Exploited workers in 'Little Myanmar' bank on Suu Kyi
Thai port's 250,000 Myanmese migrant workers are often 'exploited and abused'. They hope Suu Kyi's return to frontline politics paves a way home
Walk the streets of Mahachai and you might be in Myanmar rather than Thailand. Shop stores have signs in the distinctive Myanmese script, while it is almost as common to hear Myanmese spoken as it is Thai.
A major fishing port southwest of Bangkok, Mahachai is home to about 250,000 Myanmese migrant workers, one of the largest concentrations of the estimated two million Myanmese - also known as Burmese - working in Thailand.
So many Myanmese live in Mahachai that the city has been dubbed "Little Myanmar". They come to work for an average wage of 300 Baht a day (HK$75) in the hundreds of fish processing factories that have made Mahachai the main hub of Thailand's seafood industry. Others crew fishing boats or toil on the construction sites throwing up yet more shrimp-canning plants.
"Some Thais think we're taking jobs from them, but we do the dirty and dangerous jobs they don't want to," said Sein Htay, a 34-year-old from Mawlamyine in southern Myanmar. He performed all the above jobs in his 17 years in Mahachai, before working for the Human Rights and Development Foundation, a Bangkok-based NGO that helps Myanmese migrant workers.
He added: "The employers like us as they can pay us less and we work harder than the Thais."
Despite their growing importance to the Thai economy, migrant workers in Mahachai face exploitation and abuse. Uncompensated workplace injuries are common, while the local police will fine the Myanmese for everything from not having work permits, to spitting betel nut juice in the streets. "A lot of Thai police look at us as a way of making extra money," said Myint Aung, a 52-year-old from Mandalay.
Worse are the criminal gangs who prey on migrant women. "They pretend to be police and stop Burmese women and ask them for money or jewellery and sometimes try to rape them.
"Three weeks ago, three women were stopped and asked for their earrings and rings and made to withdraw money from the ATM. Then they were beaten up," said Mr Aung.
Yet, Mahachai has become so tied with the Myanmese it was a stop for Aung San Suu Kyi when she came to Thailand in May on her first foreign trip since 1988.
"So many people came to hear her speak that they were lining the rooftops and hanging off the trees in the street," said Thar Htoo, a 22 year-old factory worker from Dawei.
The return of Suu Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy (NLD) to frontline politics in Myanmar has given Mahachai's migrant workers hope that one day they won't have to earn a living in Thailand.
Decades of military rule has left Myanmar impoverished, with wages as low as HK$12 a day in the countryside, if there is any work at all. Few Myanmese in Mahachai believe the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (UDSP) can revive the moribund economy and are pinning their hopes on the NLD.
"I left school when I was 16 and didn't have a job until I came here when I was 18. All the young people in my village have come to Thailand as there's no work. It's only old people and children who stay behind," said Thar Htoo.
"I don't know a single person in Mahachai who'll vote for the USDP or President Thein Sein at the next election."
With Suu Kyi already being treated as a president-in-waiting by Washington, the USDP faces losing power by a landslide vote in 2015 if the election is free.
Suu Kyi said recently she has "the courage to be president", but her election would require the amendment of a constitution that bars those with close foreign relatives from holding high office. Suu Kyi has two sons in the West.
"I hope and believe she will help us migrant workers," said Eibhyo Baing, a 24-year-old woman from Bago. "She has sacrificed herself in the past, that's why I believe she will help."
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse