Shan migrants in northern Thailand have become the targets of an online hate campaign and systematic police crackdown, after news spread of a series of gang-related attacks in the Lanna capital.
Over 200 migrants have been arrested and detained by police in the northern city of Chiang Mai in the wake of two vicious knife attacks on Thai citizens, which have been pinned on a group of ethnic Shan youths, known as the “TaiYai Samurai Gang”.
The attacks have prompted ire among the local Thai population and fuelled a xenophobic social media campaign against the city’s tens of thousands of ethnic Shan migrants. A Facebook group called “Kill TaiYai” has gathered nearly 11,000 likes and hundreds of mocking comments – predominantly from young men in the Chiang Mai area – calling for the expulsion of Shan migrants from Thailand.
On Saturday night, a group of 12 suspected Shan youths were apprehended carrying a one metre long sword. Police have since set up checkpoints around the city and conduct daily sweeps of ethnic Shan neighbourhoods and migrant workplaces.
A local police sergeant told DVB that a special operation to crack down on Burmese migrants had been ordered to restore calm in the city.
“There have been lawless acts such as brawls, where people get beaten up or murdered with swords and other weapons, causing panics in the public and recklessly driving around motorbikes,” said Sergeant Khun Wichit from Chang Phuak Police Station.
He insisted that they were not targeting the Shan people “but everyone who acts lawlessly” including Thai nationals. “The arrests will continue as long as the delinquency does,” he said.
But rights activists say it has turned into a witch-hunt against migrant workers, who had nothing to do with the violence. Shan “looking” migrants travelling on motorbikes are being routinely stopped by police and interrogated about their ethnicity.
“The first thing they ask you is: are you Shan?” Toom Mawk Harn from the Migrant Assistance Programme (MAP Foundation) told DVB. “If you say yes they will arrest you.”
Two DVB reporters were stopped and searched by the authorities on Thursday night, and only released once they showed their press cards.
Campaigners say that both unregistered and registered migrant workers have been targeted, with the latter only released once their employers come to collect them. Many say they have been exhorted for money in the process.
“[Shan] people are now very scared to go out at night or day time,” Toom Mawk Harn said. “They have difficulty in their daily lives – they cannot go out to work, or to the temple.”
Police have raided local markets and construction sites, where hundreds of Shan migrants earn a living, forcing many to stay in their homes. Daily raids have also been reported in Shan neighbourhoods.
A Shan youth, who asked not to be named, told DVB that plain clothed policemen first turned up near his home last week and began rounding up youths. “I could see my friend sitting and waiting in the car surrounded by police.”
“There were three raids in my neighbourhood within one day,” said another.
Migrants in Thailand make up about five percent of the county’s workforce, and provide a crucial pool of labour for low-skilled, often dangerous, industries. Up to three million people, or about 80 percent, are estimated to come from Burma, and often occupy a quasi-legal existence, which leaves them vulnerable to abuse by the authorities.
“People without ID cards run away when they see the police,” explained a second-generation Shan local. He added that the “TaiYai Samurai Gang” mainly consists of disaffected youths – some with ID cards, and some without. “But most of the leaders have already left town.”
According to Toom Mawk Harn, local community groups are working with the police to restore calm in the city. In the meanwhile, the MAP Foundation is issuing warnings via radio to the local communities, instructing them to avoid travelling at night.
In 2009, the gang-rape of a local student, allegedly by three Shan men, sparked a similar crackdown.
-Ko Htwe provided additional reporting