New Thai-Burmese passport issued, meets mix of hope and skepticism

Wed 15 Jul 2009, Jaloon Htaw , Weng Mon, IMNA
Today in a combined effort by the Burmese and Thai authorities to address the issue of abuse against migrant workers, the two governments have begun to issue limited passports.

On July 15th, the Burma-Thai Cultural and Economic Committee (BTCEC), in conjunction with the Burmese and Thai governments, has officially begun to produce limited passports for applications filled by Burmese migrant workers. The overarching goal, according to on of the committee members, is to save the rights of those who have been abused while working and living in Thailand.

According to the BTCEC, this is the first time they will be able to offer limited passports allowing migrants travel throughout Thailand and work anywhere they find a job, without restrictions. The application for the limited passports is now available for the next 20 days, in BTCEC offices based in Mae Sot, Tachilek and Kawthaung, for 11,000 bhat. In addition, the limited passports are valid for 2 years once issued said a member of BTCEC in Mae Sot. The new limited passports will replace the older Thai Labor Ministry issued worker ID’s, available over the last 12 years, that widely restricted migrant travel to the work area and town in which they worked and were only good for periods of 6 months and 1 year.

According to the Burmese state run news paper, the New Light of Myanmar, on July 12th, Thai and Burmese authorities met in Kawthaung, Tenasirim division, on the Thai- Burma border, to pre-issue 200 limited passports to residents.
“We have been trying for the last 7 years to get permission from Burmese authorities. They signed it this year. We have already made announcements [about the limited passport] at many places in Bangkok, even in Samuksakong, (Machai),” explained a BTCEC member in Mae Sot. “We are planning to go and inform migrants in other places. Some are scared to do this because they have been cheated many times before. We’ve showed them [skeptical migrants] the complete information on the document as decided on by the committee.”

Announcements are being made on Thai radio, explaining about the current worker IDs which are issued by Thai government and will expire in February 2010 and that all migrant workers will have apply for the limited passport at that time. Currently there are close to 500,000 Burmese migrant workers with Valid Thai ID’s in Thailand, while an estimated 700,000 more are working illegally within the Kingdom, according to a source at the Human Rights Development Foundation.

Despite the advertised benefits, some migrant workers have expressed their disinterest in the new limited passport. Previous attempts by migrants to obtain legitimate passports have overwhelmingly met with failure after applications lead to Burmese government persecution, and even scams from fake government officials. “Just one month ago, a man names Maung Maung Myint, claimed he was the vice-ministry, and told us to do the temporary passport,” said a Burmese migrant working at a plastic factory in Chonburi, Bangkok. “He said he would force us to return Burma if we didn’t. He took 500 Baht for each person and we had to fill out the form.”

The man, Maung Maung Myint, also went to other factories pressing migrants for money, and disappeared despite claiming he would deliver the temporary passports to workers in two months.

In 2006 a previous attempt was made by Burmese and Thai authorities to produce limited ID and passport documents that would provide workers with free access to work, health benefits and travel. However the documents required works to provide their exact address, and most migrants refused over concerns the government would demand money from their families, or threaten them. Additionally, according to the Irrawaddy News, workers were also required to send a remittance every month of 10 percent of their earnings to the Burmese government throughout their work stay in Thailand.

An official from the Thai Action Committee for Democracy in Burma (TACDB) expressed skepticism about the continued effort to create a passport for migrant workers, saying that it was an impossibility. In his opinion, neither government would be willing to give the estimated 1.2 million Burmese migrant workers in Thailand that much freedom. Additionally he sees the act of act of accepting a passport as support for the Burmese military government in coming 2010 election.

A worker from the Seafood industry in Kawthaung told IMNA that they would be happy to get a passport in Thailand and that they would be able to go anywhere, but haven’t dared to apply for a passport in previous years passport attempts. The worker said that they would now feel eager to apply since the legal support for the passport has been granted from both Thailand and Burma.

Like the previous effort to provide passports, the new application for the limited passport will require workers to have not only a valid Thai worker ID, but to also fill out their correct address of their home in Burma on the form. The forms are then sent to Nay Pyi Taw for verification, after which workers can collect their passport when the application is returned to an office in Thailand.

A member of the BTCEC said that they wanted to gather 15,000 applications for workers to start the process now, but could only collect 1,500 people. The Burmese authority are also collecting a list of people working in foreign countries which they say will make it easier to check the forms that migrants send BTCEC member added.

“All the workers should have their rights already, but some workers don’t know anything and listen and accept what the boss say,” a TACDB official said. “Currently the Thai government is making IDs for migrants who are illegal and this can give workers a lot of advantage and benefit. It is not possible that that Burmese workers will get passports in Thailand.”

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