Mae Sai District chief personally hands over the naturalisation papers during a ceremony. The event highlights the fate of stateless tribal communities in northern Thailand. A veteran missionary, Fr Corti, notes that “At the social level, tribes are not fully protected, as their rights.”
Chiang Rai (AsiaNews) – Three Thai boys and the Wild Boars coach who were trapped for nine days in the Tham Luang cave received Thai citizenship yesterday. Seven other team members have also applied.
"I am glad that citizenship has been given to them", said Fr Claudio Corti, PIME missionary for many years in Thailand, speaking to AsiaNews. "It is a good sign against discrimination against stateless minorities among the tribes of northern Thailand.”
One of the boys, a Protestant catechumen, Adul Sam-on, comes from Wa State (Myanmar), an unrecognised self-governing area.
Northern Thailand is home to many ethnic groups: Akha, Lahu, Lisu, Yao, Shan, Hmong and Karen. Many of them live on both sides of the border between Thailand and Myanmar.
Mae Sai District chief Somsak Kanakam handed the documents to the boys and their coach during a ceremony.
The event, publicised by the government on social media, brought media attention on the situation of stateless people in the country, estimated to be more than 3 million, half a million according to government data.
"At the social level, tribes are not fully protected, as their rights. Also, many come from Myanmar,” says the missionary.
Applying for naturalisation takes a lot of time and corruption is widespread. "When you apply you must prove that you were born in Thailand.”
“Procedures tend be long because, although there are specific laws, often government officials delay things until they get a kickback,” Fr Corti noted.
In the meantime, the government's ad campaign around the miraculous rescue continues. There is also talk of a Hollywood-style film to mark the event.
However, some local observers are critical of this back-patting. Some see the rescue as an "emotional drug" that has diverted public attention from unresolved political and economic issues.
"They did not allow the boys to tell why they had entered the cave, which was a very important thing, tha many people would have liked to know” said Fr Corti. “All the attention was focused on the success of the rescue, which went well."
The spiritual element in the case was also highlighted. The children themselves talked about this factor, which helped them.
For the clergyman, "Something like that would never have happened in Europe. Spirituality in Asia is valued, even if in Thailand there is this connection between politics and religion. It is a connection that is aimed however at enhancing national identity. Being Thai means being Buddhist."
The government is betting on this factor to push the so-called mountain tribes, on the northern border of the country, to become Buddhist; "Not so much for religious reasons but because the reasoning is that ‘Since we are Buddhists, in order to integrate you better, you must convert'.”
"I remember years ago, when I was in Thailand, they showed images of war in the Middle East on TV. They said there were constant clashes because Muslims, Jews and Christians lived there. Many of the commentators noted 'If we are all Buddhists we are more united'.”
The Church is very much present among tribal peoples. In the north it includes mostly converts from animism.
"The diocese of Chiang Mai has about 80,000 Catholics, 65,000 tribal. Most of priests and nuns are of tribal origin. The new Diocese of Chiang Rai, created on 25 March has mostly non-Thai members. Animists are still open to welcoming the Gospel. They usually do not become Buddhist because they feel discriminated against."
"I see the children have Thai names, even their coach. Almost certainly they have a second name and have perhaps changed their surname so as not be seen as tribal."