By Bruce Fan
Staff Writer

Recent international spotlight has been focused on the two Myanmar migrants who were allegedly tortured by police to extract a “confession” for murdering two British tourists in Thailand. The trail is still underway. The defense lawyer representing the migrants alleges that the Burmese migrants were coerced to make a false confession and are not the actual perpetrators of the crime.

Both migrants have recounted the various words spoken and actions taken by the police prior to the “confessions”. For instance, during their arrest, a police officer told one of the migrants that “those who don’t have passports don’t have rights…if they disappear, nobody would notice.” Such a statement insinuated what was to come for the two migrants as they were separated and tortured individually. To begin, one of the migrants named Nakhon stated that “police officers flicked his genitals hard, pulled his legs apart and took photographs of him naked.”Furthermore, the police “kicked him in the back, punched him, slapped him, threatened to tie him to a rock and drop him in the sea, chop off his arms and legs, throw his body into the sea to feed the fish.” Zaw Lin, the other migrant, stated that police explicitly told him that if he didn’t confess guilt to the crimes then he would be killed. Proof has also been given on the side of the defense as prison doctors have confirmed evidence of such injuries from the claimed torture. If anything, the key words spoken and actions taken by the Thai Police during torture serve to show the lack of rights afforded to Burmese migrants in Thailand. And in response to such alleged police actions to the trial, many rights group are defending the migrants, stating that they are being used as scapegoats for the crime simply because they are undocumented migrants who are denied rights in Thailand.

This case serves to highlight the issue of rights for the undocumented Burmese in Thailand that has been occurring for quite some time now. Generally, rights have been non-existent for Burmese undocumented migrants. Often times, Burmese migrants face severe worker exploitation with overworked hours, wages under national regulation, and other forms of mistreatment. The International Organization for Migration’s estimates that 1.4 million unregistered workers and family members are being legally unprotected from severe exploitation by Thailand’s industries.Additionally, many migrants have to pay money to traverse to Thailand only to have their wages “cut and passports and work permits confiscated by the agent.” For example, Soe Min Pai and his fellow workers were forced to work for free for 10 days upon arriving in Thailand, and still do not receive the full wages that were promised to them initially.To add, any migrants who are injured on-the-job receive no compensation. For example, Niang Lin is a migrant worker in Thailand who “lost his hand in a machine accident at a plastics factory and received no compensation until a local NGO HRDF helped out.”

Undocumented Burmese women also face the dangers of rape and sexual abuse in Thailand. Street gangs often rape Burmese women by justifying that “Burmese women are illegal migrants and we can’t be arrested if we rape them”. Such actions are especially unsettling as the Thai government and police do little to nothing to protect these women. For instance, the Raks Thai Foundation Lawyer states that “only five percent of rape complaints are followed up by the authorities…if you are Burmese, your case is delayed and you can’t get fair justice”. Furthermore, many victims of rape do not even dare report such crimes because they feel ashamed and fear deportation by the Thai government. As a result, such crimes are going unnoticed and unpunished as Burmese women have little to choice but to remain silent in Thailand.

One may then wonder why it is that the Burmese are still flocking over to Thailand and why so many choose remain there despite such horrid working conditions. The answer is both political and economic. To begin, many Burmese left for Thailand due to the political instability that occurred in Myanmar under its military dictatorship that reigned there in full force till 2011. Under this dictatorship, numerous human rights were abused and any opposition was highly oppressed. The ruthlessness of the dictatorship can be shown through the Democracy Summer’s 4-day massacre, as troops killed at least 10,000 protesters across the country during August of 1988. Despite elections and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, many Burmese continue to flock to and stay in Thailand because the military dictatorship still survives during this transition time, and still could possibly return sometime in the future. Economically speaking, Burmese undocumented migrants remain upset because a huge wage differential still exists between what they earn in Thailand versus what they would earn back home at Myanmar. In addition, many migrants believe that workers’ rights and conditions are no better in Burma than in Thailand. As best explained by an expert, “as long as workers [abroad] don’t fall into situations and severe debt bondage or trafficking, and even if they had bad employers, they can still usually save and send home more money than they ever could from working in [Burma].” From such statements, one can see why Burmese migrants illegally cross the border into Thailand. They truly believe that they are running from political instability and violence in Myanmar towards a land of economic opportunity in Thailand.

