Ten years ago, the day after Christmas 2004, a giant tsunami stirred the Indian Ocean and wrought devastation upon thousands of miles of coastline. The epicenter of the 9.1-magnitude earthquake was off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. The quake released energy equivalent to 23,000 Nagasaki atomic bombs and impacted communities from Sri Lanka to Somalia.
Within 24 hours, an estimated 228,000 people were dead, and 1.7 million were displaced, according to U.S. Geological Survey numbers.
Particularly hard hit was the western seaboard of northern Indonesia and southern Thailand.
As coastal communities began to regroup after the shock and loss, I was down to southern Thailand. I went there a few times in the aftermath of the disaster. This visit was a month on. I went to Phang Nga to understand how the disaster had affected the largely undocumented Burmese migrant workers. No one can say exactly how many of them died, but the number is estimated to be about 2,000, according to the Bangkok Post.
I found there a story of a group on the fringes and fending for themselves. And also a story of selflessness and bravery. Here’s that story.
Treading Where Few Dare
Jan. 27, 2014. PHANG NGA, Thailand—Spontaneous actions reveal one’s true nature, they say. If this is so, then Nyan Lin has a heart of virtue.
Nyan Lin, 22, is a migrant worker from Myanmar (formerly Burma) working as a rubber-tapper in Phang Nga province in southern Thailand, an area devastated by the killer tsunami last Dec. 26. He left Burma with his mother when he was eight years old. Since then he’s been working on the rubber plantations making 60-70 baht per day (U.S. $1.50-$1.75).
Nyan Lin was out of harm’s way when the giant waves crashed into the picturesque local coastline. Afterwards, his first thoughts were of other Burmese workers who weren’t so lucky. Immediately, he rushed down to the shore to have a look.
“Other people dared not go down there, but I wanted to see what happened to my people,” he said. Since then, he’s been walking many hours a day, in isolated areas, in search of people still in need of help.
“Nyan Lin has become our local guide,” says Khin Khin, the coordinator of an ad-hoc group of non-governmental organizations that have moved in to provide relief to migrant workers. “It is extremely difficult and dangerous to deliver aid to these groups because of their precarious status here.”
Perhaps half of the Burmese workers in six southern Thai provinces- Ranong, Phang Nga, Phuket, Krabi, Satun and Trang- are there illegally. The estimate of illegal migrants is 120,000, mostly working in the fishing, construction, and rubber industries, as well as at hotels.
Nobody knows exactly how many migrants there are in the south of Thailand, where exactly they can be found, who ended up dead or missing, and how many need assistance. The Asian Human Rights Commission estimates that roughly 2,300 Burmese workers were killed, around 4,000 are missing, and over 3,000 have been forced to move.
Thousands more were rounded up and deported back to Burma, causing others to go into hiding to avoid the same fate. Many migrants don’t have families in Thailand, or anyone else interested in their whereabouts. Employers who could verify their identities may be dead, or otherwise unwilling to help. These people have ended up scattered and hard to find.
Migrant laborers also haven’t been able to access the humanitarian aid distributed by Thai authorities, either because they never had identification papers or lost them to the tsunami. According to the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, an NGO now helping migrants, many who went to emergency centers were discriminated against.
“It can be humiliating for them. There have been cases where Burmese migrants have been scolded because they don’t speak Thai, or are sent to the back of the line to wait until all the Thai nationals have been helped first,” said an HREIB volunteer who declined to give his name. “It has compounded the culture of fear and isolation which already existed anyway.”
So, Nyan Lin has been walking and walking to find the Burmese people who require help. He then tells the NGO group where to help, and what is needed most. Assistance often takes the form of food, water and medicine. NGOs are also helping migrants obtain or replace work permits.
Money and supplies are not the problem. “We even received a large donation of rice today from some organic farmers in the northeast,” says Khin Khin. The main challenge is finding those in need. This is why Nyan Lin plays such a key role in the operation.
According to him, even one month after the tsunami, many migrant workers still lack adequate food and water. “Many children don’t have enough to eat. I’m most worried about those workers who are without relatives who can help.”
Nyan Lin still works full-time, seven days a week, on the rubber plantation. He goes on his humanitarian treks after work, sometimes walking through the jungle for up to six hours. “I’m not tired, though, I just want to do a good job,” he says modestly. His friends joke that he’s lost a lot of weight since his mission began.
“What he’s doing is also very dangerous,” says Khin Khin. “He could be arrested at any time.”
When asked when he plans to stop, Nyan Lin replies that he doesn’t know. “I can’t stop yet. There are still many places I have to visit.”
The names in this story are pseudonyms, as requested by the sources, who fear that public circulation of their identities may negatively affect their work.