Thailand once again is scapegoating Burmese migrant workers following a massive coronavirus outbreak at a Samut Sakhon shrimp farm, with fishermen being detained behind razor wire, banned from leaving the province and being actively hunted by politicians in other cities.
The outbreak, which began with a 67-year-old Thai fish seller, quickly was blamed on Burmese fishermen, shrimp farmers and other migrant workers at the Mahachai fresh market. By Saturday night, Thai laborers were moved out to hospitals while Burmese were confined to their overcrowded dormitories, which were sealed off with razor wire on fences.
Even before Saturday’s explosion of reported cases, Thai officials around the country were calling on local residents to report any illegal Burmese workers they spot, a suggestion that likely will lead mass reporting of anyone brown-skinned and not Thai.
Pattaya Deputy Mayor Manote Nongyai on Friday, when the number of cases connected to the Samut Sakhon market was only confirmed to be 13, stood up at a school drug-prevention meeting and told parents and community leaders to report any Burmese they think are in the city illegally.
His call came despite a thorough inspection by Chonburi provincial officials earlier this month of numerous Pattaya-area construction and worker camps that found no illegals and no virus.
The Mahachai incident, of course, mirrors the outbreak that burned through Singapore’s migrant-laborer dormitories this summer after the city-state had been lauded for quickly and thoroughly vanquishing Covid-19. Hardly a bastion for human rights, Singapore this week was condemned by an international rights organization for its handling of its foreign workforce, of which more than 150,000 – 47 percent – now have been confirmed to have contracted the virus at some point over the past nine months.
Since August, Covid-19 infections across Singapore have dropped to nearly zero and restrictions for the general public are being eased. But foreign workers – largely South Asians who work in construction and manufacturing – will continue to have their movements restricted until at least early next year.
“There is no justification for Singapore to treat migrant workers like prisoners,” Alex Au of the charity Transient Workers Count Too told BBC News. “Many have been locked in for eight months.”
Thai officials on Sunday found themselves on the defensive, fending off the same accusations that their counterparts faced in Singapore, which Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration spokesman Dr Taweesin Visvanathan actually pointed to as a model to emulate.
“This is not about placing blame but isolating the cases,” Taweesin said, despite the countless fingers being pointed across the country. He claimed Thailand has a strong record of upholding human rights for migrants.
“Migrant workers are an important part in driving our economy, so we will take care of them,” he said.