What's wrong in Ranong
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What's wrong in Ranong

By John S. Moncrief/Ranong, Thailand and Kawthaung, Burma FEBRUARY, 2001 - VOLUME 9 NO.2

Ranong is the second largest Burmese community in Thailand, where many migrants work in the fishing and its related industries. For most towns on the Thai-Burmese border, bilateral trade resumed after a short closure by the Burmese government in the wake of Burmese activists storming their embassy in Bangkok in October of 1999. While the Burmese opened the border crossing between Ranong-Kawthaung, it announced a temporary cancellation of fishing concessions. Sixteen months later, Ranong and its fishing industry is still waiting. The city of Ranong is home to one of the largest migrant Burmese populations in Thailand, estimated at 80,000 by local officials. The migration has been fueled by both the push of continuing economic hardship in Burma and the pull of better wages in Ranong, where fishing and its related industries are the largest sectors of employment. However, many Burmese live in Ranong illegally and suffer from lack of legal status in Thailand, which has been compounded by the slowdown in the fishing industry. The suspension of concessions has stifled the Ranong economy. This has affected both the Thai and Burmese community. With Thai-owned fishing boats sitting idly by, many Burmese laborers who work directly as fishermen or indirectly in fishing industries are unemployed. This loss of income is passed over to the Burmese community. Many migrants have gone elsewhere. Fishing Concessions In October 6, 1999, a Burmese government spokesman announced that fishing concessions to Thailand were "suspended for the time being for security reasons." This decision came days after the seizure of the Burmese embassy in Bangkok by the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors, a group of militant anti-Rangoon activists. Fishing concessions have long been a source of contention between the two governments. The problems stem in part from the illegal encroachment into Burmese waters by Thai owned fishing boats, who are notorious for overfishing Burmese areas. Currently, the Burmese government maintains that they are conducting a study of the level of fish in Burmese waters, which have been over fished by Thais. "After the embassy crisis, the border was opened. But the fishing concessions weren’t," says Manat Sukwannitwichai, President of the Ranong Chamber of Commerce. "We don’t see this as fair as we don’t clearly know the reason why fishing concessions are suspended. The Burmese say they are performing surveys, but really they should just deal with the issue." However, one Thai academic who focuses on Thai Burmese relations says, "Fishing concessions have always been used as a tool by the Burmese government particularly when there are issues of sovereignty." Relations between Rangoon and Bangkok have been cool over the past few years, as the influx of amphetamines to Thailand has complicated ties. In the past, Thais fishing companies paid a monthly licensing fee—between 240,000 to 300,000 baht per boat—to catch a limit of one hundred thousand kilograms in Burmese waters. This is an important source of official income for the local government. After the ban, Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai said, "We have to admit that the central government and the local authorities in Burma implement double-standard policies." One analyst suggests that the local Burmese are holding out for a better deal independent of Rangoon. And while some local fishing firms have cast their nets in Indonesian, Vietnamese and Malaysian waters to keep their businesses afloat, they have met little success. Reports indicate the yields of fish in Indonesian waters are low. Furthermore, Indonesia’s strict enforcement of its waters has led to the impoundment of many Thai trawlers. Instead of Ranong, many of these ships are using ports in Pattani and Songkla to unload their catch. Other Thai trawlers have turned to local waters near Ranong, Pang Nga, and Phuket, however the trips cost money for petrol and there are few fish present, making the journey financially unfeasible. Many have returned to wait in Ranong. The drop in amount of fish coming into Ranong has cost its economy dearly. In the last two years, the economy has dropped by fifty percent according to the Ranong Chamber of Commerce. The decrease in supply of fish has not only stifled the Ranong fishing industry affecting the over 700 boats that used to fish Burmese waters but other fishing related business such as fish markets, animal feed, fish sauce, canned fish, sea transportation, cold storage and ice factories. The entire town is feeling the crunch, especially Burmese migrants of which thirty four percent work as fishermen, while seventeen percent work in related industries.

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