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'Baby A,' born to Burmese parents but lacking a future in Thailand or in Burma

How Phuket's Baby Boom Collides with Corruption

Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Burmese Baby Photo Album Above

THIS baby, five days old and yet to be given a name, is among the latest warm and cuddly additions to Thailand's massive immigration dilemma.

Born to a Burmese mother and father in a hospital on the holiday island of Phuket, the boy is likely to grow up unschooled, stateless and, even with loving parents, unwanted and rejected.

The father of 'Baby A' is a legal immigrant worker on Phuket, but his mother is an illegal worker who could be arrested and expelled at any time.

Increasing numbers of poor and oppressed Burmese are risking extortion and possible death to forsake their homeland for a chance at a better life in Thailand. Such is the growing scale of the migration that so far this year, about half the births at Phuket's Vachira Hospital, three hours' drive south of the Thailand-Burma border, are to Burmese mothers.

There was a time, one nurse at the hospital told us, when a pregnant Burmese came in, wanting to give birth, hospital records showed, for the second time in two months. ''We realised then that something had to be done,'' the nurse said. ''The ID card system clearly needed to change.''

Even with a charge now of 6000 baht for natural births and 12,000 baht for caesarians, the swollen-bellied Burmese keep coming here to give birth: 50 in January, 43 in February, 40 in March, 55 in April, 49 in May and 58 in June.

Estimates of the number of Burmese now living on Phuket run as high as 200,000, with births to match, and Vachira is just one of Phuket's handful of hospitals. Add reports that an illegal school will open soon for Phuket's Burmese children to the news that one big Thai bank has introduced ATM instructions in the Thai and Burmese languages, and it's plain that a social revolution is underway.

As Burmese immigrants sneak or are smuggled by the thousands down the popular Andaman holiday coast from the border towards Phuket, corrupt Thai officials cash in on the exploding numbers, extorting money, trading the least fortunate into labor servitude or even, in some cases, benefiting from forms of sexual slavery.

If Thailand has a policy to manage the immigration invasion, it is being smothered by abuse.

Phuket exemplifies the quandary for Thailand, with property developers demanding ever-increasing numbers of lowly-paid laborers, but only limited legal workers available. From early morning on Phuket, crowded pickups and vans truck Burmese by the thousands to construction sites all over the island.

Yet most of the workers, who often bring their families to Phuket with them, have no right to be here.

The president of the Phuket Chamber of Commerce, Dr Sirichai Silpa-Ar-Cha, told Phuketwan: ''The Government must give Burmese immigrant workers legitimate status or push them back. But first, the Government has to deal with the corruption within the whole process.

''Corruption is destroying any hope of a workable system.

''These children will grow up learning Thai culture, and speaking Thai. They will have no ties to Burma any more. For most of them, it will be a place they have never been. Will the Government continue to deny them Thai citizenship, then push them back to a country where they have no connections, where they cannot even speak the language?''

The issue is more sharply in focus in Ranong, on the border with Burma, where supermarket signage is in three languages, Thai, Burmese and English, and where there are more than a dozen illegal schools that have been operating for so long that teachers are now considering establishing a secret tertiary college.

Phuketwan visited one covert Burmese primary school and was impressed at the high standard of English being taught there - a language skill that will eventually equip children of Burmese parentage for better jobs in Thai restaurants and resorts along the Andaman coast.

On Phuket, the numbers tell the story: More than 7000 construction sites employ 120,000 Burmese, yet only 64,000 are officially sanctioned. Of those, 27,300 have sought ''validation'' under the new system introduced last year. And only the minuscule figure of 114 have had that validation process actually completed.

The Thai-Burma border remains long and porous, and corrupt Immigration officials are only too happy to help Burmese workers arrested in farcical crackdowns to perform a rapid u-turn and try their luck anew through what's known as the ''revolving door'' . . . for a price.

The director of Phuket's Labor Office, Noppadon Ploy-Audee, was among officials from all over Thailand who met with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva yesterday in Bangkok in search of a solution.

Back at Vachira Hospital on Phuket, another Burmese mother-to-be was going into labor of a different kind.
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Comments

Comments have been disabled for this article.

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Thailand can be happy for that pool of great workers coming so cheap. And Burma's dictators may be relieved, that some money trickles back into Burma by them to support families there. The escape to Thailand for the strong and capable Burmese releases also pressure on the pot in Burma, why fight there if you can go to Thailand?

So maybe the generals there like a big (and young) part of its labor force gone. But with them working in Thailand, they lose a lot of possible BIP and that's the second fact Thailand can be happy about, as its arch enemy weaken itself by letting its people build up Thailand's industry for little money.

Thailand would be crazy to push the Burmese away. As long as these low paid jobs cannot be filled by ordinary Thais, they should encourage good skilled laborers to come and make money for Thailand and prosper together with their new communities.

Good for these people, good for Thailand. But do not think about Burma and the leftovers there.

Posted by Lena on September 8, 2010 17:00

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Sounds a lot like the way Miami Florida in the US turned out with the Cuban immigrants fleeing a communist regime for a better life. Now you have Cubans of all class levels living and integrating into the US society.

Phuket will eventually become the same way. The gateway to Thailand for the Burmese, just as Miami was for the Cubans. Like it or not, that's the way it is. In 20 years time we will have forgotten this episode in Thai history, just as we have forgotten "the boat people" from Cuba here in the US.

Posted by Observer on September 8, 2010 17:40

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Another expose of the plight of these unfortunate people and their tormentors. Immigration from poorer to richer countries is widespread in the US, Europe and other parts of Asia so it's nothing unique. And there are brutal human traffickers in those areas too, but very seldom are the authorities involved to the extent they are here. It is a disgrace to Thailand that the police and immigration - the very people who are supposed to help and protect - all too frequently profit from and propagate the situation.

Lena has a good point, but it will never happen until corruption is eradicated from public life.

Posted by A. Skeptic on September 8, 2010 20:43

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There are so many unemployed Thai, get rid of these Burmese. I know of one hotel in Phang Nga where more than half the workers are Burmese, all doing jobs Thai can do. Maybe we need to review the remuneration for Thais instead of using cheap, illegal labor.

Posted by Ian on September 9, 2010 12:35

Editor Comment:

As long as there is corruption, there will be illegal labor.

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Excellent article.

Posted by Dave Taylor on September 9, 2010 22:06


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