The International Writers Magazine:HacktreksNews
Activist Jailed in Bangkok Awaiting Deportation
those of us who knew, and worked with the American, Matthew McDaniel,
the question had always been "when" not "if"
he would be declared persona non-grata in Thailand. So, it came
as no surprise last week, when an anonymous email reached my inbox,
informing me that Matthew was being held in Suan Phlu prison, awaiting
Akha Hill Tribe folk
the last thirteen years, Matthew had been living in a remote village,
among the Akha Hill Tribe, serving as their councilor, friend, and teacher.
He spoke the language fluently, married an Akha woman, and fathered
five Akha children. In his work as activist and friend of the Akha he
composed an Akha dictionary, helped villages build roads, and wrote
a book, entitled The Akha Journal, a chronicle of allegations of corruption,
misconduct, false arrest and imprisonment, murder, and abuse of the
In addition to being a thorn in the side of police and army units in
Northern Thailand, Matthew took what he called his "fight for human
rights" to government and non-government agencies, all the way
up to the UNHCR.
Although there are numerous reasons why any number of people would prefer
for Matthew McDaniel to just disappear, it is rumored that his involvement,
in a class-action lawsuit against the Thai government was the nail in
his coffin. Most people feel that after living in Thailand on a 30 day
tourist visa for thirteen years, Matthew's luck had just run out. He
was arrested when he attempted to renew his visa in Mae Sai.
Issues of human rights and allegations of "genocide" (Matthew's
words) are sensitive subjects in the best of contexts. On the one hand,
any reasonable, thinking, feeling human being would like to champion
the cause of human rights, and see an end to human suffering. On the
other hand, full time activists, no matter how noble their cause, often
suffer from tunnel-vision, which blinds them to greater issues, or concessions
and advances made on the part of a benevolent government. In the time
I spent living in the village, I often found Mathew's worldview to be
unsound. Among the Akha, he lived in a world where he was the only person
with a western education, the only one with knowledge of the outside
world, and the only one with access to news, information, and learning.
He was the authority on every subject, from farming to medicine. And
no one in his world had the intellectual capacity to challenge him.
In short, after a long reign of being the authority, it is my belief
that he had become Joseph Conrad's character, Colonel Kurz, from his
novel "Heart of Darkness" (Apocalypse Now) about a
westerner who makes himself a god among the hill tribes of Lao. He was
given to delusions of grandeur and megalomania. He suffered from paranoia,
and subscribed to conspiracy theories. Among the people he professed
to hate were the government, the police, the army, the DEA, the missionaries,
other NGOs, the CIA, journalists, researchers, photographers, The Shan
State Army, Americans, backpackers, tourists, Thais, and any person,
connected with any project involved with the Akha, other than his own.
He even hated the volunteers who came to help him in the village, calling
them hippies with cameras and free loaders. Over half of the volunteers
who worked with Matthew, during my time in the village, either left,
or were kicked out, after a heated argument. My intent is not to kick
a man when he is down, but to demonstrate that some of Matthew's methods
may have become unsound, causing needless tension with the Thai government,
and leading to Matthew's inevitable expulsion from the Kingdom. Although
many of Matthew's allegations of abuse are verifiable, the best way
to get anything done in Thailand is to work with, not against the government.
His Majesty, The King is one of the most responsive and most popular
leaders in the world.
If Matthew is deported, his wife and children will not be able to accompany
him, as they are stateless persons. This fact at once demonstrates the
impact on his family, as well as one of the legitimate issues facing
the majority of Thailand's hill tribes. Denied Thai citizenship, it
is virtually impossible for hill tribe people to immigrate to other
countries. Matthew had often said that if he were deported, he would
become stronger, furthering the Akha cause from the US. This remains
to be seen. But what is certain is that with Mathew gone, his hands-on
work in the villages will end. Many of the villages are in dire need
of assistance. One village in particular, Hoo Yo village, is facing
starvation, as their land has been seized, and the villagers only have
enough rice to last until September. On a micro level, Matthew was doing
good work for a number of needy people. He was personally subsidizing
the food budget of a family of fifteen, who were existing on less than
$150 Baht ($5.00) per day. In another village he was supporting a widowed
healer woman, her grandson, and her blind daughter.
Recently, Matthew had asked me to find an artificial leg for a man,
whose inability to work, after an amputation, will result in his death
by starvation. Now, even if I secured the leg from a donor, I wouldn't
know how to find the man. So much of Matthew's work, the names and locations
of villages and individuals, was kept inside of his head. Even if there
were a second, waiting on the sidelines, to step up and continue his
work, it would be impossible.
Irrespective of personality flaws, over-zealous behavior, and indelicate
treatment of our Thai hosts, Mathew's cause, helping the Akha people
was a just one. And now, there is no one to take up the baton.
If you want to help Mathew or know more - contact the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org
the Maekok River
Antonio Graceffo in Thailand
all rights reserved