New faces of Myanmar migrants in Thailand are young, savvy

The junta’s February 2021 coup has driven educated, highly skilled citizens to jobs, business opportunities in Thailand.
By Jitsiree Thongnoi for BenarNews
2024.03.14
Bangkok
New faces of Myanmar migrants in Thailand are young, savvy Myanmar migrant workers demonstrate against the military coup and demand the restoration of democracy in their country during a protest in Bangkok to mark May Day, May 1, 2022.
Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

For two decades, accountant Khin Thit Yee lived and worked as a business consultant in Yangon, Myanmar, and as an online trainer for the accounting programs she set up while investing in an agricultural business on the side.

Before the Burmese military coup in February 2021, she was working for one of the Big Four accounting firms in that city.

“When the coup was announced, I was sleeping. My mother broke the news to me, and I was very surprised,” she told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. 

But it took Khin Thit, now 41, no time to wrap her head around the situation. Two months after the coup, she and her family headed to Bangkok in search of new lives in neighboring Thailand.

“After March 2021, things [were] getting worse and worse,” she said. “I checked with my office, and they said they could support my move to Singapore. But if I moved to Singapore I would not be able to take care of my family because the living expenses are very high. So, I decided to go to Thailand and gave notice to my office.”

Today, Khin Thit holds a consulting management position with an international firm in Bangkok and does not plan to return to Myanmar.

She is among a growing number of Myanmar’s working professionals who have moved to Thailand in the aftermath of the 2021 coup d’état and since the Myanmar military launched a violent crackdown on opponents and resistance forces. 

Fighting across the Southeast Asian country has displaced millions and killed at least 50,000, including 8,000 civilians, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.  

Khin Thit Yee, an accounting consultant from Yangon who moved to Thailand in April 2021 with her family to escape the coup in Myanmar, is seen in Feb. 29, 2024. (Jitsiree Thongnoi/BenarNews)
Khin Thit Yee, an accounting consultant from Yangon who moved to Thailand in April 2021 with her family to escape the coup in Myanmar, is seen in Feb. 29, 2024. (Jitsiree Thongnoi/BenarNews)

 The number of Myanmar migrants and those fleeing the fighting to Thailand can fluctuate at times as “some have been in Thailand before the coup, and some moved here after the coup,” Khin Thit said. “Some are still living in Myanmar and flying back and forth.”

The estimated monthly number of long-term migrants entering Thailand since the beginning of 2023 is 13,000, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Khin Thit said she was no longer optimistic about her home country.

“Before the coup, I believed in my country and the people, and I wanted to contribute to the community and make the country better. But after the coup, I was lost.”

Relocation

Apart from her full-time work, Khin Thit runs two restaurants in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and has invested in properties in Bangkok. She is hopeful about her life in Thailand with her mother, uncle, brother and the brother’s family.

“In Thailand, the culture is not very different, and living expenses are OK,” she said. “It is also easy to start a business here.”

Natty Tangmeesang is a Thai blogger who lived in Myanmar between 2014 and 2020 and worked as a marketing and communications executive in Yangon.

She said the ascent of the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi after the 2015 general election allowed the country to open doors to international investment, which brought opportunities for citizens.

“Now we have seen a wave of middle-class and wealthy Myanmar people looking for ways to live and open businesses in Thailand,” Natty told BenarNews. “Many of them have opened restaurants, bars and businesses here. Others have come for higher education as well.” 

In February, real estate consultant Colliers Thailand reported that buyers from Myanmar were looking for residential projects in cities such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket, noting that they were “upper-middle class, mostly young families aged 35 and older,” The Bangkok Post reported.

Those who flee

Natty said the exodus of young, middle-class Myanmar citizens could spike soon because of the junta’s military conscription beginning in April for men between the ages of 18 and 35 and women between the ages of 18 and 27. 

The conflict after the February 2021 coup is the one between “the new generation” and the Myanmar military, Natty said about those who joined rebel groups against the government. “So, they are hunted down by the army.”

A Burmese-language sign hangs in a clothing store operated by Yi Win, a Myanmar man who immigrated shortly before the February 2021 coup, in his shop in the Phra Khanong section of Bangkok, March 13, 2024. (Wissarut Verasopon/Thai News Pix/BenarNews)
A Burmese-language sign hangs in a clothing store operated by Yi Win, a Myanmar man who immigrated shortly before the February 2021 coup, in his shop in the Phra Khanong section of Bangkok, March 13, 2024. (Wissarut Verasopon/Thai News Pix/BenarNews)

Taien Layraman, assistant to the president of International Affairs at Payap University, said that since the junta made the announcement in February, there had been a surge in applications from Myanmar students to the university in Chiang Mai province.

“Our semester usually begins in August, and we often see applications later on in the year,” she told BenarNews. “But this year we have seen a lot of early applications.”

University administrators also noticed that before the 2021 coup, Myanmar students enrolled at the school before returning to work in Myanmar, though now they are usually finding work in Thailand or another country after graduation, she said.

New hope

Susu, 20, a Myanmar student from Bago city, has lived in Tak, a Thai province along the border with Myanmar, since moving to Thailand in December 2022, when she joined her sister who had moved here earlier. 

She is working on obtaining a general equivalency diploma and wants to enroll at a university in Thailand.

Susu, who goes by one name, said traveling to Thailand was a daunting experience but that she was willing to risk it.

“I and another sister left Bago and traveled to Myawaddy; then a traveling agent took us across the Moei River to Tak,” she said.

After the coup, Susu’s sisters, who worked as a teacher and a nurse in Bago, joined the civil disobedience movement, a national strike involving health care workers and civil servants who opposed the military’s takeover of Myanmar’s government.

Because their safety was at risk, the three sisters decided to move to Thailand, leaving their mother and everyone they knew behind. 

“My friends in Myanmar used to have a goal for their future, but after the coup there was no opportunity, no safety, no justice,” Susu said. “I want to go back to Myanmar one day. But from the way things look, nothing will ever get better.”

Myanmar citizens living in Thailand protest against the military coup in front of the United Nations office in Bangkok, March 7, 2021. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)
Myanmar citizens living in Thailand protest against the military coup in front of the United Nations office in Bangkok, March 7, 2021. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

Meanwhile, as the civil war in Myanmar enters its fourth year, Thailand has sought to create initiatives, including a humanitarian corridor that would be set up in Tak province, to coordinate the shipment of food and medicine to Myanmar.

The Thai Parliament recently hosted a seminar to “seek peaceful and sustainable political solutions for Myanmar,” according to Thai opposition lawmaker Rangsiman Rome.

It was lambasted by the Myanmar junta as affecting bilateral relations.

Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara was scheduled to deliver a speech, but he canceled shortly before the event.

“I think humanitarian aid is not just sending supplies, but also offering other assistance,” blogger Natty said. 

“There are many working professionals from Myanmar, those who are nurses, teachers or journalists, who have to flee Myanmar without papers for safety,” she said. “We should offer them support as well.”

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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