In recent weeks, the Thai military junta has launched a massive crackdown on illegal migrants that has caused 200,000 Cambodians to flee the country. Although Burmese migrants have escaped the brunt of the crackdown so far, hundreds who lack proper legal paperwork have been arrested and many live in fear of arrest.
The Burmese Embassy in Bangkok has been criticized by migrant rights groups for being silent during the crackdown and doing little to help those who have been arrested, while also failing to protect Burmese migrants from human trafficking rings.
The newly appointed Burmese Ambassador Win Maung, who was a military attaché at the embassy until last year, spoke to Irrawaddy reporter May Kha about the crackdown and said the embassy was taking steps to help Burmese migrants in Thailand.
Rights groups say that between 2 million and 3 million Burmese are employed as cheap, unskilled labor in Thailand, where many often work under difficult conditions and face the risk of arrest and expulsion because they lack Burmese passports and Thai work permits.
Question: We learned that Burmese diplomats met with their Thai counterparts to discuss the crackdown’s effect on illegal Burmese migrant workers. What did you discuss?
Answer: We officially met with the Thai military commander-in-chief and other officials on June 6. I told them we have opened one-stop service passport centers for Burmese migrant workers at [the border crossings] Mae Sot, Mae Sai and Ranong. We asked them not to arrest the Burmese workers who have invalid visas. They replied that they will extend the visa and there will be no more arrest. They urge workers to make sure that they have all legal documents.
Q: There are also reports that even Burmese workers with passports were arrested. Is that true?
A: We reacted as soon as we heard about this. We distributed the phone numbers of our labor attaché and other officials to Burmese workers to call officials in case they were arrested, even though they have legal documents. We gave them the phone numbers of our one-stop service passport centers. I asked the labor attaché to keep an eye on Mahachai [a Thai sea port]. So far, there have been no arrests in Bangkok. In Chiang Mai, all those arrested have been released.
Q: What is your response to critics who say that the Burmese Embassy has been largely silent and failed to help workers during the crackdown?
A: After the June 6 meeting, we learned there had been more arrests, so we met with relevant [Thai] authorities and complained about it and told them: ‘Don’t arrest our people.’ They replied that they were not, and that if we heard about any arrest they would accept our complaints. I also didn’t hear about any mass arrests of Burmese migrant workers.
Q: But recently, around 50 or 60 Burmese workers in Mae Sot were rounded up and arrested, and the same happened in Chiang Mai. It’s been reported in the Thai media.
A: In Mae Sot, there are [Burmese] squatters who are doing illegal trade near the Thaung Yin River. There was a raid and around 70 or 80 people were detained and investigated. Those who have legal documents were released. The rest who don’t have documents were sent back to Burma. In Chiang Mai, the same thing happened.
Q: After you met with the Thai authorities on June 6, the embassy failed to inform the worried Burmese migrants that they are not being targeted by the Thai authorities. Why are you late in releasing this information?
A: No, I don’t think we are slow in releasing this news. Our labor attaché released a notice saying that if anyone with a passport is arrested, they can call to the embassy. We released warnings advising not to go out and if you do, do not forget to bring relevant documents when you go out.
Q: There are also complaints about the process of obtaining a Burmese passport for migrant workers at the one-stop service centers. They are required to have national ID cards and household registration card to apply for the document, but many come from ethnic conflict areas, where they could not obtain the required documents or they lost them because their homes were burned down. What will you do to help them get a passport?
A: We have a particular plan for them. We will use an online registration system where they can fill the forms, and then we send these back to the immigration department in Burma for review. If the applicants get the approval, they will do the rest of the process at any one-stop passport service in their vicinity, and it would take only day. We are just waiting to go ahead [with this plan] because of the current situation in Thailand.
Q: Burmese workers’ rights groups in Thailand have complained that the embassy is not collaborating with them when it comes to rescuing workers trafficked on to Thai fishing boats or into the sex industry. What is your response to this complaint?
A: The labor attaché reports to me every morning. We have groups like the Myanmar Association Thailand to protect Burmese workers here. If something bad happens [to migrants], we send official letters to seek help from relevant district police or immigration officials. In some cases, some workers are taken to fishing boats as soon as they arrive in Thailand. When they make a phone call for help, they don’t know their whereabouts and the name of the fishing boats they are on. In that case, it’s quite difficult for us to point out where they are and ask help from relevant authorities.