In his exposition on the human consequences of globalization, published at the turn of this millennium, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman describes the distinction between tourists and vagabonds — those enjoying increased mobility in the current era of globalization and those constrained by its boundaries, respectively. He says, “The tourists move because they find the world within their (global) reach irresistibly attractive — the vagabonds move because they find the world within their (local) reach unbearably inhospitable. The tourists travel because they want to; the vagabonds because they have no other bearable choice.”
Within a global landscape of rapid and expansive information and capital, to Bauman, mobility is what most stratifies humans. Tourists can access knowledge and turn it into leisure and experience, a new life or a temporary excursion, throughout a world that is very much available to them. On the flipside, vagabonds must navigate a hostile terrain of boundaries and restrictions, coercions and cages, which are seemingly reinforced as the world opens to the movement of money and more desirable people. It’s a very broad yet illuminating classification of human choice and insecurity in the contemporary world.
I am a certain type of tourist in the Bauman sense, exercising the advantage of mobility. Though rarely a pleasure-seeking vacationer, I’ve been living in Bangkok, far from my home in the central valley of northern California, on my own terms, for the past two-and-a-half years. I was prompted to leave home by curiosity and restlessness, a desire to learn about Asia and the world, about my family and myself, and, most importantly, I came by choice. In Bauman’s words, I “put the bitter-sweet dreams of homesickness above the comforts of home” because I wanted to.
Not long after moving to Thailand, I began meeting so called vagabonds through work with a Thai human rights organization. As a regional destination for migrant workers, asylum seekers, and a variety of displaced people, Thailand is “home” to many. As I later set out to conduct research on refugees in Southeast Asia, interviewing those displaced by persecution and dire circumstances in their home countries and etching out precarious lives as illegal immigrants in Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia, I became more familiar with the lived experiences of these transnational drifters.
While always aware of the plight and privilege that separates them from me, one brief encounter in particular exemplifies the distinction that Bauman characterizes and that I often find myself witnessing and acting out.
In mid 2010, colleagues and I visited a group of over 50 Rohingya refugees (all men) who were being detained in the Immigration Detention Center (IDC) in Bangkok. They had been transferred to the IDC the previous August after spending months in a more cramped facility in the southern province of Ranong, where two had died of untreated and undetermined health complications.
A year earlier, Rohingya “boat people” had received a rush of international attention when several boatloads were discovered within a span of six weeks in the Andaman Sea, the arrival of at least one group witnessed by vacationers enjoying the sunny cost of southern Thailand. Reports eventually surfaced that the Royal Thai Navy had abused Rohingya who had arrived to Thailand’s shores before towing them out to sea and sending them adrift without food, water, or functioning engines.
Those in the group we met in the Bangkok IDC were not subject to such expulsion but were instead arrested and detained indefinitely. Like most Rohingya arriving to Thailand in the past few years, they had endured a perilous sea journey from Bangladesh, where they paid traffickers to transport them on a cramped and rickety boat with limited food and water rations. According to the advocacy organization, ALTSEAN-Burma, between October 2006 and March 2008, an estimated 9,000 Rohingyas made the trip from Bangladesh to Thailand, some going further to Malaysia. Hundreds are believed to have drowned or died of starvation during this time.
While the individual reasons each in this group had for fleeing Burma weren’t clear at the time of our visit, common abuses continually reported by those from the Arakan State of Burma, where the Rohingya are rendered stateless by a 1982 citizenship law excluding them from a list of 135 recognized ethnic groups in the country, include land confiscation, religious intolerance, rape and sexual violence, arbitrary restrictions on marriage, forced labor, stringent restrictions on movement, arbitrary taxation on land and crop yields, and other forms of harassment at the hands of the Burmese regime. Added to the grim list, extreme poverty is endemic to the area, even relative to the rest of the impoverished country (the government and foreign investors are doing fine, the people are suffering). The Rohingya are clearly being pushed.
Neighboring Bangladesh has received the most Rohingya from Burma, with nearly 30,000 living in two officially recognized camps in the Cox’s Bazaar district of Southern Bangladesh and an estimated 200,000 living in the country with no official documentation. The squalid and insecure conditions (raids and deportations are common), however, compel many refugees to embark on the treacherous sea expedition to Thailand, risking drowning and starvation for the prospect of a life not as bad as what’s been available so far. For this group, the gamble landed them in the cramped cells of the Bangkok IDC.
The Rohingya are vagabonds in the truest sense: they are unwanted — officially designated as stateless — and not allowed to live legally in any destination. They are pushed by oppression and destitution in Burma and criminalized for their asserted mobility and arrival in other places. Moreover, their vagabond existence is regional in scope and transnational in practice. Bauman on vagabonds: “They are allowed neither to stay put nor search for a better place to be.”
During the visit to the Bangkok IDC, I talked to a 19-year-old kid, tan and muscular from days of outdoor manual labor. In a mix of broken English and broken Thai, he told me that he’d worked on a fishing trawler in southern Thailand for a couple months after arriving from Bangladesh and before being arrested and thrown in the detention center in Ranong with the others. He was first detained around the time I arrived to Thailand, just before 2009. At that point he had been locked up for over a year-and-a-half and didn’t know what was going to happen to him.
I told him that I was from America and that I’d been working in Thailand. He asked me how much money I made, and I gave him a vague answer, saying something about making a little bit each month. He told me that he risked the voyage to Thailand to find work so that he could send money back to his family in Arakan State, where there was nothing for him. He hadn’t talked to them since he left, unable to send remittances with the bulk of his time spent in custody. He asked me if I sent money back to my family in America, assuming that was the reason someone would leave home to work so far from loved ones — young vagabond logic, rooted in experience and circumstance, revealed in a sincere question to a tourist.
A year later, I’m still living in Bangkok and have had the privilege of visiting squatter villages in Cambodia, talking to activists in Vietnam and Indonesia, learning from migrant communities at the Thailand-Burma border and Malay Muslims in Thailand’s restive Deep South. I’ve been a tourist among an assorted mix of vagabonds navigating their locales and the region, rarely secure in their surroundings. I will stay a while longer; I have a renewed visa that doesn’t expire until next year. I’m comfortable in Bangkok and will return home when the time is right.
Scores of Rohingya are still leaving Burma, then Bangladesh in boatloads, and turning up on the shores of southern Thailand, in Malaysia, in the Nicobar Islands, in Indonesia, where they’re held in immigration depots and detention centers while authorities try to figure out just what to do with them. The group of Rohingya men is still in the Bangkok IDC, languishing with no word from the Royal Thai Government about what lies ahead. Indefinite detention seems to be the option of choice. The government doesn’t know what to do with those vagabonds, those “dark vagrant moons reflecting the shine of tourist suns.”