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The International Writers Magazine
:HacktreksNews

American Activist Jailed in Bangkok Awaiting Deportation
Antonio Graceffo


To 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 deportation.

Akha Hill Tribe folk

For 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 Akha people.

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: antonio_graceffo@hotmail.com
Paddling the Maekok River
Antonio Graceffo in Thailand


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