A migrant boy and his paper plane dream. A hilltribe girl and her winning name for a baby panda. Many may see their struggle to get due recognition as stories of ethnic discrimination. And rightly so. But theirs is also a story of hope for change. The public was furious when the news broke that a 12-year-old boy, Mong Thongdee, could not attend a paper plane contest in Japan because he is stateless and thus not allowed to leave the village, let alone the country.
When the conservative Interior Ministry officials insisted on saying no while their more liberal Foreign Ministry counterparts were willing to facilitate the boy’s trip, the public got angrier.
How on earth could you possibly hinder children’s opportunities to learn and widen their horizons? How on earth can such a small child pose a threat to national security? When the public starts asking these questions, changes are in the making. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva consequently intervened and it was finally a happy ending for the ethnic Shan boy whose parents had fled war and persecution in oppressive Burma for some peace here.
True, being a child helps stir public sympathy. True, it is the media hype that has triggered a prompt reaction from the authorities. But the news is not only about little Mong’s quest to excel. It is also about his teachers, who have given their pupils full support regardless of race and ethnicity.
It is about rights groups’ efforts to help make the boy’s dream come true and to inform the public that there are hundreds of thousands of other stateless children in Thailand who are suffering from the same policy myopia. This is about people-to-people kindness on the ground, in contrast to the state’s heartless policies which treat migrant workers as a threat to national security.
Hardly had the news about the migrant boy died down when another news item exposed state mistreatment of the hill peoples by denying them nationality, thus making them stateless. Naruay Jaterng, 14, a Lahu girl in Chiang Mai, won a 100,000-baht prize and a trip to China through winning the baby panda’s naming contest. Due to mobility controls over the stateless, however, she cannot travel overseas.
This time, the Interior Ministry was quick to avert public criticism by promising to speed up her nationality process so she could go to China. Short of media attention, the citizenship process normally takes ages and costs the hill peoples an arm and a leg through tea money. Many hill peoples are native to the land, yet they are treated as outsiders and robbed of many basic rights. Most of them are farming families, but the law prohibits them from tilling the land, which automatically makes all honest hill farmers law-breakers. They are also barred from travelling outside their home villages without official permission.
The impracticality and the red tape involved consequently subject these hill peoples to routine police extortion. Getting an education is an uphill task, but many hill children persist only to find that they cannot get proper education certificates.
In addition, being stateless means they cannot apply for scholarships and school loans. If the hill peoples are treated as second-class citizens, migrant workers and their families suffer far worse. All this heartlessness continues unabated because society sees it as a non-issue, that non-Thais should not equally benefit from the same rights as Thai citizens.
But little Mong and Naruay have managed to open many hearts. Despite being fed a diet of racist nationalism, our society has shown the ability to let compassion and common sense prevail over fear and distrust of ethnic minorities. The challenge now is how to nourish these seeds of compassion so that all stateless children, both the hilltribe and migrant children, can realise their full potential. Only that can we call a real, happy ending.
Thanks to little Mong and Naruay, we now have reason to be hopeful.
Sanitsuda Ekachai is Assistant Editor(Outlook), Bangkok Post. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org