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Employment and Poverty

Mae Hong Son Province Thailand:

‘Burmese’ Refugees in the Labour Market

Alison Vicary

Mae Hong Son is one of the poorest of Thailand’s 76 provinces. The 8th largest province in
terms of land area it has the third smallest registered population (at 243, 735 people) – a
population that has been declining due to the province’s limited economic opportunities (UNDP
2005:4).1 The main economic sectors in Mae Hong Son Province are agriculture, forestry and
tourism. Agriculture accounted for an average of nearly 20 per cent of the province’s output
between 1996 and 2002, with major crops including cabbage, paddy, garlic, soya bean and more
recently tomatoes, but the agricultural area accounts for only 3.4 per cent (at official figures) of
the province’s total area. Agricultural land is limited as much of the province is mountainous,
with most of it officially classified as forest and national park (UNDP 2005: 4 -5). Data for the
proportion of output associated with tourism is not available, though its economic contribution
is probably similar to that of the agricultural sector. About 50 per cent of output in the same
period was from wholesale and retail trade, with other trading accounting for nearly 27 per cent
of output (UNDP 2005:4).

In Mae Hong Son Province employment opportunities vary significantly between different
groups, as the labour market is segmented based on ethnicity and residency status. The local
‘highlander’ population is mostly engaged in agricultural production in the more mountainous
areas. The proportion of the ethnic minorities within the population (at 63 per cent) is the largest
of all the provinces in Thailand. These ethic minority groups are officially classified as members
of different ‘highlander’ (‘hill-tribe’) groups, including Karen, Kayah, Lahu, Lisu and Hmong
(UNDP 2005:4). The largest ethnic group in the province is the Thai Yai (or Thai Shan) who
dominate agricultural production on the plains (Aguettant 1996:51). Those of Thai ethnicity
mostly from Chiang Mai and Bangkok, dominate white-collar employment and the bureaucracy
in the province. The ‘Burmese’ are mostly engaged in irregular employment at the lowest rungs
of the labour market in the agricultural, tourism and construction industries. Thai citizens and
‘Burmese migrants’ rarely do the same types of jobs (at least in the same work place), except for
a small number of Thai citizens, mostly over forty who do not own farming land.

About 88 per cent of the population in the province with official registration has Thai citizenship.
The other 12 per cent are officially registered, which allows them to legally reside in a particular
area within the province, but they do not have Thai citizenship (UNDP 2005:4). Many of this 12
per cent are designated as ‘aliens’. This 12 per cent, plus those who are not registered are further
sub-divided into 10 groups based on ethnicity, country of origin and their presumed date of

1 Recently people from Bangkok have been moving to Mae Hong Son for retirement, as the land is cheap, the cost
of living lower and the local environment more conducive. Some of these retirees purchase land employing
‘Burmese’ to establish market gardens.

arrival in Thailand.2 The size of this unregistered proportion of the province’s population is

Nearly all the people from Burma residing in Mae Hong Son Province fled human rights abuses
and war in their home country. Many in this group (who arrived prior to 1999) are officially
registered, allowing them to reside within designated areas of the province. However, registration
does not grant an entitlement to work, though this restriction has only been enforced since 2000.
Many ‘Burmese’ who fled human rights abuses after 1994 and arrived in Mae Hong Son Province
entered the refugee camps located on the province’s border with Burma. This excludes those of
Shan ethnicity, who are unable to reside in these camps. Many Shan, particularly those who have
arrived after 1999 and have not moved to other (more prosperous) provinces are not registered,
so reside illegally, usually living in the jungle or on the farms surrounding the remoter villages.
Most of those illegally resident in the province’s townships are typically relatives, visiting, trading
or on their way to Chiang Mai. Since, around 2000 most people arriving from Burma do not stay
in Mae Hong Son Province, but use it as a stepping-stone to work in Chiang Mai and the more
prosperous areas of Thailand.

The following outlines the economic situation of the people originally from Burma living in Mae
Hong Son Province. It argues that these people have been integral to the province’s economic
development, including the development policies of the Thai State, (not all of which have been
successful), providing the labour for the agricultural and forestry sectors and the lower rungs of
the tourism and construction industries. Despite this contribution the vast majority, live below
the province’s official poverty line. The legal restrictions associated with the official registration
process that has allowed some refugee migrants to reside legally in the province and the
restrictions associated with work permits have contributed to the very high incidence of poverty
amongst this group. The ‘Burmese’ are also embroiled in many of the informal mechanisms in
Thailand - their situation sometimes determined by personal contacts and the private interests of
Thai citizens. This means that some interactions the ‘Burmese’ have with the formal legal system
can depend on the discretion of local officials and Thai citizens able to access this system.3 All
of this has had mixed results for the ‘Burmese’ living in the province, and this is evident with
regard to identity cards, work permits, land title, education and health care. The paper concludes
that unless the restrictions on those of ‘Burmese’ descent are removed, by granting Thai
citizenship then the poverty evident within the first and second generation of refugee migrants
will be inherited by their descendants.

In researching this paper interviews were conducted with 50 families of ‘migrant’ workers in three
districts of Mae Hong Son Province – Mae Hong Son, Pang Mapha, Khun Yuam - at the
beginning of 2003.4 Further interviews were conducted at the beginning of 2004 in the Pai
District of Mae Hong Son Province. The isolated places of residency of recent arrivals not
officially residing in Thailand, coupled with security issues for all concerned, made it impossible
to interview many of these people. Further, for the security of those interviewed they are

2 The 10 groups are 1) Former Kuomintang Soldiers 2) Haw Chinese 3) Free Chinese 4) Displaced ‘Burmese’ –
arriving before March 9, 1976 5) Displaced ‘Burmese’ with permanent residence – arriving after March 9, 1976 6)
‘Burmese’ immigrants (workers) residing at place of employment – arriving after March 9, 1976 7) Highland groups
(comprised of nine Thai and alien tribes) 8) Highland established communities 9) Illegal alien workers 10) Refugees
living in border camp (UNDP 2005:4)
3 See Christensen & Rabihandana (1994) for more detail on the interaction between the formal and informal

structures in Thailand.
4 The survey data utilized in this report (and other interview material) is a small component of a larger research

project. Central to this was a survey conducted in 2003/04 of 1,200 ‘Burmese’ migrant families living and working in

identified by a simple number moniker and basic personal characteristics. Also, the names of the
villages and the areas of residence in the townships of the interviewees have not been included.

Poverty in Mae Hong Son Province

Mae Hong Son is one of the lowest income provinces in Thailand, with an official gross
provincial production in 2002 of 5,358 million baht in 2002 (UNDP 2005:4). The low income of
the province’s residents is reflected in the large percentage of people living below the poverty
line. The poverty line for the province as set by the National Economic and Social Development
Board (NESDB) of Thailand for 2002 was 810 baht per person per month (UNDP 2005:16).5
Based on this definition, 23.18 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line, though
according to official reckoning, poverty in the province had declined dramatically in the previous
10 years (from 30.63 per cent).6

Table 1: % of Population below the MHS Poverty Line (810 baht/person/month)

Year % Total Population below MHS % People from Burma below MHS
Poverty Line Poverty Line
1992 30.63 *
1994 48.17 *
1996 43.06 *
2000 27.96 *
2002 23.18 *
2003 * 78
Source: UNDP (2005)

Based on the definition of poverty set by the NESDB of 810 baht per person per month, it was
found that 78 per cent of those originally from Burma and their descendants lived in poverty.
This is significantly higher than for the province’s general population (at 23.18 per cent) in 2002.

Table 2 below shows the proportion of ‘Burmese’ families for different family sizes living below
the poverty line. The larger the family size generally the greater percentage of families that are
below the poverty line. However, even when the ‘migrant’ worker is alone, more than 30 per
cent are still below the poverty line, which is still higher than for the general population. Further,
the association between family size and the incidence of poverty is not because of a large number
of children, as the average number of children in the families interviewed was only between three
and four (and not all of these are dependents as some are participants in the workforce). Often
those in the labour market were supporting not only their children, but elderly relatives,
grandchildren, and sometimes orphans and the ill and disabled.

Table 2: Family Size & % of Families Living Below the

Poverty Line

5The national poverty line in 2002 was higher at 922 baht per person per month. (UNDP 2005:16)
6The estimates of the proportion of the population living below the province poverty line show significant variation
suggesting some problem in the gathering of data.



% of families

Above poverty line

Below poverty line


1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Family size

Source: BEW Survey 2003/2004

Table 3 below, further highlights this dependency burden of employed ‘migrant’ workers of all
age groups. For example, every ‘migrant’ worker between the ages of 36-40 who was working at
the time of the survey was supporting nearly eight other people. Even those over 60 who were
working at the time of the survey were supporting more than two people. This high dependency
burden partially explains the very high proportion of ‘migrant’ workers in Mae Hong Son
Province living below the poverty line. The reasons for the dependency burden are discussed
more fully below, but relate to the types of jobs held by ‘migrant’ workers, most part-time,
seasonal and irregular.7 This is exacerbated by the formal and informal structures, which
discriminate against ‘migrant’ workers and their descendants.

Table 3: Relationship between ‘Migrant’ Workers & Dependents

7 The relationship between underemployment and poverty is highlighted by using an example of a ‘migrant’ worker

family in Mae Hong Son Township. The wife in the month surveyed worked 8 days for 3 different employers
earning 680 baht. She was employed 3 days at 100 baht per day labouring on a construction site, cleared gardens for
3 days at 80 baht per day and spent the other 2 days cleaning rooms in a guesthouse at 70 baht per day. The
husband’s income for the month was 1,000 baht, having worked 10 days at 100 baht per day clearing land. This
family income of 1,680 baht put the three member household below the province’s poverty line, with a per person
monthly income of only 680 baht.

Dependency ratio (aggregate) by age cohort



Total dependents/total workers







<=20 21-25 26-30 31-35 36-40 41-45 46-50 51-55 56-60 >60

Age of respondent

Source: BEW Survey 2003/2004

The majority of ‘migrant’ workers interviewed in Mae Hong Son Province resided in the less
remote areas and were longer-term residents with Thai identity cards. It is very likely that if, a
larger number of new-arrivals could have been included in the survey, the proportion of refugee
migrants living below the poverty line would be greater. Before discussing the economic
structure of the province and the formal and informal mechanisms that contribute to this very high
incidence of poverty amongst those originally from Burma and their descendants, an overview of
the reasons they left their home country is presented.

Fleeing Burma
The interviews conducted reveal that most ‘Burmese migrant’ workers resident in Mae Hong Son
Province are not ‘economic migrants’, but refugees having left Burma due to human rights violations
and civil war - fleeing forced relocation, forced labour, portering and attacks on their villages by
the Tatmadaw.8 The systematic collating of human rights abuses in Burma did not begin until the
early 1990s, thus there is little hitherto direct collated evidence available on ‘Burmese migrant’
workers resident in Mae Hong Son Province.9 An exception is Christensen and Kyaw (2006),
who found that the Pa-O from Burma resident in the province fled for similar reasons to those
interviewed here. Most of those from Burma living and working in Mae Hong Son Province fled
from the Karenni and Shan States, with a steady flow of people arriving since the early 1970s. All
those interviewed and their families at the time (except for one individual), fled either human
rights abuses or are retired, defeated or ‘deserted’ from one of the ethnic armies that once fought
the central military regime. The interviewees also reported that those living in the same village or
township quarter in Thailand had fled for the same reasons.

War & Village Attacks

8 All effort was taken to ascertain and record dates correctly, but inaccuracies can be expected given the length of

time that has elapsed since many have arrived in Thailand and the differences between the Buddhist calendars of
Burma and Thailand and their difference with the Western calendar.
9 While there is very little information about conflict induced displacement prior to the 1990s, the displacement of civilians because of

fighting is assumed to have taken place since the start of the war in 1947 (Bamforth et al 2000: p.49)

A typical example is that of a Shan woman and her Karen husband, who fled a border village in
Karenni in the mid-1980s after their village was burnt down by the Tatmadaw and the residents
forcibly relocated.

We had been attacked about four times by the BSPP [Burma Socialist Program Party] and there was much
fighting in the area before we eventually fled to Thailand…We fled as it became impossible to live in the midst of
war. There was the constant problem of hunger and safety... We would have gone anywhere, where there was food
and it was safe from the fighting. …. We had no idea or even thought about the employment situation in
Thailand. We came to Thailand for safety. [Interview 2 – Karen Male 54, Hot Set, Karenni:
Arrived 1985]

Another Karenni couple also reported fleeing a border village, after it was attacked by Tatmadaw
troops and destroyed.

