The Story of A-yer

I am a guest in Thailand, so I do not view it as my place to meddle in the affairs of locals, no matter how unjust I find them. Living in the foothills, where friction between the highland peoples and lowland ethnic Thais is the greatest, I see racism, exploitation and corruption hurting the hilltribe peoples almost on a daily basis. It angers me, but I turn a blind eye to it.

However, the case of A-yer, an Akha boy, is so typical yet so appaling that I feel obligated to mention it on this website. A-yer's case illustrates not only the fundamental disenfranchisement of the Akha people in Thailand, but also the equally troubling lack of solidarity among different ethnic minorities. Without understanding cases such as A-yer's, one can not really understand the current status of hilltribe people.

A-yer has two broken arms, one of which was crushed, a broken leg and a head injury the severity of which is not yet known. He sustained his injuries on his motorcycle after colliding head-on with a ten-wheeled asphalt truck on a curvy mountain road near his village. He and his motorcycle were then dragged backwards by the momentum of the truck ten meters, gouging out the asphalt.

Look carefully at the adjacent picture and you can see the gouge in the pavement that runs from the bottom middle of the screen to where the people are standing in the distance. This is the path on which A-yer was dragged after colliding with the truck.

In Thailand, vehicles drive on the left side of the road. But, from the perspective of the truck moving from foreground to background, we can see that the initial impact must have taken place on the right side of the road. The truck was driving in the wrong lane.

The roads in the mountains of northern Thailand are narrow and curvy. It is common for large vehicles to "straighten" these curves by cutting across into the opposing lane. That it is common, however, does not mean that the truck was not at fault. In even the most basic traffic codes, a person entering the opposing lane and creating an accident is always at fault.

What those not familiar with the issues surrounding tribal people fail to realize is that hilltribe people rarely get the benefit of proper application of the law. Tribal groups all have their own tribal law, which they may use internally, but those villages that have been relocated to the foothills are suddenly placed under the rule of an unfamiliar code. Often tribal people unwittingly commit crimes, according to Thai, by doing something that is normal and acceptable under their own code of conduct. Tribal people also lack the knowledge and advocacy to make the law work for themselves when they are the recipients of wrongdoing.

In my cynicism, I feel inclined to use a word other than law to describe the statutes by which Thai society is governed. To the Western reader, the word "law" conjures the image of an immutable rule under which all peoples are judged equally. Yes, there are often cases in Western courts in which a seemingly unfair outcome is reached by using loopholes in the law, but those loopholes are equally available to everyone and all those questioned under the law must undergo the same judicial process.

The law in Thailand is something much more fluid and left to personal discretion. If the police or the local officials are persuaded that no crime was committed, then, in fact, there was no crime.

Persuasion can come in many forms, but the most common and straightforward is bribery, the lifeblood that sustains Thailand's plutocracy. Indeed, it appears that before the owner of the truck went to the hospital to check on A-yer, he had already made a visit to the local police. The police have since done everything they could to convince the family that the situation is not such a big deal.

For the family, however, the situation is an enormous deal. Medical expenses even within the first few days had already equaled the yearly income of the family. Furthermore, Ayer's mother and father must take turns taking care of A-yer in the hospital, meaning they must forfeit any income they would have received from working day labor. The family has no insurance and the year-long rehabilitation the fourteen-year-old A-yer is facing means that he will likely never return to school, thereby sentencing him to piecing together a living from menial jobs as well. The situation is a very big deal.

Even in the hospital, A-yer's parents, neither of whom speak Thai well, can not adequately perform the duties of the full-time advocate a patient needs in a modern hospital. If A-yer is in need of something, his parents may not be able to communicate that to the nurses, adding an element of frustration on the parts of both his parents and the nurses.

The most pitiful part of the whole situation is the lack of responsibility shown by the owners of the truck. Though the truck is insured up to 50,000 Baht ($1,200 US), that will not be enough to cover A-yer's medical bills, not to speak of any other compensation A-yer or his family might deserve. The truck owners have tried every available means to avoid a financial loss from this situation, even attacking A-yer, saying that he was driving too fast and without a license. Despite the physical evidence gouged into the road, the driver of the truck (who, himself, may not have been licensed to drive a commercial truck) has insisted that A-yer was in the wrong, colliding with the truck as he swept into the truck's lane to pass a pick-up.

What of that pick-up? Shouldn't the driver be able to give an eyewitness account? He should, but he won't. The driver of the pick-up truck is employed by the Royal Forestry Department (RFD). The asphalt truck was under contract by the Sub-district Administrative Organization to do road work in an area under the jurisdiction of the RFD. The driver has declined to serve as a witness.

Also declining to serve as a witness is the headman from the local Mien village where the accident took place and who first notified the police. He did not see the accident and the truck had already left the scene by the time he had arrived, but his account would be valuable to any legal proceedings. Despite the headman's reluctance to serve as a witness, he should at least be given credit that he made an effort to contact the authorities, which is more than other villagers arriving on the scene of the accident were motivated to do.

This is an example of the lack of solidarity among minority groups that is strange to the Western mind. Despite our tendency to lump all the minority ethnic groups under the heading of "hilltribes", these groups of people are quite distinct and are often distrustful or even resentful of one another. Situations where a member of one tribe is in distress and is given less-than-full assistance by members of another tribe are unfortunately not rare.

It is too early to tell how A-yer's situation will play out, both physically for A-yer and financially for the family. A-yer's family is not looking for financial gain from this situation. That would like only that their son return to good health and that their medical expenses be paid. But such is the disenfranchisement of Akha people in Thailand, that they may not even get these simplest of requests.

A-yer in the hospital after the accident.

Update: By early 2003, A-yer had almost completely recovered. His left wrist and collarbone healed crookedly and will be permanently disfigured, but he is able to walk and farm to a degree. With the representation of various higher-status figures, A-yer's family was able to secure a settlement with the trucking company of 35,000 Thai baht ($700 US or roughly the family's income for one year) plus hospital expenses.

Though the settlement seems generous, it is about one-third of what a Thai person would get in a similar situation. Even at this discounted rate, the trucking concern did not agree easily. In one of the more spirited segments of the negotiation, the woman representing the trucking company pointed at A-yer's father and asked aloud, "Why should we have to give them money when they will just go buy drugs with it?" That statement summarizes the mistrust and misunderstanding that fuel the discord between Thais and tribal people every day.