Business, Finance & Economics

Paper airplane, or paper tiger?


BANGKOK — Maybe the Thai government shouldn’t have deemed 12-year-old Mong Thongdee a security threat.

That was the declaration that — in the public’s eye, at least — seemed to pit stodgy officials against adolescent dreams.

For weeks, the media here has been smitten with Mong, a Thai-born fourth-grader with a passion for flight. “Since first grade, I’ve loved observing planes in the sky,” he told GlobalPost in a phone interview. “One day, I started building little planes out of plastic and, later on, out of paper.”

Mong’s designs have proved agile. After one of his planes stayed aloft for 12.5 seconds, he qualified for an expenses-paid, global paper airplane competition held Sept. 19-20 in Chiba, Japan. Mong’s flight time has bested all others in his age bracket.

But Mong, born to Burmese construction workers in the Thai city of Chiang Mai, is essentially a citizen of nowhere. Thai law insists that, by parentage, Mong belongs to Burma — a neighboring country that does not even recognize his birth. Though Mong calls Thailand home, he’s always been a “temporary resident” at risk of deportation.

For stateless kids like Mong, a passport — much less citizenship — is largely out of the question. Only through talent, tears and the prime minister’s intervention has he secured temporary papers allowing a one-time-only trip to Japan. After Thailand’s Interior Ministry ruled that Mong’s travel request countered a law protecting “national security,” Thai TV outlets broadcast footage of him sobbing and begging for help. “He was so hurt,” said Yoon Thongdee, the boy’s father. “He cried for a whole day.”

As the contest’s registration deadline drew close last week, Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva decided to intervene. Mong’s next major TV appearance was taped inside parliament. There, the premier and the 12-year-old — a visitor’s pass clipped to his pastel blue school uniform — played with paper planes in front of cameras. The bureaucratic barriers suddenly melted away.

Mong now appears Japan-bound via a special temporary passport. Each night, he folds planes and does push-ups to grow “strong enough for the competition,” his father said.

“I’ve been making my muscles strong,” Mong said. “The prime minister told me to bring that championship back to Thailand and ‘fight, fight!’”

Beyond the passport drama, Mong’s case is also casting attention toward Thailand’s stateless youth dilemma. The country now holds at least 2 million stateless people, many of them of Burmese origin, said Amanda Bissex, chief of Unicef Thailand’s Child Protection Section.

Compared to neighboring Laos, Cambodia and especially Burma, Thailand is flush with opportunity. Low-wage factory, construction and housekeeping jobs entice hundreds to cross the kingdom’s jungly borders each day. Mong’s parents, who belong to the region’s ethnic Shan group, began as orange pickers and now hold construction jobs.

The government has long struggled to balance the benefits of cheap, foreign-born labor with a perceived threat posed by a stateless underclass. Migrants with jobs can register with the government to avoid deportation — but they’re not given access to many public services, such as health care, Bissex said.

Thai law doesn’t endow migrants’ children with citizenship, even if the kids have never set foot in their parents’ homeland.

Those who obey the law and register with the Thai government can’t leave the boundaries of their local district, akin to an American county. If caught outside that zone, they can be deported immediately, said Hartairat Thaianurak of the non-profit Migrant Assistance Program in Chiang Mai.

“The Thai government likes to claim this only for national stability,” Hartairat said. “But I think that if we have all these kids with no stability in their lives, then we’ll never find the answer to this problem. These kids speak Thai and eat Thai food. They’ve inherited Thai culture and they’ll keep carrying it on for at least a couple generations.” The government has recently loosened restrictions on stateless children, Bissex said, encouraging more migrants living illegally to come out of the shadows and register their newborns. Once registered, children can at least attend Thai school, as does Mong.

Though Thailand’s Interior Ministry has yielded to Mong’s plea for temporary travel papers, the paper airplane saga won’t help him secure citizenship, officials have said. His family’s residence status will come under review again early next year.

“If they offered, I’d definitely take it,” said Mong, who one day hopes to attend college and become a pilot.

But the paper plane whiz, preparing to represent Thailand at the Japan Origami Airplane Association challenge, has more immediate concerns. Even though it’s only autumn in Japan, Mong heard that it’s pretty compared to Chiang Mai — the only town he knows.

“I’ve need to go shopping,” he said. “I don’t have any winter clothes.”