We came to Thailand in 1980 when the village was attacked by the BSPP [Burma Socialist Program
Party], all the houses and the paddy fields were burned. We ran for our life to Thailand and did not look back.
All the people fled from the village into the jungle and then to Thailand. [Interview 3 – Karen Woman 50,
Karenni: Arrived 1980]

In one village in Mae Hong Son Township the Shan residents had fled from Karenni in the late
1970s and early 1980s, also to escape war and its consequences.10

The first group to arrive, in the late 1970s were Shan from Karenni State who ran when the Burmese were
fighting the KNPP [Karenni National Progressive Party]. The group left from east of the Salween, as the
Burmese were sending mortars from the other side onto the villages… so they left down the Pai River to Mae
Hong Son Township. [Interview 21 – Shan Male 54, Karenni: Arrived 1972]

In another village in Mae Hong Son Province, the Shan, Pa-O and Karen residents also fled war
and human rights abuses in Karenni.11 The first group of arrivals came from Karenni in the mid-
70s. The second group arrived in the early 1980s when the Tatmadaw again launched an
operation east of the Salween, though they were forced to retreat. A third group from Karenni
arrived in 1990, when the Tatmadaw launched another offensive east of the Salween, though this
time the army stayed in the area. The Pa-O in the village came from the border area between
Karenni and Shan State in 1990, fleeing the same offensive.12

Those from Shan State and resident in Mae Hong Son Province also fled the civil war, and
reported that others residing in their villages in Thailand had fled for similar reasons.

A group from Southern Shan State [arrived in 1982-1983]. At around the same time another group from
Shan State came to live in the village fleeing fighting between SSNLO,13, SSPP,14, PNO15, WNO16], Khun
Sa and the Burmese. [Interview 21- Shan Male 54, Karenni: Arrived 1972]17

10 The Shan in Karenni State live mostly east of the Salween near the border with Thailand having migrated from

Shan State along the Salween. Many of these villages were reported to have been dispersed, with the process
beginning in the early 1970s. There was an earlier movement of Shan from Karenni from where the Salween forks
and becomes the Pai River after WW2 due to a major dysentery epidemic in Shan villages. The descendants of these
Shan have Thai citizenship.
11 Interview 14 – Karen Male 23, Shadaw Township, Karenni: Arrived 1980
12 ibid.
13 Shan State Nationalities Liberation Organization
14 Shan State Progress Party
15 Pa-O National Organization
16 Wa National Organization
17 These people reside in the same village as the Shan who came from Karenni and discussed earlier by Interview 21.

In a new quarter of Mae Hong Son Township there are about 500 people, who fled from
Southern Shan State more recently, with most from the same three areas.

People are always coming into the area.... They are coming as family groups to get away. Many have come
because of fighting in the villages between the SSA,18 the UWSA19 and the Burmese. The villages are being
burnt by all of the groups and then taken over... There is always portering and they beat and kick you.
The Burmese kill the porters if they are weak or sick. If you join the SSA, you have to stay 3 years. If
you have more than others, then the Burmese run after you, to kill you. You must be poor always. If
you have no education or no money to spend, then it is safer. [Interview 19 – Shan Woman 31,
Ho Pong, Southern Shan State: Arrived 1991]

Forced Labourers & Military Porters

Many ‘Burmese’ from all areas of Karenni and Shan State, now resident in Mae Hong Son
Province, reported fleeing forced labour and portering. Interviewees from Karenni reported that
people began fleeing from the mid-1970s, to escape being forced to porter for the Tatmadaw.
Others fled later, for example, a group from Loikaw now living in the same village in Mae Hong
Son Province, fled between 1984 and 1986 to escape being military porters.20 There are many
others also from Loikaw District, living elsewhere in the province, who also fled after being
forced to porter regularly for the Tatmadaw.21

My village had to supply porters and forced labour each month. I did the portering for my family… since I was
12 years old. I could never sleep well as I was always waiting to be taken. I was once wounded because of fighting
between Burmese soldiers and the KNPP [Karenni National Progressive Party]… Eventually, I fled into
the jungle and came to Thailand. I ran for about two days to the Salween River. I was then taken by Burmese
troops for four days. I escaped and ran to the old KNPP headquarters22. I fell down so many times during the
night that my body was badly cut and bruised… I knew I would die if I stayed a porter. I knew nothing about
Thailand. I was just running to save my life. [Interview 4 – Burmese Male 39, Loikaw, Karenni:
Arrived 1989] 23

Even those that did not themselves do forced labour or porter for the Tatmadaw lived in villages
where the practice was common.

We never did forced labour, but other people in Hot Set were often used as porters by the BSPP [Burma
Socialist Program Party] [Interview 2 – Shan Woman 42, Hot Set, Karenni: Arrived 1985]

Another interviewee reported that his elder brother was forced to regularly porter around
Shadaw Township for the Tatmadaw in the earlier 1980s.24 Many from Shan State also reported
having to porter for the Tatmadaw.

When the Khun Sa army was there it was a good time to trade. Later the Burmese took over the area and there
were many problems with the soldiers. Even as women, we had to porter for them. Most of the people were afraid;
the Burmese had no pity. Sometimes we were kicked; sometimes the soldiers killed us. My father died because he

18 Shan State Army

19 United Wa State Army
20 Interview 25 - Kachin Male 40, Karenni: Arrived 1984 - The interviewee lived in Karenni for many years before

fleeing to Thailand. He had come to Karenni as a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) soldier, when the group was
involved in negotiations with the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP).
21 Interview 4 - Burmese Male, 39 Karenni: Arrived in Thailand 1989
22 Huai Plong was the old KNPP headquarters located on the Pai River bordering Thailand
23 The interviewee also reported that his father, who had retired from the Burma Railway, was forced to labour on

the same railway in the Loikaw area as himself. His father did not live with the family, as his parents were divorced.
24 Interview 38 – Shan Male, 35 Shadaw Township, Karenni: Arrived 1986

was a porter. He was old and could not work anymore so they killed him. [Interview 23 – Shan Woman
48, Eastern Shan State: Arrived 1992]25

Her husband from another area in Shan State fled also in the mid-1980s to escape having to
porter for the Tatmadaw. 26

Non-Violent Opposition
There are also people, who were involved in non-violent political action in Burma, who now eke
out an existence as ‘migrant’ workers in Mae Hong Son Province. Some of those engaged in
non-violent action have been in the province since the early 1970s. One interviewee was once a
prominent member of the Karen community in Loikaw and a wealthy trader, but his prominence
and involvement in the Catholic Church was viewed by the local authorities as synonymous with
ethnic separatism. In 1970, he came to Thailand for business, but the authorities in Loikaw
believed he had fled to become involved in politics. He was warned not to return and has since
resided in the province.27

Another, interviewee fled from her home town of Lashio in Shan State, though nearly two
decades later to escape persecution by the local military authorities.

I began teaching the Shan language and cultural traditions in 1965 until 1987, when I had to flee to Thailand.
In 1998, I went back to Burma and joined the protests. I was a well known organizer for the NLD in my town
of Lashio, during the 1990 elections. I was also involved in campaigning for the NLD in Myitkyina and in
Mandalay. For these reasons, I was well known to the police. I was jailed during the election period. I hid for 2
months after being released, before fleeing into Thailand in 1990. [Interview 4 – Shan Woman 48, Lashio,
Shan State: Arrived 1990]

Forced Relocation
Some of the province’s refugee migrants have come from Demawso Township in Karenni,
having fled from the Township, as it was used by the Tatmadaw as a forced relocation site.28
There were also recent arrivals in the province from those areas in Shan State that the United Wa
State Army (UWSA) began to occupy in 1999, after moving from the state’s border with Yunnan

25 In 1982 Khun Sa and his army, the SUA, were forced to leave their base inside Thailand near Mai Sai by the Thai
Army. As a result, in 1984 the SUA took over the area along the border with Mae Hong Son Province, defeating
several armed groups including the PNO. The defeat of the PNO by the SUA, though providing economic
opportunities for this interviewee (and others), forced others to flee to Mae Hong Son Province. See Interview 9 -
Pa-O Male 57, near Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived 1984
26 The husband and wife in interview 23 left from different parts of Shan State, but both reported being forced to

porter for the Tatmadaw. The wife was originally from Eastern Shan State, but moved to engage in trade in the
Khun Sa controlled area. The husband in Interview 23 was originally from Pathein in Irrawaddy Division.
27 Interview 5 – Karen Male 70+, Loikaw, Karenni: Arrived 1970 He had previously been a soldier in the Karen

National Union (KNU) for 5 years between 1948 and 1953

28 Interview 26 – Burmese Male 43, Meiktila Mandalay Division: Arrived 1983 - The interviewee actually stated that

people had been coming from Demawso Township since 1984. The wife of this interviewee was from this area in
29 The Northern UWSA, along with the Tatmadaw, was involved in bringing about the surrender of Khun Sa in

1996 to the SPDC. The UWSA then took control of some of the areas previously controlled by Khun Sa’s army. In
1999, the UWSA began to move the civilian population from the Wa hills and the borderline with Yunnan Province
to Mong Yawn, causing many people to flee to Thailand. See Crampton (2000); Davis (2003); Human Rights Watch
(2003); Shan Herald Agency for News (2000a, 2000b, 2000c); The Lahu National Development Organization
(2002:3) estimated that around 4,000 people from the areas occupied by the Wa, after 1999, fled to Thailand.

There are about 30-40 people from Shan State working in the nearby areas for the Forestry Department. These
people left after the second surrender of Khun Sa and the [subsequent] Wa occupation… They started to come
about 3 years ago and more are still coming. [Interview 14 – Karen Male 23, Shadaw Township,
Karenni: Arrived 1980]

Ex-Soldiers & Conscripts

Some from Burma residing in the province are ex-soldiers or members of the armed opposition
groups, including the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), Pa-O National Organization
(PNO), Karen National Union (KNU), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Shan State Army
(SSA) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA). Some of the soldiers came after they were
defeated by the Tatmadaw, or another armed group. Other men in Mae Hong Son Province fled
from Shan State to escape conscription.

The UWSA [United Wa State Army] and the SSA [Shan State Army] are conscripting men & boys for
their armies. Some here have run from conscription. [Interview 19 – Shan Woman 31, Southern Shan
State: Arrived 1991]

Many simply tired of the fighting, internal disputes, corruption and the self-interest of their
respective leaderships. Others left their respective armies as they had joined as very young men
and were tired and hungry.

I was a Wa soldier for about 5 years in the Mae Aw area. I joined when I was about fourteen. My first
stepfather was a Wa soldier so I was expected to join the UWSA. I asked to leave so I could take care
of my mother who was getting old. I was allowed to leave because I am Karenni. If I were Wa or Shan I
would not have had this benefit. I wanted to leave because I was always tired & hungry. [Interview 14
– Karen Male 23, Shadaw Township, Karenni: Arrived 1980]

Two interviewees, ex-members of the Pa-O National Organization (PNO) were stationed near
Mae Aw in the mid-1970s when the PNO controlled a border gate with Thailand, which it used
for smuggling and the collection of ‘taxes.’30 When the local PNO leader (Khun Ye Naung)
decided to surrender in 1977, they were amongst those delivered, without their consent to the
Tatmadaw.31 One of these interviewees, after being released from a Tatmadaw prison, decided to
retire to his home village in the Tha Daung area. Unfortunately, retirement in this village in
Karen State entailed being forced to porter for the military. Finally, in the early 1980s his village
was attacked and destroyed by the Tatmadaw, forcing him to flee to Thailand.32 Another ex-
PNO soldier residing in Mae Hong Son Province, who was also handed over to the Tatmadaw in
the same circumstances, returned to the PNO border gate at Mae Aw after being released from
prison.33 He stayed near Mae Aw until Khun Sa’s Shan United Army (SUA) took over the area
in 1984. He, along with about 600 Pa-O, fled the fighting and crossed into Thailand (Christensen
& Kyaw 2006:50).

Recent Arrivals
In contrast to the vast majority of people from Burma resident in Mae Hong Son Province, there
were reports that some of the recent arrivals from certain areas in Shan State had come

30The money yielded was to buy weapons and support the PNO, but it appears that considerable resources were
devoted to enriching the leadership leading to large discrepancies between their standard of living and that of the
rank and file, fostering discontent, disillusionment and desertion [Interview 8 – Pa-O Male 60, Tha Daung, Karen
State: Arrived 1984].
31 The PNO rank and file soldiers were told they were going to fight the Tatmadaw near Taunggyi in Shan State.
32 There are now many reports documenting human rights abuses in the Tha Daung area. For an example see Karen
Human Rights Group 1999
33 Interview 9 – Pa-O Male 57, near Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived 1984

specifically seeking employment and to engage in trade. This is because travel in some areas is
now easier, due to the cease-fires the military regime has established with the elite of some armed
groups. However, for those entering Thailand specifically for work Mae Hong Son Province is
only a transit point, on their way to Chiang Mai or other more prosperous areas of Thailand.

