Over the past month, a small piece of news has caused a ripple effect in Thailand’s human rights circle. It has stirred up widespread debate. Most importantly, the issue has caught avid attention from international organizations including agencies under the United Nations and civil society organizations.
The news is about an effort by the Thai agencies to deport 126 undocumented students from the Thairath Witthaya School 6 in Ang Thong’s Pa Mok District to their home country in Myanmar.
Initially, it was reported as if a human trafficking ring was involved with the smuggling of the students from Myanmar to study at the Thairath Witthaya School 6 and an effort has been made to dig up the case. The traction on the case has attracted the attention of the Child Woman Protection Anti-Human Trafficking and Fishery, the Royal Thai Police, led by Pol Gen Surachate Hakparn, Deputy National Police Chief, who came to supervise the investigation. This has simply entrenched the trafficking lines of the news.
Meanwhile, according to the National Education Act, every child in Thailand, regardless if they are documented or not, shall be entitled to the right to education. The Child Protection Act also aims to protect the child, physically and mentally, although both laws have not been effectively enforced. As a result, the ethnic students were suddenly expelled from the school and the school personnel have been charged for harboring and assisting the hiding of alien children.
It is necessary to revisit the beginning when the undocumented children were brought here to enroll in the Thairath Witthaya School in order to get a comprehensive understanding of how the news has caused much controversies in Thailand’s human rights circle.
In February 2022, Ms. Kallaya Thasom, aka “Kru Pu”, was appointed as director of the Thairath Witthaya School 6 when there were only 12 students, from preschool to Grade Six.
If she let it go on as such, the Thairath Witthaya School 6 would soon be disbanded according to the Ministry of Education’s policy to dissolve small schools.
Student shortage is not a new problem. It has been happening with schools all over the country. And the Thairath Witthaya School 6 has been affected by such problem for many years. One of the solutions is to recruit their students from vulnerable groups of children including children on highland and those from the border.
“In March 2022, a school board meeting of the Thairath Witthaya School 6 was held to explore the solutions. It was decided that we need to recruit students from the border area or impoverished children in the provinces of Nan and Chiang Rai and enroll them as students here. Afterward, we went with our pickup truck to Mae Fa Luang District, Chiang Rai, looking for the potential students and leaving them with school applications” said Kru Pu about how it all began as far as the recruitment of the children was concerned. Being a native of Chiang Rai, she knows the area quite well.
After that, Kru Pu and the Thairath Witthaya School 6’s School Board have gone to bring over 35 children from Chiang Rai. She proceeded to apply for G Code from the Educational Services Area Office to ensure the students have the chance to attend school and to seek financial support. A meeting was held for the Thairath Witthaya School 6’s School Board to raise and acknowledge the matter. In addition, a fundraising ceremony was held to raise fund to hire more co-teachers and janitors since there were just one full-time teacher, one co-teacher and one janitor.
The enrolment of the students went smoothly in the first year and all of the children were issued with G-code according to the government procedure.
In the new semester of 2023, Kru Pu and the Thairath Witthaya School 6’s School Board have used the same method to recruit more children from the border area and from impoverished families as students And through word of mouth and more confidence among the parents, this year saw 92 children who wanted to enroll as students in Ang Thong, 72 of whom have never studied anywhere, and 20 have moved from other schools.
On 12 May 2023 Kru Pu and the School Board have gone to pick up the children by bus. Given an increase of the children more than double of the expected number at 40, another local bus had to be hired in Chiang Rai to bring them over.
The 92 new children were given a shelter in Ang Thong like before, and the application for their G-code has begun for the 72 children as usual.
Something was not the same.
Some bad omen happened when one teacher was complaining about having to take turn to watch the children’s dormitory.
“Then, all teachers took turn to watch the dormitory. The teacher was not happy treating it as extra work. As a result, the teacher informed the Educational Services Area Office. At first, we thought it was not a big deal since we have been following the rule” said Kru Pu about the beginning of a major violation of the rights of the children.
On 25 May 2023, the Director of the Ang Thong Educational Services Area Office has come to the Thairath Witthaya School 6 and inquired about the teaching there while visiting the students and asking to see their dormitory.
On 2 June, a group of officials from various agencies including the Director of the Educational Services Area Office, the Assistant to the District Chief Office in Pa Mok, the Ang Thong Provincial Officer of Social Development and Human Security, and the Immigration police have come to meet at the Thairath Witthaya School 6 and decided to have the 126 children deported to their country of origin.
On 6 June, an even larger group of officials from multiple agencies and media have come to the Thairath Witthaya School 6 making the children panic while they were studying. 126 children were placed at a Foundation, while Kru Pu was suspended from her post temporarily and had to work at the Educational Services Area Office.
