At least eight hundred Burmese living in Thailand were killed in last month's tsunami and thousands more may be still missing. Adding to their tragedy, the tsunami disaster seems to have intensified existing tensions between many Thai residents and migrant Burmese workers.
Before the tsunami hit, more than a hundred thousand Burmese lived and worked in the southwestern provinces of Thailand, most of them illegally. They provided cheap labor for the region's fisheries, rubber plantations, and thriving tourist resorts.
But ethnic tensions flared up as Thai residents blamed the Burmese for a rash of thefts and break-ins at damaged hotels and businesses in the chaos that followed the tsunami on December 26th.
In the days following the disaster, Thai authorities deported about one thousand Burmese suspected of entering the country illegally.
The round-ups have spread panic in the Burmese community. Many of them in the disaster zone are reluctant to claim the bodies of dead relatives, fearing arrest and deportation.
Chitra Thanborisuth is the deputy director for the World Vision aid agency in Thailand. Speaking by telephone from Phang Nga district, which was devastated by the tsunami, he says that despite offers of aid and financial assistance from the Thai government, many Burmese are reluctant to seek aid.
Chitra Thanborisuth said, "Their registration documents have been lost during the tidal wave. So there is no way to prove they are legally staying in Thailand. That's why they are afraid to come out and identify the dead or the families that have been lost. If you can't prove yourself, then you are illegal here and you have to hide. … But I tell you our World Vision staff was assigned by the government to look for these people and take care of these people."
On Wednesday, four World Vision aid workers - one Thai and three Burmese - were briefly detained by residents of a fishing village near Phang Nga. Mr. Chitra says they accused the aid workers of trying to repatriate Burmese immigrants who owed money to their employers.
So far, about five hundred Burmese have voluntarily returned to their country through a World Vision program. Many of them are going back to Burma to hold ceremonies for their dead relatives in Thailand left unclaimed or unaccounted for.