CHIANG MAI – Market vendors refuse to let them buy food. Some banks won’t allow them to enter their premises. Hotels and guest houses double-check that non-Thai speaking Asians who seek to check-in are not from neighboring Myanmar.
It all began on December 17 when a 67-year-old Thai working in a shrimp market in Mahachai in Samut Sakhon province southwest of Bangkok tested positive for the Covid-19 virus.
Tens of thousands of Myanmar migrants have worked for years in the market and nearby seafood-processing plants, often doing thankless jobs that most Thais are unwilling to do.
It’s become clear by now that Covid-19 spread quickly through Mahachai’s cramped and congested living quarters, similar to the ghetto-like dwellings and dormitories where the disease has thrived among migrants in Singapore and Malaysia.
As such, Myanmar migrants are now being blamed for what is being widely described as Thailand’s second viral wave, which is now creeping across the kingdom after months of reporting no community spread.
From a stable low of just over 4,000 cases and 60 deaths until mid-December, Thailand had 10,547 cases and 67 deaths as of January 11, according to the Thailand Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration, a state body managing the pandemic.
The wave of anti-Myanmar migrant sentiment has been fuelled by postings on Facebook and other social media, with extreme posts urging Thais to kill migrants and deny them medical care.
Other postings have been more sympathetic, arguing that Myanmar workers in Mahachai and elsewhere came there long before the pandemic and without them the already staggering Thai economy would further deteriorate.
But Panpimol Wipulakorn, director-general of Thailand’s Department of Mental Health, has urged the general public to support the migrants and not blame them for the second wave of infections.
Thai human smuggling gangs and permissive authorities who look the other way are also no doubt largely to blame. On December 9, Thai police arrested three Thai human smugglers and nine illegal Chinese migrants traveling in three cars in Thoeng district in northern Chiang Rai province.
They most probably had come down through northwestern Laos, the route Chinese and North Korean escapees have used for years. Thai smuggling gangs are also known to be active in Myanmar, some of which move migrants into often illicit industries or slavery-like conditions.
Others have crossed the border independently from Myanmar — mostly illegally — and tested positive after being apprehended by authorities on the Thai side. Many of them appear to be Thai nationals who have worked at gangster-run casinos opposite the Thai border towns of Mae Sai and Mae Sot.
More are expected to return to Thailand as local authorities have decided to open temporarily the border at Mae Sot to let those who remain in Myanmar return home. The virus has also spread quickly through illegal gambling dens in provinces east of Bangkok in outbreaks less clearly linked to migrants.
The exact number of migrant workers from Myanmar in Thailand is not known as many reside and work in the kingdom without proper work or residence permits. Social community workers believe there could be as many as 3-4 million, with an additional million or two coming from Laos and Cambodia.
Mahachai may have the largest single concentration of migrant workers from Myanmar in Thailand, but they are also found on fishing boats off Thailand’s coasts and doing menial jobs in the tourism, hospitality and restaurant industries.
The factories in and around Mae Sot also employ thousands of Myanmar workers, while others, especially in Thailand’s north, work on farms and construction sites.
Although not to the same extent as in Myanmar, the Laotians and the Cambodians have also been affected by Covid’s fallout. Since the pandemic began in March last year, tens of thousands of Lao workers have lost their jobs, as have many among the Cambodians in Thailand.
Radio Free Asia reported on December 5 that civil society groups in Cambodia are urging their government to step in and support migrants so they can remain in Thailand and not be forced to return home.
According to a 2019 report from the International Organization of Migration, there were an estimated 650,000 migrant workers from Cambodia in Thailand and they provided the only means of support for their families back home.
Of the estimated 300,000 Laotian migrant workers in Thailand, perhaps as many as 100,000 have returned home. Those who remain in Thailand are like the Cambodians struggling to survive and those who did return home landed in villages ravaged by floods and where there is little to no gainful employment.
Laos is unwilling to let those stranded in Thailand return, fearing that they will bring the virus with them and infect home communities. If official figures are to be believed, Laos has had only 41 Covid cases and no deaths. Cambodia is reporting an equally dubious low number of 391 cases and also no deaths.
Myanmar, meanwhile, is now acknowledging an upward rising trend with 130,604 confirmed cases and 2,946 deaths as of January 11, which may reflect a more truthful picture of the situation than the ones authorities in Laos and Cambodia are portraying.
But the actual figures in Myanmar could be much higher than officially acknowledged because testing and treatment are being carried out mostly in major urban centers like Yangon and Mandalay. That represents an ever-rising risk to neighboring Thailand, particularly as the kingdom has superior medical facilities compared to Myanmar.
As the Covid-19 crisis becomes worse than ever in Thailand, many community workers fear that migrants will be further victimized by discriminatory treatment, including potential round-ups and deportations as the fear, loathing and panic spreads.