Negative reports have been spun and gone viral that alien children were illegally brought to study in Ang Thong.
Since then, the 126 children had to quit school immediately. Even though, some teachers were placed there to teach them as a stopgap measure, it was simply meant to procrastinate their deportation since such education did not fully follow the curriculum.
“I had no idea what to do then. I tried to seek help from everywhere including the Lawyers Council of Thailand’s provincial chapter, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, the Faculty of Law, Thammasat University, the Ang Thong Damrongtham Center, since we wanted to help the children. We wanted them to further their study. There was barely any response from, except the NHRCT which issued a statement asking for the suspension of the deportation” said Kru Pu about the traumatic expertise.
“All the children want to further their education. They asked why they were barred from studying. It was quite painful. Before their being deported, I asked for permission from the Provincial Office of Social Development and Human Security to visit them. We were all weeping. Eventually, they were taken away since around 4am on 5 July” said Kru Pu on the verge of tear about the situation on that day.
All the 126 children including the new ones and the existing ones, were affected by such indiscriminate purge to deport them to Myanmar without any attempt to segregate them since some of them have afforded the G-code, and other had been studying at schools in Thailand. Most importantly, there was no preparation made to ensure the children can continue their study. They simply focused on sending them back to Myanmar which has been affected by armed conflicts.
In the next part, we will further learn about the fallouts from the actions by the government agencies.
The four busses brought 126 undocumented children from the Thairath Witthaya School 6 in Ang Thong to the parking lot of the Ban Du Police Station, Muang District, Chiang Rai, late afternoon on 5 July 2023 to get prepared for their deportation to Myanmar given their illegal entry.
The children were brought there waiting to be placed in the five shelters in Chiang Rai and while coordination was being made with their parents to pick them up in Myanmar opposite to Mae Sai District.
High-ranking police officers from Bangkok and senior officials from the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS) and the Ministry of Education and other officials were there to facilitate the procedure.
The one thing they have not anticipated was all of a sudden, they were confronted with a group of reporters and activists on the right to education and personal status who came there to observe the situation including Ms. Tuenjai Deetes, former Senator, Ms. Preeda Kongpaen. National Human Rights Commissioner of Thailand, Dr Sriprapha Petcharamesree, Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, and representatives from civil society organizations.
Incidentally, on 6 July 2023, the Hill Area and Community Development Foundation (HADF) was holding a meeting to discuss the recent influx of asylum seekers in Western Thailand inviting people from the NHRCT, academics, and various other organizations. Several of the participants who were there ahead of the meeting, upon learning news about the 126 children, went there to observe the situation.
The high-ranking police officials invited these observers into a meeting room to give them information about this impending deportation. Most importantly, they seriously told the reporters to refrain from taking photo of the children citing the legal prohibition of the NBCT. The reporters themselves responded by saying that they knew too well about the ethics concerning taking photo of children.
What was more surprising was the Provincial Office of Social Development and Human Security’s officials even prevented us from taking photo of the buses that brought the children there.
It has led to questions among the reporters about any concealed agendas behind such restriction?
Despite various explanations from the senior police, but the immediate removal of the students from the education appears to be incompatible with the spirit of the National Education Act. In addition, there is no clear explanation as to the deportation of the children to Myanmar and how to ensure they shall receive the protection as required by the Child Protection Act with the MSDHS as the enforcer of the law.
The views shared by educators and human rights on that day have completely changed the direction of the news reporting. Criticisms were widely raised about the deportation of the children and how it has been carried out improperly.
Delving deeper into the issue, it gets even clearer that these 126 children and educational personnel of the Thairath Witthaya School 6 were scapegoated by people who wanted to build up their profile while disregarding humanitarian principle.
At present, hundreds of thousands of children in Thailand are undocumented. At least around 70,000 of them have been issued with the G-code by the Ministry of Education (according to the National Security Council). They are enrolled in various schools in border provinces and inner schools in industrial zones where the employment of migrant workers is widespread.
In addition, hundreds of thousands of other children tag along their parents who have fled from armed conflict between the Myanmar Army and the ethnic armed organizations in the Western frontier. And various Thai agencies have been offering them humanitarian help. But the prosecution of Ms. Kallaya Thasom, the School Director, and other educational personnel of the Thairath Witthaya School 6 will send a chilling effect to other agencies and individuals who enroll undocumented children in their educational institutions. They will certainly be concerned that they might similarly face the legal action.
