CHIANGRAI TIMES – Amid raucous music and the wild cries of his rambunctious patrons, Mongfa withdraws into his shell to contemplate what might have been.
Mongfa looks at the university students drinking at the bar and ponders his situation. The young bartender vainly tries to find an answer to why it is they have what they have and he doesn’t – the right to study.
If he had that right, he would quit the pub he works at immediately.
“Mongfa is the main character of the film,” asks a judge of one of five short films in a competition based on the theme of stateless youngsters, “but what about this name ‘A-Mong’ in the second line of the story synopsis?”
A-Mong in fact refers to a real stateless boy, Mong Thongdee, born to Myanmar construction workers who was the subject of intense media coverage when chosen to represent Thailand at a paper plane competition in Japan in 2009. His dilemma was that he was not eligible for a Thai passport (after considerable publicity, he was given special dispensation to leave the country).
The short film competition, inspired by the plight of people like Mong, was co-organised by Thammasat University and UK-based children’s rights group Plan International.
It attempts to unravel the complex, yet poorly reported, issue of the plight of stateless youngsters born to ethnic-minority parents or migrant workers who are struggling to gain Thai nationality.
The five films will hopefully spur more interest in the issue, not only among the general public but also the mainstream media which often side-steps significant issues simply because they are difficult to comprehend.
“The media has shown little interest in this issue,” Thai PBS TV reporter Wilasini Supharot told a seminar on stateless children at Thammasat University’s faculty of journalism and mass communication.
The seminar preceded the announcement of the five finalists in the short film competition. The contest was open to all students across the Thammasat University campus. The winning film will be announced in October.
According to Plan International, there are one million stateless people in Thailand. More than half of them live in Chiang Rai’s Mae Fah Luang district.
Statelessness is a complicated issue. It involves interpreting the law and digging deep into the facts to find the truth about each case.
Some media outlets are reluctant to cover such a complex story because they are unsure whether their audiences will like reading, watching or hearing about it.
“Before selling [the news], they have to consider if a story will be popular or not,” says Voralux Issarungkula na Ayudhya, a senior reporter with Thai PBS.
Media outlets place more emphasis on covering “social” beats, focusing mostly on urban issues which they think are more relevant to an audience than those concerning stateless children living in far-flung border areas, Ms Wilasini said.
The issues that spring up from the lack of access to education and citizenship should not be neglected, she says. Otherwise, stateless youngsters could end up on the wrong side of the law, causing even bigger problems for everyone.
A 2005 cabinet resolution granted the right to education to all Thai children as well as stateless kids.
“However, journalists must watch with their own eyes to see if or how stateless children can enter the education system,” she says.
Tuenjai Deetes, a former senator and an advocate for minority rights, says some children are discouraged from going to school because of the distance they have to travel from their villages and the fact that their parents cannot afford the cost of transportation.
Transportation, however, is only one of the problems. Children are not motivated to attend classes because they do not have citizenship cards.
Without these cards, there is no way to find good jobs after graduation.
Kopkit Chemuen, an Akha hilltribe teenager in Chiang Rai’s Mae Fa Luang district, shares this fate.
He says his friends sigh when they learn that stateless students who graduate cannot be employed in the normal workforce because they do not have citizenship cards.
“They decide to drop out of school,” says the Mathayom 3 (Grade 9) student. He was among four hilltribe kids from the same district invited to share their views with the young, prospective film producers who are only just now grasping the depth of the stateless children’s dilemma.
Despite the seemingly futile talk during the seminar about the strenuous fight for Thai ID cards and their uncertain future in tertiary studies and work, the four youngsters do hold out hope.
They look on the bright side of life, although their words are really a cry for help.
At the end of the talks, 17-year-old Amae Becheku, an Akha highlander, asked the film contestants to bring their plight into the open.
The organisers hope the films will attract the attention of society and bring people closer to the problems of stateless people.
In Ms Voralux’s view, the films will do more than entertain.
They will put this issue into the spotlight and increase awareness about marginalised people.
She says the films should convey and highlight parts of stateless people’s lives that touch the hearts of viewers.
Ruj Komonbut, a Thammasat University print media scholar, says he also hopes the short films will lessen the “us and them” mentality.
Running deep in the psyche of many people is the stereotype of highlanders whom they mock as khon bon doi(people of the mountains) who speak Thai with a funny accent. The hilltribes people are alienated and regarded as non-Thai.
For the students who made the films, he hopes that one day they will become experts on the issue of stateless children.
Students put plight of the deprived into perspective
Mongfa is a protagonist in a movie by two advertising major students of Thammasat University who have joined a short film contest featuring stateless children.
The film tells the story of a stateless boy from a poor family in a remote village of Thailand. Mongfa dreams of becoming a pilot, but he ends up working as a bartender at a pub, the only workplace willing to recruit him without asking for his citizenship card.
He cannot find a better job as businesses he approached demanded he produce a Thai identity card, which he does not have.
The boy, who only possesses a Mathayom 3 (Grade 9) level education, cannot continue his studies because he needs to earn money for his family now that his father has passed away.
Also, he cannot go any higher in his education as the nearest high school is a very long way from his village and getting there would only incur more expense for his family.
His meeting with university students at the pub where he works one night is an attempt by the young film producers to paint a contrasting picture between Mongfa who faces limited opportunities to pursue higher education and those students who enjoy the right to education blessed by a card confirming their Thai nationality.
“It’s a comparative technique,” said Nonthakit Chawengchutirat, hoping the contrast would be a pointer to the importance of giving educational opportunities to needy children.
Mr Nonthakit’s team is competing with four other finalists mostly from his faculty of journalism and mass communication. One team which made the cut came from the faculty of political science.
The team of non-media major students also came up with a similar plot telling the story of a stateless teenage girl whose mother has fallen ill. The teen is struggling to find money to feed her family.
Like Mongfa, the girl cannot pursue her studies because of poverty. Her family plight is aggravated by the fact that she is stateless, which prevents her from getting a decent job even if she has the means to finish higher education.
She is eventually lured into working as a child labourer at a cloth dyeing factory, though she is only 13 years old.
In real life, the fate of stateless children may be similar in some ways to that of the poor girl who is invisible in society without a citizenship card.
But through the film, “we want her to have an identity and rights” like other children, said Vanida Khunrod, one of the producers of the film who majors in politics and government.
Writer: Ranjana Wangvipula