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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 January, 2005, 00:28 GMT
Thailand's secret survivors

By Tony Cheng
BBC News, Khao Lak

Soe, a 24-year-old Burmese migrant worker, looks as if he has just stepped out of the beach resort in Khao Lak where he used to work.
Migrants from Burma gather at an evacuation center in Takua Pa town in Phang Nga, Thailand
Many migrants are now being repatriated by the Thai authorities

His uniform, an open-necked Batik shirt, is stylish and relaxed, his smile friendly and welcoming.

But as you look closer, the deep bruises show through the dark skin of his face, and he walks with a pronounced limp from the wounds he received when the tsunami came.

Unlike the guests he helped at the resort after the disaster, he has had no medical care for his wounds, no financial aid and the only offer to go home is in the back of a Thai immigration truck.

As a legally registered migrant worker, Soe should have nothing to fear.

But a sudden crackdown on illegal immigrants, prompted by unfounded rumours in the local media of Burmese looters, has forced a group of Burmese high into the mountains overlooking the devastated beach resorts they helped to build and operate.

Soe has thought about trying to go home to Burma, but it is too risky:

"Of course we've considered it but how would we do it? We have some possessions like a TV but if the authorities found it they would accuse us of stealing.

"There are some girls and young children with us and it would be dangerous for them," he said.

Deprived of aid

Soe has been in hiding for the past two weeks with his wife, child and 17 other Burmese migrant workers to avoid the regular sweeps by Thai immigration police along Khao Lak beach.

A displaced family from Myanmar gathers at a shelter Thursday near Takuapa, Thailand.
Burmese workers will not venture down to the temples or morgues to claim the bodies of their loved ones

With them are three orphans aged five, eleven and six whose parents have been missing since 26 December.

They have received no medical aid, and their only food and clean water supplies are being provided by local volunteers.

Soe has heard about the massive aid effort following the tsunami but knows he is unlikely to benefit.

"There's not much I can do about it because the authorities won't let it get to us.

"I feel very bad for those who are with me, especially those going hungry, but this time there is nothing I can do. If I go and complain or tell them about it, they will accuse me of something, and I feel I can't do anything about that."

The struggle for survival is one that Soe and the 30,000 other Burmese who have legal registration in Phang-Nga province should not be fighting.

Although he is a legal worker there are believed to be thousands of other Burmese, and their families, who entered Thailand illegally to work in its once-flourishing tourist economy.

But Pranon Samwong, of the Migrant Assistance Programme (MAP), says she has seen much more evidence of registered workers being seized.

"We can't confirm that everyone being deported has legal status, but most have the right to stay here," she said.

Officials at the labour ministry have confirmed that the arrests should only be targeting illegal migrants but the evidence suggests local authorities are implementing tougher regulations of their own.

They have neither the time nor the energy to deal with a vast floating workforce which has been left without food and shelter.

Ironically, many Burmese do want to return home.

But after the trauma of the tsunami and facing an uncertain future, they are being prohibited from doing so by Thai employers who do not want to lose the fee of $3,000 they paid to register them in the first place, especially as the reconstruction work gets under way.

On Thursday, a Burmese doctor and two volunteers were detained by police in the town of Ban Tuplamu on suspicion of helping migrant workers get home.

Hiding in the hills

They were representing the NGO World Vision, forced to stop aiding refugees cross the border into Burma after border officials told them no more large groups would be permitted to cross.

In the confusion, the trauma of those missing family or friends has been forgotten.

Too afraid of deportation, the Burmese workers will not venture down to the temples or morgues to claim the bodies of their loved ones.

It will never be known how many Burmese died when the tsunami swept over Thailand's shores.

And with no access to dental records or DNA information the forensic teams are unlikely to find positive identification for many Burmese bodies.

The only hope for Soe and the thousands of Burmese like him is to remain hidden in the hills above the coast.

Unlike the bodies that remain missing and unidentified, he is hoping that no one finds him, and his only hope for the future is that no one comes looking.

Watch interviews with Thai and Burmese survivors


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