Thailand Law Journal 2009 Spring Issue 1 Volume 12


Bryant Yuan Fu Yang

* J.D. Candidate 2007, University of California, Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall); B.A., Ethnic Studies and Legal Studies, University of California Berkeley. I want to thank Hans Becker, Federico Soda, and Aiko Kikkawa of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for giving me the opportunity to serve the Burmese migrant population in Thailand, which inspired this article. I would also like to thank Professor Kate Jastram. This article could not have been written without her invaluable encouragement and supervision. Most of all, I thank the Asian-Pacific Law & Policy Journal for permitting me to speak on behalf of Burmese migrants in Thailand and for the contributions its editors have made to this article.


 ... Won, a Burmese migrant, was working at a construction site in southern Thailand when the tsunami washed over his workplace. ...  If a migrant is caught outside of his registered province, he is considered illegal and may be subjected to harassment and deportation. ...  Thus, Thai schools are required by law to offer basic education to migrant children for twelve years. ...  In small community schools, Burmese migrant children are taught in Burmese, Thai, and other minority ethnic languages. ... Thai citizenship law only acts as a detriment to the well-being of Burmese migrants, especially migrant children. ... Burmese migrant children born in Thailand cannot obtain a birth record or get official registration of their births, and thus, are effectively denied any possibility of applying for Myanmar citizenship. ...  With both Thai citizenship and Burmese citizenship unavailable to them, Burmese migrant children become stateless. ...  Thus, Thailand is legally bound to distribute birth records and to register Burmese migrant children. ... If reverting back to a policy of citizenship by birth is not a viable option, the Thai government should, at the very minimum, ensure that all alien children born in Thailand receive a birth certificate and are registered. This would give Burmese migrant children a chance to obtain Burmese citizenship, which would allow them to return to Myanmar.     


On December 26, 2004, at approximately 0059 GMT, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.3 struck 150 miles off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia.1 The earthquake displaced billions of tons of seawater away from the fault-line, setting in motion tsunami waves as high as sixty-five feet.2 The waves killed close to 229,866 people in eleven different countries.3 It was one of the worst natural disasters in history.4

Won, a Burmese migrant, was working at a construction site in southern Thailand when the tsunami washed over his workplace.5 Fortunately, he did not drown.6 However, he lost all his possessions, including his work permit.7 Instead of providing relief aid or accounting for Won's loved ones, the Thai government chose to raid his neighborhood and to round up migrants found without legal documents.8 Won was detained in an immigration detention center and was likely deported.9

Stories like Won's were not uncommon in Thailand following the tsunami. Officially, over 7,000 registered Burmese migrants were affected by the disaster. However, the actual number may be substantially higher if unregistered Burmese migrants are factored in.10 Similar accounts recounting the treatment of Burmese migrants by the Thai government brought the plight of Burmese migrants into the international spotlight. Unlike Burmese refugees fleeing political and ethnic persecution, the international community had not previously paid much attention, if any, to Burmese economic migrants. There had been previous allegations of deportation, detention, and exploitation, but "the tsunami served to aggravate the situation and then to expose abuse."11

In this paper, I set out to explore the plight of the estimated two million Burmese migrants living, working, and dying in Thailand. I include both documented and undocumented migrants in my discussion to highlight how registration status effects a migrant's reception and treatment in the Kingdom of Thailand, and how, in some cases, registration status makes no difference at all. It is my hope that, as more information about Burmese migrants reaches governments, intergovernmental agencies, non-profits, and concerned individuals, pressure will grow for Thailand to address the human rights abuses committed within its borders. This paper also critically analyzes the attempts the Thai government has made towards  managing migration, providing social services, and bestowing rights to Burmese migrants through its legislation and policies.12

Section II explores the reasons for large Burmese migration into Thailand, specifically the tragic interethnic fighting, political instability, and economic disparity found in Myanmar. Section III covers the broad overview of the migrant population -- its demographics, the various occupations migrant workers fill in Thailand, and their reception into Thai society. Section IV analyzes the steps that the Thai government is taking in managing and controlling migration through domestic legislation, international treaties, and bilateral agreements. Section V examines the failings in the Thai public policy towards Burmese migrants. This section concentrates on domestic laws where applicable; only when there is a lack of guidance from domestic laws does the analysis turn to international law. Lastly, in Section VI, suggestions are made for Thailand and other countries facing similar situations, to make migration mutually beneficial for both migrants and their destination countries.13

[FN1] Helen Lambourne, Tsunami: Anatomy of a Disaster, B.B.C NEWS, Mar. 27, 2005, available at

[FN2] Id.

[FN3] United Nations, Office of the Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, The Human Toll,

[FN4] Tsunami Among World's Worst Disaster, B.B.C. News, Dec. 30, 2004, available at The actual number of lives lost to the tsunami is probably close to 300,000 people if the number of missing is included.

[FN5] Donna Leinwand, Tsunami Pushes a People Deeper into Hiding, USA TODAY, Jan. 13, 2005, at 9A.

[FN6] Id.

[FN7] Id.

[FN8] Id.

[FN9] Id. The article does not expressly state what happened to Won. However, it does state that he was taken to an immigration detention center. The Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, based in Thailand, states that 2,000 Burmese had been detained and were scheduled to be deported. Id.

[FN10] Burmese Migrant Tsunami Victims Suffer Discrimination in Thailand, THAI PRESS REPORTS, Feb. 11, 2005.

[FN11] E-mail from Rachael Shigakane, Professor, University of California (July 20, 2005) (on file with author).

[FN12] Along with secondary sources, I use primary sources throughout the article. I interned at the International Organization of Migration ("IOM") in Bangkok, Thailand in 2005. The International Organization for Migration is an intergovernmental agency founded in 1951 to resettle Europeans displaced persons, refugees, and migrants. International Organization for Migration, (last visited Mar. 16, 2007). Since then, it has become the leading international organization on migration with 112 member States and an operational budget of one billion US dollars in 2005. Id. One of my assignments included conducting simple surveys and interviews with Burmese migrants in order to collect information to use for creating and shaping health and labor policies. Besides interviewing Burmese migrants at outreach events, I also visited neighborhoods, workplaces, and community centers in ethnic enclaves. These interviews are mainly meant to supplement accompanying authoritative sources

[FN13] The term "destination country" is used to describe the country to which the migrant or immigrant migrates.

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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