most likely to move back into the country and it is not what Thailand would wish for due to the lack of replacement. So, basic human rights will be guaranteed for our fellow workers. However, if the resistance dreads on, our people will keep on getting targeted and remain easy prey for extortion.
MM: Anything to add?
A: Myanmar people have sacrificed, suffered, and invested so much in this revolution against the military dictatorship. And I do believe that we have a very good shot at toppling the regime thanks to the power of the people’s persistence. However, we do need help from the international community. It does not have to be a nuclear bomb or a billion dollars. Help us with technology, funding, and news coverage. Hear our voices and help us fight a good fight.
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