Uneasy life on the margins in Mae Sot

Silently, the boatman steered his vessel across the still water, propelling it forward by pushing against the riverbed with his long wooden pole. His two passengers didn't bother sitting down. In half a minute, the boat had crossed a narrow section of the Moei river, from Myanmar's Karen State, to Mae Sot district in north-western Thailand.

There were no immigration or customs officials to greet the two men as they clambered up the bank. This is not the only such unofficial gateway in Mae Sot through which refugees and prospective workers from Myanmar have streamed into Thailand for years, fuelling the growth of hundreds of factories with their cheap labour.

Some 300,000 migrants from Myanmar are estimated to live and work in Mae Sot.

For years, these migrants have churned out clothes, textiles and other products, many biding their time before making their way to higher-paying jobs in Bangkok. They commonly earn far less than the mandated minimum wage of 300 baht (S$12.09) a day.

While the Thai state has described them as security problems, the migrants live in fear of arrest or extortion attempts by security officials.

Textile worker Than Than Htay, 47, has been living in Mae Sot for five years and since acquired a passport and work permit. But she does not allow her two school-going daughters to venture beyond the compounds of her factory dormitory and their school.

"They don't have proper student cards yet as I can't afford to pay 2,000 baht to register each child," she says. "I'm afraid the police will arrest them."

This uneasy existence extends to a "no man's land" on the Moei river that lies between Thailand and Myanmar but not policed by either side. Locals warn of drug-dealing on the island, which swells and shrinks with the seasons.

Mr Kyaw Htet Aung, 19, who has been living there for two years, plays down its notoriety.

"If there are criminals, the community leader will 'arrest' them and hand them over to the Myanmar authorities," he says.

During the dry season, the young man cultivates eggplants for sale on a tiny patch of land. Yet, when the river swells, submerging even some homes on the island, he survives by floating on rubber tubing.

"There are days I don't eat," he says.

Years or even decades of living in Thailand have not made the migrants any more comfortable in their host country. All whom this reporter spoke to saw themselves eventually heading back across the border.

Ms Yamin Eain was born in Thailand 24 years ago and has worked in garment factories in Mae Sot for the past 10 years.

She has only been to Myanmar once in her life yet she expects to return for good at some point.

"Life in Thailand is better," she says. "But we are from Myanmar, so it is better to stay there," she adds.

tanhy@sph.com.sg