On 10 July 2023, Pol Gen Surachate Hakparn, Deputy National Police Chief, aka “Big Joke”, in his capacity as director of the Child Woman Protection Anti-Human Trafficking and Fishery, the Royal Thai Police and his entourage, have come to Chiang Rai for a meeting on options concerning the repatriation of the migrant children and youth. Apart from committee members of the Royal Thai Police’s Child Woman Protection Anti-Human Trafficking and Fishery, other representatives included those from OBEC, the Office of Attorney General, Ms. Preeda Kongpaen. National Human Rights Commissioner of Thailand, Ms. Tuenjai Deetes, former Senator, and the US Embassy.
At the meeting, an objection was raised against the deportation of the 126 children to Myanmar. As a result, Big Joke had to propose a solution by suspending the deportation and finding schools to take the children. But immediately after his departure, the effort to deport the children to Myanmar immediately resumed until there were only four children who were not picked up by their parents since they are war refugees and could not be contacted.
Meanwhile, criticisms have been sharply made against the state agencies by lawyers, academics and even the Lawyers Council of Thailand which has given legal assistance to this case.
Associate Professor Phunthip Kanchannachittra Saisoonthorn, an expert on personal status, from the Faculty of Law, Thammsat University, said that Myanmar is not a safe place and there is no suitable school for the children. A priority should be given to the international law concerning the best interest of the child and a question should be raised as to if the removal of the children from the school in Ang Thong and their deportation at the Thailand-Myanmar border in Chiang Rai would be compatible with such law or not. The Department of Children and Youth in Thailand has to anticipate questions at international forums as well.
“We have seen how a large number of stateless children from Myanmar have completed their education in Ang Thong and furthered their study at Thammasat University. They have since returned to develop their country in Myanmar during the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. They have, however, had to return to Thailand following the military coup in Myanmar. Therefore, it is important to ensure the children have access to basic education. The protection the children afford from statutory laws and international laws is so robust and the Thai authorities who have deprived the children of their chance to receive education must be held accountable” said Associate Professor Phunthip.
The academic from the Faculty of Law further said that as a law instructor, it struck me since an agreement has been reached by ASEAN regarding the social and cultural rights and child development. Therefore, prior to the removal of the children from Ang Thong, has the Ang Thong Child Protection Committee thought about the compliance with the ASEAN agreement?
“Various questions concerning the child protection law need to be addressed. Why have such attempts been made to rush pushing the children away? This is not a noble thing to do. It is better to pursue a sustainable solution like we have been doing since 2010” said Associate Professor Phunthip.
Meanwhile, Ms. Tuenjai Deetes, aka “Khru Daeng”, founding committee member of the Hill Area and Community Development Foundation (HADF), said that since being invited to help protect and address the problems of the 126 children, she could summarized two key problems. Firstly, the Director of the Thairath Witthaya School 6 have been charged for harboring and hiding the aliens who have entered the country illegally and is not subject to a disciplinary inquiry on her alleged gross misconduct. Secondly, the 122 students who have since been sent to their parents in Myanmar have to stop their education since early June, two months ago, and this was a loss of their educational opportunity.
Ms. Tuenjai urges the executives at OBEC to show their responsibilities as follows. Firstly, charges and a disciplinary inquiry on alleged gross misconduct against Ms. Kallaya should be dropped and she should be reinstated as Director of the Thairath Witthaya School 6. Secondly, an effort should be made to ensure the 126 children have the right to study in schools of choice for them and their parents. Thirdly, the Thairath Witthaya School 6, founded by Mr. Kamphon Watcharaphon, must be restored. The school with such large premises and livable environment, should be given a chance to serve the educational purpose and the students should be given the chance to restore their education.
“By meeting these demands, it will show our solidarity with the teachers and students affiliated with OBEC and hundreds of learning centers in border provinces in Thailand and their hundreds of thousands of students. It will make them feel confident that an education is being provided to enhance the quality of life of vulnerable children to ensure they grow up as good citizens in Thailand and the world” said Ms. Tuenjai.
At present, even though nearly all the 126 students have been deported to Myanmar, but some of them still have to return to Thailand since children at the border provinces have to commute to live with their parents in Thailand. Although some of them could get enrolled into a new school, others would have no chance to further their study given their impoverishment and lack of support.
The deprivation of their educational opportunity will do immense disservice for the children’s future. But will anyone be held accountable?
The deportation of 126 children to Myanmar should be a big lesson to be learned for the Thai state. Actually, it is still possible to mitigate criticisms from within Thailand and international community, if the Thai government sets up an inquiry committee to investigate the issue and to offer remedy for any mistake done.
This is a translation of original Thai articles