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Radio station closure in Thailand leaves migrant communities in the dark

A radio station in Mae Sot that provided news and information for Myanmar migrants has ceased broadcasting because of a decision by Thailand's ruling junta to shut down independent community broadcasters.

The decision, which affected about 6,000 community broadcasters and was announced after the military seized power on May 22, 2014, was aimed at defusing political tensions in Thailand, where opponents and supporters of the previous government operated radio stations throughout the country.

But the migrant community in the Mae Sot area, which numbers more than 200,000 people, has been left in the dark because of the decision.

MAP Radio - known as Migrant Community Radio - was founded in 2008 and broadcast in Myanmar, Karen and Thai.

As well as news about Myanmar, the station had broadcast programs on topics ranging from education, labour issues and religion to child trafficking, HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases.

"Many migrant workers do not have the time or money to afford visiting internet shops because most of them live in factory or plantation compounds and don't leave very often," station manager Ko Naw Kham told Mizzima Business Weekly in an email.

"Radio is a very easy way to get information," he said. "Many migrant workers listen to the radio on their mobile phones while they are working."

A spokesperson for the ruling junta, the National Council for Peace and Order, told Mizzima Business Weekly the 6,000 independent radio stations had been ordered to close because they were regarded as being illegal.

The spokesperson, Colonel Werachon Sukhonthapatipak, referred Mizzima Business Weekly to the Broadcasting Resources Management Bureau, an office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission.

A spokesperson for the bureau told Mizzima Business Weekly that there were two categories of radio stations in Thailand. One category was the 525 "incumbent" stations owned by the government and the other was the independent stations, which were yet to be legalised.

Government radio stations remained open after the coup but all independent stations were closed, the spokesperson said.

Ko Naw Kham said the closure of MAP Radio meant that Myanmar living in the Mae Sot area had limited access to information about the Thai government's policy on migrant workers, as well as daily news.

MAP Radio had broadcast from Chiang Mai as well as Mae Sot. It is supported by the Map Foundation, a grassroots non-government group active in both cities, which wanted to keep the migrant community informed about developments affecting their lives.

Every three months MAP Radio holds meetings with producers and hosts to address any issues and identify future training needs for its team of volunteer broadcasters. A listener panel, comprised of farm, factory, construction and manual workers in the Mae Sot area is consulted four times a year about programming quality.

Now the studio in Mae Sot is silent and its producers, presenters, hosts and technicians are waiting for permission to resume broadcasts, said Ko Naw Kham.

To gain approval to resume operations, the independent stations are required to obtain a trial broadcasting licence from the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission and then have their transmitter checked and approved, said the spokesperson for the Broadcasting Resources Management Bureau.

The last step before broadcasts can resume is for the station in question to sign a memorandum of understanding with the National Council for Peace and Order and the commission's district office, the spokesperson said. The signing of an MOU is contingent on station content, she said.

The spokesperson said 583 independent stations had been able to resume broadcasts by July 29.

Community radio stations in Thailand had contributed to political tensions in a society that had become increasingly polarised between supporters and opponents of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government before it was ousted in the coup.

"The stations closed for 'security' reasons," said U Sein Htay, the director of the Migrant Workers Rights Network, which has offices in Yangon and the Thai port of Samut Sakhon, where seafood processing factories employ thousands of Myanmar. "Now without radio, the migrant community in Thailand spreads information mouth-to-mouth and they miss information," he said.

Migrant communities in Mae Sot and Chiang Mai, which had relied on the radio, had been left unaware of information with crucial implications for their lives because of the closures, U Sein Htay said.

He cited the opening in late June of offices throughout Thailand at which undocumented migrant workers could apply for temporary 60-day registration permits which would enable them to avoid the risk of arrest and deportation. But with MAP Radio shut down, migrant communities in Mae Sot and Chiang Mai were unaware of the development.

Restrictions on the media in Thailand have also affected Young Generation's Note, a quarterly journal in Myanmar and English published in Mae Sot. The journal had a readership of at least 100,000 in Thailand and Myanmar, executive manager Ma Thu Ta Sen told Mizzima Business Weekly.

Ma Thu Ta Sen said the journal decided to cease publication because of concern about the "security" of its employees.

"Most of us [migrants] don't go outside and are afraid of soldiers; migrants always feel unsafe," she said. "Migrant workers listen to MAP Radio and read Young Generation's Note in the factories, but now every media they have access to is paused."

MAP Radio, Young Generation's Note and other media met on July 27 to discuss prospects for resuming operations. However, Ko Naw Kham said on July 30 that the way forward was unclear and MAP Radio was yet to contact the district office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission about resuming its broadcasts.

Despite its closure, MAP Radio continues to provide information: by telephone. "Migrants call our radio staff because they want to know what the Thai military's policy is on migrants," said Ko Naw Kham.

Ma Thu Ta Sen said the closure of the Young Generation's Note and MAP Radio was a big loss for the migrant community in Mae Sot.

"Migrant workers are hungry for news," she said.

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