Economic Structure & Poverty

The main reason for the large proportion of people in Mae Hong Son Province living below the
poverty line is the province’s economic structure, based on low productivity agriculture, forestry
and backpacker tourism. ‘Burmese’ refugee migrants have a much higher incidence of poverty
relative to the rest of the population as they hold the low paid jobs within these different sectors.
Further, many of the jobs particularly for the low paid in agriculture, forestry and tourism are
seasonal and part-time. As such many ‘Burmese migrant’ workers are underemployed outside of
the harvest, planting and peak tourist seasons, exacerbating the low wages and contributing to
the very high incidence of poverty amongst this group. The construction industry is another
important source of employment for the ‘Burmese’ in the province. Jobs in the construction
industry are full-time and the wage rate is higher, than most of the jobs available to ‘migrant’
workers in other sectors, but the jobs are still irregular.

The farms in the province are very small and production is labour intensive, with ‘migrant’
workers now providing much of the wage labour for this sector. By the early 1980s, as increased
employment opportunities became available to Thai citizens, the ‘Burmese’ became the mainstay
of the agricultural labour force in Mae Hong Son Province, (and possibly in the other provinces
close to the border with Burma). Further, the interviews revealed that ‘Burmese’ refugee
migrants have contributed to the development and extension of settled agriculture since the
1970s, not just as labourers, but as entrepreneurs and skilled workers. The involvement of
‘Burmese’ in agricultural development was evident in several of the villages close to the border.
Prior to the mid-1970s agriculture in some areas was conducted by a small number of Thai-Shan
households engaged in subsistence farming and Kayah involved in swidden farming. One of the
first families, Shan from Karenni to settle this border area were skilled irrigators contributing to
the expansion of settled agriculture. This extended family and others from Burma cleared and
prepared agricultural land, which was then sold to the local Shan with Thai citizenship.

‘Burmese’ refugee migrants in the province have also played a role in the development policies of
the Thai State and this is evidenced by the opium eradication program in Mae Hong Son
Province.34 In the areas where opium poppy was cultivated those fleeing Burma were prevented
by the locals from settling, until the 1970s when the Border Patrol Police (an elite component of
the Thai army) began to oversee the government’s program of poppy replacement (Handley
2005:167). The Thai State’s poppy replacement program required additional and outside labour,
due to the shift to other agricultural production, providing employment opportunities for people
fleeing Burma.35 The Border Patrol Police in some areas of the province allowed the Karenni and
‘Burmese’ Shan to settle as their labour was required for the success of the state’s opium poppy
eradication program.36

The continual flight of people from Burma into the province has kept agricultural wages low
aiding the viability of low productivity and small-scale farming, which dominates the province’s

34 For background on the opium reduction program in Northern Thailand, see Renard 2001.
35 Many of the labourers on the poppy farms were apparently drug addicted, so disinclined to supply labour for the
new produce; Interview 14 – Karen Male 23, Shadaw Township, Karenni: Arrived 1980.
36 Interview 14 – Karen Male 23, Shadaw Township, Karenni: Arrived 1980.

agriculture. Many of those employed on farms in the province are ‘Burmese’ women and
teenagers earning as little as 50-60 baht per day.37 Many men from Burma also work as
agricultural labourers, though their wage shows greater variability and is generally higher, than
the wage received by women, earning between 50-100 baht per day. The higher wages are
generally obtained by men in the remoter areas clearing and preparing new land for agriculture.38

Typical small agricultural plot employing ‘migrant’ workers (outskirts of MHS Township)

For example, in the District of Pai ‘migrant’ workers are the mainstay of the agricultural
workforce, with the men and woman, earning 70 and 60 baht per day, respectively. A large
deportation conducted in September 2003 created a shortage of labour in this sector, led to less
land being planted than in previous years, highlighting the importance of refugee workers in the
province’s agricultural sector.

A Group of Agricultural Workers in the District of Pai

The situation for a group of agricultural labourers in the Pai District is representative of the
situation for other agricultural labourers in the province. The group lived on the land owned by
one of their employers, who was also the group’s legal employer as designated on their work
permits. Their legal employer and his extended family had first call over their labour. When they
were not required by these employers, permission would be granted, allowing them to accept
other part-time employment. However, the group always feared problems with the police, as
work permits restrict the holder’s capacity to move between employers, even during periods of

37 Interview 12 – Muslim Male 50, Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived 1980; Interview 26 - In the rainy season the women
and the young workers are not paid daily, but in kind when the rice is harvested.
38 Interview 12 – Muslim Male 50, Taunggyi Shan State: Arrived 1980; Interview 26 – Burmese Male 43, Meiktila,

Mandalay Division: Arrived 1983

During January and February 2004, very few of the group had obtained any paid employment.
At the time of the interviews, the women were ‘thatching’ new roofs for their home. Any
surplus production was to be sold for 3 baht a segment of ‘thatch’. Prior to the enhanced
enforcement of the legislation in September 2003, the group was employed for about 8 months
every year. The enhanced enforcement had made it more difficult to obtain work outside of that
offered by their ‘official’ employer, causing a decline in their income. The lower income meant
that most had to borrow money to purchase their work permits, from Thai citizens or other
‘migrant’ workers earning higher incomes in the construction industry.39

Shan agricultural labourers at home (on their employer’s land) waiting for work
In the areas close to the border
with Burma the wage rate in
agriculture is the same for all,
regardless of citizenship status
and ethnicity; though only a few
older Thai citizens without
agricultural land work as daily
labourers in these areas. The
money wage in these areas has
not increased during the last 30
years remaining at 50 or 60 baht
per day, depending on gender and
the job.40 The continual flight of
people from Burma providing a
ready supply of labour to these
areas is the principal cause.

‘Migrant’ Workers & Subsistence Agriculture

Even those ‘Burmese’ with residency status do not own their own farms, but a small
number of ‘migrant’ workers have access to small plots where food is grown to
supplement meagre monetary incomes. The women are often involved in the collection
of mushrooms, bamboo shoots and wild vegetables in the rainy season and sometimes
the men engage in freshwater fishing.41 In a ‘Burmese’ Shan village in the District of Pai,
the residents cultivated a small garden growing green beans, gourd, coriander and
chinboun for consumption. In another village of refugee migrants in the district of Pang
Mapha, 3-4 families (out of about 80 families) had enough land to grow food. Those
with this land were the earliest arrivals in the village, with produce again mostly for
home-consumption, as the garden areas were too small to provide a surplus. One garden
was large enough to produce output for sale, but it still only supplied 20 tins of Soya
beans per year, which was sold for 30 baht per tin. The wife also foraged for
mushrooms, bamboo shoots for 2-3 months of the year, earning around 300 baht each
month; enough for cooking oil, salt and feed for the chickens.42

39 The monthly interest rate on the loan was 5 per cent.

40 Interview 25 – Kachin Male 40, Karenni: Arrived 1984
41 Interview 8 - Pa-O Male 60, Tha Daung, Karen State: Arrived 1984; Interview 9 – Pa-O Male 57, near Taunggyi,

Shan State: Arrived 1984

42 Interview 8 - Pa-O Male 60, Tha Daung, Karen State: Arrived 1984

Small garden established by a group of about 50 ‘migrant’
workers, on their employer’s land in the District of Pai.

Small garden established for private consumption on the

edge of their employer’s agricultural plot on the outskirts of
MHS Township
The tourism sector in Mae Hong Son Province centres on budget accommodation for Thai
citizens and the backpacker market for foreign tourists. The investors in tourism are from
Bangkok and Southern Thailand, having amassed capital in the beach areas, and are a mix of
Siamese and Sino-Thai. Later investment in tourism, particularly in the late 1990s in the Pai
District came from Bangkok and Chiang Mai, rather than Southern Thailand. Most employees in
the tourism industry with any responsibility are Siamese-Thai from Bangkok and the tourist areas
of Southern Thailand. The Thai Shan occupy the next rung of jobs in the tourism industry,
while those of ‘Burmese’ descent working in tourism are mostly the young, who have grown up
and been educated in Thailand. Older women from Burma are often employed as cleaners in the
guesthouses.43 People from Burma have also been used as tourist attractions within the province.
For example, one village of Kayan (a.k.a. as ‘longneck’ Karen) in Mae Hong Son District are
refugees from Karenni in Burma. The local authorities allowed for the establishment of the
village outside of the refugee camps, which is an important tourist attraction for both foreign
tourists and Thai citizens.44

In Pai, the enforcement of new regulations restricting employment in the tourism industry to
Thai citizens, created a shortage of skilled labour in the industry causing some guest-house and
restaurant owners to continue to employ ‘migrant’ workers. Many of the ‘Burmese’ Shan
employed in these small businesses had developed the skills needed in the local industry
(including the English language).45 Employers had difficulty replacing these ‘migrant’ workers, as
the local Thai workers did not have the requisite skills or an interest in working in the local
industry. Many young Thai citizens leave the area to continue their education or go to Chiang
Mai and Bangkok seeking work. Many Thai citizens in the area also own their own homes and a
small agricultural plot providing them with alternative sources of livelihood, relieving them of
the necessity to engage in low paid, full-time employment. Sometimes the local authorities act
independently to restrict the employment of ‘Burmese’ migrant workers. For example, a Karen

43 Interview 23 – Shan Woman 48, Eastern Shan State: Arrived 1992

44 There is an entrance fee to the village, which is divided between certain Thai citizens and the ‘political party’ that
controls most of the refugee camps in the province.
45 Even, some restaurants and guesthouses owners received 3 month suspended sentences on 2 year good behaviour

bonds for aiding and abetting illegal migration.

refugee migrant with good English language skills was employed as a tour guide, until the mid-
1990s, when the local authorities prevented him from being employed in this capacity as he had
originated from Burma.46

Increased tourism and funding from the central government in Bangkok, as a part of its
Northern development program, created a small construction ‘boom’ in the province between
1995 and 2003.47 At the beginning of the boom there were many small construction companies
in the province, but these companies had limited capital equipment and machinery, involved only
in small labour intensive building projects. In the mid 1990s, when the province’s administration
received funding from the central government, the much larger construction companies from
Chiang Mai, Lampang and Phitsanulok began to operate in the province, obtaining contracts to
build the hospital, city hall and extend the airport.

Prior to 1995, much of the unskilled work in the industry was done by refugee migrants from
Burma. In the early 1980s, the daily wage rate was 60 baht for women and 80 baht for men.48
Coinciding with the local construction boom was an increase in the wage rate to 100 baht per
day for men and 80 baht for women. The increase in the wage rate caused some local Thai-Shan
and Karen, many of them illiterate to seek employment in the industry. Still, however, most
working in the construction industry in the province doing the low paid work are from Burma.
The wage rate for all the ethnic groups are the same for the same job when the skill levels are
low. This is different for workers with trade skills as the Thai citizens earn significantly more
than the ‘Burmese’ with similar skills.

Hand Dredging for Construction Materials

In Mae Hong Son Province some of the materials for construction, notably the sand and gravel
has come from the Pai River. ‘Burmese’ refugee workers have for the last 25 years, collected
these materials, usually living on land next to the river owned by their employer. Typically, the
work is performed in pairs, always without the assistance of any equipment, with workers being
paid for the number of tins filled. The work predominates in the wet season, as the rains bring
the sand and gravel down the river aiding collection, with a pair of workers able to collect
between 50-100 tins each day. During the dry season, the river is very low and too cold for the
workers to stay in the water for extended periods.49

46 Interview 1 – Karen Male 65, Karenni: Arrived 1976

47 Interview 46 – Shan Male 45, Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived before 1990
48 It was during this period in the early 1980s that the Holiday Inn and the Court Building in Mae Hong Son

Township were built.

49 The women in particular working in the Pai River incurred health problems, including miscarriages due to the


Tins used to collect sand & gravel from the Pai River Thailand
Collecting sand & gravel Myawaddy Burma

Collecting sand & gravel Myawaddy Burma

Collecting sand & gravel Myawaddy Burma (Photos Alison Vicary ©)

One married couple reported that in the early 1980s they would fill together about 50 tins per
day in the wet season.

We had to get the stones out of the water. It was very hard work. Because I had to stand in water all day, I
developed asthma and other respiratory problems. The cold from standing in the water all day caused me to
miscarry 3 times during this period. The last time twins died in my womb so I had to have an operation to have
them removed. [Interview 6 -Shan Woman 44, Karenni: Arrived 1982]

The ‘migrant’ workers collecting sand and gravel for construction during the 1980s reported
being paid one baht per tin.50 The price twenty years later in 2003 had risen to only two baht per
tin. This meant that in 2003 the maximum daily wage possible for each worker collecting sand
and gravel in the ‘peak’ season would be 100 baht.

The logging industry and trade in teak began with Chinese merchants in Northern Thailand,
expanding after 1880 when European-logging companies financed Burmese contractors to
obtain licenses from local Thai leaders. The Royal Forestry Department the main government
body overseeing forests in Thailand was established in 1886 to lessen disputes between
European logging companies, caused by the granting of logging leases to different companies
over the same areas (Renard 1994:659). By the 1950s the leases given to foreign firms had been
transferred to Thai companies, but there was considerable logging outside of the lease areas and
violations of other lease conditions (Silock 1970:104-105). In 1968 the Royal Forestry
Department granted Thai logging companies thirty year leases to fell timber on the condition
that replanting occurred, though again enforcement was at best nominal. These concessions were
eventually revoked in 1989, after considerable protest by environmental groups (Delang
2002:489). It was not until this period that the Thai State ceased to view the forests as a source
of raw materials for development and the Royal Forestry Department began to have an
environmental function (Christensen & Raibhadana 1994:6). However, the implementation of
this new ‘environmental approach’ has been inconsistent, often determined by competing local
interests and the consequent inconsistent application of the formal system (Christensen &
Raibhadana 1994; Kemp 1981).

