When little Mong first folded his paper airplane, launched it, and watched it float for twelve minutes, little did he realize he’d have a senior army commander appear on TV telling the country, “This is a serious threat to the security of our nation.” He thought he was just folding a paper airplane and throwing it. He’s twelve. His voice hasn’t even broken yet. Of course it didn’t help that he was in a competition at the time or that his little origami’d sheet of A4 was in the air half a minute longer than that of the runner up. It didn’t help that winning a regional paper airplane competition in Thailand guaranteed the winner a trip to Tokyo to compete in the All Japan Origami Plane Association Competition. What, you ask, could have been so upsetting to the Thai Military? Did they think he might pick up hints on kamikaze paper airplane construction?
Well, no. It’s even more sinister than that. You see, Mong Thongdee was born in Thailand of Burmese parents and the Thais have never really forgiven the Burmese for all those famous moments in history when they popped over the border and made mincemeat of the Thai army. Why else would they treat them so badly still? At the last count there were about two million Burmese temporary workers living in Thailand and without them, there would be no fishing, farming or building industries (or at least they’d be tiny little two man industries and both of those men would be from the northeast). There would be no maids you’d trust your kids with, nobody at all in the tourist industry in places like Ko Dtao, and nobody working in the shoe shop at the end of our street. Thailand would be a much more desperate place without the Burmese which is why they’re allowed to stay. The Burmese tolerate the indignities they face here because day labourers in Burma earn three cents a year and two of those are taken in tax. And so they come.
In the refugee camps the Thais are obliged to give the children a primary education mainly because they’re being watched by the UN. There are certain hidden laws that say Thai schools should provide an education for all foreign children living in the vicinity but you try to convince a headmaster to take in twenty Burmese labourers’ children for the three months it takes to build a thirty storey hotel (they’re cheap and fast). It may be true that some pregnant Burmese mothers cross over the border and plop out the odd offspring on the offchance their lives may be better over here than under the junta (boo, hiss, throw eggs). But it’s also true that thousands of kids are getting no type of education at all as their parents scratch around for work. So, what’s this all got to do with little Mong?
Mong won his prize but he can’t go. He can’t go because he doesn’t have a Thai passport. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ever conscious of Thailand’s image overseas, says it’s possible to give him a special pass. But of course, he can’t come back. (See Mong a la Tom Hanks as a thirty-year-old wandering around Narita Airport). Sweet FA referred the case to the Ministry of Interior who said, ‘If we give travel documents to him, everyone will want one’. But, guess what? Of course, everyone wants one already. And it’s here that the national security issue rears its ugly head. There are several issues. Firstly, they’re afraid every Burmese in the country will start throwing paper 30.0airplanes around which would be a hazard for low flying aircraft. Secondly, they’re afraid all the Burmese will all stop work and Thailand would grind to a halt. And thirdly – and this is one that they seriously stated – if just one child was successful in studying, graduating and being given a Thai passport, then EVERYONE WOULD LEAVE BURMA AND MOVE HERE. Every last one of them. This is a theory held firmly by those very smart military types even since before the Vietnam war. The UN says there are some two million stateless people living in Thailand not including the Burmese labourers. Many have been here for generations. Their children have graduated high school and not been allowed to go to university because they don’t have Thai ID cards. You can see their point, can’t you? If just one child of Chinese, Vietnamese, Lao, Khmer and Malay extraction were allowed to go to university here, there would be 270 million people hurrying across the borders to live in Thailand. Now that could be a strain on national security.
So I shouldn’t be surprised at the reaction we got when we applied to set up a class for thirty Burmese kids living in Pak Nam. Their parents were all gainfully and legally employed in the fishing and shoe shop industry. We had a teacher, a room, and Burmese textbooks. We just wanted to do the right thing and run it by the head man in the district. He ran it by the head of the council who ran it by the head of the town hall who ran it by the head of the police. You’ll never guess what the head of the police told us. Our little school room on the Gulf of Thailand, was a threat to national security. How did he know? We hadn’t even started the arms shipment. So we changed rooms and didn’t run in by anyone and classes are in session, but I still listen for the sound of helicopters overhead.
And I’ll end with a thought. Have you ever tried keeping a paper airplane in flight for twelve minutes? Go on. Try it. If you know an aeronautical industry looking for a genius I think you can get him cheap.
The Thai prime minister, desperately in need of good publicity, has personally intervened and allowed little Mong a temporary passport. Look out Thailand. Barricade the borders.