GUEST OPINION by John Draper
Last year’s (2015) draft constitution offered nothing to Thailand’s 47+ million ethnic minorities, particularly the Thai Lao, as I wrote in a column here. In this year’s constitution, available in Thai here, there is actually a section on ethnic minorities, Section 67, which reads thus:
Section 67. The State shall promote and protect the Thai people of various ethnic groups so they have rights to carry out their lives in society voluntarily following their original cultures, customs, and ways of life to the utmost without undue interference as long as such is not contrary to public order or the good morals of the people or poses a danger to the security of the state or health.
In this section, the state apparently makes the commitment to promote and protect “the Thai people of various ethnic groups.” However, it does not define any of the groups. It cannot because there is no nationally approved list of Thailand’s ethnic peoples. Nor is there any associated organic legislation promoting Thailand’s ethnic communities – except some cabinet resolutions recognising ten mountain peoples and sea peoples.
Furthermore, there is no reference to meeting international treaty obligations, which might inform how to promote or protect the ethnic groups. Worse yet, there is no definition of how, exactly, ethnic minorities may offend “public order,” public “morality,” “national security,” or even “health.”
In other words, this is a masterful but inevitably disappointing display of prevarication towards a commitment to actually improving the human rights situation of ethnic communities.
Defining and listing minority groups is generally associated with a 21st-century constitution promoting civilised values and related organic legislation. Instead, somewhat bizarrely, Thailand has only recognised its 62 ethnic communities in a little-known table in an annex to an English-language 2011 Country Report for the UN’s Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.
There is a dangerous malaise at work here in this lack of attention to and lack of appreciation of how constitutions may actually reconcile peoples through positive recognition of differences. Thailand’s ethnic communities at present indeed pose a threat to national security, especially in the Deep South, but more broadly in the North and Northeast. They are a threat precisely because they are excluded, as recognised in UNICEF’s reports on its Language Education and Social Cohesion initiative.
The means by which they are excluded is academically termed “racialised discrimination,” which involves almost all of Thailand’s ethnic communities, firstly in the media—especially via Thailand’s infamously chauvinistic soap operas—then in the health system, where minority children suffer from higher rates of wasting, and finally in the education system, where Bangkok’s academic results tower above those of the ethnic communities in the provinces.
This discrimination has led Thailand’s ethnic communities to engage in rights-claiming behaviour—filing alternative “shadow reports” to UN committees overseeing Thailand’s international treaty obligations, as in this report to the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. This is a situation that is becoming increasingly embarrassing to the doleful diplomats regularly dispatched to Geneva, Paris, or New York, who are briefed to argue that Thailand is, in fact, some kind of utopia of Thai-ness.
The old “Amazing Thailand” campaign of smiling Mokken sea peoples, smiling Karen hill tribes, smiling Thai Malays welcoming westerners to Krabi, and smiling Northeastern peasant farmers has now become a cruel joke. Those same sea peoples are being beaten by the hired mafia of ocean-front developers, hill tribes are being burned out of their homes, the Thai Malays of Krabi are desperately rallying to stop a coal-fired power station from destroying their livelihood, and the peasant farmers of the Northeast have been let down by an educational system where, according to last year’s
Thailand’s treatment of its most vulnerable groups—a basic marker of civilisation—makes the country, on paper, sadly the most uncivilised one in ASEAN.
Sooner or later, something must change. There will be either a descent into chaos following the collapse of an inequitable system incapable of educating its own children, or a glimpse of utopia. A peaceful resolution can be achieved only if Thailand realises a constitution that actually offers something to all its peoples by acknowledging, promoting, and protecting its ethnic communities.
John Draper is an analyst, lecturer, and PhD student in Public Administration at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University and writes for the Khon Kaen School.