All in all, it seems that the Burmese migrants in Thailand face inhumane conditions as they are discriminated and exploited by Thai corporations, gangs, and even the police. Evidence can be shown of this through the Thai police treatment of the two migrants, working conditions, and the sexual assaults of Burmese women. Although NGOs and other human rights groups have tried to do what they can to help these migrants; one can’t help but wonder what more can be done to help these undocumented workers. Is the huge wage differential between working in Myanmar and Thailand worth such exploitation and lack of rights for Burmese citizens? And so, as this court case regarding the murder of the two British tourists unfolds under international spotlight, perhaps one may see a change in the Thai government’s policies towards undocumented workers. Such a decision is important not only in regards to migrant workers in Thailand, but for everyone across the globe as it opens up and addresses the larger question of universal human rights.

Image By: 104_PancakeSeller



PROSPECT Journal is collaborating with China Focus, a blog focusing China’s role in the world and U.S.-China relations. As part of this collaboration, PROSPECT will be intermittently publishing articles by the China Focus bloggers. Our journal is excited to bring a wider range of expert analysis of Chinese politics, economics and culture to our readers.

By Yanning Wei
Contributing Writer

As of 2012, China’s rural to urban migration has reached a historic record: a total of 262 million migrants have moved to cities from the countryside. Many western observers and scholars hail China’s urbanization, as China’s cities have absorbed the largest ever influx of rural to urban migrants without the emergence of massive slums. Compared with megacities like Mumbai and Rio de Janeiro, Chinese megacities appear remarkably slum-free. But how did China avoid this problem?

In 2011, a UK-based scholar published a series of papers that ask whether a new geography of global poverty has developed.  His papers argue that the majority of the world’s poor live in the middle-income countries like India and China, rather than in low-income countries. In my research, I observe some distinctive facts about China.  First, poverty there is considered as a problem primarily associated with the rural population.  Second, according to the World Bank’s poverty line of $1.25 per day, as of 2009 there were 254 million Chinese who count as “extremely poor”.   At a poverty line of $2 per day, the poor population could have reached 394 million as of 2012.  Third, among migrants streaming to megacities such as Beijing and Shanghai, the majority comes from the countryside.

Given these facts, we can safely assume that at least a certain proportion of rural to urban migrants is pretty poor.  At this point, the puzzle is: if it is correct to say that then where is the space (e.g., slums) for them in the city? Or, simply put, where do the poor stay in the city?

Kam Wing Chan, professor of geography at the University of Washington, suggests that China’s rural migrants are “in the city but not of the city” because of China’s apartheid-like Hukou system, which creates “invisible walls” that prevent them from staying permanently in the city. Simply stated, under Hukou, rural migrants are allowed to work in the city. The city, however, is not responsible for providing social benefits for them. For example, migrant children typically were not allowed to attend local public schools until a few years ago. In addition, opportunities for migrants to change their rural Hukou status and permanently settle in the city are quite slim. For example, despite employing millions of rural migrants, Shanghai has only granted urban Hukou to 43 of them so far.

Constrained by the Hukou system, rural migrants have to keep circulating between their home villages and cities where informal housing is their only option. For many, this endless trip has lasted for decades and spanned generations. Even though there have been hundreds of millions of them, migrants in the cities are highly atomized and marginalized. This is the major reason why there are no expanding slums seen in the Chinese cities. For the government, however, the benefit of implementing Hukou is obvious. The system has enabled Chinese cities to obtained necessary laborers for economic growth and a busy, large and clean-looking city. At the same time, it lets cities avoid the costs of providing housing and other social services to rural migrants. It is the Hukou system that, for better or worse, has created China’s slum-free cities.

Photo by Pierre-Alexandre Pheulpin


By Rebecca Benest
Staff Writer

On April 21, Carroll Bogert joined me to discuss the present and future of human rights in China. She currently oversees all external relations for Human Rights Watch and previously worked in China, Southeast Asia and Moscow with Newsweek magazine for over a decade.

Q: How has your previous work in international journalism affected the way you approach your work at the Human Rights Watch, making human rights abuses globally known?

A: We’re not journalists, but we’re information gatherers and distributors; our researchers go into the field and ask people questions: “What happened? Who is responsible? Tell me your story.” In some ways, it’s similar to journalism in that sense, but rather than just gathering a story we think of it more as evidence; this is evidence of a crime. So whereas a journalist might do just enough to get a story, we’ll do dozens or even hundreds of interviews to really collect incontrovertible evidence that something has happened, a crime has occurred. We’re also often on the news; we’re in Ukraine, we’re in the Central African Republic. You name it, the crisis of the day, there’s someone from the Human Rights Watch there. But we’re also working in places where the news media aren’t. In addition, we do more than just information gathering and distributing; we’re trying to change policy. We’re not just trying to witness, observe and write about human rights violations, we try to actually make it stop. That’s a part of the picture left out of journalism. The beginning, however, of going into the field with an open mind to find out what happened, that’s what journalists do; we just do it more in-depth. We really cover the story.

