This is the second of a series of posts (see the first post here) I’ll be writing in the next week or so, which will hopefully summarize a least a small part of the information I’ve been gathering in interviews over the last few months.
My interviews have primarily been focused on gathering details about the ways in which forced migration at a young age effect minority children in the border area. To concentrate on this topic, I highlighted three groups of people in my interviews: adults who migrated to Thailand as young children; parents who chose to migrate with their children; and, finally, targeted adults who work with migrating children in schools, boarding homes, and other organizations.
Recently, I conducted an interview with a young man, actually about my age, who has been moving between Burma and Thailand since he was 14. Problems within his family forced him to move from his home in rural Burma, arriving in Yangon alone and with few skills or education. After two years working in Yangon and two other large Burmese cities, at age 16 this boy decided to migrate to Thailand, in hopes of finding a job and making enough money to support his family back in Burma.
“I left the Burma, and tried to walk to Thailand, but I didn’t realize that you can’t just walk in- I was so young. I was stopped at the checkpoint and they told me to turn around, so I found some nearby homes a few meters away from the border and stayed there until the morning. I awoke and left at 7 am and walked further from the checkpoint where I tried to cross again, this time through the jungle.
No one stopped me, so I kept walking until I arrived in a Thai town at 5 pm. The night I arrived here, I did nothing except for walk around and around the market. I was so hungry, but I couldn’t find food to eat anywhere. I tried to go to sleep, but even though I was tired from walking all day, I couldn’t sleep because of the hunger. Instead of sleeping, I walked around town all night hoping to find something to eat.
When morning came, I walked to the market again and asked for food at a rice shop. They saw that I was hungry and fed me for free. Once I had eaten, I realized I had no idea what to do next. I could not speak Thai, and because of this I was afraid to even look for work in Thailand. I didn’t want to get into trouble. I began to think maybe it would be best to just got back to Burma…”
As my subject was only 16 when he entered Thailand alone and without support, this interview was especially interesting for me to conduct. The vast majority of those I’ve spoken with, interviewed, or worked with in the past few months came to Thailand with their family, extended relatives, or at least with friends. The fact that this subject came alone is significant, because, in most cases, relations act as a built-in support system for the migrating child. In his specific situation, my subject was completely alone, with not even an acquaintance in Thailand when he arrived.
While my subject went on to explain that he continued to consider returning immediately to Burma after arriving in Thailand, he ended up staying in the country and taking the first of an unbelievably long list of jobs- over twenty in at least seven different cities over the course of four years. He, himself, even commented on his extensive experience working a variety of jobs: “I have many problems, so I have to work many jobs and always find new ones.”
Almost all of the jobs he held ended as a result of an incident of unequal pay, unfair treatment, or downright discrimination:
“The first job I was offered was a job washing cars. The boss told me that he would pay me 600 THB ($20.00) per month I worked. I worked there for four months, because I didn’t realize how little money that was. I didn’t realize they were cheating me because I didn’t speak Thai. To the Thai speaking boys who are also poor and need a job, they usually pay 1,200 THB- so they were only paying me half of that because I was Burmese…”
“After that, I decided to try once more at becoming one of the guides who walks Burmese people through the jungle and into Thailand. I begin walking one group of people through the jungle, and once we got near town, I hired them motorbike taxis to take them the rest of the way into Thailand. But, I only do this work for one month because people cheat me so often. Most of the time they don’t have the money to pay in full. I tell them it costs 1,300 baht ($43), but they don’t pay me once they arrive in Thailand…”
“Once, when I worked in a gas station, I lost almost my whole salary. My job was to collect and count the money at the end of the day. One day, another employee stole from the shop, but because I was the one who collected and counted the money, they thought I had done it because I am Burmese, and they told me I would have to work for free for an entire year to make up for the lost money. So, after that I work for free for one more year. Eventually while I am working there, it happens again, because the employee thought that if it worked once it would work again. They caught him this time, the real thief. I asked if I could have the money I earned back, but they said that at that point I’d already worked the whole year to pay them back, and that they wouldn’t give me the money even though I’d done so much work.”
This sort of discrimination has been mentioned in every single interview I’ve conducted with Burmese refugees now living and working in Thailand. The extent to which they feel oppressed may vary from individual to individual, but the feeling of being an “other” in someone else’s country has been constant. This inequality is also one of the primary reasons Burmese parents work so hard to send their children to Thai school where they can study and become fluent in the Thai language- which will hopefully allow for fair pay and more future opportunities.
My subject concluded:
“For people my age, who come when they are young and haven’t studied Thai, it will always be difficult because we will always be Burmese, and we will always feel oppressed. I will never be able to get the same opportunities or payment as those who have learned Thai. I think that I will always be cheated, and I will always feel sad about that.
I can never get fair pay, and if I break something, I always have to pay back the money. But Thai people don’t have these problems.”