Myanmar kids prep for homecoming in Thailand's ‘Little Burma’

24 June 2016
Myanmar kids prep for homecoming in Thailand's ‘Little Burma’
A Myanmar migrant fisherman from a Thai fishing boat at a jetty in Samut Sakhon province, Thailand, 19 January 2016. Photo: Rungroj Yongrit/EPA

In a Thai port dubbed 'Little Burma' the children of Myanmar migrant workers peer at white boards carrying the distinctive looping characters of their parents' language. 
Enrolment at the school, the first in the fishing hub of Samut Sakhon to offer a Myanmar curriculum including reading and writing, is surging as migrants wearied by the poor pay and low status in Thailand eye a return home.
For the 400 five to 15-year-olds crammed into a large community-funded classroom, the lessons are a bridge to a country many barely know after growing up in Thailand.
But their parents' hopes of a homecoming have bloomed since the ascent to power of Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy party.
Her new government promises freedom and greater prosperity for Myanmar, a country whose economy was eviscerated by 50 years of kleptocratic, repressive junta rule resulting in the exodus of workers.
The port's streets buzzed with excitement Thursday ahead of the democracy champion's arrival, which has for many ignited dreams of returning home after long years grinding it out over the border.
"Everyone wants to go home. They miss their county. But it is not going to be too long now because the new government of Myanmar welcomes them," said Aung Kyaw, the school's 52-year-old director, who comes from Myanmar's war-torn Kachin state. 
Like some 100,000 others, he came to Thailand seeking work in a shrimp factory in Samut Sakhon, a scuffed town west of Bangkok where the odour of fish hangs thick in the air.
His compatriots provide the cheap labour that propels the multi-billion dollar Thai seafood industry.
Across Thailand, an estimated three million Myanmar workers staff construction sites, fishing boats, factories and fields. 
Of them just over a million are registered.
- Trapped in two hells –
Migrants with work permits should be paid 300 baht ($8.5) a day, but their wages are often undercut by employers and labour agents.
Even then the money can be at least double the daily wage for work in Myanmar.
But with the low wages comes low status.
Myanmar migrants are sneered at by many Thais, routinely blamed for crimes and vulnerable to extortion from corrupt officials -- especially if they lack work permits.
International pressure over rampant slavery and exploitation -- especially in the seafood sector -- has pushed the Thai military government into registering hundreds of thousands of workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.
But rights groups say those unable, or unwilling, to register have slipped further into the clutches of criminal gangs that run the labour rackets. 
That has trapped them between "two hells", says Andy Hall, a prominent migrant rights activist in Thailand who advises the school. 
The first is a "country that is in conflict and can't provide for them, and another that exploits their labour," he added. 
Many migrants are now tired of life in Thailand.
"Almost every one of us here has a difficult life. No one wants to be separated from their families," migrant worker Shan Banday told AFP.
Myanmar's economy is chugging along with forecasts for 6.5 percent expansion next year in a region of anaemic growth. 
But there is a long way to go before domestic wages rise to accommodate the army of migrant workers who want to return from Thailand.
The school, which asks pupils to wear the green and white of their Myanmar counterparts, was established after a 2012 visit to the port by Suu Kyi and aims to prep children for that return. 
"All these children were born here but they had no school which was a problem so Daw Suu (Aung San Suu Kyi) once said she wanted them to go to school. She supported and helped with everything to have the school," said school director Aung Kyaw.
Aged just 11, student KoKo wrestles over the relative merits of a future in Thailand, a country he has spent much of his life in, or a homeland he barely knows. 
But he is certain about one thing -- he doesn't want to work in a fish factory like his parents.
"I want to be a teacher," he said.