Immigrants hold the key to our success

Immigrants hold the key to our success

Ongto, 11, speaks fluent Thai and Burmese. His classmate Thanapol speaks fluent Thai and Khmer. These boys and some 300,000 migrant children could be our most valuable assets, given our country's aim to boost its economic presence in the region. But our deep-rooted ethnic prejudices suggest this is not to be.

I met Ongto and Thanapol a few years ago when I was visiting a border school in Trat province. Their parents were rubber plantation labourers.

For them, school was an important refuge; it not only taught them how to read and write, but gave them much-needed rest and the playtime that all children should get.

"I have to get up at 3am to help my parents collect rubber milk from 600 trees," said Ongto in perfect Thai without any accent. "Often I can't open my eyes in morning classes.

"I want to help my parents but I don't want to work in rubber plantations when I grow up. I don't know what my future is."

Ongto is not the only one who fears a life of hardship. According to a migrant workers network, most of those it represents are undocumented. Many are stateless, which makes them even more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

I was reminded of Ongto's face and fear when I read about US President Barack Obama's executive decision on immigration, which will allow nearly five million undocumented immigrants to be able to work legally. Children who arrived before 16 will also not be deported.

Mr Obama's statement that "we are and always will be a nation of immigrants" made me think. Ours is a nation of immigrants too.

Look at the list of Thailand's top billionaires. Most of them are second- and third-generation Chinese merchants. The same with many top technocrats and professionals. One thing is clear: they wouldn't have been able to contribute to the country had they been treated as illegal immigrants and barred from citizenship.

Historically, old Siam always welcomed immigrants. Actually, the principalities that predated Siam came into existence because of immigrants when ethnic Tai-speaking tribes migrated to the Chao Phraya River basin from what is now southern China. 

During the Ayutthaya kingdom, the court embraced cultural pluralism, making it one of the most prosperous and cosmopolitan cities in that period. Westerners and Persians were welcomed to serve the court while Chinese seafarers were employed to strengthen city wealth with maritime trade.

Chinese settlers were common. So was the practice of taking peoples of defeated principalities of different ethnicities and cultures to Siamese territories during wartime. 

In short, the myth of racial homogeneity of the Thai people is just that — a myth. King Taksin, for example, had a Chinese father who worked for the Ayutthaya kings as a tax collector.

Old Siam also saw several waves of migration of ethnic Mon from Myanmar. And it is a well-known fact that the ancestors of the Rattanakosin monarchs were ethnic Mon.

Up until half a century ago, all children born in Thailand were given Thai citizenship. This open spirit was killed with an ultra-nationalist campaign which started during the Plaek Phibulsonggram regime and culminated during the Cold War to protect "national security" amid fears of a Communist invasion.

Sadly, the education system continues to indoctrinate generation after generation of youngsters with this racist myth.

It's policy suicide. This racist nationalism is what denies the southern Malay Muslims the right to protect their identity and manage their resources, resulting in the prolonged bloodshed. 

Racism also prevents mainstream society from seeing how nurturing the Malay Muslim culture and language would help strengthen the national economy through trade with Muslim countries in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Our rapidly greying country needs a young workforce to sustain the economy. With the Asean Economic Community approaching, we need people who speak our regional neighbours' languages. 

Giving migrant children an education and a chance to live and work legally would benefit our economy, as previous generations of immigrants have done. Yet, state authorities want to cut their education support, which will push them out of school. 

We're blind to opportunities because we're blind to humanity. We're killing our future because of our ethnic prejudices. We can't blame anything but our own heartlessness.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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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