Thailand is the land of smiles. Easily accessible, affordable and diverse, with its white sandy beaches, secluded islands, spectacular mountain ranges and a rich cultural tradition, Thailand is a favourite holiday destination for tourists from all over the world.
Known to many, but concealed from most tourist literature is Thailand tumultuous relationship with Burma. The two countries share a long border from which they trade goods, legal and otherwise, people and gun fire.
Aside from the constant skirmishes between the various armies inside Burma that often spill over to the Thai side of the border, Thailand tolerates attacks against refugees and asylum seekers on its soil. John (name withheld for security reasons) revealed that as early as last year a rocket-propelled grenade, fired from the Burma side of the Moei River, destroyed a house close to Mae Sot, inhabited by Karen people in Thailand. The number of casualties unknown, as the incident was not investigated or reported in the local, national or international media.
Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Related to the Status of Refugees. Nonetheless, close to half a million refugees have found asylum in Thailand, approximately half of those sheltered in 10 camps along the border with Burma.
Two million more Burmese and ethnic Burmese have fled to Thailand to escape the oppressive conditions imposed by the military dictatorship in their homelands. Most of them illegal, they are stateless and therefore not entitled to services of any kind. Many local and international organisations fill this gap by providing health, education and other essential services.
Remarkably, the asylum seekers are referred to as migrants, implying some level of choice in their decision to leave Burma. In reality they have been forced to flee for political reason. Most are ex political prisoners, or members of the many ethnic groups that form the Union of Burma, some simply for owning a fax machine or using the Internet.
The exodus of Burmese people is a great boost to Thailand’s economy. The asylum seekers provide a cheap workforce in the manufacturing, agricultural, domestic service and human trade sectors. For the few with an identity card there are fewer restrictions, but for most who are not able to gain permission to work in Thailand, life is a daily struggle to earn a meagre income at the risk of spending it by paying bribes to the local authorities. In some cases they get repatriated to Burma, but worse, they may end up on trucks headed to other areas, including Bangkok, to be sold as slaves.
Despite their precarious situation, many say, that for all the exploitation, the total lack of status and the degrading human conditions they endure, life is much better in Thailand than Burma. This attitude of resignation and acceptance would seem to make a dire situation completely hopeless for any immediate change in Burma. After all, several attempts at changing the political situation have been dealt by the Burmese government with an efficient iron fist and cruelty.
The 1988 student movement protests were crushed with systematic brutality, many participants arrested, tortured and killed. The 1995 landslide victory of the opposition party, resulted in more repression and the house arrest of its leader, Nobel Prize laureate Aung Sun Suy Kyi. The peaceful Saffron Revolution of 2006 shocked the world when the authorities turned on Burma’s well revered moral authority—the Buddhist monks, many of whom are inside Thailand in hiding and being offered political asylum by the US government.
For many the political struggle continues unabated, whether in Burma or from the relative safety of Thailand. M. T. is an ex political prisoner, who fled Burma after the 1988 student protest. M. T. runs a successful cafe’ in Mae Sot from where he continues his political activism, his ID card is his Thai wife and child.
M. T. believes that 2010, the year of the next elections, is Burma year. The Burmese government will not allow international observer and has already made regulations that would make a democratic outcome near impossible. But for M. T. the election is not the only strategy. He feels that a multi-facet approach is needed, which includes voting, peaceful protests, and where necessary, arm struggle.
Well-know artist and twice a winner in the Darwin Human Rights Awards, Maung Maun Tinn, himself a refugee of more than twenty years, is not so optimistic. Maung Maung Tinn does not believe that the election in 2010 will bring any changes in Burma. He feels that the international community has but taken Burma completely off its sight.
For Maung Maung Tinn the only solution is to starve the Burmese government of money that comes from foreign investment. He says that such move will cause the natural death of the money hungry generals. This, however, seems unlikely as foreign investment in Burma is reported to be soaring.
By all accounts, it seems that the future of Burma will have to be determined by its people, those inside of Burma, the many who have resettled in third countries and the millions that live in Thailand, illegally or recognised refugees.
The visitors to Thailand may catch a glimpse of the ethnic diversity of the country, however, they can be guaranteed that from the locals, illegal migrants and asylum seekers they will receive a warm, welcoming, and most importantly free smile.