In a village in Thailand’s far-western Tak Province, five-year-old Nyi Ma has woken herself up, showered, and is getting ready for the day. Her parents left the family’s simple but cluttered one-room home before sunrise. Alone and uncomplaining, she begins her full day of chores by packing the family’s dirty laundry into a cardboard box to take to wash in a nearby stream.
The laundry, however, is not Nyi Ma’s biggest responsibility. Her parents have also left her to look after her baby sister, an infant of less than one year. She swings beside her in a makeshift hammock. The five-year-old will care for her until the adults and the older children return from working in the fields. Nyi Ma will join them in two or three year’s time. They are not much older than she is.
In a nearby field stands a twelve-year-old boy drowning in a man-sized sunhat and flannelette shirt carrying a bucket of potatoes. He has spent the morning working alongside his mother and father on a small agricultural plot in this remote area of Thailand’s border with Burma.
“I came to work here as we weren’t doing well – I make about 170 Baht for picking 10 rows of potatoes, which we can get done in a day. My mother struggled to keep me in school in Burma – now she no longer sends me to school. She said I should work for now and would be sent back to school when the work is done.”
Thailand’s minimum wage is 300 baht [US$8.49] per day.
In Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party now dominates the legislatures of the former junta-run state. Yet this year, more Burmese will cross the border into Thailand in search of work than ever before. Poor working conditions, the region’s lowest wages and the complete lack of social safety net is proving to be no foundation for dreams of a freer, fairer society.
Left out of the beginning of a new chapter in their homeland and denied rights such as education in Thailand, the children of these Burmese migrants are quickly becoming a lost generation.
The young potato-picker’s mother, interviewed as she filled buckets alongside her son, is one more Burmese citizen ambivalent to promises of development and democracy.
“His father drove a rickshaw but his income wouldn’t cover our children’s school expenses. I wasn’t very well back then as I just had my newborn – I was back and forth to hospital. We started running out of possessions to sell. We had a low income and commodity prices kept going up in Burma so we migrated here believing there were decent job opportunities.”
The population of Burmese economic migrants in Thailand has boomed since 2009, when Thai legislation enabled passports and other identity documents to be issued by a migrant’s home country at an office within the kingdom. Illegal migrants were regularised and Thai work permits could then be supplied.
A law passed by Thailand in February will see a reversion to the old system of conferring semi-regular status through a ‘pink card’ to illegal migrants once inside. Rights groups warn that this will see a dismantling of the already minimal social safety net for the millions of Burmese and Cambodians who help to prop up the Thai economy. Many also fear that the new rules will encourage migrants to cross the border illegally, in the knowledge that they will be issued semi-regular status once they arrive.
Naw Poe Ray heads up the Burma Migrant Workers Education Committee. The organisation supports 24 learning centres along the Thai-Burmese border. Her biggest schools are based in and around Mae Sot, the Tak Province town that serves as Thailand’s major overland gateway to Burma. According to the ethnic-Karen campaigner, the number of undocumented Burmese migrants in Tak Province is growing by 20 percent per year. Fifty thousand Burmese migrant children are now living just in the Thai border province, her committee believes. Yet in the 2014-2015 school year, only 13,000 enrolled in school.
“Where are the other 30,000-plus children? Are they trafficked or working in the field? I am worried that without an education, child labourers risk falling into drug addiction or prostitution. That is a common fate for young migrants here at Mae Sot and Phop Phra,” Naw Poe Ray said during an interview at her Mae Sot home.
The Phop Phra area, to Mae Sot’s south, is one of the most inaccessible areas of the Thai-Burmese border. Naw Poe Ray maintains strong contacts with state law enforcement on both sides of the international divide. Despite that, not even her organisation has an established presence in an area forgotten by all but the small-to-medium Thai agricultural production companies and the Burmese migrants that work their farms.
“The children here have no school as their parents came here as undocumented migrants,” says Ko Htay, a Phop Phra community leader who has tried to unionise Burmese migrant workers to better deal with the Thai police.
“The kids are getting older and they won’t be able to return to Burma until their parents make some money. So they just grow older and older. Their parents aren’t literate either.”
The Director of Burma’s Labour department, Myo Aung, embarks on regular fact-finding missions to Thailand. He says that while his office is committed to protecting the rights of Burmese working migrant children, officials are treading a fine line between help and hindrance.
“Child labour is an issue in our country as well,” he notes. “But, we must question whether they are willing to work, are they are working for their own survival? This problem is sensitive. We have to make sure we don’t cause any more problems for working children while we are trying to protect them.”