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Burmese Film Focuses on Plight of Migrant Workers

  • Ron Corben

On the set of film Father's House Phangna Province Southern Thailand. Ron Corben/VOA.

On the set of film Father's House Phangna Province Southern Thailand. Ron Corben/VOA.

A new film, Father's House, sponsored by the Burmese comedian and political activist, Zarganar, hopes to raise the plight of Burmese migrant workers to a wider audience - especially to people back in Burma. The film’s location highlights the often harsh realities many workers face employed in the fishing, construction and rubber plantation industries.

Deep in a rubber plantation in southern Thailand’s Phangnga province a Burmese migrant community gathers, drawn to the making of a film that depicts the story of the lives and hardships faced by the migrant workers.

An organization assisting migrants in southern Thailand, the Foundation for Education and Development, says there are up to 100,000 migrant workers in the region of Phuket and Phangnga, many of whom are undocumented.

The migrant workers are often perceived as almost invisible; but play a key role in the regional economy on rubber plantation, in construction and fishing industries, in areas of work that Thais often shun.

Little-known plight

But the stories of migrant workers are little known inside Burma says foundation secretary Mallika Ketthaisong.

"The film is easier to understand because they [the viewers] can see the faces of the people, they can see the reality, the real [location]," she said. "In Burma, the people never see something of the Burmese people working here and how hard (it is). People will understand more why people move to Thailand."

The leading advocate for the film is Burmese comedian Zarganar, who was inspired by a series of short stories he read soon after his release from prison in Burma. He mustered support from leading Burmese actors, Ye Deight and Chit Thuwai, under the direction of film-maker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi.

Zarganar says inspiration for the project came after witnessing the lives of Burmese workers in Singapore and Thailand.

"At Singapore I felt very sorry about our Burmese people," he said. "They were living in the container and all the people in the one container. So I felt they are in the prison, I felt so I’m very sorry and then when I get back to Yangon [Rangoon] and read that screenplay again at that time, I got the idea I would like to rewrite the screenplay."

In the drama, Ye Deight’s character has travelled to Thailand working on a plantation, in the fishing industry and construction. Although he faces a harsh life, in the story all improves after meeting Chit Thuwai in her role as a teacher to migrant workers. The meeting blossoms into romance.

All of the scenes are filmed on location in Thailand where migrant workers are employed, such as the village Tong Kha Men.

A small crowd of Burmese workers gather to watch the filming of Father's House. But the backdrop of homes of corrugated iron and cement are real. A small open stream runs near by.

Director Ko Ko Gyi says seeing at first hand the real lives of Burmese migrant workers was more than he expected.

"The situation of the people from Burma who are staying in Thailand but actually I didn’t expect, I didn’t realize that by reading this script of the real situation of the Burmese people," he said. "I hope that people - Burmese people from around the world at least they could know the real situation of the Burmese people in Southern Thailand."

In the crowd watching the filming, a Burmese migrant and mother talks with actress Chit Thuwai of their daily routine that begins in pre dawn light to tap rubber trees. Behind the mother the homes are bare. Chit Thuwai is told by the mother of a family how they earn less than $20 a day to feed and care for all. Actress Chit Thuwai is moved by the family’s plight.

"How can I solve this problem? I don’t want to see them in this way," she said. "Our Myanmar people living and working here, here in Thailand, have no rights you know. No rights to get anything. That’s the main problem; nobody, nobody to protect them. I would like to give health education, more and more about health - I’m worried about them."

Foundation assists migrant community

The Foundation for Education and Development assists the migrant worker community through providing health care support and an education program for migrant worker children.

But rights advocate and Foundation chairman, Kraisak Choonhavan, says more needs to be done especially in granting rights of citizenship to the children of migrant workers.

"Without citizenship, without proper paper they are victims, victims of everything, victims of extortion by officers, victims of extortion by employers and this will not allow them to climb any higher as an employee," he said. "We can’t have this many stateless people living in Thailand."

Foundation president Htoo Chit says his organization is trying to make a difference in the lives of the migrant workers.

"The Burmese migrant worker everyday faces much violence, especially the human rights and labor rights violations," he said. "But why we’re trying to support it [through] education and migrant worker rights. That means our foundation we are promoting Burmese migrant worker rights in Thailand."

Copies of the film are to be distributed freely among migrant communities. The film makers say by telling the story of the lives and struggles of migrant workers, Burmese back home will better understand their plight and their stories that often go untold.
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