FROM BURMA TO THAILAND: MIGRATION ISSUES

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

WINTER OF DISCONTENT PART II: HOW WESTERN MEDIA IS FAILING THE AMERICAN PEOPLE

Protestors in Taipei
A Taiwanese protestor holds a sign featuring a “V for Vendetta” quote, which reads “The country belongs to the people. People should not be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”

By Kirstie Yu
Staff Writer

In the first part of this series, I reviewed the current situations in Ukraine, Venezuela, and Thailand. In this second installment, I will provide a brief update on the status of each of these countries as well as present information about a new protest movement in Taiwan that emerged in mid-March. Additionally, I will discuss why the U.S. should be focusing more on these countries due to both economic interests and human rights violations, and attempt to explain why I believe the U.S. and Western media focuses so heavily on the Ukraine crisis when it really should provide more coverage of other equally important movements. Although there is definitely some coverage of other conflicts, Ukraine is always on the front page of the news.

Since the publication of Part I in early March, the protests have continued in Ukraine, Venezuela, and Thailand. In Ukraine, Russian troops took over the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine at the end of March, and 97 percent of voters in Crimea supported secession from Ukraine to Russia in a referendum held March 16. As Ukraine awaits presidential elections scheduled for May 25, it has just launched its own anti-terror operation against armed pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine on April 13. In Venezuela, violence abounds as the death toll has risen to 41 and about 650 people have been injured since early February. Since the beginning of March, additional groups of people, including doctors, medical students and mothers, have joined the student protests against the Venezuelan government’s handling of commodity scarcity issues and the economic crisis. Students also set up tents outside of United Nations offices in Caracas on March 26 to complain that not enough international attention has been paid to the Venezuelan crisis. In Thailand, a Constitutional Court decision on March 21 that nullified the February general election bolstered a second wave of protests against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government in Bangkok. Most recently, protestors started targeting government buildings on the outskirts of Bangkok.

One additional protest that is personally important to me as a Taiwanese American is the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan that lasted from March 18 until April 10. Tensions over the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) that was signed between China and Taiwan reached a boiling point when the ratification of the CSSTA was pushed through Congress and passed in 30 seconds without a line-by-line review of the clauses. President Ma Ying-Jeou and his pro-China Kuomingtang (Chinese Nationalist Party) faced heavy backlash from students and supporters of the pro-Taiwanese-independence Democratic Progressive Party. The predominantly student protestors stormed the Legislative Yuan (parliament) and refused to leave for 24 days until Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-Pyng conceded and made promises to create an oversight mechanism to make the CSSTA review process more transparent and democratic. Within the three weeks that the students stormed the Legislative Yuan, protestors took to the streets to demonstrate their displeasure against not only the CSSTA, but also the Ma administration in general, with about 350,000 people participating in a rally outside the Presidential Office in Taipei.

Individually, the Venezuelan, Thai, and Taiwanese protests each have an impact on U.S. economic interests. First, Venezuela, which is perhaps most directly linked to the U.S. economy, is one of the top five suppliers of foreign oil to the U.S. according to the U.S. Department of State. Additionally, the U.S. is Venezuela’s most important trading partner for both imports and exports; 500 U.S. companies are represented in Venezuela. However, relations between the two countries are only becoming more strained as President Nicolás Maduro keeps blaming the U.S. government, specifically Secretary of State John Kerry, for inciting protests and a “Ukraine-style coup”. This is problematic for the U.S. because even if it wants to improve relations with Venezuela, enduring accusations from President Maduro prevent the U.S. from taking even the slightest actions that would make the U.S. appear to be imposing its will on Venezuela. With the International Monetary Fund recently releasing its World Economic Outlook that states that Venezuela’s economy is expected to shrink 0.5 percent, the U.S. is virtually powerless and must sit idly by as the Venezuelan economy declines while its government fails to answer the demands of the people.

Next, the U.S. is Thailand’s third-largest bilateral trading partner and has more than $13 billion in direct foreign investment for Thailand. The Department of State also notes that the U.S. supports many other aspects of the Thai government, such as law enforcement, science and technology, wildlife trafficking, public health, and education. Similar to the situation in Venezuela, the protests in Thailand have caused the Bank of Thailand to cut its economic growth projection from 3.7 percent to 3 percent. A country that relies on tourism for 7.3 percent of its gross domestic product, Thailand has steered tourists away from its country due to its inability to control the protestors. Furthermore, both Western and Asian corporations may begin to think twice about basing their operations in Thailand due to its ongoing risky conditions. Although the U.S., as in the case of Venezuela, has little direct leverage in this situation, it can take advantage of the fact that it is one of the key investors in Thailand and use this as leverage to ensure that human rights are being protected during the protests. Cutting off aid to Thailand could be devastating for the Thai economy. Moreover, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) notes that “it is critical that U.S. officials not ignore Thailand while it goes through this crisis” and should “engage the business community, the military, and other sectors of the society.” The protestors’ desire for anti-democracy is an unprecedented theme that has gone unnoticed. The lack of coverage of these protests has reinforced that this region does not seem to be a priority to the U.S. despite CSIS recommendations.

