Growing up in a modest family in Myanmar, Khin Mae Soe’s life has been one of constant struggle. Holding several jobs at a time with her husband in fishing and agriculture , they managed – barely – to keep their heads above water. But in 1997, just after their son was born, they found themselves out of work. As the months passed, their bills piled up – as did their problems.
Myanmar was one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, led by a military government. Next door however, Thailand had been enjoying a decade of almost uninterrupted economic growth, becoming something of an Eldorado for neighboring countries and attracting many immigrants from Myanmar – including Khin Mae’s mother, who worked on a shrimp farm in the informal sector.
Khin Mae Soe decided to take the leap too: she borrowed money from her mother and left the country with her husband and baby boy.
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She hired a smuggler to cross the border, who demanded a huge amount of money, 16,500 baht, i.e. 490 euros – more than a year’s wage at the time. But out of sheer desperation they accepted. With a sad smile, she remembers: “Everything went well during the crossing… It was when we arrived that things got difficult.”
It was bad timing. In July 1997, Thailand’s decade of economic expansion had come crashing to a halt. The baht, the Thai currency, was devalued and the country’s financial markets collapsed. As the crisis dragged on the economy buckled, with long-term effects.
So it was a very different Thailand to which Khin Mae Soe fled in 1998.
Living in fear
She and her family went to live with friends, who were also migrants. Weeks went by without them finding work. They had nothing: no electricity, no telephone, no means of transport. And as illegal migrants, they had to hide at home, fearing police raids. “We were not allowed to go out”, says Khin Mae Soe with a shudder. “Not to go shopping, nor to look for work. We lived confined and in fear.”
They rapidly became a financial burden for their friends: “We weren’t welcome anywhere. But we could do nothing, apart from hope.” With a young child, their financial difficulties multiplied, and employers refused to hire a young mother. They started to lose hope and thought about returning to Myanmar.
After four months, a change of luck: there was a vacancy on the rubber plantation where their friends worked. The owner hired her husband, then Khin Mae Soe. The family lived hiding in the woods for four years, just a few kilometers from the paradisiac beaches that attracted thousands of tourists at the time.
In 2002, their fortunes changed again. The Thai government decided to regularize migrants’ status, and signed an agreement with Myanmar, which introduced a residence and work permit system, something that changed the Khin Mae Soe’s and her family’s life. After an ordeal that had lasted four long years, they could come out of hiding, and begin to save some money.
But the respite lasted only a few years. In 2005, misfortune struck again. As she thinks back, Khin Mae Soe is filled with emotion, her hands start to tremble.
Starting all over again
After another long day in March of that year, the couple returned home, to discover that their house had been burgled. The thieves took everything: jewelry, money – and all the family’s papers. Their world collapsed around them.
They returned to Myanmar. They spent four months there, searching for work the whole time, to no avail, living in precarious conditions. They decided to return to Thailand to try to renew their residence permits. But to do so, they needed the original document. “We didn’t know what to do, we didn’t speak Thai and we didn’t know how the administration worked. We were entirely on our own”, says Khin Mae Soe.
At the time, the Foundation for Education and Development (FED) had just been relocated to Phang Nga in Thailand. “Other migrants told us that people from FED could help us with the procedures”, says the young woman. The Director of FED, Htoo Chit, took things in hand: he sent a courier to get their file from the immigration office.
The couple received the necessary their legal documents. Suddenly everything became easier: Khin Mae Soe and her husband found work on a rubber plantation and moved into a house. More than a decade after their initial departure, they could finally get their life back on track.
This meeting with Htoo Chit and FED was a turning point for Khin Mae Soe. She realized she had rights and began to plan ahead. She attended many courses: “Even on days when I was busy, I cancelled everything so I could go! It was a new world opening up to me. I attended training sessions on our rights as migrant workers, but also on human rights, domestic violence. They helped me liberate myself and gain self-confidence.”
Armed with training – and more self-confidence – she became a Community Leader in 2014, which entailed conveying information provided by FED, to the communities. Friends and peers flocked to her door for advice: Where do you go when you fall ill? How can you report the illegal actions of an employer? She rapidly earned locals’ trust.
They know that they can count on me to help them assert their rights.
The programs implemented by FED, with support from the NGO Terre des Hommes France and Agence Française de Développement (AFD), also include specific assistance for women: the fight for equality and against sexual violence.
It's a battle that played out in miniature at home, first. “When I told my husband I was going to these training sessions, he disapproved. I told him that I did what I liked, that we were equal!”
More than 20 years after her departure from Myanmar, Khin Mae Soe will leave Thailand – this time once and for all. “At 55, it’s the law, I have to go back to Myanmar. But this time, I don’t want to do casual work: I want to work for an association and help people.”
She hopes to help others so they don’t suffer the same hardships that plagued her and her family, and almost extinguished their hope for a better life, but for a timely intervention.