News/Thailand: Dreams shattered as Thailand rounds up illegal Myanmar workers

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Subject: News/Thailand: Dreams shattered as Thailand rounds up illegal Myanmar workers
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Tue Nov 09 1999 - 19:49:22 EST


Dreams shattered as Thailand rounds up illegal Myanmar workers
Busaba Sivasomboon
November 05, 1999

MAE SOT, Thailand (AP) -- A month ago, the border outpost of Mae Sot was a
land of opportunity for two kinds of people: illegal migrant workers from
Myanmar seeking any kind of job and the industrialists who employed them.

A mass roundup of migrants by Thai immigration authorities and tension
between the two nations since last month's siege of the Myanmar embassy in
Bangkok by anti-government activists is destroying their dreams.

Over the past week, immigration police across Thailand started rounding up
foreign workers mostly from poor neighbors Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia to
send them home.

Mae Sot, a main border crossing with Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been
a focal point. On Wednesday, Thailand tried sending back 200 illegals
across the Moei river separating the two countries, but they were turned
back by Myanmar troops who threatened to shoot them.

Relations between Bangkok and Yangon have soured to their worst level in
years after Thailand resolved the takeover of Myanmar's embassy by allowing
the five Myanmar dissidents who had held 38 people hostage for a day to go
free.

Some Thai ministers expressed sympathy for the dissidents, who are opposed
to the military regime that has ruled their homeland with an iron hand
since 1962.

The Myanmar government views them as terrorists and slammed its border with
Thailand shut in protest, indicating it would not reopen before they were
arrested and punished.

Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai said Thursday that the five had contacted Thai
authorities about turning themselves in, but there was no confirmation
early Friday they had yet done so.

Thailand has nonetheless pressed forward with its expulsion policy, drafted
in the wake of the Asian economic crisis two years ago to free up jobs for
Thais, but often postponed over employer complaints that Thais won't do the
work.

Jongchai Thiengdharmma, the deputy labor minister, had little sympathy for
the factory owners, saying most had been set up to exploit cheap illegal
labor and had tried to evade paying taxes.

''They have profited for a long time and now they have to pay the price,''
Jongchai said. ''Why should we rescue the dishonest?''

Hundreds of factories and other businesses in Mae Sot employ an estimated
30,000 workers from Myanmar, many in the garment industry. Employers over
the past week have been firing workers wholesale, not wanting to be caught
on the wrong side of the repatriation law.

''I still do not know how to explain to my client in the U.S. why I'm going
to miss the order deadline for Nov. 10,'' despaired Taveekij
Jatruajarernkul, owner of the T.K. Garment factory.

''If the situation goes much further, I will go bankrupt,'' he said. ''I
need 1,500 Thai workers to fill the vacant positions and get the production
line running again quickly.''

Taveekij, who is also vice president of the provincial Federation of Thai
Industries office, is unlikely to find them. Illegals from Myanmar work for
as little as a fifth of the pay Thais would, but raising wages would mean
T.K. would quickly become uncompetitive.

Several hundred are being sent to the center daily and police are trying to
quickly push them into Myanmar, looking for unpatrolled areas of the border
to push them across.


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