CHAING MAI, THAILAND— Millions of Burmese migrant workers have long sought economic opportunity abroad, but their life in exile frequently means working outside the law, in risky or dangerous jobs.
In Thailand there are more than a million registered Burmese migrant workers. The number of unregistered is even greater, and many of them work jobs that Thai laborers are often unwilling to do.
Working without proper documentation can often lead to arrest and deportation. But many, like Ta Jandee, say they prefer that risk to returning to Burma.
“When I was living in Burma. I got arrested by Burmese soldiers and they forced me to be a porter. I had to carry supplies for them in the jungle. That was a hard part of my life. That’s why I fled to Thailand,” he said.
The reluctance to go back home may be changing, with political reforms underway.
As migrants weigh a return, they are hungry for information about what is happening back home. Many turn to programs produced by the Migrant Assistance Program (MAP), based at a radio station in Chiang Mai, Thailand, just a few hours from the Burmese border.
MAP head Jackie Pollock says the reforms now underway in Burma will hopefully improve working conditions for migrants in Thailand.
“With Burma opening a little bit that is going to put pressure on Thailand because up until now there have been three million workers who had no choices and had no government to speak on their behalf or advocate for them,” Pollock said.
For years, Pollock and a team of Thai and Burmese legal advisers have worked as migrant advocates.
“Now it seems that the Burmese government, the ministry of labor means to be taking up the issue of migrant workers and so hopefully they will start to put a little pressure on Thailand to improve the conditions here,” Pollock said.
Such groups have long been a critical safety net, but there are signs of new help from Burma's government.
Last month, the Burmese government offered to issue certificates of identity to migrant workers in Thailand who wanted to return home.
For expectant parents like Ta Jandee and his wife Lugao, having more legal options is hopefully a sign of good things to come.
“When my child starts school he will need a birth certificate. In the future, I want my child to have higher education. If we still live in Thailand, I want them to study Thai. If we go back to Burma, I want them to study Burmese,” he said.
In the meantime, Ta Jandee says Burma’s ongoing armed conflicts that continue in several states still make him wary of going back to Burma. For him and many others it could still be months or years before they feel safe enough to return to their home country.