Do our prejudices know no bounds?

Bangkok Post, January 13, 2005


Whatever the colour of our skin, we all look the same when our bodies decompose. That is what the array of corpses at Wat Yanyao informs us, the living. So why the fuss about our racial or ethnic differences?

No matter how rich or poor we are, the loss of our loved ones is equally overwhelming in our hearts. Since we are all the same, don't all the victims and survivors of the Dec 26 tsunami deserve equal assistance? Sadly, the Thai authorities do not think so, not when it comes to migrant workers from Burma. As we Thais celebrate the massive outpouring of our own generosity for the tsunami victims _ particularly for the foreign tourists, the country has totally ignored the plight of poor migrant workers who, like us, lost family members and their source of income when the killer waves hit the Andaman coast.

Like us, their lives have been shattered. But we do not recognise their deaths and their losses. We do not give them relief aid. Worse, we punish those who survived the disaster by deporting them to a precarious life back in Burma, which refuses to accept its own citizens. What has become of us?

There are more than 120,000 registered manual laborers from Burma in the fisheries, construction, rubber and other industries in Ranong, Phangnga, Phuket, Krabi, Satun and Trang provinces. The real number of migrant workers could be at least twice that figure.

Thousands of these people are believed to have perished when the tidal waves hit those provinces. According to survivors' accounts, at least 1,000 are missing in Phangnga alone. These survivors believe many of their loved ones are lying unattended at Wat Yanyao among the unidentified. But they are too scared to go and check and collect the bodies for fear of being arrested and deported.

The fear is well-grounded.

Thanks to the media and nationalist history, the general Thai public harbor a deep prejudice against the Burmese as a ruthless and untrustworthy people who destroyed our once glorious capital and now steal our jobs, rob their employers and bring us contagious diseases. Right after the tsunami, an actor who served as a rescue volunteer told the media he suspected a group of looters he saw were migrant Burmese workers. The mere suspicion awakened the deep prejudice against the Burmese.

To confirm these suspicions, the police immediately arrested a group of migrant workers accused of looting. The media proclaimed the Burmese were out to hit us again in out time of tragedy.

Instead of sending the accused to court, as is their basic right, the migrants were immediately deported. And then the authorities began rounding up all migrant workers with the excuse that the crackdown was necessary to prevent further crimes during this time of emergency.

Who cares if these people are registered workers legally entitled to the same assistance as all Thai workers? Who cares if deporting them will aggravate their plight? Who cares if will they face danger in Burma, which was also ravaged by the tsunami? According to local NGOs, more than 1,000 migrant workers have been deported. When Koh Song in Burma refused to accept them, the officials reportedly left them to their own devices on nearby islands.

To avoid deportation, many survivors have fled to the mountains where they are hungry, afraid and jobless. Is that why some have turned to theft? Many Thais agree with the deportations, saying the scarce resources available during the emergency should be for Thais alone.

The foreign tourists may applaud Thai generosity, but the tales our neighbors tell their children and grandchildren about us Thais will be much less flattering. These will be tales of racism, cruelty and heartlessness. They will be tales of a deep prejudice that could not be moved even by a natural disaster that highlighted the transience of life, the sameness of humanity and the futility of all prejudice.

When will we ever learn?

Sanitsuda Ekachai is Assistant Editor, Bangkok Post.


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