Racism holds back econ­omy as so­ci­ety ages

Bangkok Post - - OPINION - San­it­suda Ekachai San­it­suda Ekachai is for­mer ed­i­to­rial pages ed­i­tor, Bangkok Post.

The gov­ern­ment’s pol­icy to en­cour­age more births of “Thai” chil­dren to help off­set the cost of a rapidly ap­proach­ing age­ing so­ci­ety re­flects deep-rooted racial prej­u­dice in pol­icy for­mu­la­tion.

Why is the gov­ern­ment in­tent on in­creas­ing the num­ber of “Thai” chil­dren via tax breaks to par­ents when there are hun­dreds of thou­sands of state­less, mi­grant and un­doc­u­mented chil­dren still wait­ing for state sup­port so they can be­come pro­duc­tive cit­i­zens in Thai so­ci­ety?

The an­swer is sim­ple — racist na­tion­al­ism.

Of course, the author­i­ties would fiercely deny it. They would ar­gue it’s sim­ple econ­omy.

Thai­land is age­ing rapidly. Within the next two decades, the num­ber of the el­derly will rise to over 20 mil­lion, or one-third of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion. More than 12 mil­lion of them, ac­cord­ing to the Thai­land De­vel­op­ment Re­search In­sti­tute, will be older than 70 years old.

With a heavy health­care bur­den ahead, the coun­try ur­gently needs more young able-bod­ied peo­ple to work and pay enough tax to sup­port the el­derly. A tax pol­icy to en­cour­age more births is nec­es­sary, so the ar­gu­ment goes.

Of course we should have poli­cies to cope with an age­ing so­ci­ety but I doubt this tax break pol­icy will work.

Ac­cord­ing to this pol­icy, par­ents will get a tax break of 30,000 baht for their sec­ond child born from this year on­wards, start­ing next year. It will take an­other 20 years for th­ese sec­ond-born chil­dren to be able to work and pay tax to meet the pol­icy ob­jec­tive.

While the gov­ern­ment has re­vealed it would lose about 1.25 bil­lion baht in rev­enue from the tax break pol­icy, it fails to re­alise that the tax break priv­i­lege has lit­tle or noth­ing to do with par­ents’ de­ci­sion to have chil­dren, given the ex­or­bi­tant costs over­all in­volved in child rear­ing.

Mean­while, there are now hun­dreds thou­sands of chil­dren wait­ing to be em­braced and sup­ported by the state. Many were born in Thai­land but un­doc­u­mented. Many are aban­doned at birth in hos­pi­tals. Many are home­less. Many are mi­grant chil­dren re­jected by their par­ents’ home coun­tries. All of them end up state­less in Thai­land.

When you are state­less in this coun­try, this is the life ahead of you:

Thanks to the coun­try’s ed­u­ca­tion for all pol­icy, you may be able to go to Thai schools un­til high school — that is, if you are for­tu­nate enough to have fi­nan­cial sup­port from some­one, some­where.

Still, you do not have free­dom of move­ment. If you leave des­ig­nated ar­eas, the po­lice can ar­rest and send you to jail any time — even de­port you to neigh­bour­ing coun­tries as il­le­gal work­ers — if you can­not pro­duce any of­fi­cial pa­pers.

Be­ing state­less, you do not ex­ist legally, so you can­not have ac­cess to health­care ser­vices and any state-spon­sored aid schemes.

Be­ing state­less pre­vents you from find­ing jobs in com­pa­nies and state agen­cies where job se­cu­rity and wel­fare ben­e­fits are pro­vided — even when you man­age to fin­ish univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion through great dif­fi­culty — be­cause those jobs re­quire you to be Thai na­tion­als with iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards to start with.

Lack­ing life and job se­cu­rity, state­less peo­ple mostly end up be­ing ex­ploited by em­ploy­ers, ex­torted by cor­rupt po­lice, or pushed into the un­der­ground econ­omy run by mafia.

At present, adopt­ing aban­doned state­less ba­bies or home­less chil­dren is not pos­si­ble by law. Adop­tion is only pos­si­ble if those state­less chil­dren are al­ready in or­phan­ages. Even when they are, adop­tion re­mains dif­fi­cult due to red tape.

Sim­i­larly, mi­grant chil­dren who grow up here and want to re­main in Thai­land face an un­cer­tain fu­ture with no se­cu­rity, vul­ner­a­ble to all forms of ex­ploita­tion.

For a coun­try which is rapidly age­ing like Thai­land, th­ese chil­dren should be valu­able hu­man re­sources, de­serv­ing state sup­port so they can fully con­tribute to the econ­omy. How­ever, this hu­mane op­tion is dis­missed sim­ply be­cause they are not “Thai”.

