//Migrant Workers Rights in Burma

Migrant Workers Rights in Burma

Although it is rarely sighted in the exile or mainstream media, the Thai Action Committee for Democracy in Burma (TACDB) has been very active right from its foundation in 1989 and has won praise for its work from many political opposition groups based abroad.

The organization, originally called the Action Committee for Democracy in Burma, was set up to assist the campaign to bring representative government to Burma, in coordination with other regional groups.

“It was renamed as the TACDB in 1991 in recognition of the fact that the international networking aspect of our mandate was hard to fulfill due to limited staff and a lack of material resources,” explained 47-year-old Burmese exile Myint Wai, who joined the group ten years ago and is currently its Burmese Affairs Officer.

“I defected from the Air Force, where I held the rank of corporal, and went into hiding after thousands of lives were lost in the people’s popular uprising against Ne Win and the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) rule in August 1988 and the military coup against the BSPP in September,” said Myint Wai.

“With about 1,000 men who deserted from the Army and the Navy, we planned to fight back against the regime. But it was becoming increasingly dangerous for the people who were hiding us, and their families, so I decided – against my wishes – to leave the country for exile.”

Myint Wai arrived by boat at Ranong province in southern Thailand in October 1989 and has been living in the country since with a Thai wife.

He explained how he got into contact with the TADCB: “Before I joined with them, they were already working with Burmese exile groups, namely the Overseas National Students Organization of Burma (ONSOB), which I have been a member of since 1994. At that time, the TADCB wanted to hire a Burmese militant who could improve the group’s work by giving advice to other native Burmese militants and who could lobby and improve contacts with the NGOs,” he said.

Myint Wai was at that time teaching English and really didn’t want to accept a position with the TACDB, but ONCOB committee members pressed him to accept, saying that he could improve understanding between Thais and Burmese. So he finally agreed.

He described his present work at the TACDB: “The main objective is to strengthen those Burmese organizations in Thailand that are working for democracy in Burma by non-violent means. We can’t support the armed struggle because Thai-based organizations are prohibited by law from doing so.”

“Our aims,” Mr. Myint continued, “are to give support, assistance and protection to the Burmese people whose human rights may have been violated in Thailand; to disseminate information and news to the Thai people, so that they can learn and better understand better what is going on in Burma; and also to let them know what is happening to the refugees and to the migrant workers who live in Thailand. We want the Thai people to support the democratization process in Burma.”

The head office of the TACDB is situated in Bangkok’s Bagplad area, with one branch near the Asia Hotel, which houses the Burmese Affairs Office.

Ms. Laddawan Tantivitayapitak is chairwoman of the TACDB, which has six committee members, five full-time staff and five volunteers based in the provinces. Myint Wai is the only non-Thai member.

The TACDB closely monitors the Burmese political situation and when something important happens there, for example when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested, they hold a press conference.

The group organizes seminars and other activities, which include regular round-table meetings in Bangkok attended by NGOs involved in Burma issues. The NGOs include Altsean, Burma Border Consortium, Forum Asia, Jesus Refugee Service and others. These round-table discussions enable the concerned groups to analyze the current situation and to plan future strategies and activities.

“We have also been active in other provinces, including in Kanchanaburi, Tak and Samut Sakhon, where we attend meetings with the opposition organizations and the NGOs and we are involved in different programs to help Burmese people who reside in these areas,” Myint Wai said.

“As for information about Burma, we rely mainly on the Democratic Voice of Burma, the Irrawaddy, Mizzima and the New Era Journal, as they have the most reliable information.”

The TACDB publishes regularly in the Thai-language ‘The Salween Newsletter’ and in Burmese the ‘Labor Affairs Newsletter’.

“I personally monitor the events in Burma very closely, but as for my organization, we don’t update our news everyday because as we don’t have the man-power.”

Myint Wai said that one important part of the TACDB’s work was to cooperate with exiled organizations and alliances such as the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the Democratic Alliance of Burma, the National League for Democracy-Liberated Areas and others. “We invite them to meetings and seminars, sometimes held in Bangkok – provided, of course, they have valid travel documents, which, unfortunately, most of them don’t have.”

According to Myint Wai, the TACDB activities are financed mainly by NGOs based in the United States, such as the Open Society Institute (OSI), and by the National Endowment for Democracy, which began to support them for the first time last year. European NGOs from Denmark and the Netherlands are also helping.

“As for armed groups such as the Karen National Union, we can’t support them. When, for example, they open a school, maybe we will support it, but it doesn’t mean we fund the group’s armed force,” Myint Wai declared.

“The TACDB is not officially registered in Thailand because, so far, no Thai government has permitted this, but we don’t have to be registered because under the Thai Constitution the people have the right of association.

“As for the migrant workers issue, which is very important here in Thailand, with thousands of them and their families here, we have been trying to help.”

Myint Wai said that the TACDB opened a school for migrant workers’ children in Mahachai in Samut Sakhon province, close to Bangkok, in June 1999, but it was shut down after 6 months by the government. “But after a meeting with officials of the Interior Ministry they allowed us to re-open provided we didn’t display the name of our organization and we called it something else like ‘child centre.’ We were closed down again for good after the God’s Army and the Vigorous Burmese Student’s Warriors laid siege to a hospital in Ratchaburi in 2001.”

He mentioned that the TACDB now provides language training in Thai and English in Bangkok for migrant workers, with 450 people enrolled already. He described the project as highly successful and well attended, by mostly young people.

Myint Wai disclosed that his organization is also involved in the Burmese tsunami victim identification program, with help from TACDB volunteers who visit the families of the missing and try to help find their relatives. The TACDB cooperates in this matter closely with the Thai authorities and also with the Lawyer’s Council of Thailand. He is a coordinator of this program.

The TACDB received a request for help, mainly food, from migrant workers affected by recent floods in Songkhla province. According to Myint Wai some 3,000 to 5,000 people needed assistance.

“Sometimes we try to arrange legal assistance for workers to resolve disputes with the
ir employers. We have requested a grant from the OSI so that we can expand the service. Also, we are trying to lobby the Thai government to amend or improve the current laws to ensure more rights for migrant workers.”

“I would like to point out that the TACDB is not a social assistance organization. We emphasize and focus more on policy campaigns so that the Thai people can understand the Burmese people’s problems both inside Burma and Thailand.”

As for the Burmese opposition, Myint Wai believes that they should also lobby the international community to help the people inside Burma. “Without the opposition, who else is going to do it?” He believes that people in Burma can’t do very much against the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) because their aspirations and attitudes have been destroyed during the past 20 years.

He also said that ASEAN, China, India and Russia could help change the situation in Burma provided they alter their attitude towards the SPDC. “All our opposition organizations should ask the United Nations Security Council to help our country,” Myint Wai concluded. 

Maxmilian Wechsler