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Radio Free Asia

Myanmar Awaits Workers Returning from Thailand, While Laos Keeps Its Border Closed

2020-05-04 -- Myanmar's military and authorities in the country's capital Naypyidaw are mandating a three-week coronavirus quarantine for migrant workers returning from Thailand, with about 600 returnees now expected in a new group of arrivals, sources in Myanmar say.

More than 150,000 migrant laborers have flooded into Myanmar since March after losing their factory and farm jobs in both Thailand and China. They left when owners temporarily shuttered plants or scaled back hiring amid the spread of the coronavirus.

Around 40,000 arrivals in March alone had overwhelmed state officials who had expected significantly smaller crowds and prompted the government to appeal to others to return only after April 15.

Another 20,000 then crossed into Myanmar at the end of April over the Myanmar-Thai Friendship Bridge 2, connecting Thailand's Mae Sot with Myawaddy in southeastern Myanmar's Kayin state.

Naypyidaw Council director U Tun Tun Win told RFA's Myanmar Service the 600 returnees expected in Naypyidaw have not yet arrived, adding, "When they come, they will be placed at the No. 3 Interrogation and Lodging Camp," a facility run by the Myanmar military.

"If still more arrive later on, we can put them in other places like the [civilian-run] municipal guest houses," he said.

Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said that 290 returnees are already being housed in the Ywa Taw military guest house in Naypyidaw. "We have prepared the place for thousands, though, so we can take more returnees in according to our previous plans," he told RFA.

Meanwhile, Naypyidaw's COVID-19 Volunteer Team (NCVT) has monitored 340 government workers being housed under quarantine, Member of Parliament and NCVT team head U Maung Maung Swe said. "Other government workers are being taken care of by the Ministry of Health and other ministries. I don't know the exact numbers."

"There are no more returnees here from foreign countries such as Thailand," he said, adding, "NCVT has taken care of over a thousand people so far."

More than 20,000 Myanmar migrant workers still in Thailand are meanwhile blocked from returning home by travel restrictions in Thailand, which has closed down many domestic highway routes connecting Thailand's provinces in order to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.

Running out of food and money

Many are also running out of food and money, sources say.

"I had planned to go home more than a month ago, and I quit my job," a worker named Win Ko Naing who lives in Sri Racha city in Thailand's Chonburi province said. "Now I'm short of money, and it will be hard for me to survive if I can't get home during this next month."

"We Burmese workers are now sharing food with each other," said another worker, named Ko Ko Oo, living in Thailand's Prachinburi province.

Myanmar migrant workers stranded in Thailand have received no compensation from former employers or from Thailand's government, according to activists now helping the workers to survive.

Discussions with Thai authorities on how to provide relief are now under way, though, Ye Yan Aung, a labor officer representing migrant workers in Myanmar's embassy in Thailand said, adding, "We cannot release any information yet, as the Thai government has not provided us with detailed plans."

"The embassy is trying to send jobless migrants who need immediate help home as soon as possible."

Lao border stays closed

Lao workers living in Thailand are meanwhile frustrated that the Lao government has apparently backed away from a promise to open the country's border on May 4 so that Lao migrants can return home, sources in Thailand said.

"Of course I'm disappointed," one Lao worker living in Bangkok said. "Most of us can't do anything now except complain. We want to go back, but we can't. Here [in Thailand] we have no jobs, so we just stay home."

"Some of us want to go home [to Laos], where at least we would have rice to eat and a home to live in, while in Thailand we have to pay for rent, utilities, and food," another worker said, also speaking on condition his name not be used.

"It's really difficult for those of us who have no savings," he said.

A resident of the Lao capital Vientiane meanwhile agreed with the government's decision to keep the border closed for now.

"Opening the border would be risky because Thailand and China still have the infection. It's too dangerous; we don't want our economy to suffer more than it already has," he observed, while a Lao border official in Savannakhet province said "We can't allow anyone to come in."

"Only trucks carrying goods and merchandise can cross the border now," he said.

"We can't open the border. It remains closed," agreed a border officer at the Boten Check Point on the border with China. "Although Laos has no new cases, China and Thailand are still infected, and if the border opens and infected persons come in, the situation will get worse."

"That's what the order from our prime minister says," he said.

Meanwhile, eleven jobless Lao men and women remained stranded on May 3 at the Thali Border Check Point in Thailand's Loei province bordering Xayaburi province in Laos, vowing to remain there until the border opens again, according to a report in the Thai news source Thairath Online.

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