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Phianphachong Intarat: Luce Summer 2017 Fieldwork Report

Phianphacong Intarat

Phianphachong Intarat, a doctoral student in the UH Mānoa Department of Anthropology, was funded by the Henry Luce Foundation Hawaiʻi-Wisconsin Faculty-Student Collaborative Research Fellowship to conduct research in Thailand in the summer of 2017. She recently submitted her report on the fieldwork experience.

With the support from the Henry Luce Foundation, during May to June 2017, I had an opportunity to conduct a preliminary fieldwork for my potential doctoral dissertation project in Chiang Mai and Mae Sot, Thailand. The following is a summary of my fieldwork.

First, in Chiang Mai, Thailand in May 18th, 2017, I met with Dr. Ian Baird, a research collaborator from Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Although we are affiliated with different academic disciplines, Dr. Baird and I share common research interests in social and political issues regarding state-led special economic zones and the Thai-Burmese border issues. We exchanged our perspectives on the characteristics of our overlapping research site, which is the Thai-Burmese border towns in Tak Province. Secondly, we discussed Thailand’s current socio-economic and political situations both in national and local levels that have impacted the project of special economic zones along the country’s border. Lastly, Dr. Baird, from geographical perspective, commented on my field research plan and suggested some conceptual frameworks for my fieldwork.

Second, in Mae Sot, a Thai western border boomtown across Myawaddy, Myanmar, I conducted a one-month-long field research on two aspects. First, I documented spatial changes in the town, especially migrant spaces such as migrant rental housing, flea markets, and shops and restaurants that targeted Burmese migrant population in town. Second, I interviewed four civil society organizations who have advocated for migrant labor rights and especially migrant women rights about the current situations of migrant women in the border areas. These organizations were 1) the Yaung Chi Oo Worker’s Association 2) the Social Action Children and Women 3) the Shade Tree and 4) the Foundation for Women. Moreover, as much as I could, I reconnected with some of my former informants I have met from my MA thesis research in 2015, and had conversations with them about their current life situations on the Thai side of the border.

From these field research activities, there are two findings that I would like to highlight in this report. First, Mae Sot’s landscape has been significantly urbanized and, in many neighborhoods, gentrified. Many newly built commercial buildings sprung up along the main roads and highway bridging to Myanmar. Land price speculation following the development plan pushed local lower-value business such as car repair shop and street food shops to move away. Commercial advertisements in Burmese have become more ubiquitous. Although these signs targeted Burmese customers, there remained a subtle class differentiation in which these media implied. The business aimed at attracting more of Burmese middle-class ‘tourists’, rather than ‘workers’ working in the industrial and service sectors in the areas. Second, despite the Thai government’s rigid effort to regulate unauthorized cross-border migration and undocumented migrant worker employment in the inner cities of Thailand, the data from the field attested that the flows of cross-border labor migration were not decreasing while local Thai business in the border areas continued to experience labor shortage. The relations between these two key findings require more analysis in the broader economic and political contexts of the country and the region. I am currently working on this question and I will present this inquiry as a conference paper, in the same panel as my advisor, Dr. Jonathan Padwe and another team collaborator, Mr. William Shattuck from University of Wisconsin-Madison, at the Association of Asian Studies (AAS) annual conference, which will be held during March 22nd-25th, 2018 in Washington D.C.

Side of the road along the Asian Highway in Thailand
Picture 1: Land along the Asian Highway to the Friendship Bridge, the cross-border bridge to Myanmar becomes highly speculated. The land price rose up and pushed local lower-value business to move away. The hand-written sign on the left hand side read “Mechanic Neng’s repair shop moved to JR Drinking Water Factory,” which is a more secluded neighborhood and far from main road.
Residential area under development along the side of the Asian Highway, Thailand
Picture 2: Along the Asian Highway, lied newly developed residential facilities that targeted visitors such daily rental apartments, budget hotels for the town’s short-term business visitors and tourists.
View of construction of Robinson mall in Mae Sot, 2015
Picture 3 : Robinson, the first national-level retail shopping mall in Mae Sot under construction in 2015. Compared to the recent photo retrieved from the internet of the same area (but a different angle) in 2017 in Picture 4.
Road junction and new low rise hotel and condo developments
Picture 4 : Robinson and its adjacent a cluster of newly built hotel and condominiums. Retrieved from