Cruelty and heartlessness (Comment)

COMMENTARY by Sanitsuda Ekachai, Assistant Editor(Outlook), Bangkok Post.

COMMENTARY by Sanitsuda Ekachai, Assistant Editor(Outlook), Bangkok Post.

Writer: Sanitsuda Ekachai
Published: 27/08/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: NewsIf decency is measured by how we treat those inferior to us, then we cannot call ourselves decent, given our heartlessness towards migrant workers.

Last week, two Rohingya teenage boys wilted and died inside Ranong detention centre. Doomed for a life in a limbo behind bars, they just lost the will to eat, to move, to live. Out of intolerable despair, they simply perished.

One was 18, the other only 15.

Imagine their mothers’ grief.

The week before, police in Samut Prakan province raided a cultural festival of ethnic Karen migrant workers while they were in the middle of a religious ceremony. It so happened that it was also Her Majesty the Queen’s birthday and Mother’s Day that day, so a ceremony to express filial gratitude and to pay homage to he Queen was also part of the festival.

Still the police thought what they were doing posed a threat to society. More than 150 workers were arrested and immediately sent to the immigration centre for deportation.

Many of them are legally registered migrant workers. Many have wives and children back here. Imagine their families’ shock and agony…

This is probably the crux of the problem – our inability to imagine the suffering of the downtrodden, which narrows our minds and shuts our hearts – although we take pride in calling ours a Buddhist country.

Of course, we can continue pointing the finger at the ruthless Burmese junta for drowning us with endless waves of war and economic refugees. In fact, this is what many of us do to free our troubled conscience whenever we hear of abuse. But the blame game does not address another important part of the oppression problem – our own heartlessness.

It is estimated that there are more than two million migrant workers in Thailand. Most of them are ethnic minorities who have fled extortion, persecution and harsh poverty in lawless Burma. The Muslim minority Rohingya, for example, are not even recognised as Burmese citizens and, according to the Burmese junta, must be expelled. The Karen, meanwhile, are considered dangerous rivals who must be suppressed.

In Thailand, these people are often subjected to slave-like work conditions. If the Thai workers faced the same plight overseas, however, we would be fuming and frothing with anger against such inhumanity.

Whenever there arises a tragic case of rights abuse at home, we will hear human rights activists lecturing the authorities about Thailand’s duty to protect basic rights and freedoms of migrant workers in accordance with various international declarations and rights conventions.

Mostly it is a useless exercise. Not because these rights are not locally applicable, but for these principles to materialise, the parties concerned must share a moral common ground: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

Which is not the case here. Why so? Ask the authorities and they will chime in condescendingly: “We need to protect our national security.” The overwhelming influx of illegal immigrants is stealing scarce resources from lawful Thai citizens, they charge. Besides, these people carry with them a host of diseases. Their strange language and culture also make it difficult to monitor their criminal activities, thus posing a threat to society.

Being nice only attracts more of them to come, they insist.

Sadly, this heartlessness prevails because it strikes a chord with mainstream society.

It is not that we are inherently cruel. It is only that we are the products of racist nationalism which permeates every social institution in our society.

Yes, prejudice is human when we are still trapped in the “we/they” dichotomy driven by instinctive group preservation. But it is another matter when we let it grow into inhumanity to legitimise what is otherwise unacceptable cruelty.

We must rethink our racist nationalism. Not only to save our souls. When identity politics of the downtrodden can easily turn ugly, undoing racism is a necessity to save our children and our country from ethnic violence.

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