Despite the emphasis often given to logging as the cause of deforestation, much of the loss of
forest cover in the last 70 years is a consequence of government policy, including the promotion
of wood exports for foreign exchange, internal migration to promote the development of cash
crops and the construction of dams for electricity and agriculture.51 Deforestation even in the
North is related to government policy. This included the perception that the periphery of
Thailand was under-populated, leading to policies to open the ‘frontier’ and the promotion of
settled agriculture (Delang 2002:487-488). Another policy that aided deforestation was the
construction of roads in the North, and the promotion of settlement in the 1970s to deny areas
to the communist insurgency.52

In 1930, forest covered about 70 per cent of Thailand, but partially because of government
policy forest cover declined during the rest of the century. By 1950 estimates of forest cover had
declined to 62 per cent, and by 1974 the estimates were much lower at 37 per cent of the country
(Delang 2002:494). In 1980, the estimates were only 25 per cent and in 1986 only 15 per cent
(Delang 2002:494). By 2000, the rapid decline had been halted, but only about 13 per cent of
Thailand remained covered by forest. However, the proportion of the land under forest cover in
Northern Thailand is significantly higher than the rest of the country. In Mae Hong Son
Province, nearly 90 per cent of land area is officially classified as covered by forest; though actual

50 Interview 6 – Shan Woman 44, Karenni: Arrived 1982; Interview 8 – Pa-O Male 60, Tha Daung Karen State:

Arrived 1984; Interview 15 – Kayan Male 42, Southern Shan State: Arrived 1987; Interview 21– Shan Male 55,
Karenni; Arrived 1972
51 This is highlighted by a dramatic expansion in rice cultivation across the country from 960,000 hectares in 1855,

to around 1.44m hectares in 1905 and by 1950, 5.6m hectares were under cultivation mostly at the expense of forest
cover (Delang 2002:484, 486).
52 Burma’s military regime adopted similar policies in the early 1990s when it granted logging concessions to Thai

companies in areas at least partially controlled by armed ethnic groups opposed to military rule.

forest cover is lower (UNDP 2005:39).53 Further, the occupation of national forests in Northern
Thailand by squatters is much less of a problem than in other areas of Thailand (Christensen &
Rabibhadana 1994:653). Despite the rapid and large decline in forest cover in the first half of the
century, in 1961 the Thai government declared that the state owned nearly 50 per cent of the
country’s land, which was placed under the control of the Royal Forestry Department (Delang
2002:493 & Sato 2000:16). Now the Royal Forestry Department controls 115 million rai of the
land in Thailand, but a survey conducted in 1995 found only 75 million rai was under green
cover. The rest had been converted to farm land or acquired by squatters (Christensen &
Rabibhadana 1994:653).

The ‘Burmese’ have a history of employment in the forestry industry in Thailand, beginning
when the British companies operating in lower Burma extended their operations into Northern
Thailand in late 1850-60s. The logging began near Mae Sot in Tak Province, extended to the
forests around Mae Sariang in Mae Hong Son Province and then to other areas in Northern
Thailand. Until the 1930s, the teak industry in Northern Thailand employed mostly Burmese,
Mon and Shan. People from Burma again came to be employed in logging in the 1970s, though
this time after they had fled civil war and human rights abuses at home. With the introduction of
legislation banning logging in areas designated as forest in 1989, the employment of ‘Burmese’
refugee migrants in Mae Hong Son Province in this sector again declined, though many continue
to be employed by the Royal Forestry Department in their reforestation and forest protection

There is still some (mostly small-scale) illegal logging in limited areas of the province. Some of
the employees in this industry are refugee migrants from Burma, but logging is controlled by Thai
citizens, including government officials, forestry employees and the police.54 The industry could
not exist without the cooperation of the local authorities, for reasons including the
transportation and delivery of wood to buyers.55 Refugee migrants from Burma, due to their
circumscribed economic, social and legal status, are unable to sell or buy teak.56 More typically
they are the now group that incurs the brunt of the punishment for the involvement of all in
illegal logging. 57

Sometimes [Burmese] people get arrested by one group of police, fulfilling the orders made by another group of
Thai authorities. [Interview 26 – Burmese Male 43, Meiktila Mandalay Division: Arrived 1983]

53 However, only ten years earlier the official figure was only around 70 per cent. The UNDP (2005) report on the

province does not rate the quality of the data highly, so the sudden increase in forest cover over a 10 year period
should be accepted cautiously. The report states the following, The proportion of forest area in Mae Hong Son Province for
the period 1988 to 1998 tended to continuously decrease, going from 72.95% to 69.14%. However, in 2000 the proportion increased
up to 90.04% as a result of actions taken from late 1998 onwards. For example, there was the Chalerm Prakiat Reforestation Project
by the National Park, Wild Animals and Plants Department and campaigns launched for reforestation in accordance with the
Enhancement and Conservation of National Environment Quality Policies and Plans 1997-2016 (UNDP 2005:40).
54 The involvement of forestry officials and police is not an uncommon practice and has been documented

elsewhere. See Christensen & Rabibhadana (1994: 652) for an example.

55 Interview 8 - Pa-O Male 60, Tha Daung, Karen State: Arrived 1984; Interview 9 – Pa-O Male 57, near Taunggyi,

Shan State: Arrived 1984

56 Interview 8 - Pa-O Male 60, Tha Daung Karen State: Arrived 1984; Interview 9 – Pa-O Male 57, near

Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived 1984; Interview 14 – Karen Male 23, Shadaw Township Karenni: Arrived
1980; Interview 26 – Burmese Male 43, Meiktila Mandalay Division: Arrived 1983;
57 The people from Burma involved often face two charges, illegal entry into Thailand and involvement in the illegal

teak trade, with the sentences commonly about four years.

The increased control by the Thai authorities has meant that the living standard of the ‘Burmese’
in the villages once dependent upon logging has dramatically declined over the last 15 years.

Fifteen years ago, a piece of teak that was 2 yards long, 1 inch thick and 12 inches wide could be sold for 60
baht a piece. In one day 2 people could make 20 pieces of teak. Now the price is 100 baht for the same size
plank but now it takes 4 people, 1 day to make 4 pieces. This is because the danger has dramatically increased
requiring two look outs along with the workers to cut the trees. Also, we now have to travel much further to
collect the teak. [Interview 9 – Pa-O Male 57, Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived 1984]

The wage now for this form of employment depends upon the particular location within the
province, determined by the extent of enforcement and ease of access to teak forests. In one area
those employed cutting bamboo were paid around 100-120 baht per day, while those cutting teak
received about 150 baht per day.58 In another area the income for logging teak was still
significantly higher than other forms of available employment, with workers receiving between
200 and 250 baht per day.59

Charcoal Production
In 1990 about 80 per cent of the province’s population used solid fuels, (i.e. wood and charcoal
for cooking and heating), but this had declined to around 65 per cent in 2005 (UNDP 2005:39).
The very high proportion of the population using sold fuel, suggests that most people do not
have access to alternative fuel sources such as gas, explaining the demand for charcoal and wood,
sometimes made by refugee workers burning wood logged in the local forests. Charcoal
production does not typically involve the complicity of the authorities, as it is less profitable,
though the sale of charcoal is controlled by Thai citizens. Some refugee migrants from Burma in
Mae Hong Son Province, particularly when they first arrive engage in charcoal making as there
are few other jobs available and due to the local demand for the product.

When we first arrived in Thailand we were involved in the illegal cutting and burning of trees to make
charcoal… My wife hated burning wood for coal, because it was very hard physical work and she was
so fearful of being caught. The wood coal was sold to local Thai’s for 4 baht a tin… Wood burning is
dangerous and the output was often stolen by Thai villagers. The charcoal is easy to steal because it has to stay
buried for about 10 days. There was nothing we could do as we knew that it was illegal and so were we… Early
on I was stopped by a forestry official who asked me for the sake of the forest to stop cutting down trees. I felt very
sorry, but I had to continue to feed my family. [Interview 2 - Karen Male 54, Karenni: Thailand 1985]

In villages where charcoal making was once an important source of income, the increased
control by the Forestry Department in cooperation with local village heads has meant the activity
has diminished considerably, if not ceased altogether.60 In areas where Thai citizens are willing to
sell and buy charcoal, illegal production continues. 61

I have worked for 6 years burning wood in the jungle for a Thai businessman. Making the wood
charcoal is illegal so I can’t sell it openly. I sell it to a local Thai for 50 per cent of the sale price for

58 Interview 26 – Burmese Male 43, Meiktila, Mandalay Division: Arrived 1983

59 Interview 14 – Karen Male 23, Shadaw Township, Karenni: Arrived 1980
60Interview 12 – Muslim Male 50, Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived 1980
61 A married couple was forced to relocate by the police after the husband was reported for charcoal
production. The police did not charge the man, but stole the charcoal and wood for sale. Another time the
husband was arrested for immigration violation after the seller of his charcoal, a Thai citizen called the
police after a disagreement. His wife threatened the man that she would report him for his involvement in
teak logging. Frightened he paid the 12,000 baht for her husband’s release (Interview 4 – Shan Woman 48,
Lashio, Shan State: Arrived 1990).

about 3,000 baht each month. I have to pay other Burmese workers about 1,000 baht to haul the
charcoal from the jungle… I am not paid when the charcoal is delivered only when it is sold. As sales
are unpredictable we have to purchase food on credit at the store owned by the same businessman who
buys the charcoal. The food is more expensive and there is also a 10 per cent interest rate. This means
that we never see the money [Interview 4 – Burmese Male 39, Loikaw, Karenni: Arrived

The production and sale of charcoal in Mae Hong Son Province will continue until the local
population switches to alternative sources of energy for cooking and heating. This requires
practical policies to increase the usage of gas (or other energy sources), rather than simply
devoting increased resources to forest protection.

Royal Projects & Royal Forestry Department Governance

King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Royal Projects and interest in rural development began in the 1950s
in the grounds of his Hua Hin palace, with his initial focus on fish farming. In the 1960s an
experimental rice farm, a mini-dairy and a forestry project were established at his Chitralada
Palace in Bangkok (Mogg 2005). The King later developed an interest in the supply of water,
particularly those associated with farming. He has sponsored numerous associated projects in the
poorer farming areas of the country, including the construction of many dams.62 This has
become an important component of the King’s reputation, and since the late 1950s, when a
major dam in Tak Province was renamed the Bhumibol Dam, all major hydropower projects
have been named after the royal family (Handley 2005:165).63 Before 1980, the King’s projects
numbered a few hundred being funded by his ‘Chai Pattana Foundation’. However, when General
Prem Tinsulandonda became Premier in 1980 the scope and size of the royal projects increased
with support from the Thai government and with the implementation of many of the Royal
Projects transferred to the relevant government department (Handley 2005:89-90).64

The Royal Projects have been presented as an integral component of the country’s rural
development program and in Mae Hon Son Province these projects have employed many
refugee migrants from Burma. For example, about 300 ‘Burmese’ who arrived in Mae Hong Son
Province in the 1970s were employed on the Royal Projects associated with the King’s Palace
(Pang Tong Palace) and the Ruam Thai Dam. About 300 ‘Burmese’ were employed for two years
on building the Ruam Thai Dam. The building of the dam took two years and when completed
the group continued to be employed on a series of Royal Projects.65 The wages for those
employed on the Royal Projects were higher than for similar jobs as men earned between 66-70
baht per day, and the women 60 baht per day.66 During the same period those working for the
Royal Forestry Department reported wages of only 20-35 baht per day.67

62 Water projects were implemented with the assistance of EGAT, (which controls hydropower) and the irrigation
63 The King’s interest in dam building by 1990 had brought him into public conflict with environmental groups and

sometimes the locals affected by the projects.

