Thursday, March 12, 2009

Update: Burmese migrant workers

New observations of the Burmese worker's camp at a construction site on my street (for previous, see "Reality Bites"):

This week, children joined the group of workers at the construction site. The shelters were reinforced with vinyl billboards of political candidates that are currently crowding the roadsides because of an upcoming local election.

The stream of refugees from Burma into Thailand is steady and fast. Many come to escape the war zone that currently encompasses the mountainous jungles of Kayah State, Karen State, and Shan State. The Burmese government, a military junta that has been in power since 1992, is currently at war with ethnic minority groups in these outer states who fight for political power and an end to human rights abuses. The main tactic of the military is to destroy villages and displace civilians so that the rebel troops have nowhere to be resupplied or supported. Villages are burned to the ground and the former inhabitants flee to the depths of the jungles to hide and scratch out a meager existence or attempt to cross the border into Thailand where refugee camps and jobs as migrant laborers are plentiful. Civilians are also often rounded up for forced labor on government projects such as building and protecting oil pipelines to China and Thailand.

We spent most of this week learning about the situation in Burma and its effect on Thailand. The Thai-Burmese border is still a contested border and while Thailand has welcomed refugees so far with open arms, there is growing resentment as large numbers of unregistered workers flood the job market and refugee camps become targets for attacks on Thai soil by the Burmese military. Many Thai people think Burmese people are dangerous, in large part thanks to the media's portrayal of the refugees in a negative light. A few weeks ago, a Burmese construction worker was accused of raping and murdering a student at Maejo University (down the street from my house). Students from the school called for action and the police apparently drove out and arrested the entire camp of over 100 illegal migrant workers. So things are a little tense. There are other Burmese living on my street besides the workers and my host mom always points them out and tells me to be careful. She carries a knife around the neighborhood with her. I think there is too much hate.

On Wednesday we heard from the Free Burma Rangers, a group that trains small teams of ethnic minority Burmese people to provide emergency medical/food aid to displaced people hiding out in the jungles, document human rights abuses, and track the location of the military in the area. I encourage you all to take a look at their website. The situation they are dealing with has been going on for more than 50 years and they are bringing hope to millions of people whom the rest of the world has largely forgotten about.

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