They’ve been barred from Thailand’s buses, hospitals and banks. Their crime? Being Burmese.

Myanmar nationals kicked off a bus on Dec. 22.
Myanmar nationals kicked off a bus on Dec. 22.

Discrimination has become a part of everyday life for migrant Myanmar workers in Thailand since they were blamed for igniting a second wave of COVID-19 infections there.

In the weeks since the outbreak began, Myanmar nationals have been denied access to basic services, and the Thai authorities share some blame for ratcheting up the rhetoric against them as scapegoats.

In one incident late last month, a Myanmar couple said they were forced off a bus on its way to Koh Chang in Trat province when it stopped in Bangkok.

“We were expelled from the bus because we are Myanmar citizens,” Saw Htoo Htoo wrote online along with a video clip taken of his experience at the hands of the Green Bus Co.

Saw works at an international company in Bangkok and his girlfriend studies at Mahidol University. The incident occurred over a week before province-by-province travel restrictions were put in place.

“[If] even someone like us [is] being treated like this, I can’t imagine how Burmese Migrant Workers are being treated,” he wrote.

Far from a member of the invisible underclass, his post written in English won wide attention, prompting a Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman to publicly apologize.

“This is not our policy. We are sorry it happened. I hope this does not happen again,” the rep said.

But such discrimination has only continued. At around the same time last month, 14 Myanmar citizens were kicked off a bus southeast of the capital in Samut Prakan province. Just last week, two Myanmar workers were denied entry at a Bangkok branch of Bank of Ayudhya, aka Krungsri.

Hein Htet, a migrant worker, said he was told he needed a new ATM card to receive his salary, but the bank refused to let him in after learning he was from Myanmar.

“The manager told me that there was a Thai law not to allow Myanmar people into their bank,” Ma San said. “Those who want a new ATM card must bring a Thai citizen to sign for it on Monday. Only then will we get it.”

After going relatively virus-free for about seven months, Thailand faced its re-emergence mid-December after it was found to be pervasive among migrant workers living in substandard housing – and with little to no access to health care – at a seafood wholesale market southwest of the capital in Samut Sakhon province.

The Mahachai Market, home to nearly a half million Myanmar migrant workers, was closed after a 67-year-old Thai shrimp trader tested positive for COVID-19. Almost immediately, Thai Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha publicly placed blame on Myanmar’s undocumented migrant workers.

Within days, the spread of fear and misinformation led to open hate speech online and in the media.

Ma Oo of the Myanmar Migrant Workers Network in Bangkok said Myanmar citizens in some parts of Bangkok have been denied access to remittance services by banks, even though they had never been to Samut Sakhon. This is because some Thai bank employees believe they may be carriers of the virus. People have reported signs going up at hospitals refusing service.

Health officials had been warning that xenophobia was not helpful. As the outbreak quickly spread through most provinces, they began calling attention to the fact that most cases were now being transmitted by Thais.

Whether involving crime, racism or drugs, it’s a reflexive response of Thai officialdom to otherize problems and dodge responsibility. But just before New Year’s Eve, health officials stopped prefacing bad news with the term “Myanmar migrant workers” in their daily reports.

But problems remain.

Another woman denied access to a bank took her outrage to TikTok.

“I didn’t see it as a preventive measure,” user Hevlandhevland wrote. “I saw it as an insult to the Burmese people.”

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