Burmese who built beach resorts go into hiding

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The Independent Online

While urgent efforts continue to find more than 3,000 people missing in Thailand since the Boxing Day tsunami, others are trying hard not to be found. They are Burmese immigrants, many of whom built and serviced the seaside resorts flattened by the huge waves.

While urgent efforts continue to find more than 3,000 people missing in Thailand since the Boxing Day tsunami, others are trying hard not to be found. They are Burmese immigrants, many of whom built and serviced the seaside resorts flattened by the huge waves.

Hundreds of itinerant Burmese fishermen used to live in a warren of shacks across the street from Mem Bamroong's souvenir shop in Ban Namkem village. Now there is only a foetid pond.

That morning, she happened to look out of her window and saw a fishing trawler bearing down on her. "I screamed and ran outside, up the hill, but the water knocked me around," the shopkeeper said, lifting her T-shirt to display deep cuts on her torso and three taped broken ribs. "I have not seen any Burmese fishermen since."

Not all of them can have drowned. Some 30,000 Burmese labourers are registered with the Thai government. Many work in the six southern provinces struck by the tsunami, on shrimp boats, at rubber and coconut plantations, or in low-paid construction jobs. Officials believe up to 1,000 may have died. But the number of undocumented Burmese migrants means the exact toll may never be known.

Aung Myo Min, a Burmese exile, said: "We have the names of at least 163 dead Burmese immigrant workers, but there's nothing. The bodies have just disappeared."

The economic immigrants, rather than live in Burma, where they face forced labour, ethnic insurgencies or military conscription by the ruling junta, are willing to stay at Thai camps that lack running water, power or plumbing. At least a million Burmese are thought to live in Thailand. Many are in hiding; after 500 were deported last week. So far, 2,000 have been sent back. Makhaing, hobbling on a broken leg caused by the waves smashing her into a wall, has avoided the free medical clinic. She has stayed away from the morgue photos as well. Along with at least 10 other Burmese migrant labourers, she is camped at an inland rubber plantation, north of the Khao Lak coast.

No longer able to work, Makhaing is frightened that her husband will be caught and deported. Police have been rounding up poor immigrants, supposedly to prevent them plundering the wreckage of luxury hotels and homes. Makhaing told social workers she would return to Burma with her son if it were possible. But for the family to survive, her husband must work in Thailand.

One group of protesters on a tourist beach unfurled a banner reading: "Better to be killed by the tsunami than starve". Htoo Chit, a human rights advocate, said: "Some in hiding haven't had food for two or three days." Thai immigration officers said they would free detained workers only if their employers can provide proof of their legal status. Yet many registration files are missing or destroyed and several employers are dead.

But some Burmese workers who want to go home are blocked by employers who cannot find Thais willing to work under the poor conditions. On Wednesday, six relief workers from World Vision were beaten by a mob in the fishing village of Ban Thab Lamu. Police detained the aid workers. "A shipowner thought we were persuading the Burmese to go back," Chitra Thumborisuth of World Vision said. "It was a misunderstanding. But we do help repatriate Burmese."

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