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  5. Invisible Victims of the Tsunami- Burmese Migrant Workers in Thailand

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FOCUS March 2005 Volume 39

Invisible Victims of the Tsunami- Burmese Migrant Workers in Thailand

Tetz Hakoda

- Tetz Hakoda is a staff/volunteer of BurmaInfo (Burma Information Network), an internet-based project for information and advocacy work that mainly aims to inform the Japanese public and policy makers about the real situation in and around Burma (Myanmar) as well as its regional affairs.

The tsunami devastation of the beach areas in southern Thailand, causing death to numerous foreign tourists and Thais, and the generosity extended by the Thais to the surviving victims and their relatives are some of the lasting images of the tsunami disaster. Unfortunately, very little is known about the other group of foreign victims, the Burmese[1] migrant workers.

Before the tsunami, more than 120,000 Burmese (men, women and children) were living in the 6 provinces on the western coast of southern Thailand. They comprised 6.4% of the population of 1,860,000 (as of 2000) in this area. It is estimated that 60,000 of the Burmese were affected.[2] The biggest difference between the plight of the Burmese victims and the Thai and foreign tourist victims was that the former were ignored by their own (Burmese) government, and thus were mainly not counted as victims of the disaster.

Official figures released by the Burmese government[3] on 1 February 2005 show 61 dead and 42 injured.[4] But these figures refer to those within Burma. The military government has yet to refer to the several tens of thousands of Burmese affected by the tsunami in southern Thailand.

The presence of more than a million Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, engaged in low-paid work, is the direct effect of social confusion and economic collapse brought on by the Burmese government's mismanagement. Southern Thailand is no different. The Burmese, working for far below the statutory minimum wage of approximately 5 US dollars per day, support the major local construction, fishing, farming and tourist industries.

The latest estimates put the number of Burmese deaths in Thailand at 2,500 to 3,000, and 5,000 to 7,000 missing. The figures are comparable to the 5,395 dead and 2,991 unaccounted for (including foreigners and those whose nationalities are unknown) .[5] However, awareness and aid from the international community have been insufficient and the Burmese government continues to ignore the plight of these people. The military regime has impoverished its people to the point of pushing them out to perish in the neighboring country.

Damage within Burma and relief activities

The Burmese government is known for its reluctance to publicize events, particularly natural disasters, within its borders. There was no media coverage of the recent tsunami at the onset.[6] The damage reported initially by the military government was so insignificant raising doubts from the international community about their veracity. Surveys by the United Nations (UN) agencies and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) estimated 60 to 80 dead, 10,000 to 15,000 affected for long-term, and of these, 5,000 to 7,000 affected directly.[7] Even these figures are small compared to those compiled by the foreign media. Since it is not possible to freely conduct surveys within the country, accurate information on the damage is still unavailable.

Damage has been confirmed in the coastal areas of Ayeyawaddy and Tanintharyi divisions as well as Rakkhine state in lower Burma. Most of the residents were small-scale fisherfolk, and suffered economic devastation. The relief activities right after the tsunami consisted mainly of provisions of food, water and other necessities by UN agencies such as UNICEF, and the Myanmar Red Cross. Mid- to long-term support was being planned, including support for full-scale reconstruction. [8]

Burmese migrant workers in Thailand

Burmese workers in Thailand affected by the tsunami suffer from multiple difficulties. They not only suffer from psychological trauma, separation from colleagues, friends and families, destruction of livelihood, and worsening sanitation, but even worst they are beset with unemployment, fear of being arrested and deported, and lack of information on how to get back their legal status in Thailand (or get relief goods and services). The Thai authorities insist that relief materials were distributed without discrimination, but few migrant workers went to the distribution centers to receive them. It seems that the Burmese initially received no aid at all.

There were grounds for this fear. 2,000 Burmese were deported within 3 weeks after the tsunami, and cases of members of the police robbing them of money occurred repeatedly. Many Burmese took refuge in the forests, plantations and abandoned buildings. Many others left the area because of lack of work. Due to these reasons the estimated number of Burmese workers in Phuket and Phang Nga provinces dropped to half from 66,000.[9]

Exacerbating their situation were false reports of looting by the Burmese published by Thai tabloids. The deeply rooted anti-Burmese sentiment held by a section of Thai society was fanned and sometimes made relief activities difficult.[10] The sensational media coverage notwithstanding, it should be emphasized that many Thais provided assistance to Burmese victims.[11]

Assistance for Burmese migrant workers

The Tsunami Action Group (TAG) is the main player in the relief activities for Burmese migrant workers. TAG began its activities in early January 2005. It consists of Human Rights Education Institute of Burma or HREIB (an organization of Burmese exiled in Thailand), organizations of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, and other organizations working on Burmese issues.

