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Burmese Migrants at Sea in Thailand

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Yazar is one of the few Burmese to gain legal working status in Thailand. Image by Jesse Hardman. Thailand, 2011.

Yazar has the excited smile of a young man who just won the lottery. As he waits for me to pay for lunch, he loops around on his new used motorcycle. You can almost feel his recently acquired freedom emanating from his being.

He is making money now as the caretaker of a small farm south of Bangkok. Money he can keep in his pocket for the first time. And he is working towards becoming a legally legitimate migrant worker in Thailand, something many of the estimated 2 to 3 million Burmese here have struggled to do. Hundreds of thousands of Burmese, mostly economic migrants, toil in factories, fields, construction sites, fishing boats and brothels in neighboring Thailand, hoping to save a few baht to send back to families still in Burma, and one day return to bigger houses, private shops, and farms.

Like many Burmese looking to find a brighter economic future in Thailand, Yazar’s journey began on the border crossing where Burma’s Mayawati meets Thailand’s Mae Sot. This traditionally porous entry is as simple as paying a few baht for a two minute boat ride across the Moei river. Penniless, and knowing nobody, a conversation at a barber shop in Mayawati led Yazar to a “broker” or labor recruiter. Depictions vary depending on whom you talk to, and what side of the border they are on, but brokers, for better or for worse, get Burmese to Thailand, and eventually into jobs. As with any commodity crossing borders, there is a price to pay, and depending on which hands a young twentysomething like Yazar falls into, things can go bad, or things can go very bad.

Initially, the broker’s price for getting Yazar across the border and help finding a job was 5,000 baht, around $150, money he would have to pay back as part of his first few months of working. Many migrants, especially those with no friends or relatives already in Thailand, stay in Mae Sot, working at one of the hundreds of garment factories there. The pay is low, sometimes less than two dollars a day, but they are still close to their home country and families.

But younger, more ambitious workers like Yazar dream of bigger paydays in the south of Thailand, where fishermen can make around $200 a month on commercial crews. So, he arranged to go south, which would raise his debt to 10,000 baht. The original broker handed him and a number of other young Burmese men over to a second broker, who led them on a four-day trek south, walking through forests that circumvented government checkpoints. A third broker acquired Yazar, closer to Bangkok, and took him by bus to the seaport of Chonburi, where he was holed up in a house for a week with a few other young Burmese.

Outside the walls of the house, a broker was shopping Yazar to various ship captains to see who was in need of crew, and who would pay the best price. His original debt, 10,000 baht, was incorporated into the deal, and he was sold three times—the winning bid being 22,000 baht, an amount he would have to work off over the course of his time on the boat.

A liaison to one of Thailand’s major fishing unions says this money that many migrant laborers, like Yazar, owe to ship captains, is a reasonable “deduction” against their future earnings. He says many commercial vessels give Thai fishermen three months advanced salary for their families to have while they are out at sea. But NGOs that work on migrant labor rights in Thailand equate the debt with a form of modern slavery, a tithe exacted on unsuspecting workers who don’t speak the local language, and who, as illegal immigrants, rarely see any legal protection of their human rights.

The worst of it, says Yazar, turned out not to be the lack of payment, but the brutality he endured on the ship. He refers to the “stingray tail,” meaning the whip used to motivate him and other crew on long days at sea. “Even those with malaria have to work. When they found out one worker couldn’t move, they kicked him from behind, hit him and cursed at him,” he said.

He worked through a badly cut hand, during which he says he had to drag nets in with his three functioning fingers. The captain denied him medical attention, despite Yazar offering to take an unpaid leave to heal. “Even when I tell them that they can cut my entire week’s pay for one day of sick leave, they still wouldn’t let me,” he said.

Back on the docks he talks about how the same brokers who sold him into his seafaring job tried to get young fishermen hooked on a form of methamphetamines, to keep them awake and productive and dull their resolve to find a way out of their situation. Yazar took the drugs a few times to make the broker happy, but then began to hide the drugs he was given and resell them to other fishermen who were already addicted.

Finally, after six months of no pay, brutal conditions, and few breaks, Yazar had repaid the 22,000 baht he owed his captain. All he could think about, he says, was finding a way off the ship. The captain had threatened anyone with designs on running by saying he would report them to the police back on shore and have them deported. The police were usually in on the trafficking industry, and more often than not would catch migrant workers trying to flee and sell them back to their employers.

Looking for another way out of his misery, Yazar quietly lobbied some of the other Burmese on his boat and managed to get a hold of a cell phone. Somebody had the number of an organization in Bangkok that assisted illegal laborers, and eventually he connected with a Burmese political exile named Min. It took another few months before anything happened, but Min arranged for Yazar to be smuggled out of the town where his boat was docked—and essentially “freed” from the nightmare he’d been living.

Yazar says he never wants to see another boat again. He still works long hours, with few breaks, but his new employers treat him—and most importantly—pay him well, and they are supporting his efforts to get legal working status in Thailand. Many other Burmese have not been so lucky.

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