MYAWADDY, Myanmar (AFP) – With only meagre belongings stuffed into backpacks and duffel bags, tens of thousands of Myanmar migrants have streamed home across the Thai border over the past two weeks.
But it is not a joyous homecoming for the truckloads of men and women who fled Thailand in fear of a new law that hardens penalties on the millions of undocumented migrant workers underpinning its economy.
Thailand’s sudden rollout of the labour decree, which hikes up fines on unregistered workers and their employers, sent a lightning bolt of panic through migrant communities.
“If we were arrested, we would have to pay money to police. If this happened, all of our money would disappear,” Thu Ya, who worked in a Thai plastics factory, said while preparing to cross back into Myanmar’s eastern border town of Myawaddy.
The mass exodus of migrants – estimated to be more than 60,000 – is only the latest chaos to highlight the precarious lives of migrant workers who take up difficult and dangerous jobs in Thailand’s factories and fishing boats.
Many of those migrants are also Cambodian and from Laos.
Much of the work force lacks proper documentation and lives in constant fear of exploitation from police, bosses, and traffickers.
And yet many Myanmar migrants scrambling across the border said these hardships still beat the prospect of dire poverty in their homeland, where jobs and good wages are difficult to come by.
“I will consider coming back in a legal way, with the full documents,” said Thu Ya, 32, who has spent much of his life in Thailand.
Myanmar’s new civilian government, which came to power last year, was expected to usher in a windfall of foreign investment into a resource-rich country that was closed off to the world during the former junta’s 50-year reign.
In a jubilant visit to Thailand in June 2016, de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi vowed to drive the economic growth that would bring her countrymen home.
But a year on the gains have fallen short of expectations and Myanmar is still years away from offering wages that rival those in Thailand.
A steep decline in foreign investment – down 28 percent in the last quarter of 2016 – sounded alarm bells over an economy whose initial opening in 2011 was met with a rush of investor excitement.
The country’s GDP growth also fell below seven percent for the first time in five years in 2016, clocking in at 6.5 percent.
Having fleetingly become the fastest-growing economy in the region, Myanmar now lags behind the Philippines, Laos and Cambodia.
Economists blame the slump on a lack of clarity from the new government on its economic policies, as well as the ponderous progress in passing a new investment law.
“We have a problem because the ministers have no economic culture, and then the reforms are done too slowly,” said Myanmar economist Khin Maung Nyo.
The young civilian government, stacked with political novices, faces the monumental challenge of trying to unpick the junta’s devastating economic legacy.
“We need to create thousands of jobs, but I doubt we will be able to do it quickly,” Khin Maung Nyo added.
In the meantime, Thailand looks set to continue to be a magnet for its neighbour’s workers.
Huge sections of Thailand’s economy, especially construction and food production, rely on migrants to do jobs that comparatively wealthier Thais have long since eschewed.
And while the country has one of the slowest growth rates in Asia, the minimum wage of 305 baht ($9) a day is more than three times the equivalent in Myanmar.
Since coming to power in 2014, Thailand’s junta has unveiled a series of campaigns to clean-up abuses in its migrant labour sector, which also attracts significant numbers of workers from Cambodia and Laos.
But rights groups say the drives are often short lived and ad-hoc, creating more confusion. This time was no different.
Caught off-guard by the mass exodus, Thailand’s junta ruled last week to suspend its new law for six months.
Junta chief Prayut Chan-o-Cha called for calm and reassured business owners: “Don’t panic, they will come back soon.”
He is likely to be right.
Silar, a Myanmar nurse working in Bangkok, went home full of hope in 2015, eager to reunite with her husband and daughter.
But she struggled to find work and is now back in the Thai capital – gripped with fear after misplacing her work permit.
“In Myanmar, there is still not enough work, especially in the countryside, and wages remain very low,” she said, using a pseudonym for anonymity.
“I do not know what I’m going to do.”