05 December, 2010

Successful Migrations

5 December, 2010-Kathmandu Post

Kao San Road is Bangkok’s Thamel. And like Thamel, you can find street side stalls that sell colorful cotton clothes, handicrafts, and carved wooden souvenirs. But what you may not expect to find there are Nepali vendors. As we walk past one vendor selling small phone accessories and electronic goods, the cheap radio lures me back with a familiar tune from Bollywood. I look at the man and ask: Are you Nepali? He nods and answers: Yes, I am.

Shyam, the vendor, tells me he’s Nepali from Burma. His family went there 60 years ago. He’s never been to Nepal, but he speaks Nepali fluently with a slight accent. He says some of his family members still live in Nepal, and his parents go back and forth every once in a while. Why did you leave Burma, I ask. And he gives me an answer that sounds strikingly familiar. “There was conflict. The Army and the Maoists started to fight each other. The Maoists wanted to recruit us. So we fled.” I say: “That sounds just like what happened in Nepal.” “Yes,” he replies laughing. “Except that unlike Nepal, Burma has seven kinds of Maobadi. We have seven states, and each state has its own Maobadi.” The Karen, a Burmese ethnic group, have their own armed Maoist wing. So do the other ethnic groups.

Shyam has a work permit from the Thai government that allows him to stay and work in Bangkok. He pays 2,000 baht every year to renew the work permit. Thailand has been remarkably kind to migrants from neighbouring countries, allowing for easy access to work permits that allow people legal right to stay and work in the country. Employers would never exploit workers as they do in the Middle East or Malaysia—unpaid wages can be claimed in court, and employers are forced by law to pay back wages in the rare case they try to cheat workers.

Further down I meet a bookseller. He’s also of Nepali origin, from Burma. He tells me that his employer treats him very kindly, and he has had no problems with getting paid or any trouble with his employer. Indeed, Thailand is a story of successful migration for many blue collar workers of Nepali origin. But this story, piled under the thousands of stories of unsuccessful migration that happen every year to poor and uneducated workers trying to find work in the Middle East, is not heard.

Ram P. Sedain, who works with the Committee for Co-ordination of Services of Displaced Persons in Thailand, unofficially estimates that there are 150,000 people of Nepali origin in Bangkok alone. He estimates another 40,000 working in Hua Hin, a seaside holiday resort. Most of the Burmese-Nepali work in Phuket, where they work in the tourist industry.

Thailand is not always as welcoming to people of other nationalities. The Rohingya, for instance, a Muslim minority originally from Bangladesh who migrated to Burma 300 years ago but never received citizenship or recognition from the government, found themselves in detention centres in Thailand. The Rohingyas’ story is a tragic one. About 30 of them, pushed out of Burma into Bangladesh, stateless and without papers, decided to migrate to Malaysia on a boat. They landed in Thailand, and the government put them in detention centers. At one point, a group were put out in a boat without adequate food and water and pushed out to sea. The Rohingyas exemplify the fate of people who have fallen between the cracks of modern nation-states, each state refusing to claim these “border” people as their own.

Nepalis, however, have been luckier. Arriving in Burma during the Second World War almost sixty years ago as soldiers, the Nepalis set up large villages of their own. Their children were taught by teachers in the Nepali language. The government has been accommodating to the Nepali population—the community remains on good terms with the military, with many Nepalis high up on the military heirarchy. The first generation still maintains ties to the home country. With the secondary migration to Thailand, the second generation has less of a tie to the geographical land of Nepal.

And then there are the Nepalis who migrated straight to Thailand without Burma as a waystop. Near the Asia Hotel in Ratchathewi, I go in to get my shirt sewed. The two older men who welcome me into their low ceilinged shop look Thai. They speak English with a Thai accent. The older one tells me gravely that he will give me a local Thai rate since I am going to stay here for a while. As we start talking, they ask me where I am from. “Nepal,” I say. “Same country,” says one. To my amazement, they speak a flawless hill-accented Nepali. “Which village are you from?” I ask. The younger one gives me the name of a neighbourhood in Bangkok. When I ask about Nepal, the older one says hesitatingly that he thinks his father came from Dharan.

The two tailors have never been to Nepal—they don’t know any names of cities there. They say their father came over with the Japanese during the Second World War. I assume their father was with the British Gurkhas, but that the Japanese may have captured them during the war. Many prisoners of war were brought over to build the bridge over the River Kwai. Perhaps that was their father’s history, or something close to it.

They say they’ve never been to Nepal. They sound reluctant in their answers when I say: you should visit. It is almost as if they don’t really want to know too much about the old country. They are comfortable in Thailand—this is where they were born, this is their home. “We are Nepali-Thai,” they say. “Besides,” says the younger one placatingly, “our shop would lose its customers if we left now.”

“What are your names?” I ask. “Jame,” says one, warily. It is as if they don’t want to reveal their true identity, just in case somebody decided they should return to Nepal. “And you?” I ask. “Bond,” Says the other one. “Jame Bond!” I say, finally understanding the JAMES BOND billboard outside their shop window. “Yes, Jame Bond,” they say, nodding their heads and smiling.

I wondered if they were aware of what an anomaly they were, two janajati men, gravely running a very good tailoring business along with Indians on a main Bangkok strip. They were happily oblivious of the stigma tailoring had in Nepal, and the way it was associated with the dalit caste. I have never seen a male janjati tailor in Nepal. And yet, here in Bangkok, free of caste limitations, they kept their promise of “Worldwide Recommended Quality Workmanship.” I had no doubt they took great pride in their tailoring, and delivered on quality. New places give new freedoms to redefine and rework the limitations of identity. In the case of Nepalis, Burma and Thailand have been new places that have provided new lives and success stories to many. Its time to hear more of these diaspora success stories.