64 King Bhumibol began to determine projects based on his private preferences and these projects took precedence

over the other work of the government departments. In addition, a new body was instituted, the ‘Coordinating
Committee for Royal Projects’ with General Prem as the chair. In 1981 the ‘Coordinating Committee for Royal Projects’ created
the ‘Royal Projects Development Board’ inside the ‘National Economic and Social Development Board’ (NESDB) the
government sponsored planning body, signalling the importance of the Royal Projects in official policy.
65 The project was supervised by about 10 Thai citizens (Interview 23 – Karen Male 54: Arrived 1984).
66 Interview 23 – Karen Male 54, Southern Shan State: Arrived 1985; Interview 9 – Pa-O Male 57, near Taunggyi,

Shan State: Arrived 1984

67 Interview 8 – Pa-O Male 60, Tha Daung, Karen State: Arrived 1984 and Interview 23 – Karen Male 54, Southern

Shan State: Arrived 1985

However, the governance of the projects managed by Royal Forestry Department and some
Royal Projects implemented under its auspices was poor, with numerous reports of the non-
payment of wages.68 Workers did not receive any money or much less than the agreed amount,
with their wages debited ostensibly in line with the ‘debts’ incurred at the canteens and food
stores established specifically for the employees, who often worked in the jungle. One refugee
migrant, reported working on a Royal Project planting Logan trees near Noi Soi for one and half
years, with the implementation of the project overseen by the Royal Forestry Department. The
workers were not paid only receiving food from the store established specifically for the workers
on the project.69 At a Royal Forestry Department teak planting project at Huai Po Ma, the
‘Burmese’ workers were also not paid the agreed 40 baht per day, again only receiving food from
the ‘worker’s store’.70 A Karen refugee migrant employed by the Forestry Department this time in
Khun Yuam District in the early 1980s, reported being promised a daily wage of 30 baht (or 900
baht per month). He worked for one and half years in the jungle, with others most of whom
were Thai citizens. All had agreed to have their wages deposited in their bank accounts, but
discovered when they emerged from the jungle that only a nominal amount of money had been

Many refugee migrants form Burma are still employed by the Royal Forestry Department on the
province’s reforestation and forest protection programs at wage rates local Thai citizens are
unwilling to accept.72

Most of the men in the area are working on a Royal Project planting trees for the Forestry Department. No
Thais work on these projects. Those working for the Forestry Department in the jungle (without any identity
card) earn the same as those working for the department who live in the village. The men earn 70 baht and
women 60 baht each day… They all work 7 days a week. [Interview 14 – Karen Man 23, Shadaw
Township, Karenni: Arrived 1980]

Formal Structures, Segmentation & Poverty

The economic structure of the province is a major contributor to the high incidence of poverty
amongst the ‘Burmese’ and the general population. However, for ‘Burmese’ and their
descendants the economic structure is exacerbated by formal and informal structures that limit
their employment opportunities, relative to those with citizenship.73 These structures also
segment the labour market between ‘Burmese migrant’ workers, such that those illegally resident
in Thailand may in the longer term have better employment opportunities than those with Thai
identity cards. The most significant formal discrimination arises from the restrictions and
68This form of corruption appears to be ongoing within the Royal Forestry Department as there are still reports of
this practice. For example, Delang (2002:496) reports on a group of Shan from Burma employed by the Royal
Forestry Department in Chiang Mai Province in 1999. These workers had been promised 75 baht per day, but at the
time of the report had not been paid for 5 months. These workers were also sold food at inflated prices, seemingly
debited from their unpaid wages.
69 Interview 23 - Karen Male 54, Southern Shan State: Arrived 1984
70 Interview 23 – The interviewee worked on this project for 6 months, before being hospitalized injured by a rolling
71 Interview 5 –Karen Male 70+, Loikaw, Karenni: Arrived 1970
72 The author also interviewed people from Burma working for the Royal Forestry Department in Sangklaburi

73 These structures may also be important in explaining some of the different labour market outcomes between

other groups within the province, but this is beyond the scope of the paper. The labour market outcomes for
‘Burmese’ refugee migrants and the consequent incidence of poverty are no doubt partially explained by their poor
education and language skills compared with local Thai citizens, though not all these people in the province are
poorly educated. Further, many of those surveyed had Thai language skills (but literacy in the Thai language was less
common) being resident in the province for many years.

conditions attached to the system of identity cards and work permits. Access to legal title over
land is associated with citizenship and residency status and this is another important formal factor
in creating segmentation, consequently increasing the incidence of poverty. The fourth formal
structure of discrimination segmenting the labour market between Thai citizens and ‘Burmese’
even with residency status is the legal limitations on ‘Burmese’ refugee migrants engaging in
business activities. Coupled with the formal structures are informal practices that influence the
well-being of ‘Burmese’ in the province. Some of these practices exacerbate the impact of the
formal structures, such as gender discrimination and harassment by the authorities. However,
there are informal practices that circumvent legal discrimination, which serves to lessen the extent
of segmentation, and thus mitigating the incidence of poverty.

Thai Identity Cards

The first national census to register citizenship was conducted in 1956, but it did not include
some ethnic minority groups (i.e. ‘highlander’ or ‘hill-tribe’ groups), excluding many residents of
Mae Hong Son Province.74 It was not until a limited census conducted in 1969-1970 that many
‘highlander’ groups received any official recognition.75 This census resulted in the Ministry of
Interior granting 120,000 people from ‘highlander’ groups, Thai citizenship in December 1974
(Lertcharoenchok 2001:1). The Ministry of Interior also issued regulations providing for other
members of these ‘highlander’ groups, who had entered Thailand prior to 1975, eligible for
citizenship (Renard 2001:53-54). Since then, there have been several official registrations in the
Northern Provinces of Thailand, which have increased citizenship amongst ‘highlander’
communities.76 There have also been other similar registration processes, which have allowed
members of other designated communities to reside legally in Thailand.

The registration process which determines residency status and consequently citizenship
categorizes people on the basis of ethnicity, country of origin and time of arrival in Thailand.77
The policy has allowed some people, who have fled Burma to legally reside (at least temporarily)
in Thailand, providing increased security of residency. Prior to being issued with Thai identity
cards, many ‘migrant’ workers had been arrested (and jailed) for immigration violations.78 Many

74The Thai Nationality Act (1911) initially granted citizenship to all persons born in Thailand, but this legislation has
been amended circumscribing the link between birth and citizenship. In 1972, citizenship rights were restricted to
persons whose paternal grandfather was not a Thai citizen. (Lertcharoenchok 2001:1) The Thai Nationality Act was
again amended in 1992 to specify that someone born in Thailand is not a citizen, if their mother or father had only
been granted temporary residency (presumably the holder of either a ‘pink’ or ‘blue’ identity card) or was resident in
Thailand without permission. (ACHR 2005:2)

75 There have since been numerous though seemingly incomplete surveys and registration of ‘highlander’ populations
in Thailand. Major surveys were conducted in 20 provinces of Thailand between 1985 and 1988. Even these results
appear to be incomplete due to the uncoordinated involvement of several government agencies and the movements
of people (Aguettant 1996).
76 The situation of the smaller ethnic groups was one of the King Bhumibol’s and his mother’s early interests. King

Bhumibol’s mother, Princess Mother Sangwal became the patron of the Border Patrol Police (BPP) and the
‘highlander’ groups. She sponsored new schools and health clinics with money from the Thai government and the
public. However, the funding of these projects under the auspices of the royal family was small compared with those
funded by the Thai and United States government. (Handley 2006:167,190).
77 The registration process though often granting limited residency rights to people originally from Burma and their

descendants has meant that the Thai authorities have not had engage in the difficult and politically sensitive policy
of attempting to deport people to countries where they are not legally recognized (and not wanted). The policy does
however allow the government to document and monitor their presence until they are prepared (or can) make a
conclusive decision regarding their status.
78For example the husband in interview 23 had been arrested 5 times, between 1985 and 1990 before being issued
with a ‘blue’ identity card. Once he was arrested while working on the Kings Palace in the Province and the other 4

of the ‘Burmese’ refugee migrants who have resided in the province prior to 1999 hold one of
four different identity cards, which grant different legal rights and access to services. These
identity cards are identified by their respective colour – the ‘pink’ card, the ‘blue’ card, the ‘light
pink’ (or ‘orange’ card) and the ‘green card with the red border’. However, the system of registration is
somewhat of a muddle, as is the policy and the authorities engaged in its determination, with
substantial attendant corruption, stonewalling and incompetence (Aguettant 1996; Jarenwong
1999). Some of the confusion within the system derives from the difficulty identifying and
categorizing people as belonging to particular groups and the ambivalence the Thai authorities
have towards some communities resident in Thailand. Sometimes the village head uses an
unspecified, unformulated ‘good citizen test’ to determine whether certain people from Burma
obtain Thai identity cards.

‘Pink’ Card
In 1977, people from Burma resident in some of the Northern Provinces of Thailand were
issued with the ‘pink’ card, which must be renewed every six years. This card allows the holder to
reside anywhere in the province of issue, but official permission must be obtained to visit other
provinces in the country. This card does not allow the holder to claim formal title over land or the
legal right to work (which requires a work permit). Their children are allowed to attend school
until year twelve, but do not have the right to attend university.

‘Hill-Tribe’ or ‘Blue’ Card

Another registration of people from ‘highlander’ groups was conducted in 1990-1991 in the
Northern provinces, with those registered receiving a ‘hill-tribe’ or ‘blue’ card. 79 Again, the holders
of this card have no right to legal employment at least not in the urban areas, though a limited
number of people originally from Burma holding the card have obtained formal title over land for
the purpose of housing. Again, the holder is prevented from travelling outside the province
unless permission is obtained from the head of the local district. If an absence is for more than
10 days, permission must be granted by the local governor (ACHR 2005:2). During the first year
of registration in Mae Hong Son only about 20 people from Burma, all reputably Kayah were
registered, but government change and a more liberal implementation, led to an increase in the
number of people from Burma registered.80 It was difficult for many refugee migrants from
Burma to obtain this card as the Mae Hong Son authorities were reluctant to register any
‘Burmese’. The children of those holding the ‘hill-tribe’ card have the right to attend university,
unlike all the other cards held by those originally from Burma. All those holding the ‘blue’ card
do not have the same rights and access to services with this apparently determined on the basis
of ethnicity.

‘Light Pink’ Card

The third identity card issued to some originally from Burma was the ‘light pink’ card (sometimes
known as the ‘orange’ card). This was issued in 1995, but only about 500 people were ever
registered under this system.81 The holders of this card cannot leave their village or sub-district
unless permission is granted by the governor of the province. The holder to leave the province
requires the permission of the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Interior (ACHR 2005:2).
The children of the holders of this card are only entitled to attend the first six of school.

times at his home. He was never deported, but jailed for 50 days with the first arrest, then for 28 days with each
subsequent arrest.
79 250,000 people were registered during this period and granted the ‘blue’ card (Lertcharoenchok 2001:1).
80 Interview 1 – Karen Male 65, Karenni: Arrived 1976
81 It seems that the ‘light pink’ card was aimed specifically at ‘Burmese’ political activists, who had fled after the 1988

uprising and not specifically members of ‘highlander’ groups.

‘Green Card with a Red Border’
In 1999, another survey was conducted in the Northern provinces for the purpose of registering
people, who were illegally resident in Thailand. Those registered were issued the ‘green card with a
red border.’ Again, some from Burma were issued with the card, which has the same restrictive
residency rights as those holding the ‘light pink’ card, except the holders of this card are
considered aliens with only temporary rights to reside in Thailand, though this right has been
extended each year, since the card was first issued in 1999.82 The children of these card holders
have the same limited entitlements to attend school as the children of those holding the ‘light
pink’ card.83

No Identity Card
Nearly, all those surveyed held one of the four Thai identity cards, but this does not necessarily
reflect the broader ‘migrant’ worker population in the province. Not all the long term residents
in the province originally from Burma hold Thai identity cards, as some have fallen outside the
registration process.

There are about 15 men and women living on the outskirts of the village in the fields without any identity card.
Some come from Mae Aw and some from Karenni and Shan State. Some of these people hung around the border
area for a long time, but took much longer to come into Thailand. This is why they do not have any cards, but
they are not new arrivals. [Interview 14 – Karen Male 23, Shadaw Township, Karenni: Arrived

However, those without identity cards and illegally resident in Mae Hong Son Province typically
fled Burma after 1999.

About 25 per cent of the people in this quarter do not have any Thai ID cards, as they have only arrived
recently. [Interview 19 – Shan Woman 31, Southern Shan State: Arrived in 1991]

82 In August 2000 the Thaksin government categorized ‘‘highlander’s’ resident in Thailand into 3 groups, which do

not fully correspond with the categories of people established under the registration system;
i) Those who migrated to Thailand between 1913 and 1972 became eligible to apply for citizenship. This
would apply to some Burmese who arrived in Mae Hong Son Province in this period. (The author met
a number of people from Burma, who had fled in the 1960s and early 1970s. Some of these people
held Thai citizenship. Others, even one family, who has been resident in Thailand for three
generations, had fallen completely outside the registration system.)
ii) Those who migrated between the 14 December 1972 and 3 October 1985 became eligible for
permanent residency. All the children of people who migrated during this period became eligible for
citizenship in 2001 (Lertcharoenchok 2001:1). This should include those ‘Burmese’ who hold the ‘pink’
card issued in 1977 and possibly some people holding the ‘blue’ card.
iii) Those who arrived between 4 October 1985 and 15 September 1999 were designated as aliens (this
includes all those holding the ‘green card with a red border’ and presumably even some ‘Burmese’ holding
the ‘hill-tribe’ card) (Lertcharoenchok 2001:1). The ethnicity of those registered and eligible was not

In addition, the Thaksin government shifted decision power to determine citizenship for the children of ‘‘highlander’s’
and other card holders born in Thailand from the Provincial Government Office to the district authorities.

