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Friday, February 26, 2010
And we still call ourselves Buddhists?
It says a lot about our country when the day we chose to expel millions of destitute migrant workers to face violent oppression back in Burma is the same day as Makha Bucha Day.
Being human, we stray. But on Makha Bucha Day, we should at least try to abstain from all forms of violence, give to the needy, and meditate on the laws of impermanence to let go of our egoistic attachment - if we still consider ourselves Buddhists, that is.
The first Makha Bucha occurred on the full-moon day of the third lunar month, nine months after the Buddha's enlightenment. This year, it falls on Feb 28, the day when the government ends its reprieve for those who desperately need help - the migrant workers who fled harsh poverty and violent persecution in Burma.
I am talking about Thailand's harsh policy to deport all migrant workers who still do not have nationality verification papers from their governments by Feb 28. About 2-3 million migrant workers will be affected. Most of them are ethnic minorities such as the Mon, Karen, and the Shan who are severely persecuted by the Burmese military junta. Many are Rohingya, who have zero chance of getting any citizenship consideration from Burma.
In response to petitions from rights groups, the Abhisit administration issued an about-face measure last month by making Feb 28 the deadline for just the nationality verification application, and by allowing migrant workers another two years to finish the process.
The softened approach still cannot untie Thailand's Gordian knot of foreign migrant labour because it is based on many false assumptions.
For example, it assumes that migrant workers are well-informed about nationality verification policy and procedures. A survey by the Migrant Working Group shows they are not: 20% say they've never heard about it, 54% say their information from unofficial sources is not clear, and 25% say they believe nationality verification is not mandatory.
The assumption that the workers are willing to enter the process is also challenged. The survey shows 50% of the respondents fear arrest, 57% fear danger for families back home, 48% cannot afford the fee, 46% are at a loss about the procedures, 29% do not have any legal documents in Burma, and 20% fear political persecution. Meanwhile, 26% are certain their applications will not be approved, 56% are uncertain. But approved or not, 68% insist they will not return home.
Another assumption is that the Thai and Burmese bureaucracies can deal with 1.4 million applications within the extended deadline.
But can they?
Last year, only 200,000 applied. Yet, Burma could process only 6,000 applications. Even with Burma's promise to speed things up, we are fooling ourselves if we believe all 1.4 million registered workers will have their nationalities verified and passports issued within the two-year deadline.
So expect another deadline extension, and another, and another.
While registered workers struggle with policy uncertainty, it is certain that life for some two million underground workers will become even more hellish after Feb 28, given the mass arrests and deportation threats that plunge them deeper into slavery.
Face it. The problem is not only a matter of red-tape. It is a matter of heartlessness. It is not that we do not know about the plight of migrant workers. It is because we do not care. More importantly, it is because many people are making money from this inhumanity.
Who we are is largely determined by how we relate to others, and to our ideals. If we have no second thoughts about hurting the weak even on Buddhist holy days, we should use the upcoming Makha Bucha Day to seriously consider whether we can still call ourselves Buddhists.
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