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Commentary :: Human Rights : International : Labor : Race
Tsunami’s Double Victims: A Tidal Wave of Discrimination against Burmese Migrant Workers on Thailand’s Andaman Sea Coast
14 Jan 2005
The aftermath of the Great Wall of Water remains a complex text through which to read the contradictions and prejudices of Thai society. This is highlighted by the brutal treatment of Burmese migrant workers on the southwestern Thai coast since 12/26.
Burmese migrant workers at evacuation center.jpg
One of the most striking contradictions in the response to the tsunami’s aftermath on the Andaman coast – the periphery of a periphery -- is the treatment of the Burmese migrant workers in Thailand. Hundreds died, an estimated 2,500 are among the missing. Yet these losses have gone unreported in the official government count in Thailand. The many injured and homeless survivors are being excluded from relief aid, treated like human trash. The Thai Action Committee for Democracy in Burma has called for special centers to be set up to help these discriminated victims of the Great Wave’s fury [1].

These legal and undocumented Burmese workers are “haunted by the images of the bodies of their dead friends who they did not dare to go and identify for fear of being arrested. Now they dare not go to the food-distribution points. There is aid for migrants, the United Nations has funds for affected migrant workers, Burmese communities around the world have made donations, but there is no legal or facilitated way of getting that assistance to the migrant communities” [2]. Burmese workers are desperate to find food and drinking water without being arrested and deported by the immigration police, who have stepped up their crackdown against them. Kultida Samabuddhi notes: “Thai villagers and police have accused many of the illegal Burmese workers of theft and break-ins at tsunami-damaged hotels. Only Burmese with work permits and those who were brought back for work by their employers are not being branded as criminals” [3]. “If they are scavenging for pieces of broken down homes to make shelters and food it is because, having already survived a military dictatorship and a tsunami, they must be able to survive this, one more assault on their right to exist” [4].

Meanwhile, a Burmese immigrant advocate called on the government to provide humanitarian aid to alien laborers on par with Thais and foreign tourists. It will never be known how many Burmese died in the wake of the Cataclysm of 12/26 in Thailand. And with no access to dental records or DNA information, the forensic teams will probably never find positive identification for many Burmese bodies.

The 60,000-odd Burmese legally registered to work in Thailand’s six southwestern seaboard provinces were employed on fishing boats, as agricultural and building site labor and in the hospitality industry. Many Burmese legally registered in the area hit by the tsunami have lost their papers and so have no proof of their status. They are routinely denied assistance and are often treated as illegal aliens by the authorities. Many of the arrested migrants are being taken to evacuation centers and repatriated against their will to Myanmar (see photo above).

The official crackdown has been compounded by some irresponsible media reports from Bangkok. “On January 8, Khao Sod, a daily Thai language mass circulation newspaper, ran a hysterical article on Burmese looters. The headline of the story included the word Maung, a pejorative term for Burmese in the Thai language” [5]. On 13 Jan 2005, several workers from World Vision Aid attempting to help Burmese migrants were brutally attacked in a Thai fishing village; Burmese aid workers were beaten, placed in a cage and taken away [6].

The aftermath of the Great Wall of Water remains a complex text through which to read the contradictions and prejudices of Thai society, and the dynamics and hypocrisy of Thai and global Capital. The truth of the tale is that Thai employers will be extremely eager to re-exploit this cheap foreign Burmese wage-labor once tourism Capital resumes its profit-driven rule on Thailand’s Andaman coast, attempting to attract moneyed foreigners to its shores.

1. “Hundreds of Burmese Dead,” THE NATION, 5 Jan 2005,

2. Jackie Pollock, “No help for Burmese immigrant workers,” THE NATION, 13 Jan 2005,

3. “Burmese receiving no help,” THE BANGKOK POST, 11 Jan 2005,

4. J. Pollock, MAP Foundation for the Health and Knowledge of Ethnic Labour, Bangkok, loc. cit.

5. THE IRRAWADDY, ”Healing Hands to Burmese are Urgently Needed,” 11 Jan 2005, ; see also K. Z. Moe, “Thai Police Net Hundreds of Burmese Migrants,” The IRRAWADDY, 11 Jan 2005,

6. BBC World Service, 13 Jan 2005 ; see also Tony Cheng, “Thailand’s secret survivors,” BBC World Service, 13 Jan 2005,

This work is in the public domain
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