A Creeping border: Phlong Karen migration between eastern Myanmar and Central Thailand, 1980s-2010s
Abstract: Research on the Myanmar-Thailand border usually centres on the insurgencies inside Myanmar (Burma), while the studies of migration across it are preoccupied with the plight of Burmese refugees or migrant workers. Based on life history interviews and ethnography, this paper scrutinises the Phlong Karen transborder flows between the mid-1980s and early 2010s in order to grasp the governmentality of the border, migration across it and its shifts over time. The case of Karen cross-border migration fits into the global trends of increasing human flows and tightening border regimes, an interaction that has resulted in the commercialisation of undocumented migration. Before the early 1990s, migrants from the central Kayin (Karen) State travelled in small groups of friends or relatives on foot through an intensifying conflict zone to reach the border areas held by the Karen National Union (KNU) insurgents and to cross into Thailand’s adjacent Tak province. By the late 1990s, the displacement of the KNU gave way to hardening border control but now groups numbering 50-100 people were being transported by professional smuggling brokers cooperating with the Burmese and Thai immigration officers. The increased central control on both sides of the border did not eradicate undocumented migration or the contestations in the borderland as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a splinter group of the subdued KNU, also joined the border industry of human smuggling. Its growing size and sophistication allowed extending the migrants’ trajectories from ever deeper inside Myanmar to ever further inside Thailand.
Indrė Balčaitė is a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of International Relations, Central European University. She has recently finished her PhD thesis at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) that built on extended multi-sited fieldwork and explored the governmentality of human flows across the state, ethnic, linguistic and religious boundaries. Indrė’s academic interests lie at the intersection of political science, anthropology and geography. Her research involves studies of migration and borders, ethnicity and power, comparative political philosophy, and interpretive methods of research.