Thailand Law Journal 2009 Spring Issue 1 Volume 12

In recent years, large numbers of Burmese14 have migrated to Thailand. The Thai Ministry of Labour registered close to one million migrants from Myanmar in 2004.15 Many more Burmese enter Thailand illegally and do not register with the government; estimates range from two to six million.16 There are approximately 143,000 refugees residing in Thailand who have escaped political and ethnic persecution in Myanmar,17 but the vast majority of Burmese in Thailand are economic migrants -- those who enter seeking a better life, or sojourners hoping to send remittance home.18 Relative to Burmese refugees, little study or attention has been paid to Burmese migrants and the living conditions they face in Thailand. Nonetheless, it is important to note that causes of migration are interlinked, though they are separated for clarity in this paper. Myanmar's economy is in shambles,19 many would argue, because of economic sanctions, which  are placed on the country due to social and political unrest. For this reason, to better understand why such large numbers of Burmese economic migrants exist, all causes of migration -- social, political, and economic -- must be examined.

A. Interethnic Conflicts
Myanmar20 historically has been composed of numerous and diverse ethnic groups that have been in conflict with each other for centuries.21 However, many attribute the present day situation within Myanmar to British colonialism and the structuring of Myanmar's territory. "While conflicts and wars were waged for countless generations prior to British rule, the colonial era oversaw the transformation from traditional expressions of enmity to modern civil war."22 Colonialism brought "vast changes" to Myanmar's demography, political landscape, and political geography.23 One important change was the inclusion of numerous "mini-states" in the frontier borders.24 Prior to colonialism, these regions had been relatively autonomous.25 Furthermore, the British treated the various ethnic groups differently, especially by giving certain groups more self-rule than others,26 thus fueling historic resentment and antagonism.27 At the end of colonial domination, Myanmar's border was carved out without consideration of the development of the people and without respect to ethnic diversity. Rather, the boundaries were decided by politics between the regional colonial powers.28

In Myanmar today, there are over 100 ethnic groups, comprising seven major groups with numerous sub-groups and ethnic tribes.29 Interethnic hostility between these groups, exacerbated by British colonialism, has remained a marked characteristic of Myanmar under the current military government. After British colonial rule ended in 1948, many minority groups took up arms against the new postcolonial state because they felt the government had broken promises made to them and because they believed there was an active campaign to "Burmanize" the smaller ethnic groups.30 Due to the instabilities created by ethnic groups trying to separate from the postcolonial state, along with other stresses, the military seized power in 1962 and used armed persecution to protect national and territorial unity.31

Conflicts between ethnic minorities and the military junta have displaced many people within Myanmar and have pushed   numerous others out of the country completely.32 For example, since 2000, several thousand people have crossed into Thailand from Shan State, fleeing the fighting between the Shan State Army, the United Wa State Army and the Myanmar military junta.33 In May and June of 2002 alone, over 600 people crossed into Thailand as a result of the fighting.34 Furthermore, the government recently has focused its attention and power on civilians in or near rebel-held territory.35 From 1992 onward, tens of thousands of ethnic minority villagers have been forced to relocate, and thousands of villages have been systematically destroyed.36 Burmese civilians caught in the middle of these conflicts have poured into Thailand to find safety and refuge.

B. Political Persecution and Instability
Another major contributing factor to Burmese migration into Thailand is the political persecution and instability that run rampant in Myanmar. The military, operating under the name of the Socialist Program Party (BSPP), overthrew the democratic postcolonial government in 1962.37 "In 1988, deteriorating economic conditions, official mismanagement, and violence against protesters finally provoked massive demonstrations demanding a return to civilian democratic rule."38 The social unrest reached a climax on August 8<th>, when protestors all over the country turned to the streets in protest of the BSPP government and to demand a return to democratic civilian rule.39 In response, the military government opened fire on thousands of unarmed protestors.40 Many were killed, beaten, and jailed.41 Burton Levin, United States Ambassador to Burma witnessed the horrific moment, commenting, "I saw soldiers hunting down students on the streets, and people huddled behind trees being picked off by snipers in buildings across the road."42