By August 2004, there were still 377,677 people in Thailand who were officially registered, but without clear legal
status. Of these people, supposedly 90,739 were eligible for Thai citizenship, and 220,527 eligible for permanent
residency. None of the changes in the regulations automatically grants citizenship or permanent residency status,
only providing the opportunity for those who fall within the criteria to apply. The changes have so far not led to
any ‘Burmese’ in Mae Hong Son Province being granted permanent residency or citizenship.
83 Schools are not allowed to issue certificates of completion to the children of these card holders. Without these

certificates, which are given for the completion of primary, middle and high school, the student can not move from
say primary to middle school.

‘Burmese’ Descendants & Identity Cards
Many children of those originally from Burma with identity cards were born and raised in Mae
Hong Son Province. These young people hold the same identity card as their parents, though
some purportedly have the right to apply for citizenship, when they turn eighteen. The limitation
on mobility even for those born and raised in Thailand prevents them from pursuing better
employment opportunities outside the province. The young of ‘Burmese’ descent from the
villages in the province typically leave for the townships, but only within the province, not for
the prosperous cities of Chiang Mai and Bangkok.84

The young people leave the village to get work… The young do not want to work for the forestry department
because the pay is lower and they want new experiences. [Interview 14 – Karen Male 23, Shadaw
Township, Karenni: Arrived 1980]

The limitations on mobility associated with Thai identity cards entrench poverty and limit the
incentive for those born and raised in Thailand to pursue education beyond primary school,
(even when entitled to by the Thai State) as most of the jobs available to those of ‘Burmese’
descent in Mae Hong Son Province do not require more than 6 years education.

In contrast young Thai citizens (and even those of ‘Burmese’ descent who have grown up in
Thailand, but do not possess an identity card), often leave for Chiang Mai in search of better
opportunities, as they do not face the same restrictions on movement. For example, in the
district of Pai, refugee migrants (most of whom are Shan) seem less likely to hold Thai identity
cards than in other areas of the province. Many of the young ‘Burmese’ Shan who have grown
up in the province and do not hold a Thai identity card move to Chiang Mai or Bangkok for
employment when they reach later adolescence.85

The young women who have been to school and remain in the province have typically
completed six years of school in Thailand, so they can obtain employment in the local
guesthouses, markets, restaurants, beauty salons and shops earning about 50 baht per day,
receiving between 1,000-1,500 baht per month.86

Our eldest and youngest daughters both work at the same restaurant.… They earn 40 baht per day in the
restaurant.… They work from 8.00 am – 2.00 pm then break for 2 hours and then start again at 4.00pm and
work until 11.00pm-12.00 am. They are responsible for everything including managing the restaurant. They
work with a Burmese Karen girl who does the cleaning. The Thai-Shan who own the restaurant are retired, and
pick up the money each evening. [Interview 2 – Shan Woman 42, Karenni: Arrived 1985]

However, even the young Thai citizens, who remain in the province, appear to earn higher wages
than those of ‘Burmese’ descent.

The teenagers work 7 days a week in the market between 6.00 a.m.-6.00 p.m. and earn around 1,500 baht a
month. Most of these kids were born here and went to school here. They work with Thai teenagers, who are paid
more than the Burmese [Interview 21 –Shan Male 55, Karenni: Arrived 1972].

84 Interview 25 - Kachin Male 40, Karenni: Arrived 1984; Interview 26 – Burmese Male 43, Meiktila, Mandalay

Division: Arrived 1983

85 The children of ‘Burmese’ descent usually begin work when they are 13-15 years of age [Interview 2 - Shan

Woman 42, Karenni: Arrived in Thailand 1985; Interview 12 – Muslim Male 50, Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived 1980;
Interview 21 – Shan Male 55, Karenni: Arrived 1972].
86 Interview 2 - Shan Woman 42, Karenni; Arrived in Thailand 1985; Interview 21– Shan Male 55, Karenni; Arrived

1972; Interview 23 – Karen Male 54: Arrived 1984; Interview 25 - Kachin Male 40, Karenni: Arrived 1984; Interview
26 – Burmese Male 43, Meiktila, Mandalay Division: Arrived 1983;

For young women of ‘Burmese’ descent with no education the employment opportunities are
even more limited, gaining employment mostly as domestics and agricultural labourers. The
young women employed as domestics earn lower wages than those employed in the shops and
guest houses, earning between 800 and 1,000 baht per month.87 Some of the young of ‘Burmese’
descent experience egregious discrimination and abuse, due to the limited protection
mechanisms and poverty within ‘Burmese’ families and the broader community.

Some of these young girls have to work until midnight and then wake up at 5.00a.m to prepare the house for the
family. My niece who is only 10 years old has to look after the babies until midnight. During the day she goes to
school. She also works on Saturday and Sunday when not in school. My niece wants to return home, but the
house owner will not let her leave. [Interview 13 – Shan Woman 29, Mong Nai Shan State; Arrived

The young men with primary school education can sometimes obtain employment in the car,
motorcycle, and trade shops earning up to 2,000 baht per month.89 The boys without any
education are commonly employed in construction and clearing land for cultivation and are paid
between 70-80 baht per day. This wage rate is not only lower than their more educated
counterparts, but the work is less regular.90

Work Permits
The conditions attached to work permits is another important factor in segmenting the labour
market, again between the ‘Burmese’ themselves (and their descendants) and Thai citizens. None
of the identity cards issued to ‘Burmese’ provide the holder with the right to work. To engage in
legal employment, all people from Burma must purchase a work permit, (though the price is
lower for all identity card holders, except for those holding the last card issued in 1999 – the
‘green card with a red border’).91 The work permit system was introduced in 1996, but enforcement
only really began in Mae Hong Son (and other) Provinces in 2000.

Costs of Enforcement
One factor that segments the labour market amongst ‘migrant’ workers leading to impacts that
have little to do with labour market efficiency is that work permit possession tends to be related
to the authorities costs of enforcement.92 Most individuals, who work in the province’s
townships or live in groups near the townships, as they are easy targets for arrest, register for a
work permit. This is particularly noticeable since, 2000 with the increased monitoring of
‘migrant’ workers in the construction industry. Monitoring of workers in this industry is cheaper

87 Interview 2 - Shan Woman 42, Karenni; Arrived in Thailand 1985; Interview 13 – Shan Woman 29, Mong Nai

Shan State; Arrived 1983; Interview 21 – Shan Male 55, Karenni; Arrived 1972; Interview 23 – Shan Woman 48,
Eastern Shan State: Arrived 1992; Interview 26 - Burmese Male 43, Meiktila Mandalay Division: Arrived 1983;
88 Both her parents had died from AIDS. At the time of the interview, her mother had been dead for about 8 month

and her father for about 5 years. Her younger sister had also died from AIDS when she was 7 years old. At the time
of the interview, the young girl had been working in the house for 7 months.
89 Interview 14 – Karen Male 23, Shadaw Township, Karenni: Arrived 1980; Interview 21– Shan Male 55, Karenni:

Arrived 1972; Interview 23 – Karen Male 54, Southern Shan State: Arrived 1984; Interview 26 – Burmese Male 43,
Meiktila Mandalay Division: Arrived 1983
90 Interview 21– Shan Male 55, Karenni: Arrived 1972; Interview 23 – Karen Male 54, Southern Shan State: Arrived

91 In 2004, the cost of an annual work permit was 1,800 baht for those with identity cards, whereas for those with an

identity card the price was 800 baht.

92 Bradford and Vicary (2005) found that work permit possession was associated with industry of employment. In

particular, migrant workers who work in industries where businesses employ large numbers of migrant workers in
easily accessible locations were more likely to possess a work permit than their counterparts.

for the authorities as most construction occurs in the townships with larger numbers of ‘migrant’
workers grouped together in one place. In Mae Hong Son Province, the majority of ‘migrant’
workers with work permits are employed in the construction industry.93

Stricter enforcement of the work permit regulations has not only increased segmentation
amongst ‘migrant’ workers, but has had negative impacts on the local economy. This was notable
after the enforcement of restrictions on the industries of employment for ‘migrant’ workers.
Owners and managers of small businesses such as restaurants and guest houses reported labour
shortages after the enforcement of regulations disallowing the employment of ‘migrant’ workers
in tourism. Many of those deported also worked in agriculture and this led to less land sowed
than in previous years.

In contrast, ‘migrant’ workers who are able to merge into the villages or live outside the
townships tend not to have work permits. This is because they are less vulnerable to arrest as the
costs to the authorities of enforcement are much higher as the population is dispersed and more
difficult to identify.

It is not necessary for us to have a work permit because of the nature of our work. My husband and I look after
a small pig farm, where we live and work everyday. It is outside of the town and we are the only people working
here. [Interview 3 – Karen Woman 50, Karenni: Arrived 1980]

Many of the people working in Mae Hong Son Province without work permits are employed in
agriculture, outside of the townships and villages.

There are about 10 people who live near the village, who are very afraid so they don’t come into the village but
live on the farms… They earn the same income as the other people but they do different type of work. These are
the people doing the really hard agricultural work earning about 100 baht per day. [Interview 12 – Muslim
Male 50, Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived 1980]

Income & Work Permits

The percentage of those living below the poverty line is likely to be even higher than 78 per cent,
if a greater number of new arrivals from Burma had been included in the survey.

These people are hiding off the main road away from everyone. The new arrivals can not live in the village where
there are lots of Burmese who having been living for some time. The new migrants can not live there because
everyone knows everyone, but they hide in the jungle around the villages. They stay around the villages as they
need the other Burmese to perform tasks such as buying food. [Interview 12 - Muslim Male 50, Taunggyi,
Shan State: Arrived]94

Another potential factor associated with the likelihood of obtaining a work permit is income
(Bradford & Vicary 2005).95

There are about 50 people in our village with work permits. These people work in the town and their income is
much higher, so they can afford the work permit. There is a big difference in income, between those that work in

93Interview 12 – Muslim Male 50, Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived 1980; Interviews 23 - Karen Male 54, Southern
Shan State: Arrived 1984; Interview 24 – Karen Male 56, Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived 1983; Interview 46 - Shan
Male 45, Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived before 1990;
94At the time of the interviews most of the new arrivals outside this village had come from the recently Wa
occupied areas in Shan State.
95 Though, the evidence shows there was only an association between work permits and income greater than 5,000


the town and those in the village. [Interview 14 – Karen Man 23, Shadaw Township, Karenni:
Arrived 1980]

Most of people in this quarter don’t have work permits because it is too expensive. [Interview 19 – Shan
Woman 31, Southern Shan State: Arrived in 1991]

One Employer Only

Those, who register to work, can only be legally employed by the employer nominated on their
work permit. This restriction increases the incident of poverty and segments the labour market,
especially for workers engaged in sectors where employment is seasonal.96

Those with work permits are like cattle with a rope around their neck [Interview 23 – Shan Woman 48,
Eastern Shan State: Arrived 1992].

This restriction curtails the capacity of ‘migrant’ workers to seek additional employment, when
their legally nominated employer does not require their labour. This prevents workers with work
permits from not only accepting work from other employers, increasing the incidence of
underemployment and consequently decreasing income. It also limits mobility between sectors,
preventing workers from accepting alternative employment, with better wages and conditions,
contributing to the very high percentage of refugee migrants living below the poverty line. This is
a particular problem in Mae Hong Son Province, as most of the work available to people from
Burma is part-time and/or seasonal.

The Village, Land Title & Housing

Formal property rights did not exist in Thailand until the 1890s, as land was deemed owned by
the King. Official land surveys began in the 19th century with the intention of issuing documents
of ownership, but when the authorities found they were unable to conduct comprehensive land
surveys and issue documents the Land Code of 1954 was promulgated. The Land Code specifies
three separate documents for different forms of ownership. The first is full ownership title,
which is for land that has been officially surveyed and granted by the Department of Lands
(Christensen & Rabibhadana 1994:644-645; Kemp 1981). The second form of land title is Land
Utilization (or Exploitation Testimonials), which is ‘settlement’ land designated by the state as arable
and available for agriculture, but which has not been surveyed. This form of land title is issued
by officials at the province level from the Department of Local Administration. The third type of
land title are Pre-emption Certificates (or Certificates of Use), which is for land that has been occupied,
but still classified as ‘owned’ by the Royal Forestry Department. Province officials are
responsible for the issue of Pre-emption Certificates. These certificates allow the holder to exclude
others, if the land is designated as being developed by the squatter, but does not allow the holder
to sell except under strict conditions.

