It had to happen. One of my first thoughts when the news broke that 14 boys and their football coach had been lost in a cave near Chiang Rai in northern Thailand was ‘I wonder how many of them are actually Thai’.

Pic: Ekkapol Chantawong website

Now it’s revealed that at least three are not and the Thai Interior Ministry is promising to find a way to bestow citizenship upon Ekkapol Chantawong their football coach, who led them into the cave and kept their spirits up when they were trapped, and team members Adul Sam-on, 14; and Pornchai Kamluang, 16.

Being a hill-tribe person in Thailand is not good. A ‘chao khao’ can be born in Thailand and his parents can be born in Thailand, but he still will not necessarily get Thai citizenship.  And living in Thailand without citizenship they have all been paying the price in one form or other some 400,000 of them,

Amendments to the constitution, the Community Forest Act and National Security Act have reduced their rights. They can be turfed out of almost everywhere.

For young women of such communites as the Akha, Lisu, Karen etc., this may mean being employ in a brothel; for the men as very cheap manual labourers.

As a ‘chao khao’ you cannot leave your district, even if you have an ID, to, say, travel to Bangkok, but, if you find cash that rule can be waivered especially for those in the sex trade.  In all, you will be watching your back at all times, just to survive.

An Israeli tourist offers sweets to a Padaung Hilltribe girl who is being held captive for tourist in a “human zoo” in North Thailand.  This camp was closed after a report by the author in the ‘Times’. The Padaung smuggled out a tape through a tourist which reached the Karenni rebel army in Burma, who contacted the author. The businessman who operated the camp with the full connivance of local police and district officials said: ‘Pen Prayote’ (It’s for the benefit of all).

But if you are born in Burma in Karenni State, and you have females in your family who have long necks, then ‘Come on in!’ say the Thais.

“We can make money by putting you in a ‘suan manoot’ (human zoo) and you can weave, play musical instruments, and sell dolls made in China to tourists.”   

‘But you can’t leave your ‘villages’ except to travel to Bangkok escorted by officials of the Tourism Authority to take part in a video promo for the ‘Land of Smiles.’”

A Padaung long necked woman from Burma put on display for the Thai Police General. Businessmen and police were accused of holding them in a “human zoo”

The wonderful news is that these kids are out alive.

But it’s time for Thailand to give all 400,000 their proper rights and put an end to local officials demanding bribes for the favour.

Weenas Srisook, director of the provincial administration registration in Mae Sai said that I.D, for Ekkapol, Adul and Pornchai were ‘in process’, and that meant they were ‘entitled to government hospital care’ after they were whisked off in a convey of ambulances.

This is in sharp contrast to the lives of most hill tribe people who get basic medical aid from charities and thankfully royal projects.

It does not ring true. But when they get their papers they will be.

Would it not have been embarrassing for Thai officials to admit in front of the world’s press that they were not even entitled to hospital treatment?  It seems that Man U and FIFA who invited the boys back to the U.K. have opened up a can of worms.

Padaung long-necked hill tribe girls on a truck after being released from the private Thai tourist attraction in Thaton.  They were later moved to the refugee camp in Na Soi, Mae Hong Sorn – where again they went on display to tourists but on their terms and with ID cards.

About the Author

Andrew Drummond

Andrew Drummond is a British independent journalist and occasional television documentary maker. He is a former Fleet Street, London, journalist having worked at the Evening Standard, Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, News of the World, Observer and The Times.

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