Lastly, although the Taiwan protests have stronger and more direct implications for the Taiwanese economy than for the U.S. economy, the protests ultimately affect China, which in turn affects the U.S. economy. According to the U.S. Department of State, Taiwan is the United States’ 11th largest trading partner, and the United States is Taiwan’s largest foreign investor. Whether the treaty in question is ultimately ratified or not by congress will either expand economic ties with China or keep the economic situation the same in Taiwan. The most important issue here is the fact that since Taiwan is still technically owned by China, China has the final say in controlling the extent of foreign trade Taiwan is allowed to engage in. If the CSSTA is sent back to China for renegotiations and China wants to force the CSSTA to be ratified by Taiwan, it could threaten Taiwan by not allowing it to sign free trade agreements with other countries. President Ma believes that if the CSSTA is not passed, “it will have a grave impact on [Taiwan’s] international image,” which would result in a long-term threat to foreign trade.

Collectively, the three conflicts in Venezuela, Thailand, and Taiwan highlight various human rights and due process issues. The peaceful protests in all three countries are often met with police force. In Venezuela, police have retaliated with buckshot, tear gas, and water cannons, while in Taiwan, police officers have used batons and physical force to try to drag and remove the protestors. Protestors have demanded an end to police brutality, yet it seems that these demands for a respect of human rights, especially the rights to life, physical integrity, and free speech, are not being met by the governments of these three countries. In addition, the belief that the Thai general election in February was rigged and the corresponding refusal to vote by many citizens threaten the future integrity of free and fair elections in Thailand. The undemocratic passing of the CSSTA without an article-by-article review coupled with a lack of transparency and responsiveness to the people’s concerns threatens democracy itself in Taiwan.

The economic interests the U.S. has in Venezuela, Thailand, and Taiwan, as well as the growing human rights concerns in those countries, should make the conflicts within these countries a priority to the U.S., yet the U.S. and Western media only focuses on the conflict in Ukraine and Russia. One possible explanation for this is that the U.S. is stuck in a Cold War mentality, where it still sees Russia as its biggest enemy and will always support the side that is against Russia. Even though the media believes it may be more interesting for readers to have alarming front cover news about Ukraine day after day, it is unfair to other countries that have just as important conflicts. Another explanation is that the media might think that since Americans in general do not care about the news, it is easier to focus on one news story at a time rather than change headlines every day. Less coverage may also seem to indicate to readers that the U.S. will not intervene in these conflicts so the American public will not be as upset with the U.S. government, which has a historic reputation for sticking its nose in other countries’ business. A final possible explanation could just be that the media does not like reporting on conflicts until something drastic actually happens, such as violence and bloodshed or a President being ousted or impeached. For example, President Viktor Yanukovych has been ousted in Ukraine, but President Maduro of Venezuela and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand are still in power despite mass demonstrations. However, just because a ruler has not been ousted does not mean that the situation is more stable by any means, and the media should still monitor these conflicts and update the public.

Why does the Western media insist on focusing on one conflict for headlines day after day when they could just as easily view these conflicts as a collective problem of democracy and middle class revolt throughout the world? There is growing global unrest, better coordinated with the advent of social media. The unparalleled situation the world finds itself in should garner more recognition from both the international community and from Western media, especially considering the economic and human rights ramifications these conflicts have. Society today relies heavily on media to give us real-time updates on events happening halfway across the globe. By favoring certain news stories over others because they are more convenient to cover, media outlets fail in their duty to provide fair coverage of world news. This failure ultimately causes the public to be grossly uninformed about important current affairs that affect U.S. interests.

Image by billy1125

WINTER OF DISCONTENT, PART I: THE PRESENT PREDICAMENT IN UKRAINE, VENEZUELA AND THAILAND

Graffiti in Boston

By Kirstie Yu
Staff Writer

For the past few weeks, I have been receiving notifications on my iPhone lock screen about the current state of Ukraine through news applications such as the New York Times and Circa. However, I have not received any about the situations in Thailand and Venezuela, even though these conflicts have been going on for as long as or even longer, in the case of Thailand, than the Ukrainian crisis. Why is it that the United States and Western media are making headlines of the news in Ukraine when there are other global conflicts that are just as important as what is happening in Ukraine, if not more? I believe that the only reason the United States and Western media are so fixated on the Ukrainian situation is that it is simply easier for the media to cover and increase readership. In addition to this, the U.S. media and government officials are stuck in a Cold War mentality.

