Panel 7 - Labor and Migrants

Saturday, Nov. 14, 20:25 – 21:40 (US CST)
Sunday, Nov. 15, 09:25 – 10:40am Thailand

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Miriam Jaehn

National University of Singapore
Rohingya from Myanmar to Thailand: A journey towards Thai-ness?

Ethnic minorities in Thailand have experienced forced assimilation due to its nation-building project based on an idea of Thai-ness as a homogenous national identity comprised of Nation, Religion, and King. However, in this article, I argue that the state’s definition of national identity based on Thai-ness does not only affect its own ethnic minorities but also the Rohingya staying in Thailand. Since their persecution in Myanmar intensified, Rohingya in Thailand became reconfigured as a ‘threat’ to national security, potentially damaging Thailand’s international image as well as its relations with Myanmar. And although Rohingya are recognized as refugees internationally, refugee status is denied to them by the Thai government, pushing the Rohingya into illegality and a necessitated invisibility. Thus, to receive protection and legitimacy, Rohingya in Thailand have learnt to fall back on a dual performance of national identity and belonging. They portray themselves as respectable members of the Thai community while simultaneously re-invoking their belonging to Myanmar through an enactment of Thai-ness and an alternative Burmese-ness, whereby they often conceal their Rohingya identity. I argue that this dual performance of national identity and the concealing of Rohingya ethnic identity in public is the result of Thailand’s politics of reinforcing a homogenous Thai-ness on its peoples and its silence on and complicity in Myanmar’s denial of Rohingya identity as a legitimate national ethnic minority identity in Southeast Asia.

Andrew Justice Person

International Leadership of Texas
Education for Migrant Children in Bangkok: Policy and Practice

Thailand has become the destination of choice for hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who are employed in low-skilled sectors like construction and factory labor. The overwhelming majority of migrant workers settle in urban Thailand, especially the capital city of Bangkok. Migrant workers often bring families with them, which has led to thousands of migrant worker children living near work sites with little to no access to formal education. Yet Thailand has instituted national education policies that promise 15 years of free education to every school-age student, including children who do not have proper documentation. Why, then, do migrant children remain largely excluded from education institutions in Bangkok? This thesis project explores obstacles to entry and continuous enrollment in Thai public schools by examining school administrative policy in contrast to national imperatives, and the impact of environmental factors that significantly affect the lives of migrant children.

Moodjalin Sudcharoen

University of Chicago
The Surname “Without-a-Surname”: The Practices of Nonrecognition Recognition in Thai State Schools

This paper explores how children of migrant workers from Burma are socialized into bureaucratic culture and institutional routines of official naming in Thai state schools. As Burmese names do not include a family name, to place migrant children within the Thai bureaucratic system, schools add the phrase, mai prakot nam sakun, or maimi nam sakun, literally meaning, “without a surname,” after each child’s proper name. What started off as a bureaucratic solution has developed into a marker of stranger identity, which is grounded in the nationalist discourse of (non)belonging to the Thai nation-family. “Without-a-Surname” becomes an iconic indexical of the ambivalent, liminal state of migrancy, constituting the migrant children as neither members of the national family (which having a [Thai] name indexes) nor as complete foreigners (which lacking a name can index). It marks them as state subjects whose pending status lies between those of insiders and outsiders. The recognition of their bureaucratic existence constitutes their political being in a negative form—a form of state recognition which I call “nonrecognition recognition.” The presence of the surname achieved through negation points to its past invisibility—the invisibility that most children have never recognized until the moment of surname designation and/or the socialization into naming through various interactional practices. While such processes highlights their inability to really be “Thai,” they simultaneously creates a condition of possibility in which children can give voice to questions about discrimination and citizenship under a new identity label, “children without a surname” (dek maimi nam sakun).

Eugene Riordan, Jr.