The system of land title and its implementation in Mae Hong Son Province (and Thailand more
generally) is somewhat ad hoc, and complicated by its interaction with the informal system.
Further, the number of competing government agencies involved, including the Department of
Lands (in the Ministry of Interior), the Royal Forestry Department and the Department of Local

96 Those with work permits have to pay an additional 600 baht to the local authorities, when they change employers.
Many ‘migrant’ workers commented that sometimes the police harassed those with work permits, when they tried to
change employers. In some situations, employers were reporting their employees for working for another, with the
fine deducted from the employee’s wages and then distributed between the work permit office and the employer
making the report.

Administration exacerbate the inconsistencies in the system (Christensen & Rabibhadana 1994).
Most ‘Burmese’ and their descendants cannot claim legal title over residential or farming land,
regardless of the type of identity card, except for some holding a ‘blue’ identity card and
designated as a ‘hill-tribe’ member. Even those who have married Thai citizens cannot hold joint
land title with their spouse. However, the inconsistencies and the mix of formal and informal
allocation of land title have provided some opportunities for ‘Burmese’ to ‘exist between the cracks’,
though their limited legal status also makes those holding land vulnerable to expropriation.

The home of an elderly ‘migrant’ worker couple in the backyard of a Thai family; The family had allowed the elderly couple to live on
their property in exchange for nominally looking after their garden, as the couple was too old and sick to work.

Core, Satellite Villages & Residential Land Title

The right to claim title over land and the residency status of individuals are related to the system
of registering villages in Thailand. A village to obtain full registration must be permanently
settled and entered in the Village Directory by the Department of Local Administration. To
obtain citizenship an individual must (hold a Thai identity card) and be registered as living in an
officially registered or core village (Aguettant 1996:54). Some of the core villages are associated
with ‘settlements’ of ‘Burmese’, actually other villages, but these are only designated as satellite
villages, such that the rights of the residents are curtailed. The latter don’t have official
recognition so are not entered into the official Village Directory, with the residents having to use
the number of the core village for official transactions and for access to services (Aguettant
1996:57). Many of the ‘Burmese’ living outside the townships in the province reside in these
satellite villages, which typically encircle or are located outside the core village.97 The houses in
these peripheral villages do not have the same access to services, notably electricity and water.

Further, the land that the residents have purchased (usually from residents in the core village) is
not backed by legal title, leaving them vulnerable to expropriation by Thai citizens and/or the
Thai State. For example, in one satellite village the residents mostly Pa-O and Shan from
Karenni, purchased land for housing from the residents in the Hmong core village, but the land
is not registered in the names of the new owners.98 The informal buying and selling of land,

97Often encircling or outside of these settlements are those who have more recently fled Burma and do not hold
Thai identity cards.
98 Interview 14 – Karen Male 23, Shadaw Township, Karenni: Arrived 1980

which is not recognized by the State was once common in Thailand, and still occurs in the more
remote areas, even amongst Thai citizens. Regardless, the title is not legally enforceable.

In another village, quite different from the previous example and different from most other
villages in the province as it is a well integrated village of Thai Shan, Thai Kayah and people
originally from Burma. The ‘Burmese’ live within the core village and can build houses with more
security of land tenure than in most areas. The village head has supported land registration for
‘Burmese’ holding a ‘blue’ card.99 Even ‘Burmese’ people who hold ‘blue’ cards and are members
of a designated ‘highlander’ group cannot register claims to land in all areas, as this depends on the
discretion of the village head.

Another mechanism utilized to circumvent restrictions on land ownership is to register land in

the name of a Thai citizen.

We own the land though it is registered in the name of a Thai Shan who is married to my wife’s Auntie... It was
marked out and registered in about 1987…. Our house is connected to electricity as it is in the name of a Thai
citizen. [Interview 2 – Karen Male 54, Karenni: Arrived 1985]

However, conflict within extended families or rising land values mean that refugee migrants
utilizing this informal mechanism are vulnerable to expropriation.

‘Burmese’ Shan Village & Land Title

In about 1983, a group of Shan from Karenni and Shan States settled on an area of land in Mae
Hong Song Township. Initially, there were only 3 households, but these were followed quickly by
more families, with the majority of people arriving between 1977 and 1983. There are now about
80 households with about 5 people in each household. The residents are registered holding one
of the four Thai identity cards issued to people from Burma. The majority of the residents,
around 50 houses have ‘blue’ cards, 7 households have ‘pink’ cards, about 10 households held the
‘light pink’ card and about 15 households held the ‘green card with a red border’. Only about 10 of the
households had residents who held a work permit with most of these people working in

In 1994 the local authorities tried to force the villagers to vacate the land. Behind these attempts
were Thai citizens who were interested in the land because of its value.100 The men were charged
with immigration crimes, even though most held a Thai identity card. They were also charged
with forest destruction as the land was classified as forest covered, though the land was not even
near any forests in an urban area. The men were sent to jail for 60 days, though the women and
children were not charged. The court concluded that none of the residents had any property
rights over the land, nor the right to reside in Thailand. However, as many fruit trees had been
planted by the settlers, they were found not guilty of forest destruction.

There were several other attempts to force the residents to vacate the land by forestry officials
and the police. The residents were harassed often involving the local police who regularly
stopped them, asking for money and evidence of residency. In 2000, after petitioning the
Governor of the province the land was surveyed and “Certificates of Use” documents were
issued to the residents. This form of land title allows the holder to reside on the land, on the
condition that the land is developed, but does not allow the holder to sell or transfer title. It

99 Interview 25 - Kachin Male 40, Karenni: Arrived 1984

100The attempt by authorities in conjunction with influential locals to evict squatters, including many Thai citizens,
for personal gain is a common practice. See Christensen and Rabibhadana (1994) for other examples.

appears the Governor acquiesced as the group refused to leave and it would have been a
continual case of chasing them for the same ‘crimes’.101

Exploitation Testimonials and Housing

However, one component of the land title system means that some refugee migrants from
Burma in Mae Hong Son Province have found some security regarding their place of residency.
Exploitation Testimonials can be granted by officials from the Department of Local Administration
on land designated for settlement, if the land is utilized for the purpose of agriculture. In
exchange for preparing the land and planting mostly fruit trees and market gardens, ‘migrant’
workers and their families are able to reside on the land.

We cleared the land and planted fruit trees in exchange for the right to live there. [Interview 4 – Burmese
Male 43, Loikaw, Karenni: Arrived 1989]

In most circumstances, the families build their own accommodation, which are not always
connected to water or electricity. Typically, the husband clears the land, while the wife and
children seek paid employment. Despite, providing some security with regard to housing, this
system impacts on the dependency ratio, as the men in these circumstances are curtailed from
engaging in waged labour. Many of the older people from Burma and their families move
between these plots of land clearing and preparing them for fruit trees.

We have lived on this block of land for about 2 months but have worked clearing land and planting fruit trees
for the same owner for the last 6 years. This man owns a lot of land in the Mae Hong Son area. Prior to this,
we lived on another block of his land for a year preparing it, and planting fruit trees. [Interview 4 – Shan
Woman 48, Lashio, Shan State: Arrived 1990]

Well established fruit tree garden prepared by a ‘migrant’ worker family. This allowed a Thai citizen to claim land title.

Farming Land Title

101 There are many other examples where ‘Burmese’ refugee migrants were evicted from land on which they had

settled, erected houses or planted crops.

People from Burma cannot gain legal title to farming land regardless of the type of Thai identity
card held. Some ‘Burmese’ arriving in the province in the 1970s cleared land for settled
agriculture, but during the early 1980s (knowing their legal claims to the land were tenuous), sold
their farms. 102 As they were not Thai citizens, they would not have been able to enforce their
land claim, if challenged.103 Unlike the techniques used to gain access to land title for a house, the
investment necessary for agricultural land is much greater, increasing the magnitude of the loss if
expropriation occurred. At around the same time, in response to pressure by environmental
groups, refugee migrants from Burma ceased to clear and prepare new agricultural land for their
own farms and to sell to Thai citizens.104 Consequently, people from Burma were prevented from
participating in agricultural entrepreneurship, becoming the waged labour of Thai citizens, who
continued to clear and prepare new land for agriculture.

Small Business & Self-Employment

The economic opportunities of ‘Burmese’ people are also curtailed by their inability to obtain a
business license. One ‘Burmese’ refugee migrant, a skilled furniture maker can not obtain a
business license forcing him to lower the price for his work. In 1992, he incurred criminal
charges for the illegal possession of wood and sentenced to 6 months imprisonment.105

I make windows, chairs, doors, beds, tables, sideboards. I am called to make furniture by Thai citizens when
they get hold of enough wood … I have a good reputation as a carpenter in the area… I work for myself, but
because I am an immigrant I cannot own wood. A special furniture making license is required to possess certain
types of wood. Twice I have made furniture but did not receive payment, though I am often threatened that I will
not be paid... Sometimes I receive only 50 per cent of the agreed price due to these threats. [Interview 12 –
Muslim Male 50, Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived 1980]

In contrast, a Pa-O refugee migrant couple, who operated a vegetable stall in one of the
township’s markets between 1984 and 2000, experienced few problems. Initially the couple
picked vegetables from the side of the stream and sold these in the market, but as the business
developed, they started to buy out other small businesses involved in the sale of vegetables.
During the latter years of the business, revenue was around 30,000 baht per month, with both
parties working 7 days each week. The business was sold in 2000 after it began to lose money
when the husband became seriously ill.106 The couple had registered their business prior to the
extensive monitoring of residential status.107

102 After the military coup in Thailand in 1990 and the establishment of the National Peace-Keeping Committee, the
junta initiated a widespread so-called rural development program. The program centred on resolving the problems
due to the encroachment on forest lands by the landless and landlessness in general. This was supposed to involve
the relocation of 10m people to areas where farmland was available. The program resulted in wide-spread evictions
of peasants from degraded forest land, which were then delivered to private business establishing plantations mostly
of eucalyptus trees for pulp mills (Handley 2006:340-41).
103 Interview 1 - Karen Male 65, Karenni: Arrived 1976; Interview 25 - Kachin Male 40, Karenni: Arrived 1984;

Interview 41 – Shan Male 43, Karenni: Arrived 1972

104 The author only met one person from Burma, who owned farming land and this was in a village close to the

border with Burma. This was a ‘Burmese’ Shan woman who had title over a small farm. She was previously married
to a Thai (Shan) citizen, who owned the small block of farming land in the village. Upon the death of her husband,
his family allowed her to retain ownership of the land. The produce from the farm is for home consumption, but
the land is too small to supply the family of three with rice for a year.
105Interview 12 – Muslim Male 50, Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived 1980; The jail term is usually 12 months, but it was
reduced to 6 months as he pleaded guilty. However, he spent only 23 days in jail as the fine was paid by the local
police chief who had placed the order for the furniture. He was released on 2 year probation. A special license is
required to work with certain types of wood, which is designed to curtail illegal logging.
106 Interview 9 – Pa-O Male 57, near Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived 1984
107 In 1990, the couple was granted a ‘blue’ identity card

The legal restriction preventing people from Burma obtaining business licenses, even those
holding the ‘blue’ Thai identity card means that many utilize the name of a Thai citizen,
sometimes a family member related through marriage. One ‘Burmese’ Shan man holding a ‘blue’
card ran a successful small construction firm in the province, with the business registered in his
wife’s name. The construction company owns no heavy construction equipment; in fact, the
business has very little physical capital, as do other businesses registered in the name of Thai
citizens.108 A pair of ‘Burmese’ Karen brothers holding a ‘blue’ card (and designated as members
of a recognized highland group) also had to register their business, this time a restaurant in the
name of a Thai citizen - the owner of the property from whom the brothers rented.109

A few refugee migrants operated very small businesses that did not require registration. This
included those who owned small mobile food stalls selling snacks in their residential area. An
even smaller number of ‘migrant’ workers owned and operated food stands in the main areas of
the townships. The stand owners again did not have to register their business, but the operators
held ‘blue’ identity cards and work permits. These small business operators experienced few
problems, though competitors with Thai citizenship had threatened one owner. 110

The registration of businesses in the name of a Thai citizen circumvents laws that discriminate
against ‘Burmese’ resident in Thailand, promoting investment and economic activity within the
province. However, this mechanism of registration also curtails investment due to the risks of
expropriation and thus is similar to the risks associated with refugee migrants investing in
agricultural land. The present laws restricting the involvement of ‘Burmese’ resident in Thailand
means they will not invest in capital intensive businesses as the incentives for cheating by the
registered owner are greatly enhanced, relative to businesses that produce output using mostly
labour. Further, small unregistered businesses have limited incentives to expand having no legal
protection or rights to sell. The legal restrictions preventing even those from Burma with Thai
identity cards from engaging in business activities not only limits the economic opportunities for
‘Burmese’ relative to Thai citizens, but also has detrimental effects on the accumulation of capital
and the local economy.

Informal Structures, Segmentation & Poverty

In addition to the formal discrimination that segments the labour market, contributing to the
incidence of poverty amongst the ‘Burmese’, there are informal practices, which exacerbate
segmentation and poverty - notably arrest, deportation and gender discrimination. However,
other informal practices serve to mitigate the discrimination within the formal structures, as do the
informal mechanisms that circumvent legal discrimination that prevents people from Burma and
their descendants registering businesses and obtaining title over their land.

