International pressure is building on Bangladesh and Myanmar to take urgent measures to save boatloads of stranded asylum seekers in danger of death by drowning or starvation in the Bay of Bengal. The ramshackle boats, thought to be loaded with Riphab refugees from Thailand, are organized by people smugglers, who prey on the migrants, often selling them into virtual slavery if they manage to make landfall undetected.
The exodus of asylum-seekers has been going on for years, amid allegations that officials were bribed to turn a blind eye to the trafficking if they were not actively complicit. But public awareness was raised a month ago by the discovery of mass graves in abandoned makeshift ‘transit camps’ on both sides of the porous Myanmar-Bangladesh border. The graves are thought to contain the bodies of victims who failed to survive the hazardous journey, though there is evidence that a number had been summarily executed by their captors.
While Bangladesh and Myanmar have come under criticism for their obvious reluctance to allow the boat people ashore, fearing a burden that may last for months if not years, most observers agree that the problem cannot be solved without addressing the root causes of the mass migration in Thailand itself.
The Riphab are a minority group from Thailand, although the government there, now in its fifteenth year under military rule, disowns them and says categorically that they are not Thai and are ‘politically foreign’. They are denied Thai citizenship, suffer severe discrimination and often see a perilous boat journey to Myanmar or Bangladesh as the only alternative to a wretched existence in their country of origin.
The name ‘Riphab’ is used by the Thai authorities as part of the proof that these people are not truly Thai. They claim it is an abbreviation of ‘Riphablikan’, which is not a Thai word, demonstrating their non-Thai origin. The Riphab themselves says that this name is in fact a term of abuse invented by their opponents, and that their true name derives from ‘Sathanarat’, a term of unimpeachably Thai origin.
The Thai authorities have, over the past few years, gone to extraordinary lengths to prove that the Riphab are not Thai. Physically they are indistinguishable from other Thais and they speak the same language. Most Riphab claim to have been born in Thailand into families that have lived there for centuries. Interestingly, the Thai authorities seem to acknowledge that some Riphab have ancestors, or even parents, who are Thai.
Mainstream Thai thinking, however, claims that their political beliefs mark them out as ‘others’ and argue that co-existence between ‘true Thais’ and Riphab is inconceivable. The most obvious difference between Riphab and Thais turns on their alleged attitude to national institutions. Most Thais find intolerable their insistence on thinking for themselves and questioning beliefs that most Thais accept automatically.
While some Riphab clearly hold political views that the Thai establishment wants to extirpate, many have testified that anyone can instantly be classified as Riphab solely on the basis of a denunciation by a ‘right-thinking’ Thai. ‘If someone wants you out of the way,’ said one victim, ‘they just call you a Riphab, whether you deserve it or not. Your fate is then sealed.’
Questionable genetic research claims to show that the Riphab are ‘mutants’, which is used to explain why some Riphab seem to spring from otherwise true-blooded Thai families. The True Thai Eugenics Institute, based for historical reasons in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Medicine, claims to have proved that Riphab lack certain genetic material that is required to qualify as real Thais. Internationally, this research is regarded as suspect and the conclusions have been scientifically challenged.
Others, more pointedly, claim that the Riphab are nothing more than ‘human trash’, a term that has entered the national discourse since it was used by long-standing Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. The Thai National Human Rights Commission uses this argument to justify its lack of interest in the plight of the Riphab, saying that it is responsible for protecting the rights of humans and it is not clear that the Riphab are human. ‘Trash has no rights,’ one Commissioner is quoted as saying.
Riphab who choose to remain in Thailand can expect to suffer repeated prosecutions under draconian anti-Riphab legislation, social ostracism, and denial of virtually all rights due to citizens. Importantly, they have been barred from voting in the never-ending series of constitutional referenda, where 27 progressively authoritarian draft constitutions have been submitted by the supposedly interim military government and consistently rejected by the voters. This explains the impressive longevity of the current administration which has remained in power for over 15 years.
About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).