UC – Santa Barbara
Disease, Security, and Labor Before, During, and After COVID-19

Before becoming a leader in biometric temperature COVID-19 testing at borders, Thailand had followed suit with other Southeast Asian countries, implementing biometric data into its security system to help prevent individuals traveling with falsified documents. A trend that has gone global in the current crisis, as is the case in Thailand, tech firms are increasingly the recipients of public investments through private-public partnerships, promising security tools that not only manage disease but also contain and separate populations of people (Klein 2020). Important in the Thai case is not only the acceptance of widespread tech solutions that build upon already-existing infrastructure but also what these pieces of biometric data signal for the individual to the state. This paper will take a comparative approach to examine border security processes for migrant workers from Cambodia and Malaysia and those of other immigration designations. As Simone Browne (2014) reminds us, states practice the double move of marking certain populations as uniquely surveilled while also socially invisible, and this paper will argue that as both vectors of contamination and economics, migratory communities face higher surveillance and discrimination. Data from secondary sources show that even when dealing with a country-wide gridlock, an unevenness to tracing technologies creates disparate and desperate populations. A comparative framework will also help to highlight how crisis affects institutional change, and perhaps shed light on what is to come with security, immigration, and disease in the near future.

Related Pre-Recorded Presentations for Panel 7

Rebecca Farber

William and Marry
Gender, Labor, and Technologies in “Thailand 4.0”

This presentation analyzes how Thai transgender women perform work in the entertainment industry that is contingent upon biotechnologies and simultaneously advances recent economic and political goals of the nation-state. As the Thai government launches “Thailand 4.0,” an economic plan centered on technological growth and medical tourism, Thai transgender entertainers – many who have undergone gender-affirming surgeries – help contribute to national re-branding efforts by shifting Thailand’s historical reputation as a sex tourist hub to one of medical expertise and professionalized labor. Through ethnographic fieldwork in Thailand and 60 in-depth interviews, the presentation illustrates how Thai people’s labor and embodiment are augmented within the context of regional biotechnological growth (Hoang 2014, 2015; Ong 2010; Wong 2011), particularly state-led efforts to advance technologies and medical tourism. At the same time that their work hinges on technologies, Thai transgender women help construct the Thai nation’s “cultural wealth” (Bandelj and Wherry 2011) by helping erase the “blot” of sex tourism (Centeno et al. 2011) and embodying a new class of workers. By bridging transgender political economy (Irving 2008) with literature on gendered nationalism (Balogun 2012; Vijayakumar 2013), this article demonstrates how transgender people are incorporated into the Thai nation-state as productive citizens, illuminating how bodies and subjectivities are produced and legitimized  by adhering to particular configurations of sex, gender, and labor.

Shahar Shoham

Humboldt University of Berlin
“The Superman College”: Migration as development agenda in Thailand to Israel labor migration regime

Thai migrant workers have been working in Israel’s agriculture since the late 1980s in temporary labor migration programs (TLMP). This migration regime institutionalized following the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and as part of Israel’s shift from a collective welfare state into neoliberal social politics, fostering the normative environment for marginalization and exploitation of migrant workers. Around the same time, the Thai government started to officially promote labor “export” in order to address the rising unemployment in the country. Most of the migrants originate in the North-East region, known as Isaan, placed in the bottom of Thailand’s socio-economic hierarchies following unequal treatment form the country’s central regimes.

In this paper, I analyze the effect of neoliberal policies on the lives of migrants, while highlighting the dynamics and actors who are part of it in Thailand and Israel. I do so by situating my ethnographic data with return Thai migrants from Israel within the discourse on “migration as development”.  The data was collected through fieldwork in a village in Isaan, where hundreds of its residences have been working in Israel since the 1980s. Within this context, I analyze the ways in which labor migration in Thailand has been promoted as an individual pathway for upwards mobility through entrepreneurship and the implementation of knowledge and skills acquired in the country of migration. Furthermore, I argue that returning migrants create their own local imagination of how migration can affect their lives and what are the economic and political structures that are needed for it to prevail.


Kanjana Thepboriruk, Ph.D., (กัญจนา เทพบริรักษ์)
Chair, NIU Thai Studies Committee

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