Myanmar migrants haunted by memory of tsunami missing in Thailand

Myanmar migrants haunted by memory of tsunami missing in Thailand

BAN NAM KHEM, Thailand - A decade after towering waves wrenched her newborn baby from her arms, Mi Htay remains haunted by memories of the children she lost in the tsunami whose bodies, like hundreds of other Myanmar migrants in Thailand, were never identified.

No one knows exactly how many foreign labourers died when the tsunami cut into southwestern Thailand as most lacked official work permits and their relatives did not come forward in the days and weeks after the December 26, 2004, disaster fearing arrest or deportation.

An estimated 2,000 migrants from neighbouring Myanmar are thought to have perished, deaths that went almost unnoticed as the television cameras focused on foreign tourists and Thai victims.

Among them were Mi Htay's eight-day-old baby - too young even to have been given a name - two of her other children, both toddlers, as well as her mother and a nephew.

Despite the aching reminders of her loss, Mi Htay returned around a year later to the small coastal village of Ban Nam Khem, in Thailand's worst-hit Phang Nga province, in search of work in the area's fisheries.

"When I am working, I can forget what happened," the now 40-year-old told AFP, pointing out the spot where the waves pulled her newborn away from her grasp.

"But when I see other families with their children going to eat, I feel so sad. If they were alive, we would be like that. I can't forget it for one day." In 2006 Mi Htay - whose two oldest children survived the disaster - was informed that the bodies of her mother and nephew had been identified as part of what was, at the time, the biggest global forensic investigation.

The Indian Ocean tsunami, which was sparked by the third-largest earthquake on record, claimed more than 220,000 lives in one of the world's deadliest and most geographically widespread disasters.

More than 3,000 bodies were identified and returned to families across the world by Thai and international experts in the years after the tsunami using dental records, DNA or fingerprints.

But Mi Htay's three missing children were not among them.

"I presume they are dead. But maybe they are alive as they haven't found the bodies. Maybe they are with other people. I keep thinking like that," she said.

Migrants return

Other than a small sign in Thai pointing to a nearby evacuation shelter, there is little evidence of the tsunami that wiped out nearly half of the village's 5,000 people.

The sparsely furnished apartments Myanmar nationals rent from Thais have been rebuilt and the pier is bustling with migrants sliding bucket-loads of freshly-caught fish off boats and into factories, where workers like Ma Mee Htay gut fish for around US$10 a day.

There are more migrant labourers in Phang Nga province than before the tsunami and now most are registered, says Htoo Chit, director of the Foundation for Education and Development charity.

An estimated two million Myanmar nationals work in Thailand, where they make up part of a vast migrant labour force often working in low-paid jobs and poor conditions, subject to exploitation.

Htoo Chit recalls the difficulty in identifying the decomposing bodies of undocumented victims with no official records, a problem compounded by the mass deportation of over 2,500 migrants in the aftermath of the tsunami.

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