Perhaps the Nobel peace laureate can at least ease conditions for migrant workers and the refugees in our border camps
Aung San Suu Kyi’s stated readiness to discuss migrant issues with her counterparts here when she visits Thailand next week as state counsellor and foreign minister of Myanmar is welcome news. Optimism must be tempered, however, unless she arrives with a comprehensive plan covering not just migrant labourers but also refugees – and the benighted Rohingya in particular.
Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy formed the government at the end of March, will be in Thailand from June 23 to 25 for talks on bilateral issues. She is expected to visit the Myanmar expatriate community here, perhaps in Mahachai, home to thousands of migrant workers, as a way of demonstrating her government’s concern for their wellbeing.
Thailand has long welcomed labourers from its western neighbour. Perhaps more than two million of them are currently boosting the Thai economy. But, as of last month, only 155,835 were registered with the authorities, meaning the rest are here illegally. As such they are subject to exploitation in their workplaces. Low wages are the norm for Myanmar immigrants whether here legally or not, but those who are unregistered must also often suffer through slavery-like working conditions.
Well documented in the foreign news media, this is an appalling and unsustainable situation that both governments must resolve. We need easier terms for registering, followed by sweeping improvements to their working conditions. For its part, Thailand has to curb the corruption and close the legal loopholes that allow state officials and employers to take advantage.
Improving the lot of Myanmar migrant workers ought to be relatively easy compared to the complex web of difficulties surrounding refugees and asylum seekers. Thailand has more than 100,000 Myanmar refugees living in nine camps in four border provinces, places where hope for a better future quickly evaporates. They have been coming here, fleeing internecine fighting in their homeland, since the 1988 popular uprising against the military government, and the state’s continuing offensives against armed ethnic groups are still driving more across the frontier.
The United Nations and other bodies have resettled tens of thousands of these refugees in third countries, but the majority remains in Thai shelters. All previous efforts between the Thai and Myanmar administrations to find a solution acceptable to all parties, usually involving repatriation, have been in vain.
It is in this context that Suu Kyi arrives to see what might be accomplished. With her formidable political experience she surely has clear ideas on how to resolve the problems of her country’s populace abroad, and their resolution would be a perfect demonstration of how an elected civilian government can do better than the military regimes of the past. Observers will be listening carefully to see if she has any comment on the Rohingya, an ethnic group denied legal status in Myanmar as a result of religious and economic prejudice. Since they lack citizenship, their attempts to flee to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are deemed illegal entry, and as a result hundreds of them here are facing prosecution or awaiting deportation – to where remains undecided.
Suu Kyi has been disturbingly silent on the Rohingya issue ever since her election campaign and recently rebuked a foreign diplomat over use of the term Rohingya, which her government refuses to recognise. She is admired as a champion of democracy, but seems to have no room in her democratic heart for these people, established in Myanmar for a century and yet still deemed outsiders.
Now she comes to Thailand, where the Rohingya have been turned back to sea in their boats, murdered in secret locations and brutalised in custody. Only last month one of them was shot dead while allegedly attempting to escape Phang Nga Immigration Detention Centre. If the tragedy of the Rohingya upsets Thais, surely it must have a greater impact on Suu Kyi.
Should nothing be done during her visit about any of these dire issues, her trip will have been meaningless.