Subsequently, power shifted within the military government, soon renaming itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).43 In order to protect its sovereignty and national and territorial unity, the military dictatorship enlarged its army to "more than 300,000 [troops] and equipped [itself] with more than $2 billion worth of new weapons."44 It "banned or severely restricted freedoms of speech, assembly, and movement. Military courts enforced these martial-law edicts; torture of suspects and prisoners became common."45 Some estimates of political activists' deaths at the hands of the military junta hover around 10,000.46 There is also extensive testimony that the SLORC used rape as an official tool of repression, as well as imposing slave labor, and forced conscription into the military.47 "Women, in particular, [have been] singled out as human shields and mine sweepers during their tenure as forced laborers ... [and have been treated] as if they are expendable."48

In 1990, the SLORC invalidated the results of a national election when the National League of Democracy (NLD), a pro-democracy opposition party, won more than 80% of the seats in the national assembly.49 The SLORC ignored the election results, jailed NLD elected representatives, and persecuted political dissenters.50 The government also placed Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the NLD, under house arrest.51 Since then, there has been little progress toward a return to democratic rule in Myanmar despite strong and continuing international pressure on the military junta.52

Like minorities who are forced to migrate because of interethnic conflict with the military junta, so too are political activists forced to migrate.53 The military junta, in their efforts to squash political dissidents, will target anyone deemed to be a threat, whether they are truly political dissidents or not. A survey conducted by the Thai Ministry of Interior found that "4.3% of the illegal labour migrants from Myanmar and Cambodia came to Thailand because of political [persecution] and conscription of labor."54 Once inside the country, "many of these political refugees try" to leave the refugee camps in order to find work.55 Thus, although they make up only a small percentage, political refugees are included in the economic migrant population.

[FN14] For the purpose of this paper, I use the term "Burmese" to connote all people from Myanmar, not just ethnic Burmans. BUREAU OF E. ASIAN & PAC. AFFAIRS, U.S. DEP'T OF STATE, BACKGROUND NOTE: BURMA (Sept. 2006), [hereinafter Burma Background Note]. Ethnic Burmans compose 68% of the total population. However, there are over one hundred ethnic groups such as Shan, Karen, Arkanese, and Mon. Id. The use of "Burmese" is due to logistical reasons; the vast majority of statistical data collected by nongovernmental, intergovernmental, and governmental agencies have not made distinctions based on specific ethnicity. The term's usage is not meant to marginalize the diverse peoples of Myanmar.

[FN15] SUREEPORN PUNPUING, FEMALE MIGRATION IN THAILAND: A STUDY OF MIGRANT DOMESTIC WORKERS 4 (2006) available at Portions of this article were presented in the Regional Seminar on Strengthening the Capacity of National Machineries for Gender Equality to Shape Migration Policies and Protect Migrant Woman, Bangkok, Thail. (Nov. 22-24, 2006), organized by the Gender and Development Section of the. United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

[FN16] Thailand's population is approximately 63 million. STATISTICAL FORECASTING BUREAU, THAIL. MINISTRY OF INFO. & COMM. TECH., STATISTICAL YEARBOOK THAILAND 2004 (2005). Thus, if the estimate that 6 million illegal immigrants currently reside in Thailand was correct, it would mean that close to 10% of the Kingdom's population would be undocumented immigrants.

[FN17] MATHEA FALCO, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS, INDEPENDENT TASK FORCE REPORT, BURMA: TIME FOR CHANGE 31 (2003). The Thai government refuses to recognize Burmese refugees as "refugees," as defined under the United Nations Convention on Refugees. The government labels them as "displaced persons."

[FN18] Id.

[FN19] Clive Parker & Louis Reh, Concern Grows over Burma's Rapidly Increasing Inflation, THE IRRAWADY (Bangkok), Oct. 6, 2005, available at

[FN20] There is controversy over the use of "Myanmar" rather than "Burma" to name the country. Many critics of the ruling military junta, especially opposition leaders and political exiles, refuses to acknowledge "Myanmar," which was instated after the military took control in 1988. See Laurent Rotroff, Should the ICTB be the Next International Criminal Tribunal?: Examining the Burmese Junta as a Candidate for an International Criminal Tribunal for Burma, 9 NEW ENG. J. INT'L & COMP. L. 491, n.2 (2003). In fact, even the U.S. State Department still refers to the country as "Burma" on all official documentations. See e.g., BUREAU OF E. ASIAN & PAC. AFFAIRS, U.S. DEP'T OF STATE, CONDITIONS IN BURMA AND U.S. POLICY TOWARD BURMA FOR THE PERIOD SEPTEMBER 28, 2004 -- MARCH 27, 2005 (Mar. 29, 2005), (last visited Mar. 16, 2007). However, I use "Myanmar" because the international community has come to recognize it as such. In addition, "Myanmar" is the correct name in the Burmese language, which has been in use since the country's liberation from the British.

