Flooded Lives: suffering and solidarity in a submerged Thailand
It’s raining in Thailand. The tail end of a monsoon season that’s seen torrential tropical downpours that make even a seasoned rain expert, such as a native of grey English skies, stop, and gaze up in jaw dropping wonder as the rain pelts down. It sometimes feels as if the rain hasn’t stopped for months, when the bright blue sky, that is so often taken for granted, clouds over and turns dark, warning of the deluge to come.
There’s Flooding in Thailand. Back in September the muddy waters of Chiang Mai’s Ping River, which cuts its way through the east of the city, overflowed causing masses of damage to homes and businesses along the riverbank. Across the province heavy rain fall caused flash floods, in one area two young boys, one not yet a year old, were swept away, followed soon after by the deaths of an entire family, five people killed, when the floods hit their village. Flooding spread across the northern region throughout the monsoon season, wreaking havoc and causing widespread devastation.
There’s flooding Thailand, all across the country. As heavy rainfall continued, the worst flooding for 50 years swept the nation. Official estimates state that over two thirds of the entire country has been swapped by flood waters. As monsoon season progressed the rain spread south. The city of Nan saw flooding reach half a meter, the highest on record for the entire province. Lower central provinces became affected in September, just before Chiang Mai saw its riverbanks flood, and the old capital city of Ayutthaya had waters swamp it’s Historical Park and enter the city, engulfing the streets. Major factories flooded as barriers protecting industrial estates failed, and country-wide disruption of manufacturing supply chains ensued.
There’s flooding in Bangkok, roads have become rivers and lives have been ruined. The waters came in from the north of the city, from neighbouring Pathum Thani, after flood barriers failed and several floodgates controlling the Rangsit/Raphiphat canal system became overwhelmed, being forced to release water towards more residential areas. Attempts were made to save Bangkok from flooding, as the expenses of farmers and local communities nearby. But the waters continued to move south. By early November a fifth of Bangkok was reported to be underwater. As the waters move towards the sea flooding hits new areas and more people are affected.
There’s flooding in Thailand and over 500 people have lost their lives. Over 2 million people have been affected and the cost of damages runs into the billions by any conversion of currency. Much of the flooding has actually been caused by water released from dams which have reached such high levels from rainfall that authorities feared they would break and so released the water which flowed downstream. The range of impact is wide. Stories are emerging from all corners of loss and suffering, of survival and strength, of solidarity and love. Photos can be seen all over the internet of people supporting each other, carrying small children through chest high waters and towing boats by hand carrying the elderly to dry land. Many images show people supporting each other evacuating personal belongings as Thai people leave their flood ravaged homes, those who can head off to stay with relatives in unaffected areas, while others seek public shelter. In a crisis instincts of love and solidarity prevail.
And there are migrant workers in Thailand, an estimated three million of them. Like many they are suffering from flooding, like many they are doing their best to struggle through. But unlike many they are now stranded in a foreign land. Flooding has not just affected their lives, it’s crushed them. Migrants from Burma, living in the central region and around Bangkok, work for a living like everybody else. When they floods hit factories, farms, warehouses and building sites, work stopped. Many migrants earn little more than 100 baht a day (£2) which is a subsistence wage that barely covers food and living costs, with only a tiny amount left over which they can save, perhaps to send to their families back home or to eventually buy some “luxury” item such as a mobile phone. When the work stops the wages stop. People are left stranded. Migrant workers are largely excluded from state welfare in Thailand, and at a time like this when the need for welfare is at its highest and the system is pushed to the brink, it’s easy for those excluded in the good times to be forgotten in the bad. Any money that migrant workers have saved is now being used to survive, and that is if the money itself has survived. Migrant workers are excluded from having bank accounts and so will often save what little money they can in hiding places at home. With the floods devastating homes across the country it’s no great stretch of the imagination to think many of those savings lost.
So there’s movement in Thailand, a mass exodus of migrant workers attempting to return home to Burma. Like Thai people they are leaving the worst hit areas and moving to stay with relatives until the worst is over, to get food and shelter until they can return. But for migrant workers it’s not that simple, it never is. Documented migrants are normally compelled by law to remain in the area where their workplace is located; they don’t have freedom of movement. Travelling outside that region can lead to arrest at one of the many police check points that litter the country and undocumented migrants face arrest whether they travel or not. An announcement was made by the Immigration Bureau that migrants should be allowed to travel to other provinces and renew their visas, allowing them to stay outside their workplace province, but as most migrants with any legal status have their documents confiscated by employers in workplaces that are now closed due to flooding, and others will have lost their documents along with other possessions in the floods, this official proclamation is of little practical use. Migrants still face arrest and deportation, documented and undocumented alike.
Now there’s flooding in the borders of Thailand. Floods of people are descending on border towns in an attempt to get home. An estimated 30,000 people recently risked arrest in travelling north and arrived in the border town of Mae Sot, trying to find shelter with relatives living there or hoping to cross the Friendship Bridge back to Burma, which has been closed for over a year. Migrants aiming to cross the border face a number of problems, mainly in coming back to Thailand. Those documented migrants with Temporary ID cards will lose their legal status if they leave the country while those with Temporary Passports must register for a re-entry visa before leaving or find themselves in the same situation. When you’ve lost your home, your livelihood and possibly faced days without food or shelter, attempting to escape the floods, it’s fair to say that visa concerns are not at the front of your mind. Yet this may not matter anymore. Shortly after this flood of people began arriving, the Mae Sot authorities announced their annual crackdown on undocumented workers. With 30,000 new arrivals, many now without their documents and taking shelter in a province outside their workplace area, a new flood is to be expected; a flood of raids, arrests and deportations.
It’s raining in Thailand. There’s flooding. People are suffering. When will it stop?