Myanmar’s junta halts passport conversion as Thailand mulls worker amnesty

The junta has halted applications for passport conversions, part of its effort to keep people from fleeing the draft in Myanmar, according to a passport broker.

The move comes as neighboring Thailand considers reforms that could allow millions of Myanmar migrant workers to remain legally employed in the country – and out of reach of the conscription drive.

Many Myanmar nationals have been scrambling to leave the country since February, when the military announced it would begin enacting a conscription law following months of battlefield defeats. And since early May, men between 23 and 31 have been banned from working abroad – reportedly another way to make men available for the draft.

The Myanmar government currently issues several types of passports, including one for overseas workers, known as a PJ, and one for tourists, known as PV.

Previously, holders of one type of passport could convert it to the other, but with a ban on men working overseas, those seeking to have their job passport converted to a visitor’s passport have been rebuffed.

“With the age limit imposed on the PJ passport for working abroad, those who still want to go can no longer do so. Therefore, they have turned to PV passports,” an unofficial passport broker who asked not to be named for security reasons told Radio Free Asia.

“It appears that the military council suspected they are working abroad with PV passports, which is why the transfer process has been halted,” the person said.

The law requires men aged 18 to 35 and women aged 18 to 27 to serve in the armed forces for two years. Since it was enacted, more than 100,000 people have fled abroad to avoid war, according to the Burmese Affairs and Conflict Study.

Thailand mulls a response

An unknown number have illegally crossed into Thailand, where they have joined a vast workforce of Myanmar migrants. According to the UNDP, there are an estimated 2 million registered Myanmar migrants, with perhaps as many undocumented workers.

Immigration advocates as well as Thai labor officials have raised concern that the law could lead to a labor shortage, with would-be workers banned and those whose permits are set to expire facing legal limbo.

On Thursday, Thailand’s Department of Employment announced a proposed slate of new immigration rules that would allow undocumented workers to stay and extend work permits for those set to expire.

If approved by the cabinet, the rules would mean millions of unregistered but working migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos could qualify for so-called pink cards, or legal working papers. An estimated 2 million registered workers whose permits will soon expire would also see them extended. The announcement specified that applicants must already be in Thailand and employed by an employer, but it did not detail what the registration would entail or what the next steps would be.

Pho Thingyan, from the Mae Sot-based Overseas Irrawaddy Association, a small nonprofit organization assisting migrant workers, said legal registration would help on several fronts.

“Many people have migrated due to the country’s situation. Issuing pink cards is helpful for them in matters of security. Additionally, having a certificate in hand opens up many job opportunities for them.
Over the past three months, about 3,600 undocumented Myanmar nationals who have arrived in Thailand have been arrested, according to migrant workers.