Monday, June 22, 2009

Burma's Secret Exodus: The Illegal Road to Patong

By Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian
Monday, June 22, 2009
HUNDREDS of Burmese are crossing into Thailand in secret and heading south to Ranong, Phang Nga and Phuket to beat the July 1 deadline for a new ID card system aimed at clarifying the number of legal workers.

As longboats packed with scores of Burmese cross to Ranong each night in darkness, Immigrations officers, the Royal Navy, the Army and Marine Police are conducting a crackdown.

The mass exodus is driven by people desperate to start a new life in Thailand, where harsh conditions and less-than-fair wages seem a vast improvement on going hungry under Burma's junta generals.

The Chief Inspector of Ranong Immigration, Police Lieutenant Colonel Nattarit Pinpak, said today: ''We are out every night. (on the delta crossing between Victoria Point and Ranong.)

''Some nights, up to 100 longtail boatloads are coming across. There could be 10 or more people in each boatload.''

Further south, large numbers of Burmese workers provide the Phuket holiday resort town of Patong with much of its low-paid labor, a European researcher has found.

As part of a comprehensive study of the economics of the popular tourist centre, Bianca Gantner interviewed workers at 40 small shops.

''More than the half of the employees were from Burma,'' she told

''They work in small shops and sell copy T-shirts, watches, DVDs. Burmese also work as beach chair vendors.

''I would say one third to one half of the beach chair vendors on Patong beach come from Burma.''

Ms Gantner was surprised to find that the people who rent the small Patong shops mostly do not work in them.

Phuketwan has established that the large numbers of lowly-paid Burmese enable the Thai renters to meet rapidly rising costs in the highly-competitive holiday town.

Ms Gantner, who is using the research for her PhD thesis in Vienna, Austria, said: ''Most of the Burmese are illegal, at least 80 percent.''

''If they get caught by the police (which is not very hard work for the police because the police know where they work and they don't look like Thais) they pay a fine which is about one-third of their monthly salary.''

Thousands of Burmese have made their homes illicitly along the Andaman coastline, with questions now being asked about what will happen to children born and raised on Phuket or in Ranong and Phang Nga.

Phuketwan contact with years of experience dealing with Burmese migration estimates that the Burmese population of Ranong is already three times the official Thai population of 177,000.

At least 12 illegal schools for Burmese children flourish in the provincial capital. Burmese television is beaming in. And all the signage in the local supermarkets is in three languages: Thai, English and Burmese.

Phuket's illegal Burmese population underpins the local economy, especially in the construction business.

Burmese, often with better English and a greater desperation for income, are present on Phuket in increasing numbers.

One expat told
Phuketwan: ''If I want to clear the weeds from the klong beside my house, a difficult job, Thais will change me 10,000 baht.

''But the local Burmese are happy to do it for 2000 baht.''

From July 1, illegal Burmese will be able to register so authorities have an accurate record of numbers in Thailand.

Unless it is quickly corrected, the economic downturn is expected to bring calls for more jobs, even those involving menial and underpaid labor, to be the preserve of Thais.

Ms Gantner said of the Burmese she encountered in large numbers in Patong: ''They just think from month to month. I think they are still hoping that more tourists will come next season.''

She hesitated to hazard a guess at the economic future of Patong and its Burmese workers because there so many unpredictable factors involved.

But she did say that she thought Patong was a good destination for tourists who want value for money, like crowded beaches (''there are people who like crowded beaches''), enjoy the nightlife and prefer to go to a destination directly from their country.

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