Tackling trenchant discrimination

Tackling trenchant discrimination

Today (Monday, March 21) is International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. However, Thailand's ethnic minorities do not have many reasons to celebrate.

Although Thailand has signed and ratified the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), deep-rooted discrimination still exists.

The problems of implementation were made clear recently in a recent ruling by the Administrative Court.

An ethnic Karen forest dweller from Kaeng Krachan petitioned the court when forest officials burned his house and possessions to the ground in 2011. Although the court ordered forest authorities to pay him compensation, it ruled the ICERD was not effective here without a local law. 

Thailand experiences high levels of racial discrimination, with levels of racism actually rising. According to the World Values Survey (WVS), the percentage of Thais who said they would not like to have people of a different race, immigrants or foreign workers, people who speak a different language, and people of a different nationality as neighbours all increased between 2007 and 2013.

Moreover, Thailand consistently scores in the lowest quintile on all race-related questions in a combined list of over 75 countries.

Within Thailand, the children of ethnic minorities have fewer educational opportunities, have worse health, and are more likely to be discriminated against in the media and advertising.

Thailand did not sign and ratify ICERD, which came into force in 1969, until 2003. Article 4 of the treaty clearly states that signatories shall "declare an offence punishable by law all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination, as well as all acts of violence or incitement to such acts against any race or group of persons of another colour or ethnic origin".

Signatories must also "declare illegal and prohibit organisations, and also organised and all other propaganda activities, which promote and incite racial discrimination", and "not permit public authorities or public institutions, national or local, to promote or incite racial discrimination".

When Thailand signed, it made a broad reservation regarding Article 4, noting that it shall be implemented "only where it is considered that the need arises to enact such legislation".

Moreover, Thailand's reservation states that it, "does not interpret and apply the provisions of this Convention as imposing … any obligation beyond the confines of the Constitution and the laws of the Kingdom of Thailand".

In other words, Thailand's reservation means it is free to completely ignore ICERD. When Thailand signed ICERD, several countries raised the objection that the reservation meant ICERD would be rendered meaningless in Thailand.

This objection to Thailand's reservation was repeated during Thailand's sole meeting with the UN committee responsible for the convention, CERD. 

CERD emphasised that reservation "so broad that the committee could not tell which obligations the state party was prepared to accept".

The Thailand Country Delegation assured CERD that "steps would be taken to enact legislation incorporating anti-discrimination measures", to supplement general statements on the equality of Thais in articles 4, 5 and 30 of the 2007 constitution. Four years later, no progress has been made on this issue.

Another key issue raised by CERD was the definition of ethnic communities. Thailand's delegation clarified that Thailand was using a definition of ethnic groups taken from Mahidol University's Ethnolinguistic Maps of Thailand project. The delegation affirmed, therefore, that the country formally recognised 62 ethnic groups, including all the mountain peoples and also the "Thai Malay" -- instead of the official "Thai Islam" category -- the "Thai Lao" instead of the broader geographical designation of "Isan" or "Northeasterner", and the "Northern Khmer".

This formal recognition of minorities would be very progressive if it were actually true. In fact, the Thai state only formally recognises approximately one dozen ethnic communities, namely 10 mountain peoples and the sea peoples. There is no policy or legislation recognising the other 50 ethnic communities. Thailand is therefore somewhat unique in its recognition of ethnic communities internationally before actually recognising them within the country, tantamount to an oversight.

The delegation also told CERD that Thailand was a "multi-linguistic and multicultural country", that "the population was encouraged to speak the local language", that "Malayu was used in schools", and that "language rights were guaranteed under the constitution and students were taught to read and write in their mother tongue in addition to Thai".

However, the multi-linguistic status of Thailand is not formally recognised in any constitution or in any national legislation or language policy, and language rights were not guaranteed under the 2007 constitution, nor is any native language other than Thai regularly taught in government schools outside of limited pilot programmes.

There is no central government institutional support or funding for teaching mother tongues other than Thai outside pilot areas. Possibly, the delegation was inflating the impact of the 2008 Office of Basic Education Commission's core curriculum. This curriculum permits the teaching of Thai "dialects" and "local languages", but does not specify them or permit mother-tongue-based education, except for Central Thai.

Instead of avoiding its obligations under ICERD, Thailand should lift its reservation and pass national anti-racism legislation to prevent the endemic and worsening discrimination, recognise all 62 ethnic minorities within the country, and provide the language rights the Thai delegation asserted Thais were enjoying.

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha has committed to reducing inequality within the country by empowering and promoting the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of race and ethnicity, as part of the Sustainable Development Goals. Moreover, he has personally pledged to aid Thailand's most vulnerable groups. Let him keep this promise.


John Draper is project officer, Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Programme (ICMRP), College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.

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