TAG initially surveyed the affected areas, provided material assistance such as food, clean water and other necessities, and paid for funeral costs. But at that time, they were refused identification and return of the bodies of the deceased, let alone hold funerals.

Aung Myo Min of HREIB in an interview for Inter Press Service, comments, "I know we are treated as second or even third class citizens in this country, but this is not the way to treat our dead."[12]

As of February 2005, TAG was moving from emergency relief operations to the next step. An overview of its activities based on its report dated 14 February 2005 is as follows.

The operations focused on the area extending from Takuapa district to Khao Lak in Phang Nga province, where many Burmese migrants reside.TAG relief teams visited plantations, construction sites and forests, where the Burmese have taken refuge, to distribute food, other necessities and art materials for children. They also informed them that they can apply with the Thai government for the reissuance of lost identification cards, which affect many of them.

These assistance activities are seen as provisional measures to fill the gap until the workers find stable work.

Fear of being arrested and deported put physical and mental pressure on the victims and make relief activities difficult. The Thai authorities' decision to halt arrest and deportation of migrants is a step forward. There is also an urgent need to reestablish the legal basis for residing in the country by reissuing identification and health insurance cards in order to ensure the safety and dignity of the migrants. TAG members assisted the Burmese in applying for the reissuance of identification cards at the district offices, but the completion of procedures for all persons concerned is expected to take considerable time.

Meanwhile, the problem of the missing and the dead is huge. The grief of the Burmese families is so great; some of them bring photographs on registration forms, as the only remaining identification materials of the deceased. Even when funeral rites are held, cremation may not be possible. Closer cooperation among related government offices is necessary in identifying the remains.

TAG's activities are financially supported by Burmese around the world, including Japan, and US Campaign for Burma (USCB), with cooperation from Burmese students in Thailand, NGOs in Thailand, French Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development (CCFD), Novib (Oxfam Netherlands), among others. From Japan, Ayus Buddhist International Cooperation Network, People's Forum on Burma, Burma Office Japan and Burmese Relief Center-Japan sent funds to TAG.

Lastly, I extend my heartfelt condolences to those that have lost their loved ones in the tsunami, and wish swift recovery to those who were injured.

For further information please visit


1. "Burmese" in this article refers to all persons from Burma and not to an ethnic group.

2.Tsunami Action Group, A Khao Lak Diary[PDF], 4th-15th January 2005.

3.The current military regime (it was previously named State Law and Order Restoration Council [SLORC] and changed to State Peace and Development Council [SPDC] in 1997) changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar. The author uses the name Burma as the current regime has no legitimacy, therefore the name change cannot be recognized. For more details, see Yuzo Uda, "Biruma ka miyanma- ka (Burma or Myanmar) ,".

4."Press conference on National Convention, relief works for victims of Tsunami, subversive acts committed by internal and external destructive elements," New Light of Myanmar, 2 February 2005, World Health Organization, "Myanmar Tsunami Situation Report," Weekly Update 3, 27 January 2005, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, "Earthquake and Tsunamis (Revised Preliminary Appeal 28/2004) - Fact Sheet no. 4," 18 February 2005.

5.Sosuke Yamamoto, Sumatora-oki Dai-shinsai- otsunami ni yoru Biruma (jin) ni kansuru higai ni tsuite [Tsunami off coast of Sumatra - on damages suffered by Burma (Burmese) by the tsunami], (material for People's Forum on Burma, 12 February 2005) , World Health Organization, "Thailand Tsunami Situation Report," No. 34, 22 February 2005.

6.Burma Office Japan, "Biruma seifu wa naze tsunami jouhou no jijitsu o kouhyou shinainoka" [Why doesn't the Burmese government publish the facts about the damages by the tsunami?] Biruma Ja-naru (Burma Journal), (Burma Japan Office January 2005).

7.World Health Organization, "Myanmar Tsunami Situation Report," op. cit.


9.Tsunami Action Group, "Situation Report 2," 8 January 2005.

10.Sonny Ibaraj, "Thai Compassion for Burmese Migrants Wears Thin," Inter Press Service, 13 January 2005.

11.Tsunami Action Group, "Situation Report 3: An update on the situation of Burmese migrant workers a ffected by the tsunami in Phang Nga, southern Thailand," 31 January 2005, Tsunami Action Group, "Situation Report 4: TA G (Tsunami Action Group) Update - An update on the activities of TAG and the situation of Burmese migrant workers affected by the tsunami in Phang Nga, southern Thailand," 4 February 2005.

12.Sonny Ibaraj, op.cit.

13.Tsunami Action Group, "Situation Report 4" op.cit.