Gender, Skills and Wages

In the agricultural sector jobs are segmented between ‘Burmese’ men and women, with women,
typically the lower paid. For example, during the garlic planting time women do all the sowing;
this involves squatting in the mud and pushing individual gloves of peeled garlic into the soil.
The women earn 50 baht for each tin of garlic planted, with very few of the women able to plant
more than one tin each day. In the evenings, the women also peel the garlic for planting, taking

108 Interview 46 - Shan Male 45, Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived before 1990
109 Interview 47 – Karen Male 40, Karenni: Arrived 1985
110 Interview 48 – Karen Male 42, Karenni: Arrived 1985 - The owner of the food stand wanted to switch to a type

of food more popular with the customers.

about 3-4 days to complete one tin.111 In comparison, the men are paid 60 baht per day for
carrying the tins, covering and spraying the garlic crop.112 During the rice planting period, the
women again do the sowing and are paid 50 baht per day. This involves standing in shin deep
water and bending over to push the rice in the ground. During the harvesting of rice women are
paid 50 baht per day, while the men are paid 60 baht per day for carrying and thrashing the

Even when men and women perform the same work, they do not always receive the same pay.
This is notable in the construction industry where women are paid at least 20 baht less per day
than are the men.114 However, as in the agricultural sector, typically the work undertaken by men
and women is different, with women’s jobs the lower paid. In addition, the introduction of
technology within the construction industry, further segmented jobs based on gender and led to
decreased employment opportunities for women.115 Women working in the industry prior to the
1990s carried the materials on the construction sites, but with the introduction of cement mixers,
trucks and other basic technology the number of jobs ‘traditionally’ performed by women
decreased. Only men are employed on construction sites to operate the new technology, though
some jobs, notably for truck drivers are reserved for Thai citizens.

Some of the ‘migrant’ men have gained trade skills working as carpenters, bricklayers, electricians
and cement renders, but there seem to be no women from Burma with trade skills in the
construction industry in Mae Hong Son Province.116 The 'Burmese' men with trade skills earn
significantly higher wages, paid between 170-200 baht per day, compared with their ‘Burmese’
colleagues.117 However, Thai citizens who do this sort of work are paid around 300 baht per day.

Our son is an electrician and is paid about 150 baht per day and earns about 3,000 baht per month... Thais
doing similar work are paid about 200-300 baht per day. [Interview 2 – Shan Woman 42, Karenni:
Arrived in Thailand 1985]

My pay increased as my skills increased but I always earned less than the Thais did. For workers of the same
skills, when the Burmese were paid 30-35 baht the Thais were paid 60-70 baht. When I was earning 120
baht, the Thai’s were earning 150-180 baht. The Burmese work longer and do more work.
Even when the owners are polite, the pay is still different. Even if the Burmese are at the same skill level as the
Thais, they still tell the Burmese workers to go and fetch something. If an order is given to do something, the Thai
workers tell the Burmese to do the work… Most of the trouble comes from the younger Thai workers. We tend
to get better treatment from the older Thai workers as they tend to understand our position better. [Interview
12 –Muslim Male 50, Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived 1980]

Construction Site Employing ‘Burmese’ Tradesmen

The discrimination in pay rates between male ‘migrant’

workers and male Thai citizens with trade skills means
that the incomes of ‘migrant’ men are lower compare
with their Thai counterparts with similar skills,

111 Interview 25 - Kachin Male 40, Karenni: Arrived 1984

112 ibid
113 ibid
114 Interview 46 - Shan Male 45, Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived before 1990
115 ibid
116 ibid
117 The men with trade skills are hired by the local contractors, but typically, they did not have work permits,

because they have good contacts within the local construction industry. When the contractors want workers, they
come to the village (Interview 2 - Shan Woman 42, Karenni: Arrived in Thailand 1985; Interview 21– Shan Male 55,
Karenni: Arrived 1972).

contributing to the much higher incidence of poverty amongst those originally from Burma and
their descendants.

However, women (‘Burmese’ and Thai) have not been given the opportunity to gain skills within
the construction industry. This discrimination with regard to on-the-job training means that
women can only be employed in the lower paid jobs within the industry, consequently increasing
the incidence of poverty, particularly amongst single women and families headed by a woman.
Further, the informal discrimination in wage rates means that the income of ‘migrant’ women is
not only lower, but also women have to work longer and harder than their male counterparts do
to earn a similar income.118 Also other factors exacerbate the lower wage rates of women
including the greater financial support young women, (relative to young men) provide to their

Police & the Authorities

The attitudes, prejudices and practices of the local authorities, which are often based on their
private interests, can also be very important for the income level and security of ‘Burmese’
workers.119 All this has varying impacts for ‘migrant’ workers, not all of them negative. Many
‘migrant’ workers reported discrimination and poor treatment by the police and those in

Employment & Informal Practices

However, the protection some employers provide means that some ‘Burmese’ have never had
any trouble with the Thai authorities nor experienced discrimination. 120

The owner is able to protect us from the police. We have never had any trouble, because our employer is quite rich
so they can pay off the police. [Interview 3 – Karen Woman 50, Karenni: Arrived 1980]

In at least one village, undocumented ‘migrant’ workers do not have trouble with the Thai
authorities, as the police operate an unofficial labour hire service ‘passing on’ ‘Burmese’ workers
from farm to farm, as their labour is required.121 However, young police seeking promotion and
newly appointed to the province are often keen to arrest any undocumented residents.122 In
some areas, when labour is required new arrivals from Burma are granted permission to stay
outside the village.123 Typically, the village head warns these undocumented ‘migrant’ workers, if
a police raid is expected.124

In another village in Mae Hong Son, even though all the ‘Burmese’ Shan hold Thai identity
cards, immigration officials still regularly visit the area to check on their work permit status and

118 This is possibly one of the reasons that ‘migrant’ women re-marry very quickly after divorce, separation or the
death of their partner.
119 These informal practices also highlight the discrepancy between the policy designated by the central government

in Bangkok and the practices, relationships and economic needs in the province. Local businesses in response to the
new regulations enacted at the end of 2003 governing migrant workers and their subsequent enforcement, delivered
a petition to the local governor. The petition argued that the new regulations adversely affected business and the
local economy.
120 However, many reported that their children had some problems at school, due to their parent’s country of origin,

including being forced to vacate bus seats for their fellow students with Thai citizenship.
121 ibid
122 ibid
123 Interview 12 –Muslim Male 50, Taunggyi, Shan State: Arrived 1980
124 ibid

the nature of their employment.125 In another area of the province, even the possession of a ‘blue’
Thai identity card that does allow the holder freedom of movement within the province, does
not prevent harassment, when this right is exercised.126

There are police on the local gate, so there are problems when we want to leave the area. They argue that the card
only allows us to stay in the village. [Interview 14 - Karen Male 23, Shadaw Township, Karenni:
Arrived 1980]

Arrest & Deportation

In other areas laws preventing undocumented migration and lack of protection particularly for
Shan refugees, creates a ‘cycle of return’, lowering income levels and contributing to the extreme
poverty within the community. In some villages, the police regularly round-up recent arrivals
living in the surrounding farms and send them to the border with Burma.127

There is constantly about a dozen people around the village but these people change all the time. When one group
is deported, another arrives. The police check nearly all the time when they get some news. They get information
sometimes from the local tour drivers. These people are called the eyes. [Interview 14 – Karen Male 23,
Shadaw Township, Karenni: Arrived 1980]

One part of the Thai is polite and the other rough. This means that some are allowed to stay and work but the
other part is that people are pushed back to Burma… the immigration police come here two or three times a year
to arrest people. These people come straight back here. In the early days, they deported five or six people. Now
they take about 100 people. They just wait until the truck is full and then take them to the border checkpoint.
[Interview 19 – Shan Woman 31, Southern Shan State: Arrived 1991]

After a crackdown in the District of Pai on ‘migrant’ workers by the authorities from outside the
township, many ‘Burmese’ Shan sheltered in the local community, as the police are reluctant to
raid residential areas populated by Thai citizens. The shared culture and language of the
‘Burmese’ and Thai Shan somewhat mitigates central government policy allowing for easier
‘integration’; though the relationships are ‘semi-feudal’ as the Shan refugee migrants in exchange
for protection from the Thai authorities, become ‘bonded’ to their employer. This type of
employment relationship provides protection to ‘migrant’ workers, but decreases the mobility of
the individuals concerned, lowering their wage rates and general employment conditions.

‘Community’ Services
The unclear legal status and formal discrimination against those from Burma has allowed the
authorities in Mae Hong Son Province to utilize the unpaid labour of ‘Burmese’ people for
public works. In none of the areas where interviews were conducted did Thai citizens contribute
their labour to these ‘community’ activities. 128

Burmese people in the town have to provide two people from each house for two days each month. We are called
out by loudspeaker to clean up public places such as parks, roads and schools. There is an implied threat in the
call for volunteers. Local Thais don’t participate. [Interview 2 – Karen Male 54, Karenni: Arrived 1985]

125 Interview 21 - Shan Male 55, Karenni: Arrived 1972; Interview 22 – Shan Male 30, Southern Shan State:
Arrived 1992;
126 Interview 14 – Karen Male 23, Shadaw Township, Karenni: Arrived 1980; Interview 26 – Burmese Male

43, Meiktila, Mandalay Division: Arrived 1983

127 Interview 14 – Karen Male 23, Shadaw Township, Karenni: Arrived 1980

128Interview 1 - Karen Male 65, Karenni: Arrived 1976; Interview 2 - Shan Woman 42, Karenni; Arrived in
Thailand 1985; Interview 3 - Karen Woman 50, Karenni: Arrived 1980; Interview 21– Shan Male 55, Karenni;
Arrived 1972

In one village, people from Burma have even been arrested for not supplying free labour.129 In
another village, the ‘Burmese’ residents regularly supply labour to the local authorities and
private businesses for construction projects, repairs to monasteries and the harvesting of paddy
in exchange for assistance and protection from the Thai authorities.130

Even though possession of an identity card allows for at least temporary residence (and holds
the allure of Thai citizenship), the rights conferred and the access to services is less compared to
those with Thai citizenship. This includes curtailed access to education, land title, and the right to
engage in private business. Further, identity cards do not allow the holder to engage in legal
employment, as all people originally from Burma and even their descendants must engage in a
separate registration process for employment to be legally recognized. All the cards restrict the
holder’s freedom of movement and area of residency (especially the ‘light pink’ and ‘green’ cards),
lowering wages relative to other areas (ceteris paribus), and increasing the incidence of
underemployment, a problem for ‘Burmese’ (and others) in the province. Hence, the limitations
on mobility lower potential income, contributing to the higher incidence of poverty, amongst
this group. The inheritance of these restrictions by the young threatens to entrench those of
‘Burmese’ descent in poverty with all its attendant problems.

Despite the very high incidence of poverty and discrimination against the ‘Burmese’ in Mae
Hong Son Province, most have no desire or intention of ever returning to Burma, because of the
egregious human rights abuses in their homeland.

There is no future here. We work irregularly, we are still hungry, but it is a better than Burma, as there is no
portering or troops. In Burma, you can not sleep well. At least in Thailand we can sleep... Even if we are chased
out of here by the immigration, we still want to come back. We know that the Thai police will not beat or kill
us, unlike the Burmese. [Interview 19 – Shan Woman 31, Southern Shan State; Arrived 1991]

Also, many no longer have a home in Burma and even if their village still exists, there is no
employment, no education for their children, no electricity and no decent roads to their village.
Many continue to be fearful of a return to violence and war.

We have no intention or desire to return to Burma. We no longer have a house or place in Burma and Thailand
is a peaceful country. [Interview 3 – Karen Woman 50, Karenni: Arrived 1980]

The removal of at least some of the formal discrimination especially that which inhibits mobility,
would increase the incentive to invest in education, decrease the incidence of poverty within the
community and possibly increase the province’s wage rate. The removal of the restrictions on
mobility might also promote a movement away from small scale, low productivity agriculture,
encouraging Thai citizens to invest and seek employment in sectors with higher productivity.
The removal of the requirement for those holding Thai identity cards to register for a work
permit would increase the disposable income of this group and promote a decrease in the
distinction between the formal and informal sectors and its attendant problems. If policy makers in
Thailand want to avoid the creation of a stateless underclass, integration must be promoted by
granting citizenship at least to those ‘Burmese’ who have grown up in Thailand. These young
people view themselves as Thai, rather than ‘Burmese’ and have no other home, except for

Interview 26 – Burmese Male 43, Meiktila, Mandalay Division: Arrived 1983

130Interview 8 - Pa-O Male 60, Tha Daung, Karen State: Arrived 1984; Interview 9 - Pa-O Male 57, near Taunggyi,
Shan State: Arrived 1984

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