Chasing dreams against the tide

On the shore of Shintong, a small island near the southern tip of Myanmar, 67-year-old Gumpon Junjaraun is busy placing planks on a bus-sized fishing boat, getting it ready to take him out to the Andaman Sea to fish again.

Uncle Pon, as he is affectionately called, is a Thai citizen. He is among a handful of Thais who have made his home in Myanmar.

For decades, millions of people from Myanmar have migrated to Thailand looking for a better life. But ten years ago, Gumpon went against the tide and moved across the border to Myanmar.

A local market in Kawthaung Island comes alive each morning as residents flock to shopping for food. (Photo by Visarut Sankham.)

Before that fateful decision, he earned a living as a boat builder and fisherman in the southern Thai province of Ranong, only a short distance across the sea from where he lives now. For more than 20 years, he worked for a local boat builder. Then, tired of working for others, he left his job and became a fisherman.

During his fishing days, he became familiar with the sea off Kawthaung, Myanmar’s southernmost town known in the colonial times as Victoria Point. Some of his relatives have lived here, and he has befriended some locals. So whenever he came to fish in the area, he made it a point to drop by.

Traveling back and forth between Thailand and Myanmar was easy to do, Uncle Pon said. It was during these visits that he had come upon Shintong, a small island just a few kilometers from Kawthaung. He liked it so much that he wanted to settle there.

During one of his visits, he said: “My Myanmar friends told me that I could have a piece of land for a cheap price. So I decided to buy it.”

For a long time, he had dreamed of owning land in Thailand. But prices were too high, he said.

In his many visits across the border, he not only learned about the area but also how local authorities worked.

After he made the decision to buy the land, he managed to obtain Myanmar citizenship through a back-door channel.

“Normally you can get a Myanmar identification card in Kawthaung Island for between 10,000 and 20,000 baht. But if you speak Burmese, you only have to pay 5,000 baht,” he said.

Once he settled down on his new land in Kawthaung, Uncle Pon started by building a pier, using materials brought in from Ranong. His friends and relatives who are in the fishing business became his first customers.

Serenity surrounds the house and pier where Uncle Pon and family have been calling home for more than 10 years. (Photo by Visarut Sankham.)

“I took a chance moving down here to run my own business rather than working as a laborer in Thailand for the rest of my life. Here I own land and a house which I could not afford in Thailand,” he added.

Uncle Pon, his wife and six children regularly speaks Myanmar among themselves. Four of his children have since gone to live and work in other countries, including Malaysia, Sweden and Thailand.

The remaining two children, who are still living with him, don’t even speak Thai although they understand the language.

While documentary evidence can attest that Uncle Gumpon and his wife are Thai, they are more like their Myanmar neighbors.

Asked whether he considered himself Thai or Myanmar, he insisted he was Thai.

Maintaining Thai citizenship has certain advantages. It gives him and family valuable access to education, public health care, and other public services in Thailand that are otherwise not available in Myanmar.

When things get rough, Thailand could provide some sort of a safety net.

Uncle Pon walks toward his fishing boat which he is working on to prepare for the upcoming fishing season. (Photo by Visarut Sankham.)

And things may be now getting rough for Uncle Pon. Over the past several years, fishers have reported catching fewer fishes from the sea off Myanmar’s southern coast.

“Four or five years ago, I used to catch 1,000 kg of fish when I sailed out for 15 days,” said Uncle Pon. “But nowadays I manage to catch only 100-200 kg. The only way to catch as much as before is to use a bigger boat that can sail further out.”

A Myanmar Times article on Sept 16, 2016, confirmed that the Myanmar seas have been overfished during the past decade. It reported that fish stock has dropped precipitously, between 30 percent and 80 percent in some instances, with small-scale fishermen bearing much of the brunt.

Uncle Pon added that each time he went out fishing it cost about 100,000 baht to cover fuel, ice for fish storage, wages for the crew, and food.

Less fish stock in the sea also means that fewer fishing boats required his repair services. As a result, he has been forced to borrow from local money lenders to cover his expenses.

To make up for lost income, he has turned to producing charcoal for sale. Still, income from charcoal sale is not quite enough.

Myanmar nationals make up the majority of workers at fish piers in Thailand’s Ranong province while fish catches in the Myanmar seas have experienced drastic decline during the past several years. (Photos by Visarut Sankham.)

The challenges and uncertainties Uncle Pon is facing have sapped his earlier optimism and weakened his resolve to put down root in Myanmar. He is now considering what was unthinkable only a short time ago – moving back to Thailand.

“I am thinking about returning to Thailand and living with my children in Ranong,” he said. “At least the Thai government might be able to help me in some way.”

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