Tables turn on Myanmar 

Migrant workers from Myanmar are currently fleeing a fresh crackdown by the Thai military authorities on foreigners without the correct papers. 

Amid the broken families, lost income, payments to countless corrupt police officers and disruption to Thai business, it is worth remembering an incident 250 years ago when the boot was on the other foot and how it influences Thai attitudes towards their impoverished neighbours.

Thailand’s former capital of Ayutthaya today is a popular excursion from Bangkok which the UN cultural agency, Unesco, lists as a heritage site. Founded in 1350, it became a commercial hub, receiving diplomats from around the world with Portuguese, Japanese and Dutch settlements to the south of the city. But in 1767 a Burmese army besieged, looted and burned the city, forcing the Siamese to move to the coast to establish Bangkok as a replacement capital.

Blisteringly controversial and inappropriate to say in the presence of any Thai but the Burmese raiding party might have inadvertently preserved Ayutthaya more effectively than the 20th- and 21st-century Thai authorities. Any historic Thai buildings tend to be wrapped in fresh layers of concrete and butchered with numerous “improvements”. After the city fell to the Burmese, the Thais abandoned the monuments and much of their former beauty remains today. But for Thais, Ayutthaya is a mournful graveyard, left as an open wound to remind them of when they were humiliated by their neighbour to the west. The ruins are deeply relevant to the Thai psyche, symbolic of a time when the kingdom was weak and a reminder of the dangers posed by the outside world.

The financial crisis of the late 1990s was likened to the sacking of Ayutthaya by some Thais who made a parallel between the devastation wrought by western financiers and the Burmese armies. While Ayutthaya’s destruction is used to bolster a nationalistic desire to avoid further humiliation, it is unfortunately still relevant to the hungry descendants of the raiders who now cross the jungle border looking for work in Thailand.

The complex relationship between the two comparably sized neighbours is hampered by the legacy of 1767.

Thousands of Siamese captives were forced to Burma when the foreign army abandoned the ruined city. Now the tables have turned with the Burmese and the Thais display limited compassion for the foreign labourers who constitute the backbone of the Thai economy.

Myanmar’s migrant workforce in Thailand now number an estimated 3 million and Thai employers, including property developers in Bangkok, fisheries in the south and agriculture in border areas, are now facing labour shortages due to the country’s tough new labour law which is sending migrants fleeing back to Myanmar.

Only half of Thailand’s foreign workforce is thought to be fully documented.

A construction site of the Red Line train at Bang Sue-Rangsit slowed work after many of its Burmese labourers left to reprocess their work permits, a Bangkok official said.

A construction site at Bang Sue central terminal has also lost its employees, apparently under the mistaken belief that their “pink cards” were no longer valid under the new law, the unnamed civil servant said.

The Thai junta’s decree to manage migrants took effect on June 23, threatening fines for employers of at least Bt400,000 (US$11,730) for every illegal employee they hire.

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha swiftly used his dictatorial powers to pass a special decree suspending four key articles of the decree, which impose heavy fines on firms and their employees, until the end of 2017. But the U-turn did not come before more than 50,000 migrants returned home, mostly to Myanmar.

Now the Labour Ministry is allowing all Thai employers to register their Laotian, Cambodian and Burmese workers at temporary centres throughout the country from July 24 to August 7.

But Nit Ouitengkor, former president of Ranong Chamber of Commerce, warned that rampant economic growth in Myanmar might persuade many former migrants to stay in their homeland rather than brave Thailand’s Byzantine bureaucracy. The Andaman port of Ranong, which faces Myanmar, is heavily hit by the absence of Burmese labour.

Many piers in the province are unused or running on only half of their regular workforce.

And Dr Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, visited a relief camp opened by his ministry in Myawaddy on the Thai border to assure them that the government was working to create job opportunities for returning migrants.

The country suffers from a huge loss of human resources because of the mass departure of so many young people.

“We will warmly welcome undocumented migrant workers who are returning home. We are accountable to them. We are working on a policy of creating employment for them,” Win Myat Aye added.

If Myanmar manages to persuade its expats to stay, it might begin to benefit from Thailand’s foolish crackdown.

A Dutch representation of Ayutthaya in 1660. Picture credit: Wikimedia