Monash University

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Fear and survival in Thailand: Emotional Suffering among ‘Burma’ Migrant Women

Version 2 2022-07-06, 04:26
Version 1 2017-04-03, 22:59
posted on 2022-07-06, 04:26 authored by Meagan Louise Wilson
People of Burma are exposed to human rights abuses and poverty after more than half a century of war. The fear that comes with living under conditions of militarisation penetrates deep into the collective psyche of the population. When ‘hunger’ and ‘fighting’ forcibly relocates them to Thailand, fear and passivity—part of ‘Burma life’—travels with them to new spaces, often rendering them more vulnerable to exploitation in a ‘new land’, Thailand. Thai government officers, laws and regulations, government and other institutions, employers, and members of civil society, all exert control over often already fearful and passive migrant workers, exacerbating their emotional distress. Research concerned with the psychological trauma of ‘forced’ migration—whether before, during or after migration—is often understood within a Eurocentric discourse that individualises and de-politicises trauma, ignoring the aetiological role of structural violence while obscuring the voices of those who live in spaces of structural vulnerability. I aimed to explore the social, political and religious meanings ascribed to women’s lived experiences of emotional suffering while living in liminal spaces in Thailand.
   The experiences described and analysed in this thesis are based on 10 months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Chiang Mai City and along the Thai-Burma border between October 2011 and July 2012. Twenty-six migrant women from Burma, mostly of Shan ethnicity, and 16 migrant support service workers, took part in in-depth interviews, although over 200 migrant women contributed to this research in less formal capacities through participant observation contexts such as workshops and social events. The women’s narratives articulate the ways in which their everyday experiences of emotional suffering are bridged to the broader social and political structures that weigh heavily upon their ‘migrant’ lives in Thailand. Oppressive structural forces not only cause emotional suffering, but restrict one’s coping resources when emotionally distressed, so survival migrants devise unique coping strategies in order to live with this pain. The experiences documented in this thesis call into question the utility of western conceptualisations of emotional suffering and associated diagnostic labelling, in contexts where structural violence and ‘cumulative trauma’ occurs.


Principal supervisor

Andrea Whittaker

Additional supervisor 1

Lenore Manderson

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Political and Social Science


Doctor of Philosophy

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Campus location



Faculty of Arts

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