If this is not racism, what is? Be­fore 1972, all chil­dren born in Thai­land im­me­di­ately re­ceived Thai cit­i­zen­ship and the rights that come with it. Amid the height of com­mu­nist threats, the Thai na­tion­al­ity law was changed un­der racist my­opia; if your par­ents were un­doc­u­mented or with­out of­fi­cial pa­pers for per­ma­nent res­i­dence, you im­me­di­ately be­came il­le­gal mi­grants even if you were born here.

A large num­ber of chil­dren — mostly indige­nous high­landers in re­mote ar­eas — suf­fer state­less­ness and the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties that come with it as a re­sult.

This is why mil­lions of high­landers have been liv­ing un­der con­stant fear of de­por­ta­tion and for­est evic­tion dur­ing the past five decades. With­out land se­cu­rity and cit­i­zen­ship, they suf­fer hard­ship and ab­ject poverty. Con­se­quently, a large num­ber of high­landers have re­sorted to quick cash crop plan­ta­tions, re­sult­ing in de­for­esta­tion. Many young hill­tribe girls went into the flesh trade to sup­port their fam­i­lies while the boys have lit­tle choice but to join the un­der­ground world of crime.

Af­ter decades of treat­ing the state­less as “na­tional se­cu­rity threats”, and af­ter per­sis­tent pol­icy pushes from rights groups, the gov­ern­ment has re­cently given in to rea­sons and hu­man­ity, al­beit half-heart­edly.

In 2016, the gov­ern­ment agreed to loosen na­tion­al­ity re­stric­tions for the state­less born in Thai­land. Un­for­tu­nately, rigid rules and bu­reau­cratic in­er­tia rooted in eth­nic prej­u­dice re­main a huge stum­bling block.

For ex­am­ple, the chil­dren of reg­is­tered high­landers are still re­quired to have of­fi­cial birth reg­is­tra­tion and ed­u­ca­tion record pa­pers although many of them live in re­mote ar­eas with­out ac­cess to state ser­vices.

For or­phans with­out par­ents’ records, they are re­quired to live in Thai­land more than 10 years to be el­i­gi­ble for Thai cit­i­zen­ship. But they must also be able to pro­vide ed­u­ca­tion doc­u­ments and an ap­proval let­ter from the Min­istry of So­cial De­vel­op­ment and Hu­man Se­cu­rity.

As for chil­dren of mi­grant work­ers, they must have birth reg­is­tra­tion doc­u­ments from lo­cal hos­pi­tals — and few do. They also must at least have a univer­sity de­gree to be able to ask for le­gal iden­tity as Thai na­tion­als.

How could th­ese un­der­priv­i­leged chil­dren pos­si­bly nav­i­gate through th­ese rigid rules and red tape to meet such pre­req­ui­sites?

So far, only one un­doc­u­mented or­phan has ever man­aged to re­ceive ap­proval for Thai cit­i­zen­ship, thanks to his adop­tive par­ents’ never-say-die per­sis­tence and le­gal as­sis­tance from a rights group.

An­other cit­i­zen­ship case is be­ing made for an­other state­less teenage or­phan, but only be­cause she hap­pens to be an out­stand­ing ath­lete. With­out Thai na­tion­al­ity, the young teenager could not join na­tional teams nor travel abroad to make a name for the coun­try.

Mean­while, oth­ers with state­less sta­tus are left ne­glected, left to face a life with no fu­ture on their own.

The lat­est changes in na­tion­al­ity rules and reg­u­la­tions are cer­tainly a step in the right di­rec­tion. But they are plagued with so many red tape prob­lems mul­ti­plied by of­fi­cial prej­u­dice that few chil­dren can ben­e­fit from them.

The coun­try loses valu­able hu­man re­sources for its tax base as a re­sult.

If the gov­ern­ment re­ally wants to ex­pand its tax base to sup­port the age­ing pop­u­la­tion, the first hur­dle it must over­come is the myth of “Thai­ness” and the false be­lief in racial su­pe­ri­or­ity, to give ev­ery­one in our so­ci­ety equal op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Eth­nic prej­u­dice does not only im­pov­er­ish our minds, it hurts the econ­omy. If we re­lease the state­less and mi­grant work­ers from their le­gal traps — just as we did with Chi­nese mi­grants in the past — we can re­lease their eco­nomic force to pro­pel the econ­omy for­ward.

The other op­tion is eco­nomic stag­na­tion as the coun­try turns grey.

PORNPROM SATRABHAYA

State­less chil­dren join their Thai class­mates at a school in Sa­mut Sakhon. The gov­ern­ment has ini­ti­ated a pol­icy to en­cour­age more births of Thai chil­dren while let­ting hun­dreds of thou­sands of state­less, mi­grant and un­doc­u­mented chil­dren be­ing left unat­tended.

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