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Cablegate: Thai Dreams: The Economic Pull On the Karen

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SUBJECT: THAI DREAMS: THE ECONOMIC PULL ON THE KAREN

REF: RANGOON 258

RANGOON 00000265 001.2 OF 002


1. (SBU) Summary. The increasingly poor economic conditions
in Karen State drive many young people, particularly women,
into Thailand every year. While jobs and money available
there have the potential to lead to a better life, women are
often lured into situations where they work under abusive
conditions without receiving their promised salaries. The
migration also breaks up social structures and leads to the
spread of disease in Karen State, particularly HIV/AIDS. End
Summary.

The Push Out of Karen State
---------------------------

2. (SBU) On March 28-30, Poloff traveled to Hpa-An, Karen
State and observed first-hand the severe inequality, poor
education, and inadequate healthcare in the area. Most
houses in villages around Hpa-An consist of a single room
built from basic wood poles and leaf thatch that owners must
replace each year in advance of the monsoon season.
Scattered among them are new houses constructed from
concrete, tile, and glass with several rooms. These better
houses are owned by people who have gone to Thailand to work
and save money for a few years before returning to build
their new homes.

3. (SBU) Education facilities in the area are far from
adequate. One school that we visited, which teaches
approximately 300 students, consisted of two small dark rooms
with almost no furniture. Of the seven young women in their
late teens and early twenties with whom we spoke, only three
have passed their tenth standard exams, the Burmese
equivalent of a high school diploma. Although all of them
had been taught in Burmese, only a few understood it and
fewer still spoke it, because they were never asked to
respond to their teachers throughout the course of their
school education. They communicated solely in Karen.

4. (SBU) The healthcare situation in Karen State is equally
insufficient to meet the needs of the population, explained
Helen Yin, a retired nurse. While there are doctors and
clinics in Hpa-An, most villages in Karen State lack any
medical care at all, and those with anything have only a
midwife or a traditional birth attendant (TBA) who has no
formal training. Some villages also have a traditional
medic, whose position is based more on social standing in the
community than any real medical knowledge. As a result,
ignorance about disease perpetuates itself among the
villages, lamented Yin. Few people use any form of family
planning, because they are afraid that it will harm the
mother. Parents do not bring their children for follow-up
vaccines, because they believe that one dose should suffice.
Villagers seek medical assistance for severe cases of
influenza, dengue, and malaria only when it is too late to
help the patient, because they cannot afford the hospital
charges.

The Thai Pull on the Karen
--------------------------

5. (SBU) The possibility of better work and pay in Thailand
lures many young Karen, particularly women, away from their
native towns. They work across the border as nannies,
housemaids, and factory workers, often earning 3,000 to 5,000
baht per month (USD 95 to 158), far more than the average
salary in Karen State, where a person might only earn USD 158
in a year. Generally, the Karen who travel to Thailand stay
for four to five years, save up enough money to build a house
and support their families for a few years, and then return
to their native villages. Once they return, they usually get
married and start families of their own. The benefits of
going to Thailand tempt most young people at some point in
their lives. Of the seven young women we met, half planned
to leave immediately following the Thingyan Water Festival
this month, and only two did not have plans to go at all.


RANGOON 00000265 002.2 OF 002


6. (SBU) Unfortunately, explained 17 year old Khine Thazin
Thin, the whole story is not nearly so simple as earning
money and returning to a better life. Many of the girls who
go to Thailand fall into traps with crooked brokers, who
torture them and deny their promised salaries. The broker
fees alone can cost 600,000 kyat (USD 540) if they include
full documentation for the worker. Cheaper and easier
options exist if the young women are willing to travel by bus
or truck across the border. Even then, bribes to cross the
border into Thailand cost about 10,000 baht (USD 316), in
addition to whatever broker fees the immigrant has incurred.

7. (SBU) Aye Aye Myint, another young woman, lamented that
the migration pattern also creates widespread social problems
among the Karen. After an initial trip to Thailand, people
usually only stay in their native villages until the new
money runs out, before returning to earn more. If one spouse
stays behind with the children, very often that person finds
a new partner, because of the long absence and lack of
communication with their migrant spouse. In Thailand as
well, the migrant spouse often finds new partners. Usually,
she explained, stepparents do not want to take on the
responsibility of looking after the children, so their
parents leave them in the care of grandparents. By the time
a person reaches the age of forty, they can begin to rely on
their own children to go to Thailand to earn money to support
them, she explained.

8. (SBU) Yin also pointed to the migration as a major cause
of the soaring HIV/AIDS rate in Karen State. People engage
in high-risk behavior when they go to Thailand, and then they
return to spread the disease around villages, she said. She
had no exact data on what the infection rate is, but she
noticed higher rates of infection when people came to her
clinic for blood tests to diagnose other diseases. She has
worked to spread HIV/AIDS awareness, but feels that her
impact is minimal.

9. (SBU) All of the women with whom we spoke would rather
stay in Karen State if only they could earn modest incomes to
support themselves. Aye Aye Myint said that with a little
more training and some initial capital, she would like to
open a drug store in her home village. Others echoed her
desire to stay, most wanting to work in the medical field, as
pharmacists or midwives. A few wanted to work as teachers.
A modest income of 50,000 to 60,000 kyat per month (USD 45 to
54) would keep them in Karen State, they agreed.

10. (SBU) Comment: As the economic and political situations
in Karen State continue to worsen, people leave in greater
numbers, leading to the further breakdown of the social
structures in the villages. A lack of cohesiveness in
communities will make it more difficult to educate the
population to seek democratic and economic reform in their
own country, rather than risky money on the other side of the
border. End Comment.
VILLAROSA

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