The number 2,482,256 is not a combination that will win Thailand’s lottery top prize, but it is nonetheless a lucky number as it represents the total registered migrant workers with the Ministry of Labour during the pandemic. As such, they should have received the protections prescribed under Thai labour laws. But not everyone has been treated the same way or received the incentives to which they are entitled. Lots of loopholes prevail and exploitation remains a problem.
Despite all the good work that has been done, Thailand could do more to ensure that migrant workers, their families and friends are given proper care. According to Mekong Migration Networks (MMN), there are an estimated 4 million workers, mainly from Myanmar, in Thailand. However, unofficial records estimate that the number could be as high as 6 million including those from Cambodia and Laos.
It is imperative that the Thai government continues to provide adequate health care for those migrant workers residing here and at the same time tries to facilitate those who want to return home. It is a tall order. At the moment, the Ministry of Labour still does not know the exact number of Myanmar workers who have crossed the border since the coronavirus outbreak started in January. The most quoted unofficial estimate is 120,000-150,000 workers.
At this juncture, the Thai authorities are quite nervous about imported infections from Myanmar, especially in the northern border area adjacent to its Western neighbour. Over the past three weeks, the whole country has been in a state of flux due to rumours that a group of Thai women could have become super-spreaders of the virus inside Thailand after sneaking into the country from Tachileik, opposite Mae Sai, with the help of a people-smuggling ring.
However, after days of meticulous follow-up and tracing both at the national, provincial and district levels through networks of public health volunteers, the Ministry of Public Health decided not to impose a provincial lockdown declaring everything was under control. Then, last week, a shrimp vendor in Mahachai tested positive, throwing the whole municipality into chaos as officials tried to trace everyone who had come into contact with her. By Sunday, 578 people had tested positive, forcing an immediate lockdown in Samut Sakhon province, southwest of Bangkok, with a curfew from 10pm-5am until Jan 3. Residents in the area are also banned from travelling.
After six months of keeping community infections low — the total number of cases stood at 4,907 with 60 deaths as of Dec 20 — recent news of imported cases among the migrant workers has created unnecessary xenophobia among the communities living along the 2,401-kilometre border with Myanmar as well as coastal provinces.
At the moment, the 3rd Army Region and village volunteers are on full alert and monitoring the porous border to stop human traffickers from smuggling both Thai and Myanmar workers who want to come into the country. Thai workers and their Myanmar’s colleagues are required to go through proper immigration channels for quarantine procedures to prevent the spread of the virus.
Out of the seven provinces bordering Myanmar, Chiang Rai, Tak and Mae Hong Son have been the focus of attention due to frequent illegal border crossings. Chiang Mai, Kanchanaburi, Ranong and Prachuab Khiri Khan are also now under close monitoring.
Due to growing pressure from the business community, especially in the service sector, the government had been planning to open up the country for tourism without the mandatory 14-day quarantine. But the plan has been delayed due to the newly found imported infections. If the situation remains constant without any increments, the tourism sector should benefit from the new regulations, which will be announced later in January 2021.
But not all cross-border exchanges spell doom and gloom. In fact, Thailand-Myanmar cooperation among public health officials has been going on since the outbreak of coronavirus. Last week, senior Thai health care officials held their third online knowledge and best-practices sharing session with 80 healthcare representatives from various hospitals in Yangon and the provinces. During the meeting, they discussed best practices for taking care of Covid-19 patients, use of personal protective equipment and shared knowledge about the anti-viral drug Favipiravir, of which Thailand has donated 70,000 pills to Myanmar.
Indeed, Thailand should include all migrant workers, both registered and unregistered informal workers, in the country’s social protection policies. After all, they already treat Thailand as their “home” as observed by Brahm Press, executive director of MAP Foundation. As such, he argues the government should not leave them behind in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some current shortcomings in the migrants’ benefit claims such as lengthy and complicated procedures and lack of information in their own languages could be fixed to help ease the suffering of migrant workers. They are the indispensable workforces to shore up the country’s post-pandemic economic recovery in days and months ahead.
Over the past decade, Thailand-Myanmar relations have been gradually transformed from ties that were based on the trade-off between economic and security interests to a full-fetched diplomatic engagement, thanks to growing mutual trust among the top civilian and military leaders between the two countries.
The recent landslide poll victory of the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi should further strengthen this pivotal friendship. Last month, ahead of the election, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had a phone conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi in which they pledged stronger cooperation in all spheres in the years to come. Thailand also promised to provide protection for migrant workers from Myanmar. The current cordial relationship is a far cry from a decade ago when Ms Suu Kyi was an opposition leader. During her visit to Thailand in July 2011, she criticised her host harshly for inadequate rights protection and ongoing exploitation. However, during her visit four years later, she expressed appreciation for Thailand’s social protection of migrant workers.
After more than six decades of mistrust, characterised by a roller-coaster relationship since 1962 under the former Gen Ne Win, both countries are enjoying a stable and beneficial relationship as never before. The growing Thailand-Myanmar cross-border cooperation and peaceful management of the porous border will soon translate into a comprehensive strategic partnership, the first in mainland Southeast Asia.
In the post-pandemic world, close solidarity between Thailand and Myanmar is a prerequisite for the stability and prosperity of mainland Southeast Asia, especially in the Mekong subregion. With a combined population of 125 million covering an area of 1,189,698 square kilometres, they are a formidable middle-power that can mitigate against any major power attempts to seek hegemony in the region.