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Part of the reasons Thailand has a high-quality, affordable tourism culture is down to Myanmar foreign workers. It's quite likely that the grand hotel or boutique guesthouse of your last Thailand visit was partly constructed by them.
And behind those amiable smiles are some tough life experiences.
With the outbreak of COVID-19 since late March, all tourism to Koh Phangan stopped. Most of the hotels, hostels and restaurants were forced to close.
As you can imagine, these foreign workers earn only a meagre salary, they are living hand-to-mouth even before the lockdown. Many do not have a home back in Myanmar, so they face a dilemma: with tourism not expected to resume until the end of the year at the earliest, how can they survive?
Seeing the imminent humanitarian crisis on Koh Phangan, Ole Norheim, once a UN peacekeeper in Lebanon, founded a project “Happy Food”, which at the beginning helped to consolidate large and small food distribution groups on the island.
Since Happy Food began two months ago, it's raised more than 1 million baht (about 32,100USD), allowing them to distribute a total of more than 150,000 meals. For the past 7 weeks, they were distributing 8,000 kilograms of rice every week to about 2,000 people.
I've been paying attention to what Happy Food has done for foreign workers on the island since the lockdown. Therefore, when I heard their remaining funds were only enough to purchase 15,000 kilograms of rice, I made a trip to the temple where they distributed rice and had a chat with Ole.
Ole, who is organizing the distribution of rice at four locations every Monday, sweated and pulled two plastic chairs under the shade of a tree.
He invited me to sit down, and I asked him, "Why did you set up Happy Food?"
He said with emotion that when he worked with the UN peacekeeping force 30 years ago, he had been responsible for maintaining food security in Lebanon for three years.
"That terrible situation is still so vivid."
Having retired to Thailand five years ago, when the lockdown caused by the coronavirus appeared, he immediately realized that there might be a humanitarian crisis because the island's tourism industry heavily relies on foreign workers.
He told me frankly since the funds are running low, they have cut down their rice distribution amount from 8000 to 4000 kilograms per week. Afterwards, they will use the remaining funds to support the 400 most vulnerable people on the island, “The Burmese leaders have helped us identify pregnant women, disabled and families
with children under 2 years old. Our plan is to support these people with a broader range of food and non-food items.”
While talking about the Myanmar workers also have wives and children on the island, he couldn’t help but say with tears: “I’m very worried about the situation in the next six months. Although many restaurants can open again now, with no tourists probably till the end of the year, those foreign workers will still have no job."
Looking at the little Myanmar children carrying the bag of heavy rice, I imagined them only eating rice every day. However, I saw no worries on their innocent faces. I couldn't help thinking if they didn't even have rice, what would their future be?
Nay Kwee, who was dismissed as a hotel receptionist at the end of March, was lucky - only because at least he still has a shelter.
"Fortunately, the hotel owner let us continue to stay in the staff quarters. However, we still have to find food for ourselves." He said, "We can find morning glory in the forest and eat with rice."
I asked him why he did not go back to Myanmar. He replied, "Myanmar has no job opportunities. Even if there is, the salary is only 30% of what is offered here."
For him, who has been working on Koh Phangan for 7 years, this island is his home.
Nay, who is 30 years old this year, continued with a shy smile, "I like Koh Phangan very much."
I believe Myanmar people are optimistic by nature, it is shown by Nay’s everlasting smile. He told me that he is looking for job opportunities in other parts of Thailand as well.
What impressed me the most is that these Myanmar people are still able to show the true spirit of mutual help despite their own plight. While Happy Food was distributing rice on one side of the field, a Myanmar "community association" with 60 members on the island had collected a donation of about 250 baht (about 8USD) per
person and purchased about 600 portions of eggs, a bottle of water, cooking oil and instant noodles and distributed to the other Myanmar workers who were in need.
Nay, who was one of the volunteers smilingly told me, although he had no money to donate, he has plenty of time to donate as he has no job. It sounds very sad to me, however, I know his smile is genuine and he was really grateful that he could give a hand.
Another member of the "community association", Zen said they would like to continue to fund-raise so that they can distribute food again the coming week.
Written by Pink Lee
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