Socio-economic Development in

Socio-economic Development in Southeast Asia:
A Case Study of the Marginality of Burmese Labourers
in the Chang Klan Community in Chiang Mai.*

Samak Kosem
20 June 2008


Thailand has adopted an open economic system since the early 1960s, whereas the neighboring countries to the north and east adopted a much more ‘closed’ economic system in the 1960s and 1970s. Open foreign investment in Thailand resulted in rapid industrialization and urbanization. Not only Bangkok, but many regional towns, such as Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in the north, have benefited from economic development, especially within tourism and construction. On the other hand, a neighboring country, Burma, in the same period, had adopted a rather careful policy towards foreign investment. Hence, economic expansion in Burma did not take place as fast as what happened in Thailand. This unequal economic development has resulted in a number of workers from Burma crossing the border to come to seek employment in Thailand. It has been estimated that the number of Burmese workers in all parts of Thailand could be nearly one million.

In the following paper, I used an anthropological method of observation and informal interviews to talk to a number of Burmese Muslim workers working in Chiang Mai to find out about their livelihood and problems with adjustment and the exclusion of these migrant workers in a foreign environment.

The Issue: Muslim Burmese

Muslims are a minority group in Buddhist Burma. They are one of the poorest groups who are scattered all over unnoticed. A number of them had moved across the border to work in Thailand in Mae Sot district in Tak province. Most were engaged in heavy labor. However, after two generations of migration, a number of them began to make ‘a fortune,’ though they did not have to pay tax. Some could manage to save as much as a ten baht† weight of gold (equivalent to about 100,000 Baht in money). Children who were born in Thailand could gain Thai nationality. Some had even been able to buy land in Thailand. Therefore, the success stories attracted more people to want to come to seek their fortune in Thailand.

The Chang Klan community in Chiang Mai

Chang Klan community is quite close to the center of the city of Chiang Mai (see map). It has been the community center of Thai Muslims for many generations with their own Masjid (Mosque) at the center of the community. As such, it is a place where Muslims from Burma feel attracted to settle down when they migrate into Chiang Mai to find a job. It is estimated‡ that there could be as high as 2,000 Burmese Muslims in Chang Klan. They could be divided into two sub groups: one who moved from Mae Sot to find jobs in Chiang Mai; the other moved from Shan state. These people work in all sorts of occupations, ranging from cleaning, serving food in restaurants, manual work, and even begging. Their daily wage is about 70-150 baht. Despite the fact that apart from “Thais”, there are other Muslims such as Muslims from Bangladesh, the Burmese Muslims seem to be the poorest ethnic group living in the Chang Klan community. Most of their employers are also (Thai) Muslims within the same community.

Double Marginality

Despite the fact that the community can be considered a Muslim community, the Muslims from Burma seem to occupy the lowest rank of social status in the community. According to a Thai employer, these people would be willing to work hard at low wages. Though they are ‘members’ of the community, they are not so much included in the community; they are not greeted when other Muslims meet them in the street, tea shop, or even in the Mosque. Some of the poor ones had become beggars. While some may sit at the gate to the Mosque, others might beg from home to home; their presence in neither place was welcomed.

The case of Husen

Husen worked in a shop selling rice and lived in a rented room with his wife near the work place. He has an alien card (the ‘pink card’) and ‘health-insurance card’ for non-Thai citizens (the ‘orange card’). Husen migrated from Mae Sot, but he could not return there because “There are too many police. Living here is already quite OK. I am also now well acquainted with the police here. Even in Mae Sot the Burmese community may be much more friendly, but living here in Chang Klan I can find a better-paid job. I get 5,000 Baht a month. My room rent and electricity and water bill is only 1,750 Baht. Though I had to pay for food and other expenditures I still have some small savings. …. I pay about 3,000 baht for the alien card and health insurance card” So life is considered better than in Mae Sot. However, not everybody can come to live in Chang Klan because it would cost some money to make oneself ‘legal’. Apart from the 3,000 Baht fee, they have to pay an extra 1,000 Baht to people whom they rent room from.

Hard labour, cheap wages, and “We are all Muslims”

Despite being Muslim like their Thai employers, the Burmese ‘Muslims’ were not treated on equal terms. While Thai employers can spare time to go to pray in the Mosque, the Burmese Muslim workers had to work very hard all day. One Thai employer said that “The wage rate for a worker is around 70-100 baht per day. One employer pays 100 Baht plus free board, but the worker has to wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning to prepare things (for sale) and sometimes cannot sleep until 10 o’clock the next day. Though they have to work very hard, they still do it because they have nowhere else to go. Though I never look down on them because I think they are also human beings, they dare not treat themselves as my equal. When I call them to a meal, they will come to take the meal to eat elsewhere.”

“Burmese are taking over our town,” Freedom that has never been accepted

Some local people perceive the Burmese workers as a threat to the community. They are afraid that the Burmese Muslims will cause trouble as happened in the southern part of Thailand.

This attitude occurred because the Burmese Muslims, because of their poverty, may appear dirty and poorly dressed. Some of them chew betel nut and spit out the red paste after the chewing all over the street. This was considered uncivilized and bad-mannered behavior in the eyes of the local community. For their dress, if they live in a Muslim community in Burma, they cannot wear shorts because that will reveal the knees, but here in Thailand, they can enjoy the ‘freedom’ of dressing how they like. However, this ‘freedom’ has been considered by the local community as unacceptable and impolite.

