Revenue from Refugees?
covering burma and southeast asia
Monday, January 21, 2019


Revenue from Refugees?

By FRANK DOUGLAS Saturday, October 3, 2009


Sombat couldn’t understand why Nypyidaw gave him the shivers. Perhaps it was because it was the only place in Burma where the electricity worked all day long.

He was glad to be back in the broken-down bustle of Rangoon. He used to enjoy the unofficial meetings with his opposite numbers in the ministry before they moved to the new capital.

With no flight back to Bangkok till the next morning, Sombat had time to relax and go for a shave.

He eased into the barber’s chair, emitting a weary sigh.

The barber remembered this Thai gentleman from before. He was a good tipper, but today he looked troubled and tired.

He got a cold towel out of the refrigerator. Fortunately he hadn’t had to turn on the generator during the afternoon.

“What is it with those bloody generals?” Sombat mused, not realizing he had spoken out loud.

“They are wearying,” said the barber, thankful no other customers were in the shop. He remembered that this man worked for the Thai government.

“Why can’t they just leave everyone in peace?” Sombat asked.

“Indeed, our great generals promote neither peace nor development,” said the barber, rubbing Sombat’s forehead with the towel. “They take our gas and sell it to your country, but they won’t burn any for us to keep the lights on here.”

“It’s a pity your generals spend so little on making life better for the Burmese people,” said Sombat. “You would think it would be cheaper than oppressing everyone with a huge standing army and always having to watch your back,” Sombat said.

“Did you know we have 135,000 people from Burma sitting around all day doing nothing in refugee camps? What a waste!” Sombat said.

The barber knew. Everyone in Rangoon knew. If the soldiers could kill monks and students demonstrating on city streets, it required no imagination to think of the horrors they must perpetrate in the highlands. No wonder so many had fled across the border.

“Some of the refugees have been there for years—what are we supposed to do with them?” asked Sombat.

The barber thought for a moment. “You could try charging fees,” he said.

“Charging fees?”

“Yes. The Australian government charged illegals 125 dollars a day. ‘Detention fees,’ they called it. Ran up bills of hundreds of thousands in some cases, I heard,” said the barber.

“Did they actually get paid?” asked Sombat.

“No idea. They recently gave them up, though,” said the barber.

Sombat chuckled, settling back for his shave.

As the barber lathered his face, Sombat wondered how the Thai government could charge refugees a daily fee and what they could call it.

They couldn’t call it an “overstay fee,” which is what the countless foreigners in Thailand had to pay, because the refugees didn’t have permission to come in the first place.

“Detention fee” implied they had done something wrong, Sombat thought. No one could blame the refugees for wanting to get away from the Tatmadaw. He’d wanted to escape himself after a day in Naypyidaw.

Perhaps they could call it a “holding fee,” a “care charge,” or even a “warehousing charge,” he thought.

Sombat told himself to be serious—these were people, not merchandise. It was a pity Immigration couldn’t charge someone the equivalent of demurrage, though. The Customs Department made a killing on that one.

First, the refugees would have to earn money somehow to pay the fee, mused Sombat, warming to the prospect of getting someone else to give the refugees money before the government took it from them.

At the ministry, they had discussed getting the refugees to work, Sombat recalled. They had agreed they couldn’t follow the same system used by the Corrections Department, who paid inmates working in the jail workshops. The refugees were not criminals, though, no doubt, they were not being treated so differently.

They had discussed getting the Board of Investment involved, setting up mini-industrial zones with special tax-free privileges, but then their own workforce would be screaming that jobs were being taken away from them. Besides, the camps were in the most inaccessible places.

Maybe they could get companies wanting cheap labor to build holding camps near the industrial estates, privatizing the whole thing, as it were.

The trouble was, Sombat thought, they couldn’t be too nice to the refugees, as many more might come over and their own Thai people would be up in arms. If they found a way to make the refugees lucrative, the aid agencies would pull out and the Thai government would be accused of exploitation and even slavery.

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timothy Wrote:
Brilliant. How astounding the ides of relating charges to gas revenue. Thailand should take the burden as well because it is part of the gas deal which prolongs the life of the junta. It is brilliant and possible.

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