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Myanmar workers forgotten victims of tsunami in Thailand

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Myanmar workers forgotten victims of tsunami in Thailand

BAN THAB LAMU, Thailand (AP) - When Asia's tsunami struck Thailand, killing thousands of its citizens and foreign tourists, survivors from both groups soon received an outpouring of help from the government, relief agencies and volunteers.

Officials at 37 embassies in Bangkok, the capital, raced to the hard-hit beach resorts in the south to help victims from their countries, and the Thai government announced it would pay Thai survivors up to 20,000 baht (US$518, euro399) each to help rebuild their lives.

But another group of victims - thousands of legal and illegal migrant workers from neighbouring Myanmar - soon became the forgotten victims of the catastrophe.

Myanmar's repressive military government didn't send anyone to Thailand to help the survivors from its country, and Thailand's government didn't offer them any money.

Many illegal migrant workers from Myanmar soon went into hiding in hard-hit areas to avoid being caught by police, according to activists and relief agencies.

Others lost their low-paying jobs at construction sites, on fishing boats or at rubber plantations when the businesses they worked for were destroyed by the tsunami.

And many legal migrant workers who had survived the killer wave lost the Thai government registration cards required to work in Thailand when they lost everything during the Dec. 26 disaster, which killed more than 5,300 people and left more than 3,100 missing and presumed dead.

Some officials believe that as many as 1,000 people from Myanmar may have died in the tsunami, but the large number of undocumented migrants means the exact number may never be known.

Also, many migrants refused to go to official mortuaries to identify their colleagues, fearing that police would arrest them for not having their government registration cards, aid workers said.

"Many Burmese working on construction sites lived near the beaches,'' Myint Myint Sau, a Myanmar relief worker, said in an interview.

"Their shelters are gone, but no one knows how many of them died.''

"Some Burmese workers who are in hiding have called us, asking for food, water and clothes, but they don't know how to give directions,'' she said.

About 30,000 labourers from Myanmar, also known as Burma, are registered with the Thai government in the tsunami-affected area, according to the Labor Ministry in Bangkok.

They are among hundreds of thousands who fled Myanmar's repressive military government and high unemployment in search of jobs in richer Thailand, many working illegally.

Despite carrying out much of the backbreaking labor that has propelled the region's economy, the migrants often seem to be regarded by their employers as property.

One international relief agency that was helping migrant workers in Ban Thab Lamu village was attacked by Thai residents.

On Jan. 12, while three Myanmar workers from World Vision, a U.S.-based relief agency, were providing food and medical help to the tsunami victims and paying to send them home, the headman of the fishing village, Thawee Paeyai, intervened.

Thawee, wealthy owner of fishing business, knew their departure would deprive the area of their cheap labor, and that many Thai employers had paid for their workers' government registration cards.

So under his influence, about 30 local residents seized the World Vision workers - a doctor and two volunteers - from their office and put them in a cage, police said.

When a fourth Thai World Vision staff member, came to negotiate for their release, he was beaten up by the mob.

Eventually, Thai police arrived in Ban Thab Lamu village, took the four relief workers into protective custody and helped them leave the area.

On Wednesday, Somyos Leetrakul, the World Vision worker who was beaten, said in an interview that villagers armed with weapons had set up four checkpoints on roads in the area.

Traveling through other hard-hit areas of southern Thailand, it was clear that many other migrant workers from Myanmar were getting far less help than Thais victims and foreign tourists.

Many said they couldn't survive in southern Thailand because their employers had died or lost their businesses, but they didn't have the money needed to return home to Myanmar.

Htu, a 34-year-old Myanmar woman who had two children forced from her arms by the tsunami, has not found their bodies in her fishing village of Nam Khem, 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Ban Thab Lamu.

"I have no home. I have nothing left. ... I want to return home, but I don't have money,'' said Htu, who like many Myanmar residents uses only one name.

"I don't have employers. My two employers died.''

In the same village, Si Nge, a 19-year-old maid from Myanmar, said she lost her oldest brother, Nye Bu.

Before the tsunami, she and another brother had earned 5,000 to 6,000 baht (US$130-155, euro100-120 ) a month.

"I was told that my brother was on a fishing boat sitting at the pier and he was rolled into a giant fishing net and could not escape,'' said Si Nge.

Traumatised by the ordeal, she wants to journey home to Myanmar, but she can't afford to. - AP

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