Hundreds of ethnic Kayan women who used to sell textiles and crafts in Thailand have returned to Myanmar in recent months, forced to leave when the coronavirus pandemic triggered the collapse of the Thai tourism sector, with only grueling farmwork available back home.
The returnees, famous for wearing stacked brass neck coils that appear to lengthen their necks, made a living in the northern Thai tourist city of Chiang Mai by selling colorful traditional attire and handicrafts and posing for photos.
But when COVID-19 shut down Thailand’s tourism industry, the Kayan, a subgroup of the Karenni or Red Karen people, could not make a living and returned with their families to eastern Myanmar’s Kayah state to perform casual labor, some of the returnees told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“The pandemic is the main reason they have returned,” Bae To, the administrator of Kayah state’s Pan Pet village tract, told RFA on Tuesday.
“Business is not good on the Thai side [of the border]. Tourists don’t come anymore. They could not make enough money to make a living there, so they had to return,” he said.
Bae To said about 270 Kayan women wearing brass neck rings recently had arrived in the village tract in Kayah’s Demoso township.
Local authorities in Kayah state estimate that at least 500 Kayan women who wear the neck coils now live in the Hantawkhu and Lopu communities of the Pan Pet village tract and in Daw Sabone village in Loikaw township.
The Kayan people live mainly in villages in Demoso and Loikaw townships and in Pekon township of southern Shan state.
Mu Kyat, a 70 year-old Kayah woman, said she worked in the tourism industry in Thailand for more than 10 years, but can barely make ends meet now after going without steady work since returning to Myanmar in April.
“I am struggling alone,” she told RFA, adding that she must support her only son.
Mu Kyat said she sold woven items in Thailand and received 20-30 Thai baht — less than one U.S. dollar — to pose for a photo for tourists.
“Now, I do nothing and stay at home,” she said. “Because I don’t have any income, I want to return to Thailand if I can when the situation improves.”
The women also received financial help from the Thai government which provided expenses for their stay in the country along with subsidies of 1,000-5,000 baht (U.S. $31-157) per month depending on the type of work they performed.
But Kayan women who have returned to Myanmar report that they now make only about 6,000 kyats (U.S. $4.31) a day from farmwork.
Mutee, a Kayan woman who returned in March after working 12 years in Thailand, said she has resumed doing farmwork for lack of another means of making money.
“Before, I worked on farms,” she told RFA. “Then I went to Thailand because I could not make much money here. Now, I am back from Thailand because of the pandemic.”
Local governments in Kayah state have been trying to develop community tourism in the region, but the number of visitors to the area, particularly to the Pan Pet village tract and Daw Sabone village, has plunged.
Farming is the only viable choice, the Kayan woman said.
Mutee said she preferred to work in Thailand because farmwork in Myanmar is “very laborious and exhausting.”
“It is not good for me,” she added.
‘Hardships for everyone’
Maung Thar, who is in charge of community tourism in the Pan Pet village tract, said up to 50 percent of the women from Kayan tribes relied on the tourism industry.
“Their survival is connected entirely to the industry,” he said. “Many local handicraft shops are now closed. Even with farmwork, it’s related to community-based tourism, so it has caused hardships for everyone.”
Hla Myo Swe, minister of Bamar ethnic affairs in Kayah state, said the state government has no plans to provide assistance to the Kayans who have returned from Thailand.
“We don’t have any plans to help these returning Kayan people,” he told RFA. “We have an awareness that these people are facing hardships.”
“As a Bamar ethnic affairs minister myself, I will follow the state government’s plans, [but] we don’t have any specific plans to help these people.”
As of Tuesday, Thailand had registered 3,255 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 58 related deaths.
A July 1 report by the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimated that Thailand could lose U.S. $47 billion, or 9 percent of GDP this year, as a result of the pandemic’s impact on tourism.
During the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of thousands of the 2.8 million registered foreign workers in Thailand — of which those from Myanmar make up the largest share — returned to their home countries after losing their jobs when their employers closed businesses, according to NGOs in the region.
Reported by Soe Soe Htet for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.