May Day

Monsoon season is descending upon the Thai-Burmese border town of Mae Sot, but storm clouds are not the only the signs of portent for local residents. At the end of a week in which the military junta has been promoting ‘love and harmony’ among Thais by offering free tickets to see a film about a 16th century Ayutthaya king fighting to rid Siam of the Burmese, a concerted and prioritised effort to ‘solve’ the ‘problem’ of migrant workers from neighbouring Myanmar and Cambodia has been launched.

Following several months of delays for migrants wishing to extend their permission to stay in the country under the national verification program and more than a week of raids on migrant communities across the country, the NCPO established a Committee on Solving Migrant Problems on the 10th June.Thai army spokesman Sirichan Ngathong stated during the week that any undocumented migrant workers in Thailand ‘will be arrested and deported’ and Thai government television channels declared this to be part of an ‘environmental cleansing’ operation carried out to build a ‘pleasant’ society. Rumours about the purge and possible mistreatment spread quickly among migrants stoking fears leading to a mass exodus. Over 100,000 Cambodians alone have now left the country.

Such purges are regular occurrences in Thailand, where a relatively laissez-faire approach is taken towards undocumented workers when the economy is booming, followed by crackdowns during downturns. But there are reasons to believe that this time may be different; especially as regards migrants from Myanmar. This is due to NCPO attempts to securitise the issue and fast tracking plans for the establishment of special border economic zones.

The military claims that migrants are a source of social problems, that they undermine social ‘stability’ and are associated with narcotics, crime, and communicable diseases.While tolerated in border provinces, authorities want to keep them away from metropolitan areas such as Bangkok. In a post-coup environment, it is interesting to note that Prayuth Chan-Ocha’s dissertation research while studying at Thailand’s National Defence College in 2007-2008 was on the role of the army in responding to non-traditional security threats, identifying migrant workers and undocumented persons as one of four urgent and immediate threats to Thai society.

The crucial importance of foreign workers to the Thai economy prevents a wholly reactionary and atavistic migration policy, and by the end of the week the military seemed to have stepped back, declaring they are ‘well aware of the role and importance of foreign labour from our neighbouring countries play in Thai economy and development’, denying they had used heavy-handed tactics. It is questionable how deliberate and coordinated these moves have been, but conditions have been created that enable the NCPO to fast-track long delayed plans to establish special economic zones in Thailand’s border areas.

Promoted by Thaksin Shinawatra’s first administration in 2003, special border economic zones (SBEZ) are an extension of Prime Minister Chadchai’s policies to encourage development of regional cities in the late 1980s and the classification of border provinces as investment promotion zones in 1993, when tax and non-tax incentives were offered to businesses to invest in less-developed areas.In April 2011 Yingluck Shinawatra’s government declared that Mae Sot would be the first such zone to be developed in Thailand. Of eleven possible sites, the town is widely regarded as the one with the greatest potential. However, plans have faced significant delays due to ‘political discontinuity’ in Bangkok and legal issues surrounding decentralisation of responsibilities from central government agencies to proposed SBEZ authorities.

Nonetheless, they are back on track. Prayuth Chan-Ocha declared his intention to move forward with SBEZs in his televised address to the nation on Friday, 30 May 2014, the rationale given: to prevent ‘illegal migrants from crossing into inner provinces of Thailand, thereby giving more work opportunities to Thai nationals’. A few days later on the 2nd June it was reported that the Mayor of Mae Sot met with the head of the 4th Infantry Regiment Task Force to support and push forward the plan to establish the SBEZ and special administrative area in Mae Sot.

One glaring issue, though, is that SBEZs usually rely on labour from outside the host country, who cross the border daily with a border pass to work in the zones. Masami Ishida of the IDE-JETRO research institute Bangkok recommends such a policy:

The border pass should be multi-entry in order to make the labour force commute by crossing the border every day … if the pass allows them to travel to the broader area, the labour force can move to the metropolises by seeking higher wages. So, in order to develop the border industries, the area covered in which they can travel should be limited to the border area and the immigration control should be strict. If the validity of each trip is limited to one day, immigration control will be easier.

The problem is that this recommendation is based upon an unwarranted assumption: that workers live in Myanmar, rather than in Mae Sot. Given that Mae Sot has to all intents and purposes effectively functioned as an informal special economic zone for decades now, resulting in a sizeable migrant population both documented and undocumented, the implementation of such a policy to accompany the establishment of the SBEZ would require massive upheaval.

‘Migrant zones’ have been proposed by the Department of Employment as an alternative to forced repatriation, with pilot projects planned for Samut Sakorn and Ranong during the next two months.These zones would have village heads to coordinate with government authorities, ostensibly to protect workers from exploitative employers and to help them cope with health problems in the community. If implemented transparently and to the mutual benefit to both employers and migrants, these zones could be a positive development. Employers in border areas are often reluctant to assist workers through the process of regularisation because they then are then tempted to seek higher wages in the inner provinces. As a result, workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by their employer and to arrest, extortion and deportation by the authorities. Such an arrangement may also presage improvements in the provision of social protections, such as access to healthcare services; at present it is not always clear to migrants what, if any, services are available to them.

Assuming that a major objective of the NCPO is to more effectively restrict the movement of migrants, thereby suppressing wage inflation to maintain the global competitiveness of border industries such as agriculture, garments and textiles, it remains to be seen what will be offered to workers in exchange and where the balance of interests will fall. It may be wishful thinking to hope for a progressive and inclusive solution, especially given the persistence of slavery and forced labour in industries reliant on migrant labour, and Thailand being the only government to vote against an ILO protocol this week on forced labour (a decision it later reversed). Nevertheless, given that Thailand faces a labour shortage and that Myanmar would dearly like to encourage workers to return home, Thailand ought to wake up quickly and recognise that migrants are an asset, not a threat.

Dr Charlie Thame is a Lecturer in Global Studies at Thammasat University, Bangkok and a Social Sciences Tutor for Open Universities Australia’s Burma Project.