Q: Socioeconomic growth in China has led to what some consider a loosening of the Chinese government’s oppression of human rights. Do you agree with this idea or do you think the public eye on China has only led them to alternative but equally effective forms of human rights oppression?

A: In comparisons to decades past, there is much greater personal freedom in China today. You have the freedom to choose your own job, to choose whom you marry; personal consumer choice is not even comparable. Recently, however, we see a downturn in human rights; things are worse right now than they were even a year ago. There’s a definite concerted crackdown on non-governmental organizations in China, activists and environmental protestors. The current president of China, Xi Jinping, wants to push through some economic reforms that he knows are going to be difficult, and in my opinion, as the trade-off for that, he has to give the hardliners something. If he’s going to free up certain parts of the economy, he’s going to have to give his opponents something and it appears that what he’s giving is essentially freedom of assembly–freedom of the people to organize. There’s an incredible amount of activism in China today and it’s being very harshly cracked down on.

Q: Being that you were in China during the Tiananmen Square protests, how do you think your experiences during that time influenced the way you see China now or the way you see its future?

A: Being in the middle of a crowd of one million people who are demonstrating for freedom and democracy is something that I hope all human beings can experience. Tiananmen was not like anything else I’ve ever experienced. It’s rare to be among one million people anyway, but to be among one million people there for a political purpose is an incredible feeling. Many were there for other reasons, but it was definitely a democracy movement. I wouldn’t say that people everywhere want all of the same things, there are cultural differences, but people really do want the freedom to decide things for themselves, the freedom to participate politically and to determine their own destiny. They want basic human rights, and that was made clear to me at Tiananmen Square.

Q: In response to many accusations of human rights violations, China has often referred to their “different definition of human rights,” which they say is shaped in relation to their national culture and history. How do you feel this definition has shaped the way the government treats its people?

A: China actually has signed many of the major human rights treaties; not all of them, but I think it’s important to get away from cultural definitions of human rights. That’s why we try to look only at law. What legal obligations has a government assumed to protect human rights? What treaties has it signed, what laws does it have on its own books? There are plenty of laws protecting human rights in China; the fact is that the government is not respecting its own laws. China has said they want to end labor and detention camps; okay, so let’s do it. It’s not a question of if human rights are just foreign to China, but these are legal obligations that the Chinese government has assumed and it must abide by them. That needs to be the conversation.

Q: There has been tension between China and Taiwan over political sovereignty of the Taiwanese state. Meanwhile, in the last two decades Taiwan has made significant improvements in terms of human rights and the move toward democracy. Could you explain how you think the tension with China has affected the political scene in Taiwan? Do you think that complete independence of Taiwan would result in more drastic improvements in human rights?

A: I have to say that we don’t work on Taiwan, so I’m not really familiar enough with the current situation. Yes, Taiwan does have a better human rights record than China, but that’s not to say it’s perfect. We actually do have some concerns on factories run by Taiwanese businessmen abroad where labor rights may be violated; I think Taiwan gets away with a better reputation because it’s not part of mainland China, but its record is actually deserving of scrutiny. Having said that, I think Hong Kong is more of a critical focal point right now because a lot of the freedoms that were promised at the time of the handover from British sovereignty to Chinese sovereignty in 1977 are being curtailed right now. I think it’s really important that the promises made to that territory are kept, and that international attention should be focused on what’s happening in Hong Kong. In the past it has been an island of more protected speech and because it is a part of China, to be able to protect freedoms there will have a very good effect on the rest of China.

Q: Lastly, having worked extensively in China and Moscow with Newsweek—and I’m sure in several other countries since then—do you think there is an international pattern to human rights and its abuses, or do you feel each situation is different?

A: I think governments are tempted to abuse power; that’s in the very nature of power. It is the nature of power that people who hold it are tempted to abuse it. In a sense, that’s what power is, although there are, of course, people who wield power responsibly. We feel that every society, everyone in power requires a watchdog: someone who’s keeping an eye on how they’re wielding their power. So there’s a similarity in that sense; that’s human nature, as it were, but otherwise every case is very much it’s own. The specifics matter. The people, the personalities, the contexts make every case special.

Photos by the International Affairs Group