Racism is fuelling more than wildfires

Racism is fuelling more than wildfires

In this March 25 photo, wildfires ravage Doi Suthep-Pui National Park in Chiang Mai's Hang Dong district. Chiang Mai Volunteer Drone Team
In this March 25 photo, wildfires ravage Doi Suthep-Pui National Park in Chiang Mai's Hang Dong district. Chiang Mai Volunteer Drone Team

With the May rains coming to our rescue, we can now put the forest fires and toxic haze nightmares behind us -- until they return to haunt us again next year.

How can we end this vicious circle? Is there a chance that the government and mainstream society will understand that they cannot save the forests without saving forest dwellers and communities? Where should we start?

For decades, I have witnessed the forest communities' struggles against draconian forest laws. Their land rights movements wax under electoral democracy and wane under military regimes. One thing remains constant: the autocratic state's attempts to crush the movement and retain central control.

I have come to this conclusion: we cannot save the forests, save ourselves from climate change catastrophes, and restore justice to the indigenous people if society is still trapped in racist nationalism.

To understand the forest dwellers' crucial roles in preserving forests and biodiversity, we need to free ourselves from the state brainwashing mechanics that make society view forest dwellers as enemies of nature and national security.

In a nutshell, we cannot fix the problems out there, be they forest fires, toxic haze, other environmental disasters and -- most importantly -- the oppressive state at the helm unless we fix the problem in our heads.

This is why I watched with pain the video clip on social media of Prue Odachao pleading with city people to understand the highlanders' way of life and their age-old rotational farming system.

An ethnic Karen and grassroots activist for indigenous peoples' rights, Prue sincerely believes prejudice against the hill tribe people stems mainly from city people's lack of information.

Armed with a simple mobile phone, he made video clips and posted them on social media to show the reality on the ground -- the highlanders risking their lives day and night fighting the wildfires.

He showed how the indigenous forest dwellers, enveloped by intense heat, suffocating smoke, and threatening flames, struggled to make firebreaks with rudimentary tools and how they used their traditional fire control techniques by lighting fires to stop the wildfires.

The fire-controlling expertise has been passed down from generation to generation through their traditional rotational farming practice, he pointed out.

Under this system, the forest dwellers have several farming plots to rotate in a cycle of 7 to 10 years. After the harvest, the plot is left during the cycle to regenerate and become fertile again. When it is time to return, the area will already become lush greenery, so they need to use fire to clear the land, controlling it expertly not to spread out of their plots. "This is part of our way of life," he said.

As the voices of the indigenous people grew louder on social media, so did criticisms on the forest authorities' zero-burn policy which had immensely increased the fuel loads, leading to uncontrollable wildfires this year.

While the forest dwellers were busy fighting wildfires -- with almost 10 deaths and many more injured -- the government issued a "forest lockdown" and arrest order for everyone entering national forests.

When the long-awaited rains came to douse the fires, the forest mandarins decided to have the last say in the Chiang Mai wildfire debates. They took a group of mass media to take the pictures of "denuded" mountains full of burn scars in Mae Hong Son province.

The next day, the headlines in print and online media shouted the same message: the hill tribe people set the fires and burned down the forest.

Mr Prue was stunned at the dirty trick and the angry uproar from city people. The "burnt down forest" is the forest dwellers' old plots in the rotational farming system. The burnt areas are limited and do not eat into lush forest nearby, showing expertise in fire control. In a few years, the forest will grow back again, returning to health.

"That's how our rotational farming has preserved good forests for ages," he said.

"But the city people don't understand our farming system. They immediately believe those photos from the forest officials because they fit with the negative stereotypes about us as forest destroyers.

"We need to work much harder to give them the facts."

Mr Prue was wrong. Facts are not the problem. Racist nationalism is.

Because of racist nationalism and ethnic prejudice, the media unquestioningly bought the forest authorities' propaganda. It seems to be too much to ask for media ethics and professionalism when racism prevails.

Over the past four decades, there have been reams of research papers on the forest dwellers' ecological upland farming. Numerous forest communities have received national awards for sustainable forest conservation and their way of life. Community rights and people's participation in forest management have also been enshrined in the constitution.

In 2013, the government declared the rotational farming system the country's cultural heritage. Yet, the forest laws have become harsher under the militarised forestry officialdom.

Meanwhile, mainstream society still holds fast to the stereotypes of the highlanders as outsiders, forest destroyers, drug peddlers and national security threats, thanks to an education system that extols racist nationalism as a national ideology.

The forest officialdom's fierce clinging to central power does not come out of thin air. It is firmly based on the racist ideology we have been brainwashed to uphold as patriots.

The hill tribe people are not the only ones suffering from Thai racism. The Muslims in the Deep South and migrant workers from neighbouring countries are also viewed as outsiders and national security threats.

Fear bordering hatred makes society indifferent to the state violence the hill tribe people, southern Muslims and migrant workers are subjected to. Many even feel they deserve severe punishment because they are "dangerous outsiders".

"Telling our stories" therefore cannot change people's minds and uproot prejudice. The virus that creates ethnic prejudice is created by racist textbook history that indoctrinates people to believe that the country belongs to only ethnic Thais. This must end.

We need a collective memory that embraces all groups of people in the country.

At present, national history in public consciousness could not go further than Sukhothai, dating back only seven centuries ago, followed by the Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin kingdoms.

It was a political creation. Old Siam stressed the continuation of Thai kingdoms to stave off western colonialism. Military dictator Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram intensified nationalistic history further by stressing the purity of the Thai race to promote his goal of pan-Thai expansionism.

Interestingly, ultranationalists despised the strongman for being part of the 1932 Revolution which dismantled absolute monarchy, yet they embrace his legacy of racist nationalism because it strengthens racial superiority, military power, and the status quo.

Racist nationalism is based on a false belief about racial homogeneity. It bypasses the fact that, as a hub of ancient maritime trade, this land has long been a crossroad for peoples of different cultures and ethnicities. It is also blind to abundant archaeological evidence of ancient human settlements dating back thousands of years, while the migration of the Thai-speaking people from southern China to this area was much more recent.

By focusing on kingdoms and power centres, national history denies the significance of city-states and robs local communities of their local histories and cultural pride. This superiority is the enemy of decentralisation.

Meanwhile, the emphasis on the Thai race denies the existence of other ethnic and indigenous groups who, more than often not, have lived here much longer than many self-proclaimed "pure" Thais. This racism violates human dignity and equal rights.

When the government uses racism to strengthen state authoritarianism, the indigenous people and ethnic minorities are not the only ones who suffer. We all do. Not only from toxic air, deforestation, droughts or other natural and environmental disasters. The real villain is the oppressive bureaucracy and dictatorship that robs people of democracy and rights protection, failing the country in all respects.

Under the grip of Covid-19, the government's refusal to protect migrant workers and refugees due to racism will also backfire spectacularly.

If we turn a blind eye to racist nationalism, it's no use complaining about environmental degradation, aggravating disparity and the status quo. The vicious circle continues because we are part of the problem.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor at the Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender and Buddhism.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on social issues, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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