[FN21] The original inhabitants in what is present day Myanmar were the Mon from Cambodia, the Mongol Burmans (Mien) from the eastern Himalayas, and Thai tribes from Thailand. U Aung Khin, Burma Millenium Special, 8 IRRAWADDY (Feb. 1, 2007), available at From the 11<th> to the 16<th> century, the region saw the rise and fall of numerous kingdoms, where one ethnic group subjugated the others through military might. Id. Myanmar remained composed of fractured groups with distinct self-determined kingdoms until the British colonized and unified the region in the 19<th> century. Id.

[FN22] Louise Southalan, Issue of Self-Determination in Burma, LEGAL ISSUES ON BURMA J., Apr. 2004, No. 5, at 7-8.

[FN23] Id. at 8.

[FN24] Id.

[FN25] Id.

[FN26] Id.


[FN28] Southalan, supra note 22, at 8.

[FN29] Id. at 7.

[FN30] Josef Silverstein, Burma's Uneven Struggle, 7.4 J. DEMOCRACY 88, 88 (Oct. 1996).

[FN31] Id. at 88.

[FN32] Southalan, supra note 22, at 1.


[FN34] Id.


[FN36] Id.

[FN37] Lucien J. Dhooge, The Wrong Way to Mandalay: The Massachusetts Selective Purchasing Act and The Constitution, 37 AM. BUS. L. J. 387, 391 (2000).

[FN38] Silverstein, supra note 30, at 88.

[FN39] Rotroff, supra note 20, at 498.

[FN40] Id. at 498-99.

[FN41] Dhooge, supra note 37, at 391.

[FN42] Alan Clements & Leslie Kean, FREE BURMA, Burma's Revolution of the Spirit: The Struggle Democratic Freedom and Dignity, available at (last visited May 16, 2007).

[FN43] See Silverstein, supra note 30, at 88. See also John Doe I v. UNOCAL Corp., 395 F.3d 932, 937 (9th Cir. 2002). The case was brought by Burmese villagers against a California based oil company for investing and working with the military junta to build an oil pipeline. Id. The cause of action was under the Alien Tort Claims Act, specifically that Unocal is liable for the human rights atrocity committed by the military. Id.

[FN44] Silverstein, supra note 30, at 89.

[FN45] Id.

[FN46] Mary Warren, Burma, NEW INTERNATIONALIST, Apr. 2005, at 36, available at

[FN47] Unocal, 395 F.3d at 939.

[FN48] Human Rights in Burma: Fifteen Years Post Military Coup: Joint Hearings Before the House Comm. on Int'l Relation, 108th Cong. 61 (2004) (statement of Naw Musi, Burmese Refugee, Intern, Refugee International).


[FN50] FALCO, supra note 17, at 2.

[FN51] Irwin Abrams, Aung San suu Kyi of Burma, in THE NOBLE PRIZE ANNUAL FOR 1991, at 77, available at

[FN52] Myanmar had to forgo chairing the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) after pressure was mounted by ASEAN members. The United States and the European Union threatened to boycott the regional meeting because of Myanmar's failure to institute democratic reform. Burma will not take Asean chair, BBC NEWS, July 26, 2005, available at

[FN53] See PUNPUING, supra note 15, at 4-5.

[FN54] Sumalee Pitayanon, Migration of Labour into Thailand, 13 CHULALONGKORN J. OF ECON. 2, 12 (May 2001), available at

[FN55] Id.

This article is published with the kind permission of Bryant Yuan Fu Yang, Life and Death Away from the Golden Land: The Plight of Burmese Migrant Workers in Thailand, 8 Asian-Pac. L. & Pol’y J. 485 (2007).


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