Split by poverty

Thai vil­lage chil­dren are stunted by poverty as par­ents leave for Bangkok to find work.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INSIGHT - By AI­DAN JONES

WITH a bit of luck eight- year- old Chayanit will see her mother twice this year.

The lit­tle girl has been raised by her grand­par­ents for most of her life af­ter her mother left their ru­ral vil­lage to find work in Bangkok, Thai­land’s eco­nomic nu­cleus.

A tide of in­ter­nal mi­gra­tion has left three mil­lion Thai chil­dren grow­ing up in sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances and ex­perts fear the phe­nom­e­non is in­cu­bat­ing a so­cial cri­sis.

Grinning widely as she plays with a top knot in her hair, Chayanit says she is happy with vil­lage life in Thai­land’s Isaan re­gion.

But the smile fades as the con­ver­sa­tion turns to her fam­ily setup, an ar­range­ment shaped by eco­nomic re­al­i­ties in a rice- farm­ing re­gion where work is scarce and wages low.

“I like be­ing with my grand­par­ents, but I miss my mum. I can’t go to see her and she can only come here ev­ery six months,” she says.

Her mother has an of­fice job in Bangkok and sends back monthly re­mit­tances of around 3000- 4,000 baht ( RM350- 450).

Poor but pop­u­lous Isaan has for decades seen its fam­i­lies split by mi­gra­tion.

An es­ti­mated 30% of the re­gion’s un­der- 18s are the chil­dren of mi­grant work­ers, most of whom leave for sev­eral years at a time, re­turn­ing only for an­nual hol­i­days.

The ex­o­dus “has been nor­malised” by Thai so­ci­ety, ex­plains Aree Jam­pak­lay, of the In­sti­tute for Pop­u­la­tion and So­cial Re­search ( IPSR), at Mahi­dol Univer­sity, who has led pi­o­neer­ing stud­ies on the is­sue in con­junc­tion with Unicef.

But it is laden with risk. Their re­search in­di­cates that Thai chil­dren liv­ing with­out their par­ents are prone to be­ing poorly nour­ished, and suf­fer from de­vel­op­men­tal and be­havioural is­sues.

Those fac­tors are par­tic­u­larly dam­ag­ing in Isaan, where de­pri­va­tion has been com­pounded by an on­go­ing drought.

The re­gion has sev­eral of Thai­land’s poor­est prov­inces and its schools al­ready turn out some of its worst- per­form­ing stu­dents.

And it has long been the epi­cen­tre of po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion to the elites of Bangkok.

Bangkok call­ing

Baan Dau in Ubon Ratchan­thani prov­ince is much like any other Isaan vil­lage: the tallest build­ing is an or­nate Bud­dhist tem­ple, chick­ens flit be­tween yards while a tiny shop serves a close- knit com­mu­nity co­cooned by rice fields.

It is also nearly com­pletely de­void of work­ing adults.

Most have gone to Bangkok, a sprawl­ing me­trop­o­lis of some eight mil­lion that dwarfs all other Thai cities and where a taxi driver can make sev­eral times the monthly wage of a farmer.

“Eighty, maybe 90% of the house­holds have grand­par­ents rais­ing the chil­dren,” says Chayanit’s grand­mother Chan­pen Uthachan, 70.

“There is no work here, so my chil­dren have all moved to Bangkok.”

Chan­pen and her hus­band Pra­jak, also in his 70s, care for the girl and her five- year- old brother Kit­tipop.

While there is no short­age of love, Chan­pen says she has less en­ergy than when she raised her own off­spring.

“It’s hard es­pe­cially when they are sick and I have to stay up all night,“she laments.

It’s not just home life that suf­fers. Lo­cal teach­ers say ru­ral chil­dren with­out par­ents strug­gle to con­cen­trate and as a re­sult score lower in lit­er­acy and nu­mer­acy than their ur­ban peers.

Poverty trap

Bangkok, which hoards Thai­land’s wealth and po­lit­i­cal power, has for gen­er­a­tions pulled in poor ru­ral mi­grants.

But the topic of what hap­pens to the chil­dren left be­hind is not widely dis­cussed.

“The re­search is start­ing to show that this will af­fect the chil­dren’s fu­ture and there­fore the fu­ture of the coun­try,” ex­plains Aree, the aca­demic.

Chil­dren aged be­tween eight and 15 were sig­nif­i­cantly “less happy, less re­spon­si­ble and less con­fi­dent” than those brought up by their par­ents.

Worse still, in­fants’ lan­guage and so­cial skills suf­fer.

“Chil­dren are less ex­posed to ac­tiv­i­ties that stim­u­late them such as read­ing, sto­ry­telling or games,” she said, ex­plain­ing the ru­ral elderly are of­ten poorly ed­u­cated them­selves.

In ad­di­tion, the ab­sence of breast- feed­ing and a poor aware­ness of a chil­dren’s di­etary re­quire­ments also means many suf­fer stunted growth.

The is­sue amounts to a poverty trap, ex­plains Thomas Davin Unicef ’ s Thai­land rep­re­sen­ta­tive, as mi­grants doggedly try­ing to rem­edy their situation end up un­der­cut­ting their chil­dren’s lives.

“The poor be­come poorer... the cy­cle of vul­ner­a­bil­ity re­peats it­self,” Davin adds.

Boost­ing ru­ral eco­nomic growth to en­cour­age par­ents to stay and over­haul­ing the coun­try’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem are among the long- term so­lu­tions, while Unicef is also work­ing with the gov­ern­ment to give monthly sup­port pay­ments to poor fam­i­lies with young chil­dren.

But pol­icy im­ple­men­ta­tion is rarely sim­ple in Thai­land, a coun­try whose re­cent his­tory is sat­u­rated with coups and po­lit­i­cal un­rest.

Poli­cies in­volv­ing Isaan are of­ten highly charged.

When they are al­lowed to vote, Isaan’s peo­ple do so for par­ties al­lied to bil­lion­aire ex- premier Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra, whom they laud for recog­nis­ing their chal­lenges and as­pi­ra­tions, but who is hated by the Bangkok- cen­tric elite for his pop­ulist ap­peal.

But it is the dis­tance from his two young sons, not the pol­i­tics of poverty, that pre­oc­cupy As­sani Laocharoen, an Isaan mi­grant who works in Bangkok de­liv­er­ing fur­ni­ture.

Out­side a squat, scruffy block of flats for mi­grant work­ers he says he can make it home only twice a year.

“I miss my kids so much. I just want to live with them, hug, kiss and hang out with them,” he said. – AFP

Chayanit ( right) lives with her grand­mother Chan­pen in the vil­lage as her par­ents had left to work in Bangkok. — Photos: AFP

Five- year- old Kit­tipop’s grand­mother Chapen ( left pic) and grand­fa­ther Pra­jak ( right pic) dote on him but it’s still dif­fi­cult to grow up with ab­sent par­ents whom he only sees once a year.

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