The “Eid” Day: Reflection of Marginality

One woman I met in the community, Fatimah, sells betel nut to Burmese workers. She told me “I miss Mae Sot a lot. During the ‘Eid’ festival it was so much fun there, so friendly. It is very different from Chang Klan where people are so unfriendly. I don’t know where or who to visit as I don’t know very many people.”

The “Eid” day is supposed to be a joyous day for Muslims. However, I call it a “reflection of marginality” because Muslims from Burma felt especially isolated and lonely in the community because, as a group of poor new comers, they had no place to visit.

“Burmese putting a bomb at the Mosque in Chang Klan”

A local newspaper “Chiang Mai News” dated 1 January 2007 had a column of news that reported that “There had been a bomb explosion in the Mosque in Chang Klan. Mr. Asiz, a Burmese labourer who is a cleaner of the mosque received an injury from the incident. The police are now investigating if the incident is in anyway related to terrorists in The South……”

Such an incident caused alarm in the local community and Burmese Muslims became a target of suspicion. An old Thai man who regularly came to pray in the Mosque said “I don’t allow them (Burmese) to remain too long in the mosque after praying. I try to get rid of them out of the mosque as fast as I can”.

Making a new home?

According to Gupta and Ferguson’s ideas on the consideration of “place” as product of local and social relations, place making is part of a process of historical discourse. As the product of such discourse, place making is inevitably an unstable process; there are changes, modifications in the boundaries of place-the meaning of place is subject to contestation that occurs in various forms in the interactions between different powers and authorities tied to or that have some claim to that “place.”

This play of boundaries and powers is clearly evident in the study of Burmese Muslims in the Chang Klan area of Chiang Mai. There are differences between this community and Muslim communities in Mae Sot, Tak, owing to differing historical contexts. The Burmese Muslim community of Chang Klan are latecomers to the area. Burmese Muslims coming into the Chang Klan community are the “last in line” entering a community already established by previous Muslim immigrant groups (Pakistanis, “Jeen Haw” Muslim Chinese, Bangaldeshis, etc.), and are therefore without the influence necessary to lay claim to land for residence, conducting business, and so on. Burmese Muslims coming into Mae Sot, in contrast, have been able to obtain land and build homes and business along the Thai-Burmese border, after years of going back and forth between the two countries along this border line.
The Chang Klan community, having passed many generations since the first Pakistani and other immigrant groups have arrived, and having mixed considerably with other groups in Chiang Mai, has grown to identify themselves more as “muang” people, or local Northern Thais. This makes the contrast between them and the newly arrived Burmese Muslims even starker, highlighting the “temporary worker” and “immigrant” status of the Burmese, who, unlike those in Mae Sot, are only in the community to find work and save money, rather than to settle permanently. Despite this, the Burmese Muslims of Chang Klan still actively try to take part and have a place in their community, and rely on their shared Muslim culture and identity as a bridge to interact with other nationalities and races.

The Contexts of Marginal Burmese Labourers

The marginalization of Burmese Muslims is rooted in 3 contextual issues. The first is the political context of the nation state, both in Thailand and Burma. Political tension, general fear of terrorism and insecurity towards the Muslim community ends up directed within that community to the members on its lowest rung-the Burmese Muslims. Thus, they are seen as troublemakers and the scapegoat for problems and issues between the larger Muslim community and Thai society. The Burmese Muslims are newcomers, still not fully trusted within the Muslim community. This lack of trust was clearly evident in the Chang Klan mosque “bombing” incident of 2006; misunderstanding and suspicion turned a foolish teenage prank into the ostracizing of Burmese Muslims from the larger Muslim community of Chang Klan, by closing opportunities for Burmese Muslims to use land and space.

Capitalism is the second contextual backdrop to the situation of Burmese Muslims in Chiang Mai. Burmese labor is cheap, and the market forces of capitalism bring Burmese laborers into Thailand to perform a variety of functions. Some types of work that Burmese Muslims are drawn into-especially sex work-clash with societal and Islamic mores and teachings. The result is the larger, established Muslim community passing judgment on Burmese Muslims as a whole as “immoral” or “low class.” This, coupled with the general status of low-wage laborers, reduces even further the social status of Burmese Muslims.

Ethnicity is the final context in which the Burmese Muslim community of Chiang Mai must struggle to find “place.” Within the Muslim community, the Burmese “newcomers” stand out the most as being ethnically different, and carry the baggage of stereotypes and general suspicions: dangerous, untrustworthy, threatening. The Burmese Muslim community needs to engage in open and honest discourse with members of the larger Chang Klan and Chiang Mai Muslim communities, acknowledging existing stereotypes and prejudices and to use this as an “image-building” starting point to wipe out misconceptions and offer people a truer picture of themselves.
Marginality and Poverty

Burmese Muslims moved into Thailand in order to “make their fortune” and earn a better life. They moved to Chiang Mai because they hoped to get jobs with better wages. While 70-150 Baht a day may not be too high for Thai citizens, for these migrants, these have been much better than the wages they could make if they remained in Burma. They choose to live in Chang Klan because they think they can be ‘at home’ in a Muslim community. However, because of their poverty, cultural misunderstandings and discrimination, they cannot become fully integrated. They are only needed because of “cheap” and “hard-working” labour. The political factor, such as the events that have taken place in the south of Thailand, has made their presence even more “suspicious”. As a newcomer, they will always been considered as “other”.

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* This paper was originally presented as “The Burmese Muslims at Chang-Klan: Life as Marginality” (2008) at the undergraduate seminar symposium held by the Sociology and Anthropology Department, Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University.
† A measurement of gold. (1 baht weight = 15 g.)
‡ Interviewed Muswi Ali (10 Jan 2008)