BANGKOK – A representative of the Hmong ethnic group took possession on Friday of his seat during the opening session of Thailand’s lower house of parliament, marking a historic milestone for a country in which ethnic minorities have always lacked representation and often, fundamental rights.
Nattapon Seubsakwong, a 53-year-old father of four, ran on the ticket of the emerging progressive Anakot Mai (“Future Forward”) party in the March 24 elections, the first held since the 2014 coup d’etat.
He vowed to “act as an intermediary between the government and my people,” in an interview with EFE at the party’s Bangkok headquarters.
The Hmong people originated in southern China and populate the mountainous regions of several countries in Southeast Asia – mainly Laos, but also Vietnam and Thailand, where they mostly live in the border provinces with Laos and northern and western Myanmar.
The Hmong settled in Thailand over a century ago, though some arrived more recently after fleeing neighboring Laos in the 1960s, when the Communist Party gained power and retaliated against members of the minority group as many Hmong had supported the United States during the Vietnam War.
There are over 200,000 Hmong in Thailand and they are generally listed as part of the hill tribes, along with other ethnic groups such as the Karen, Akha or Lahu.
All hill tribes combined comprise more than one million people who have traditionally lived off the slash-and-burn cultivation method in the jungles of Thailand’s border regions, a fact that is widely criticized by many Thais of the dominant Tai race.
“The government and many people blame us for the deforestation, but life in the mountains is hard and we need to fell trees for small-scale farming in plots of less than five rai (less than a hectare). This cannot be compared to natural disasters like climate change or what big corporations do, who destroy much more than we do,” Nattapon explained.
Many members of minority ethnic groups such as the Hmong live on the margins of Thai society and often lack citizenship despite having lived in the country for generations.
“Many members of the hill tribes don’t have citizenship because their parents didn’t understand they had to go to the authorities to register and because the government doesn’t know whether to classify us as foreigners or nationals and doesn’t even bother to make the necessary investments to attend to our needs,” he added.
The fact that many ethnic minorities are stateless prevents them from being able to attend college, restricts their freedom of movement beyond the provinces they live in and excludes them from owning the lands they need to farm to survive.
“The government owns the land we live on, while Thai citizens can legally take ownership of it. Sometimes they say we’re occupying the land illegally and expel us. We can’t maintain our way of life this way,” the lawmaker lamented.
Nattapon is only a full citizen because he was lucky enough that his father was one and bothered to register him.
The politician was born in the northern Phetchabun province, but when he was a child, his family was forced to move to the western Tak province – next to the border with Myanmar – as a consequence of the conflict between the Thai government and the communist guerrilla that operated in the region.
He was able to enroll at a university in Bangkok to study economics, though the lack of financial resources forced him to drop out and work at hotels, airports and even a cruise ship.
It was then that he started studying the situation and struggles of other minorities across the world, he said.
When Anakot Mai was founded in 2018 with a platform seeking to reduce the power of the military, decentralize the country and promote the rights of sexual and ethnic minorities, Nattapon decided to join the party and run for the lower house of parliament.
“I want to introduce laws that guarantee land ownership and citizenship for my people, create a body that represents ethnic minorities and establish cultural protection zones for the minorities in which, for example, we are able to freely perform our funerary rites,” the new MP enthusiastically concluded.