[The Irrawaddy] Thailand’s New COVID-19 Outbreak: Myanmar Migrants Mustn’t Be Scapegoated

The outbreak of COVID-19 that has infected hundreds of Myanmar migrants working in Thailand’s Samut Sakhon province, southwest of Bangkok, is now the kingdom’s worst. Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has instructed health authorities to come up with a working plan in case the country needs to go into full lockdown. Already, worrying signs are emerging that the Myanmar migrant population in Thailand will be targeted and discriminated against.

Thai authorities and health officials have held emergency meetings and rolled out a number of measures to contain the outbreak, including sealing off Samut Sakhon’s markets and dormitories to prevent migrants from leaving.

The Samut Sakhon Chamber of Commerce said the lockdown will cost the province 1 billion baht (43.86 billion kyats) a day. The seafood industry alone, 90 percent of whose workers are migrants, generates sales of 400-500 million baht a day there.

According to The Bangkok Post, thousands of migrants will be forced to stay together in cramped conditions, putting them at greater risk of infection.

“Thais in Samut Sakhon can still travel, but they must inform local authorities first. But it’s unclear if this measure for Thais can be enforced,” the newspaper said in an editorial.

It warned, “Such a double standard brings up the question of whether the migrants are being discriminated against.”

After the outbreak was first reported last week, Thai Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said—without citing any evidence—that migrant workers might have been responsible for transmitting the virus to a 67-year-old Thai vendor believed to have been a major spreader of the virus, Khaosod news reported.

Other agencies like the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration have not hesitated to implement discriminatory measures. The city asked all religious places not to allow migrants to make merit “until the situation is better”, among other instructions. By issuing such a blanket order, the city is stigmatizing migrants. “Is this fair?” the Post asked.

According to the Mekong Migration Network (MMN), there are an estimated 4 million foreign workers in Thailand, most of them from Myanmar.

Thai security personnel patrol the Moei River in Tak province to prevent illegal immigration in September. / Bangkok Post

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that migrants account for one in every 10 workers in Thailand, and generate up to 6.6 percent of the kingdom’s GDP. They clearly make enormous contributions to the economy.

When Myanmar’s COVID-19 cases spiked in July and August, Thai newspapers assured their readers that government agencies were collaborating to step up patrols along the border to prevent illegal crossings. Photographs taken at the time showed well-equipped, heavily armed soldiers and police patrolling the Moei River, which forms the border between Thailand’s Mae Sot and Karen State’s Myawaddy. These images, and the sight of soldiers patrolling the border, were reassuring to the Thai public, who have enjoyed the praise their country has received for implementing one of the world’s most successful coronavirus containment strategies.

However, alarm bells sounded with the discovery of a number of COVID-19 cases in Thailand linked to migrant workers from both countries who slip back and forth undetected. In November, several Thais who went to work in the Myanmar border town of Tachileik, where numerous entertainment complexes and bars remained open in defiance of coronavirus restrictions, were found to be infected with COVID-19 while trying to sneak back into Thailand.

A Thai army spokesman admitted it was impossible to completely seal Thailand’s borders against illegal migrants.

“Illegal migrant laborers are still crossing the border using natural channels, even though we have deployed a legion of soldiers to guard the demarcation. Our border is 5,526 kilometers long,” he told The Bangkok Post.

He admitted illegal migrants were still sneaking into Thailand from Myanmar, especially in Tak, Chiang Rai and Kanchanaburi. The army, he said, would devote even more resources to border defense, including drones, mobile patrol units and razor-wire fences to secure high-risk areas.

Indeed, in the Mae Sot-Myawaddy border area alone, hundreds of people at least cross the border illegally every day undetected. Many pay “guardians”—Thai and Myanmar security officials, smugglers belonging to established networks, or ethnic rebels—to be escorted across.

Myanmar migrant workers in Mae Sot. / The Irrawaddy

Some Karen insurgent groups including the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army also control some border gates. It is believed that many migrants wanting to sneak back into Thailand have been able to bribe Karen and Thai officials to get across the border. In recent months, many human traffickers and officials on both sides of the border have made fortunes.

Myanmar migrant workers return home via official checkpoints, but some head back to Thailand illegally. Human traffickers charge 8,000 baht to transport one person from Mae Sai to Chiang Mai. It is still unknown how many Myanmar migrant workers have sneaked back into the kingdom over the past four months.

Without the help of security officials, armed groups on the Myanmar side, and human trafficking rings operating along the border, Myanmar migrants could not get back into Thailand.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, a veteran journalist on regional affairs, wrote recently that the leaders of the Thai and Myanmar governments have promised to strengthen the friendship between the two countries. The issue of migrant workers, and their protection and fair treatment, was high on the agenda when State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha spoke by telephone in November.

Hopes are rising that COVID-19 will be contained before too long. When the pandemic is over, people will remember how they were treated during the crisis and who their friends are. It is time to demonstrate humanity, neighborly friendship and a spirit of cooperation to defeat the virus. How all sides behave during this difficult time will be remembered long after the coronavirus retreats.