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They call it “Old Man’s Land”, ravaged by conflict and economic deprivation, Burma’s southeast Mon state is a place bereft of its young, who have flooded overseas in search of work.
But with a reformist government now promoting peace and economic development in impoverished border areas, the region is now looking to its future – and its lost youth.
The rural Mon community of Ywarthit is a place for the old and the very young. Locals say around 70 percent of households are missing the generation in between.
Many teenagers leave once they have finished school, crossing the border into Thailand to seek work in factories or as domestic helpers.
“There are not many people left in the village now. Only mothers and grandparents taking care of the grandchildren,” Nyein Tin, whose five children all went to Thailand to look for jobs, told AFP.
She said she relies on their remittances, having given up work to look after five grandchildren.
“How would I live if they didn’t send money?” the 60-year-old said.
A recent study by HelpAge International found about a quarter of households in Mon state contained only grandparents and grandchildren – markedly higher than the 10 percent for the country as a whole.
Burma’s remote borderlands – home to various ethnic minority groups – have been battered by civil wars since the country won independence from British colonial rule in 1948.
Under the former junta which ruled for decades, grave human rights abuses as well as policies aimed at choking supply links to armed groups severely affected local communities and their economies.“If I was still young, I would want to go”
While the quasi-civilian government that took power in early 2011 inked ceasefires last year with rebels from Mon and neighbouring Karen state, migrant workers have yet to begin flocking home.
Financial incentive alone is enough for many young people to work outside Burma, whose once-vibrant economy became one of the poorest in Asia under the junta.
Neighbouring Thailand has almost 1.7 million registered Burmese workers, with an estimated one million more unregistered, according to migrant rights activist Andy Hall.
Thailand needs this cheap labour to bolster sectors like construction, food processing and its fishing industry, but Hall said migrants are often subject to abuse and discrimination.
“They want to go home but the wage differentiation is so big they just can’t do it,” he told AFP, adding estimates for remittances they send back to Burma vary from $300 million to $2 billion a year.
In Thailand, they can earn about $200 or more a month – several times as much as back home, he said.
Kyaw Thu Ya and his wife Hay Mar, from Mon’s capital Mawlamyine, met at a shrimp processing factory in Thailand’s Mahachai industrial area, where thousands of Burmese migrants live and work.
“My heart aches that our country is not the same as other countries… I miss my parents very much,” lamented Kyaw Thu Ya, who said his family of rice farmers have a “hard life” back in Burma.
The couple live in a small, barely-furnished room in a block crowded with young people from their homeland. They do not have much, but even their scant possessions would be impossible luxuries at home.
“Here we have jobs, the condition of the roads and electricity and everything is good. In Myanmar (Burma), we would not be able to afford a television or computer. This is the big difference,” said Kyaw Thu Ya.
When democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi visited Thailand last year, she told throngs of migrants in Mahachai that she hoped they would soon return to their homeland.
It is a sentiment echoed in Burma’s corridors of power.
Grand plans to build special economic zones across the country hinge on a level of skilled labour that is currently lacking in the long-isolated nation, and many officials hope luring back migrants will help make up the shortfall.
Kyaw Thu Ya, who has picked up basic Thai and Chinese and is employed to input data into a computer could be an ideal candidate, but the financial benefits will have to be persuasive.
Most young people work as day labourers in Mon, earning just 3,000 kyats (around $3) a day, according to Ko Ko Zaw, editor of local newspaper Than Lwin Times.
“It’s not enough to live. That’s why they go abroad. So this has become a state where only old men live,” he said.
Some things are changing in the region.
Work is under way to repave the road running to the border with Thailand. There are plans for a deep sea port further south in Dawei, and local people have seen a flurry of visits from international firms.
The interest has raised concerns about some development projects – particularly mining – leading to land confiscations and environmental damage, said Ashley South, consultant with the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative.
“Many communities are increasingly affected by the incursion of unregulated business activities into conflict-affected areas,” he said.
Mon state, which relies heavily on rubber and other agriculture, needs to diversify into other areas such as industry, according to Tint San, state manager of Myanmar Agricultural Produce Trading, part of the Commerce Ministry.
But electricity shortages are a major challenge, with authorities anticipating it will take two or three years to meet the needs of the region.
“We still have not got real opportunities,” he added.
On the outskirts of Mawlamyine, farmer Htwe Yi said he doubted a rural existence would appeal to young people after the faster pace of life abroad.
“Those who have been there cannot live back here. If I was still young, I would want to go,” the 58-year-old said.