In Ukraine, tensions began to rise when President Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian stance came into conflict with the pro-EU stance of the nation’s youth opposition. President Yanukovych suspended talks on an agreement between Ukraine and the European Union in which the European Union would help support the Ukrainian economy. Russia made its position clear on the agreement by changing its foreign policy to prevent the import of all goods from Ukraine. However, after the Ukraine-EU agreement broke down, Russia indicated that it would be willing to provide Ukraine with a $15 billion bailout loan, which President Yanukovych accepted. This infuriated Ukrainians who wanted to establish closer ties with the European Union and to distance themselves from Russia. In response, three months of protests, dubbed Euromaidan, began in November 2013, culminating thus far in a temporary truce that broke down less than a day after it was called between President Yanukovych and opposition leaders, the deaths of both protestors and police, the flight of President Yanukovych to Russia and his subsequent impeachment, the call for an early presidential election that will take place on May 25, 2014, and, most importantly, the beginning of Russian military intervention in Ukraine, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently received permission from the Russian parliament to deploy Russian troops in the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.

In Venezuela, protests have arisen due to President Nicolás Maduro’s inability to unite the country and stabilize the Venezuelan economy following the death of President Hugo Chávez almost one year ago today. According to CTV News, a myriad of reasons contribute to the growing displeasure with President Maduro’s regime, including surging inflation, scarcity of basic goods, problematic gas prices, high levels of criminal violence and persistent uncertainty about the validity of election results that put President Maduro in power in the first place. Although the first three reasons have important underlying economic implications, it is actually the fourth reason that has led most strongly to widespread student protests. On January 6, 2014, Miss Venezuela Monica Spear, her husband and her daughter were returning by car to Caracas after a New Year’s vacation when they were assaulted by highway robbers. Spear and her husband were killed, while their daughter was left wounded and orphaned. After this incident, protests began against the President Maduro’s regime, fueled by outrage over economic instability and overall insecurity. These mainly student-led protests only increased in force in February, especially because they coincided with the February 12th commemoration of the role of young people in a historical battle and because of the escalation of violence from both the government and protestors. The protestors’ main goal is the resignation of President Maduro, but he has yet to step down at this point.

In Thailand, protestors began decrying the unstable government under current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in late October 2013. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is the younger sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted from office and has been in a self-imposed exile in Dubai and London since 2006. Many of the protestors see Yingluck as a puppet for her brother Thaksin, and this became even more apparent when Prime Minister Yingluck introduced an amnesty bill that would nullify Thaksin’s corruption allegations and allow him to return to the country without punishment. The public outcry against this bill led to protests in Bangkok, and the Thai Senate eventually rejected the bill in November 2013. However, the lasting backlash to the proposed bill caused Yingluck to dissolve the nation’s parliament on December 9, 2013, and call for new elections to be held February 2, 2014. Protests against Yingluck’s government are made up largely of younger educated urban middle-class citizens, who widely refused to vote in the February election because they did not believe the elections were free and fair. These demonstrators want every trace of “Thaksin’s regime […] wiped out” from their country and will not stop until an “unelected council is put in place to reform what they say is a corrupt political system.” In the aftermath of the February 2nd election, police have attempted to evict around 6,000 demonstrators from government sites, which has led to ongoing violence and contention between the protestors and police.

All three of these global conflicts are ongoing and all are important to the global economy and world affairs in distinct ways, yet the most attention has been paid to the Ukrainian crisis. The U.S. Council on Foreign Relations has a Global Conflict Tracker that does not, at the time of publication of this article, consider the Ukraine conflict to be as high on their Preventive Priority Level scale as the conflicts in Venezuela and Thailand. Although it may be easier for the media to cover the Ukrainian conflict due to pre-existing negative sentiments towards Russia lasting from the Cold War era, it is wrong for the media to mainly focus on the Ukrainian crisis just because images of Russian imperialism may be more salient to news readers. The media’s job is to inform, and, when it chooses to do so, it can do an exemplary job, as we are now seeing in Ukraine. However, more should be done to cover the ongoing crises of Venezuela, Thailand and other ongoing global conflicts currently under the media’s radar. In the next part of this series, I will examine the implications each of these protests has on U.S. interests and explore why the failure of the media to cover them is so problematic.

Image by Brian Talbot