SHOOTING PAPER PLANES INTO THE SKY
By Andrew Biggs
It is hard to believe nine years have passed since Mong Thongdee hit the media spotlight.
Little Mong was big news in September, 2009, a few months before the violent clashes between anti government protesters and government troops which killed two dozen people.
His was a cute story; a 12-year-old Northern boy who won the national paper airplane flying competition, which apparently is an annual event.
He was in grade 4 at the time, a little older than his classmates. That was because Mong wasn’t Thai. He was born in Chiang Mai, but his parents were itinerant Burmese.
The irony was Mong, having won the national competition, was expected to go on to represent Thailand in the international championships held in Japan. Only he wasn’t Thai. Nor was he Burmese. His nationality was officially nothing.
Thus he couldn’t get a passport. Oh, but the kid might win the international competition, which would look great for Thailand on the international stage at a time when Thailand needed all the positive news it could get, but if he won, he wouldn’t be Thai, and … and so it went on.
Mong’s application to travel outside the country had to be processed by those hoary old grinding cogs of Thai bureaucracy —the ones that go around and around, shifting their great weight in a circular motion, making loud clunking noises but going absolutely nowhere. There was no way anything was going to happen fast, and if it did, it would be way past the date of the international championships.
Then the Interior Ministry said no. The heartless interior minister at the time even told the boy to go represent Myanmar instead, which was impossible since Mong wasn’t Burmese. Talk about rubbing salt into the wound.
Mong burst into tears on live television. “I really want to go because I have been practicing hard, but I know the adults say I can’t go because I don’t have Thai citizenship,” he said, as the hearts of millions of viewers collectively melted.
In a rare show of sensibility the government stepped in and did the right thing. Whether that was the right thing by Mong or the Interior Ministry, which copped severe flak for its cruel smack-down of a 12-year-old kid, remains for you, dear reader, to decide. It issued papers for Mong to travel.
And so little Mong jetted off to Japan where he won bronze in the world championships. His paper plane stayed in the air for 16.45 seconds, outperforming his personal best of 12.5 seconds at the Thailand championship.
The cutest footage was of Mong courtside in Japan with his bronze medal around his neck, holding up a picture of Their Majesties King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, talking about how proud he was to win this for Thailand.
Upon his return he was greeted by every politician and civil servant of the day. The Science Minister was there. The MP for Chiang Rai was there. Mong made a trip to Parliament House where he showed the then Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, how to fold a paper plane.
He was made Youth Ambassador for the Science Ministry which included an educational scholarship allowing him to study to the level of PhD. This was a reward for “creating a positive reputation for Thailand internationally.” And there were public promises that his application for citizenship would be fast-tracked.
That was September 2009. Mong fell off the front pages, returning to Chiang Mai to continue his education. He disappeared — along with all those promises from the politicians of the day.
Mong is now 20 years old and still stateless.
What is it about Mong that make this super-talented man so unpleasant to Thais?
The answer lies in his parents. They belong to the Thai Yai ethnic group that can be found across South-East Asia but predominantly in Myanmar. They are better known as the Shan, who have been waging a battle against the Burmese governments in their quest for their own state. They have been bullied and attacked in Myanmar, though as we can see, that belligerence is not confined to our western neighbor.
The official Thai line for denying them citizenship is “because they are not Thai”.
This answer brings up the question of what exactly constitutes a Thai. And why are Thais being selective about which foreigners can be Thai and which cannot?
Take the ethnic Chinese for example. In the space of a hundred years they have managed to spread their genes throughout the Thai population, obtaining Thai citizenship with ease, while those in the Northern hills have been denied it. Geographically and demographically, Mong’s father has more in common with a Thai than a man from mainland China.
The reason given for denying Shan people nationality is that it can be dangerous to the country’s stability. This is strange, since with a couple of rare exceptions, almost all ill-will created in Thailand is the work of its citizens, not foreigners.
Nevertheless this was the excuse the Interior Ministry gave Mong when he was 12. Having him leave and re-enter Thailand could pose a “threat to national security.” Paper-plane champions apparently possess a great potential to turn into terrorists.
This “threat to national security” is an abstract concept that, I’m ashamed to say, is beyond my comprehension. Can anybody explain the danger of giving statehood to children born of Shan parents on Thai soil — especially a kid who is being supported, educationally, by the very government that refuses to give him citizenship, because he has been a good citizen of the country … despite the fact he is not a citizen? I know; hand me the ibuprofen.
It is also curious that we still hold onto such beliefs. It is as if Thailand is trying to contain its gene pool. Call me a bleeding liberal, but the more cosmopolitan the society, the better. I love the fact there are Thais of Indian, Chinese, Malaysian, Cambodian and even Western descent.
Look what happened when the Chinese genetically invaded this country. The place prospered. If you are truly concerned about the stability of the country, surely swathes of stateless people in the mountains are more dangerous than homogenizing those very same citizens.
Mong Thongdee returned to the media early September as he attended the national paper plane competition in Muang Thong Thani in his role mentor to students from his school in the North.
He is all grown up now; a 20-year old still completing his high school, and with plans to do a bachelor degree. He works as a drone pilot trainer.
What came shining through the interview he gave the Bangkok Post was his positive outlook on life. Despite being let down by every single one of those bigwigs who photo-bombed his public appearances nine years ago, he is not bitter.
He sees the events of 2009 as an opportunity for him to continue his education, and to pass on his talents to the next generation. Try as I might, I cannot find a shred of evidence to suggest his attitude is harmful to the stability of Thailand.
And his return coincided with some brutal racial profiling going on in his parents’ home country, as Myanmar refuses to come to grips with the fact that a couple of hundred thousand of its people don’t fit their gene pool.
The massacre of the Rohingya people is an example of what can happen when xenophobia goes to the extreme, especially when it is focussed on a portion of its own people.
It is chilling to think that Thailand’s policies on ethnic groups, though thankfully not its actions, run along the same lines as Myanmar’s. Mong still has hope, but he need not hold his breath.
(Note: In October, 2018, a year after this column, Mong finally received his Thai citizenship. It was around the same time the Wild Boar team members received theirs.)