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
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.
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
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.