Thailand: building self-sufficiency, one community at a time
10 October 2011

Two newly built homes after a fire destroyed this small community in Mae Sot. Photo by JRS Asia Pacific
Thailand, 10 October, 2011 – The landlord in the field next door started burning sugar cane for the next planting season, and an ember caught fire on this land,” said U Maung Shwe who can no longer find work in construction since his tools were lost in a fire that destroyed four homes in the small Mae Ku community. “The homes are facing away from the fire, so by the time they noticed it, they had to run away.”

In minutes, these dry bamboo homes, along with their money, livestock, birth registration, village-level documentation or work permits, tools, and food were lost.

In the days after the fire, JRS provided emergency assistance and ensured that their landlord would rebuild their homes. The JRS team came later to discuss their future challenges. 

The JRS Mae Sot project was revamped last year to more accurately serve the JRS mission of going where the need is greatest and working where other NGOs are not, as well as helping communities to help themselves. In the migrant community of this border town, not many others are assisting the daily agriculture labourers and factory workers who came to Thailand when they can no longer earn a living in Burma.

This Mae Ku community is one example of how the new project evaluates people’s needs in an area and what JRS’ involvement will be.
“We cannot guarantee anything, we first need to assess the situation as a whole and then we will see what we can provide and how we can work together,” Jennifer Titmuss, project director, said to the community members, which was then translated into Burmese by Mi Sheh, the community development officer, as the four families and the JRS team sat in one of the newly-built homes.

During the meeting, the community asked for help replacing the pigs that died in the fire and help with school fees and uniform costs for their children. And while it is not in the JRS Mae Sot budget to financially assist children to go to school, Jennifer gave suggestions of other places they may be able to access such support and ways they could negotiate payment with the schools. She explained that JRS only gives money in emergencies, like the fire. The rest of their budget goes towards supporting livelihoods projects where small communities can begin to support themselves.

But this wasn’t always the way. Last year, JRS Mae Sot was giving out financial assistance to newly arrived refugees. “Refugee” was an unofficial title, though, because the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) is no longer allowed to conduct refugee status determination for Burmese in Thailand, so no new refugee is eligible for resettlement to a new country. The Burmese migrants in Mae Sot either live in the area their whole lives, get arrested and deported, or choose to return themselves.

Starting from scratch

“When I came into the project in 2009, there had already been an evaluation and it was clear that the project needed to change,” Jennifer said. “We went out every day for months and spoke with the people themselves, so we could learn how to create long-term beneficial change for these communities. At the beginning we didn’t understand important issues such as the seasonal work dates and migration patterns, or the relationships between migrants and their Thai landlords. It really was a learn-as-you-go process.”

And the team of three have learned a lot since then. Mi Sheh knows how often pigs mate and the value of a piglet. She now knows how many catfish can be raised in one area or how to effectively grow banana trees. They are also gathering an understanding of who is really in need of JRS assistance, in a city where almost everyone both Thai and Burmese are struggling to make a living.

“This is a different way to deal with the community. Now we work together,” said Sanan, who has worked for JRS Mae Sot for five years. “People used to come to the office, and we gave them money. Now we talk and share with people and visit them and investigate their lives. If we look at the people we work with as a whole, they all have skills, something they can contribute, something they can build on.”
And it is this process that is just beginning in the Mae Ku community. Rebuilding their homes is just the start. Now they need to find a way to support themselves between growing seasons, and to replace what they lost. Jennifer spoke to the community about the livelihood activities they wanted to start. 

She met one woman who had experience raising pigs in Thailand who was willing to teach two other families — who had pig-raising experience in Burma — how to sell piglets in the local economy. U Maung Shwe lost his tools in the fire. Without them, he cannot do small construction projects, but must do daily field labour, which is not reliable and is dangerous. One man in the house showed the JRS team chemical burns from spraying chemical fertilizers. Because of his skill, JRS considered replacing his tools so he could continue with his work.

The team then checked that the families had the knowledge and skills necessary to make their business a success. Mi Sheh planned to come back and develop a business plan with each family. 

“We won’t start a project unless we know JRS is not going to have to run it. We want to make sure it will be run by the community themselves successfully and not fall by the wayside,” Jennifer said. “It’s a case of slowly but surely. We’re pleased with what we’ve done so far and we feel that we’ve done, we’ve done well.”

Molly Mullen, assistant communications officer, JRS Asia Pacific

Press Contact Information
Oliver White
+66 2 640 9590