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BURMA: For Pro-Junta Militia, Migrant Workers Are Useful Cash Cows

Marwaan Macan-Markar

MAE SOT, Thailand, Aug 2 2007 (IPS) - On a recent morning, two trucks packed with about 120 Burmese drove up to a pier on the Thai side of the Moe River, which separates north-western Thailand from Burma. One, with a black exterior and with grills on the side, is often used to transport prisoners. The other, a Toyota truck, had sturdy bars and looked like a cage on wheels.

When the doors opened, the Burmese men and a single woman stepped out in an orderly fashion and headed for a ferry moored at the pier. It took them in less than a minute across the swollen waters of the Moe to the Burmese side. From their manner, the Burmese who made this journey from one country to another appeared familiar with such an unusual border crossing.

This group, however, was not the only one to make this crossing sans passports and the usual scrutiny by immigration officials for visas. Four trucks had unloaded their human cargo in the hours before at Pier Number 10. Labour rights activists estimate that nearly 500 Burmese are compelled to make this crossing daily.

But it is not a journey to freedom once they get off the ferry. These Burmese citizens, all undocumented migrant workers arrested by the Thai authorities, are directed into a stockade made out of bamboo. The likelihood of going elsewhere is ruled out, given who commands the area – the armed men of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). On that morning, a gun-totting DKBA operative, in military fatigues, monitored the returning migrant workers near the entrance to the stockade.

"This has been going on for nearly five years," says Moe Swe, secretary general of the Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association (YCOWA), a group fighting for the rights of Burmese migrant workers in Mae Sot. "The migrant workers have to wait in the DKBA compound until they are freed to go. They have to make a payment to a broker."

Consequently, the milking of the migrant workers who are themselves largely poor has "become good business for the DKBA," he said in an interview in this town, which is ringed by hills and has a large Burmese population, many of whom are migrant workers. "The Burmese military government allowed the DKBA to open this camp in 1999."

The monopoly enjoyed by the DKBA becomes apparent as one drives along the Moe River, which has some 20 piers on the Thai side as points to cross. It is only at Pier Number 10 that this illegal crossing takes place. "Each migrant worker has to pay over 1,000 baht to the brokers," adds Moe Swe. "The DKBA and the brokers work hand in hand."

Release from the stockade also means the migrant worker has the choice of returning illegally to Thailand to seek work and then running the risk of arrest and the subsequent familiar journey of deportation into the hands of the DKBA. It took Wai Lin Oo, 18, less than 48 hours to be back in a community 40 km outside Mae Sot after being arrested during a pre-dawn raid by border authorities and deported to Burma.

The DKBA&#39s use of deported migrant workers as a source of income is one in a long list of monopolies it has been granted by Burma&#39s (Myanmar) military regime, known officially as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

"The SPDC has given them areas to control and they use it to demand money from villagers, to force people into illegal logging," says Kevin Heppner, coordinator for the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), a Mae Sot-based independent body championing the cause of the Karen ethnic community.

The public transport system in Myawaddy, the major Burmese town across from Mae Sot, is run by the DKBA, he told IPS. "They run all the local buses plying from Myawaddy to Pa-an." In early July, a KHRG report accused the DKBA of "looting, extortion, land confiscation" of villages in the Thaton District, near Burma&#39s western coastline.

The DKBA, whose forces number a few thousand, has become increasingly useful to the Burmese junta as its troops battle the Karen National Union (KNU), a group of rebels fighting for the ethnic Karens. This separatist conflict is one of Asia&#39s oldest, now in its 58th year. The Karens account for some seven million people of Burma&#39s 50.5 million population, making them one of the South-east Asian country&#39s largest minorities.

The DKBA emerged in 1994, following a split within the KNU. The charge at the time was that Christians were discriminating against the Buddhists within the Karens. The DKBA is led by a Buddhist monk. Yet it has made little headway other than as a militia, given the negligible role it has played in Burma&#39s ongoing political process to draft a new constitution.

As a way of controlling local communities, "the SPDC has supported a more aggressive DKBA role" in places such as the Thaton District, KHRG stated in its July report, "The Compounding Consequences of DKBA Oppression: Abuse, poverty and food insecurity".

"With the junta&#39s political, military and financial backing, the DKBA has sought to expand its numbers, strengthen its position vis-à-vis the civilian population and eradicate the remaining KNU presence."

Burma, which has been under successive military governments since a 1962 coup, has gained notoriety for its repressive policies towards its minorities, including rape as a weapon of war. The oppressive rulers have also succeeded in destroying an economy that, soon after independence in 1948, was vibrant, including being an exporter of rice.

"Reports of starvation were none at the time," says Soe Aung, spokesman for the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), an umbrella organisation of Burmese political activists living in exile.

It is such a ruined economy that has pushed tens of thousands of Burmese to seek jobs across the border in Thailand. YCOWA estimates that there are more than 1.5 million Burmese migrant workers who made this risky journey, and most are undocumented. In 2006, only 880,000 Burmese migrants registered with Thai labour authorities. The jobs they do are described as "dirty and dangerous," ranging from work on construction sites, vegetable and fruit farms, the fishing industry and the garment sector.

In 2003, the Thai and Burmese government signed an agreement to regularise this labour force, aimed to protect the migrant workers and reduce the vast sea of undocumented labour. "The Parties shall take all necessary measures to ensure proper procedures for employment of workers," this memorandum of understanding states. Article Seven spells out the need for the migrant workers to have visas and work permits.

"The Parties shall take all necessary measures, in their respective territory, to prevent and suppress illegal border crossings, trafficking of illegal workers and illegal employment of workers," says another article.

But Burmese authorities have done little since, says the International Labour Organisation, among others. Meanwhile, Thailand continues to raid places where undocumented migrants work, detain them in a holding cell and then transport hundreds daily to this border town.

"The SPDC has told Thailand that they will only receive 250 migrant workers every week," says Moe Swe, adding that it "is done through the formal detention centre on Fridays." On such occasions, the deported migrants cross a bridge that connects Mae Sot to Myawaddy.

"On other days, the workers are deported illegally to the DKBA camp," he adds. "They are the majority."

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