Myanmar People Turn to Thais for Jobs, Health Care

Workers from Myanmar cross a river into Thailand. i i

hide captionWorkers from Myanmar cross the river "informally" to work in the Thailand. They are drawn by wages that are twice as much from what they can earn in Myanmar.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Workers from Myanmar cross a river into Thailand.

Workers from Myanmar cross the river "informally" to work in the Thailand. They are drawn by wages that are twice as much from what they can earn in Myanmar.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Patients receive treatment at Thailand's Mae Tao Clinic. i i

hide captionThailand's Mae Tao Clinic was set up almost 20 years ago to treat refugees. People from Myanmar still receive free treatment here. Many come for basic services that are unavailable in Myanmar.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Patients receive treatment at Thailand's Mae Tao Clinic.

Thailand's Mae Tao Clinic was set up almost 20 years ago to treat refugees. People from Myanmar still receive free treatment here. Many come for basic services that are unavailable in Myanmar.

Michael Sullivan, NPR

U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari is in Myanmar for talks with the military-led government — a visit aimed at promoting dialogue between the generals and detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The visit has been complicated by the government's decision to expel the U.N. resident coordinator in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.

The expulsion was prompted by a statement from coordinator Charles Petrie's office accusing the government of failing to meet the economic and humanitarian needs of its people. That failure, the statement suggested, helped trigger anti-government protests in September.

The military-led government in Myanmar has driven the Burmese economy and infrastructure into the ground. Many Burmese cross the border into Thailand to get better wages and basic health care.

Crossing the River

These needs and failures are on display along Myanmar's border with neighboring Thailand, near the Thai town of Mae Sot.

In the dry season, you can easily wade across the narrow river that separates Myanmar and Thailand. During the rainy season — when the river is high — you have to take a boat. But it's a very short trip.

Day laborers from the Burmese side bring their lunches and not much else.

In theory, these people are supposed to cross at the nearby Friendship Bridge and pass through Thai immigration. In practice, many come across informally. Thai soldiers casually inspect a few bags and then allow the people to pass.

The Thai sergeant in charge of the patrol says he doesn't mind the day trippers. They're not coming to stay, he says, but for the chance to earn. And most will go home at the end of the day.

The Burmese are drawn [to Thailand] by wages that are twice as much as they can make on their own side of the river.

Seeking Health Care in Thailand

The Mae Tao clinic is on the Thai side of the river. It was set up to treat refugees from the last big uprising against Myanmar's military government — almost 20 years ago, when security forces opened fire on student protestors and left more than 3,000 dead.

Dr. Cythnia Maung runs the clinic.

"In 1989, when we start[ed] the clinic, most of our patients are the Burmese student who fled to [the] border. And on that one year period, we treat[ed] about 2,000 patients," Maung says. "Every year, the number of cases increase[s] by 20 to 30 percent. So last year, we treat[ed] more than 100,000 cases."

All the patients are treated for free. About half are Burmese migrant workers, most of whom live illegally in Thailand. The other patients come from inside Myanmar seeking treatment that's out of reach or not available in their country.

A Health-Care System in Shambles

Terrence Smith, an American doctor, volunteers at the Mae Tao clinic. He's been coming to the clinic for the past six years.

"The health-care system in Burma is a shambles," Smith says.

Smith says what he sees every day indicates the situation inside Myanmar isn't improving.

"The same conditions that I saw six years ago still occur today. I mean, yesterday, we had a horrible day. We had all kinds of problems," Smith says. "There's an 800-gram baby that was born at about 24 weeks, 25 weeks gestation. You know, probably not going to survive. So we see terrible cases all the time of people who come in with complications."

Those complications could be avoided with access to basic health-care services or education. Malaria and poor family planning are some of the main problems. Malnutrition, Smith says, is another.

"It's not the rule, but it's fairly frequent. You know, especially people who've seemed to travel two or three days to get here. And they've used up all their money to get here. Some of them can't even raise money to get back home," Smith says. "Everything is sort of like minute to minute, day to day — in terms of where your food is going to come from tomorrow. Most people don't have that figured out yet. You know, they just sort of deal with it as the day comes."

Causes of the Recent Demonstrations

The abrupt increase in fuel prices in mid-August made that task even harder for many. And that economic hardship helped mobilize support for the September demonstrations against the government — demonstrations that now appear to have been prepared and coordinated well in advance.

Opposition activist Hlaing Moe Than, a veteran of the 1988 protests, escaped from Myanmar last month. He says the opposition feared that a new constitution being drafted by the military would formalize the military's dominant role in politics forever. The demonstrations were an attempt to keep that from happening.

Those demonstrations were brutally crushed by the military. With much of the opposition leadership now in jail or in hiding, Than says, it will take time to regroup.

"We think it is the time for wait and see, but [we] must prepare," Than says. "So, we hope [for] the best, but we are preparing for the worst."

They've already had a lot of experience with the latter.

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