A tiny victory against ethnic prejudice

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A tiny victory against ethnic prejudice

Posted by Sanitsuda Ekachai

For a country deeply mired in the myth of cultural homogeneity, the recent cabinet resolution on the indigenous Karen offers a glimmer of hope that the brick wall of ethnic prejudice is starting to crack.

I am talking about the Abhisit government’s cabinet resolution on Aug 3, which recognises the Karen forest dwellers’ cultural identity and their right to preserve their traditional way of life.

For the 300,000-strong indigenous Karen who are scattered in the mountainous areas along the Thai-Burmese border from the North to upper South, this is indeed cause for celebration.

The Karen forest dwellers are the largest group of hill people in the country. Though native to the land, they have been treated like second-class citizens.

Still, these Karen folk are the lucky ones. Many are still categorised as non-Thais and stateless, thus lacking most basic rights while being constantly subjected to arrest, imprisonment and deportation.

Their suffering stems from the nationalistic belief that ours is the exclusive land of ethnic Thais.

Based on ethnic Thai supremacy, people who are culturally different are outsiders who should be thankful for what they have. Making demands only makes them an ungrateful bunch.

This view blinds mainstream Thai society to the historical and archeological evidence, which show old Siam, and much beyond that, as a multi-cultural society.

It also makes them deaf to the lamentation of the hill peoples, discarding them as non-issues – the meaningless voices of birds and crows, as a Thai expression puts it.

One of the ethnic Karen’s gravest problems is to be condemned as illegal forest encroachers. Their farm rotation system is also vilified as slash-and-burn cultivation although much research has shown that it is in fact fostering forest biodiversity. In short, they are painted as the villains who must be evicted to save our dwindling forests.

Over the past two decades, the ethnic Karen have been trying hard to address this misconception.

After countless trials and tribulations, the Aug 3 cabinet resolution shows they have eventually overcome their biggest hurdle. Their suffering is no longer a non-issue. Better yet, they now have the legal framework within which to press for change.

For the record, these are among the measures that must be put into effect. On culture and education: support the Karen’s cultural identity and language as part of our nation’s multi-pluralistic society; promote local education based on Karen culture; and increase the number of Karen teachers and graduates.

On land rights: stop arresting and evicting the Karen forest dwellers; set up a committee to resolve land rights problems; support community land ownership; leave the indigenous areas out of the legal forest areas; demarcate it as a special cultural zone where the Karen can continue their traditional way of life.

On highland farming: support biodiversity and food security in the highlands through farm rotation system; work for the recognition of the Karen’s farm rotation system as a cultural world heritage.

On human rights: speed up citizenship and personal status process for qualified Karen highlanders to protect their rights; provide them with universal health care services.

One thing is certain. Making this action plan a reality is an uphill task, given the strong resistance and prejudice from officialdom. Change will not come easily. But when it comes, it will not only free the Karen highlanders from the shackles of prejudice, it will also save the country from many messy situations that are rooted in ultra and racist nationalism.

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