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They work abroad to feed their families. Now they can’t send the money home

Su Thandar Win shows a photo of her 7-year-old son on her phone and a proud smile instinctively spreads across her face. But it soon fades when she explains why she hasn’t seen him for well over two years.

“I left him with my mum,” said the Myanmar migrant worker, 26, who is living in Thailand.

Initially, Covid restrictions blocked her annual trip home when the Thai-Myanmar border closed in March 2020. Then the February 1 coup in Myanmar intensified that separation, with military-imposed internet and mobile network blackouts often making calls home impossible, she said.

Compounding their troubles, the money Su and her husband earn as factory workers in the Thai capital, Bangkok, can no longer reach their family. The coup has pushed Myanmar’s banking system to near collapse, and internet shutdowns have made transfers impossible, according to the UN Development Program (UNDP).

Every morning, long queues of people wait for hours outside banks and ATMs across Myanmar. Withdrawal limits have been capped at about 200,000 kyat ($120) per customer per day and some have even run out of cash as people stop depositing money due to security concerns.

“Normally, when I send money back home my family is able to get the cash out the next day,” Su said. “But lately the internet is not working and it’s difficult to get the money out, and we do not feel we can trust the bank, either.”

Su and her husband are among the 1.7 million Myanmar nationals working in neighboring Thailand, according to the Migrant Workers Group, and part of a vital network of overseas workers who support relatives at home. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates some $1.4 billion was sent to Myanmar in 2015 from overseas workers.

The current situation has left thousands of migrants living with constant worry not just for the financial well being of their loved ones, but for their safety. More than 860 people have been killed by security forces since the coup and more than 6,000 arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

Su’s mother tells her not to worry, as the fighting is not intense in their village. “But they have to be careful,” Su said. “They no longer sleep soundly and barely go out.”

Yet without money to stockpile food or medicine, laying low long-term will not be easy.

“I want to be based back in Myanmar to work, as we have so many difficulties working in other countries and I want to live with my family back home, too,” she said.

But she is scared about what may happen if she and her husband, Zaw, 30, who also works in a Bangkok factory, did return. “If we try to go back they will arrest us even if we are not involved in politics,” she said.

Zaw speaks of the torment of watching, from a distance, while his country churns in turmoil as the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, continues its brutal crackdown on anti-coup protesters. “I can’t go back and fight,” he said. “Even if I don’t mind risking my life for the next generation, I want real democracy in my country.”

Rising poverty in Myanmar

Before the coup, Christina’s older brother would usually send home from Thailand up to $240 a month, which his family of 10 relied on for food and medicine. All that stopped after the coup when banks shut down.

Christina, who is using a pseudonym for security reasons, said the family had to leave their home in Mindat town, in Myanmar’s southern Chin state, when fighting started there. Now, it is not only food they need.

“Because we are in a place where there are no doctors and nurses, even for headaches we are struggling to buy medicine because it’s been a few months,” she said.

They are also unable to return home to plant new crops they relied on for food and to sell, so the next few years will be difficult, she said. They are currently living in a camp for internally displaced people.

Wai, who also uses a pseudonym for safety reasons, said his brother is working in Thailand and used to send $150 to $180 a month home to his elderly mother who lives alone in her village. She used it for medicine as he said her health is failing. Wai said his mother had been saving some of the remittances, but in a month her reserves will be depleted.

“Since I have family, I cannot support her as well. My brother cannot send money. So mum is using her savings to feed herself and is having to borrow from other family members in the village,” Wai said.

“I sell food at the factories and we were OK before the coup. But after the coup, most factories are closed, and I couldn’t sell anymore. So, we are struggling. So, I asked my brother to send me some money. He said he will. But since we couldn’t receive from here, our family is in trouble, too.”

A report published by the United Nations at the end of April estimated up to half of Myanmar’s population could be living in poverty by early 2022 due to “compounding negative shocks.” The report found 83% of Myanmar’s households reported their incomes had, on average, been cut almost in half due to the Covid pandemic.

That situation has become worse since the coup.

Scared for families’ safety

Ma Oo has been living in Thailand for 20 years, helping migrant workers secure documentation to work legally and advocating for their rights. Her children studied in Thailand, and now work in the country. But she worries for the rest of her family who remained in Myanmar’s Shan state.

Her father, she said, worked as a public relations organizer for the National League for Democracy (NLD), the democratically elected party thrown from power by the military coup. Ma Oo assumes her father was arrested, but even now, four months on, she does not know for sure.

“The military detained everyone connected with NLD. I lost contact with my father as soon as I heard about the coup. I am worried for my whole family as all of us are involved in the party. My father got arrested twice in the 1990s for being involved with NLD and now we assumed that he got arrested again as we have lost contact with him.”

Not knowing the whereabouts or welfare of family members caught up in the military junta’s crackdown is traumatizing for those unable to return home.

Kyokyani, 35, works in a bakery in Bangkok. His wife works in a textile factory but he said his 85-year-old mother is too frail to join them from her village in Myanmar’s Mandalay region.

Kyokyani, who also wants to be identified by one name for security, said his older brother was recently arrested by security forces and held for three days. “The military is pressuring our village because of the protests and they wanted to arrest the protest leaders. But they couldn’t find them, so they arrested my brother,” he said.

“I am very sad and worried about my family,” he said, adding that most of those living in villages are daily wage laborers and struggle to make ends meet. “I cannot go back and help them and that makes me worry about them even more.”

Kyokyani said business dropped when Covid hit and he couldn’t send as much money home as he usually did. The coup has made things worse and he hasn’t able to send any money since the military seized power.

Even sustaining himself is challenging.

“There are fewer jobs here in Thailand and I still have to spend for my accommodation and food, so I cannot get paid as much as before,” he said.

Fellow migrant worker Myat fears for his family’s safety. His relative worked at a gold mine in southeastern Kayah state where 11 workers were reportedly killed in a military airstrike at the end of March.

He said his relative was not working that day but questions why the miners were targeted at all. “I can’t stand it. They are innocent people from the forest. I don’t think they even have internet, so they wouldn’t have known what’s happening,” he said.

Staring at a photo of one of the victims on his phone, he said: “I’m worried not just for my family but for the whole country. I’m worried for everyone because they are killing youths. The youth are the future of Myanmar, but they value them less than animals.”

For Su and Zaw, whose 7-year-old is still in Myanmar with his grandparents, thinking about what type of future he has, without remittance money in a country turned upside down is almost too much to bear.

“I am very worried about my child, as a mother. We heard the military is taking people around our village for forced labor especially, the boys and men, so they cannot sleep peacefully at night,” Su said.

“I miss my kid. Because of the bad situation I cannot go back and see him. I am sad.”

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