Fos was left angry, anxious, and nervous when her friends at school started bullying her for being mixed-race, half Thai and half Finnish. The shy 16-year-old, still dressed in her school uniform as the school day had just ended, only spoke a few words. Her social studies teacher, Thichanon Chumwangwapee, recounted her story via Zoom from the school in Udon Thani in Northeastern Thailand where he teaches.
Thichanon during one of his lessons
“Sometimes her friends bullied her by stereotyping, saying her mom was a sex worker,” he said.
Ending the bullying was difficult for Fos. Her friends, in addition to saying her mother was a sex worker, also teased her for her physical appearance being different from that of other Thais. Fos tried to tell her friends to stop teasing her. However, she sometimes had to work alone in class in order to avoid it. Thichanon visited Fos’ house to speak with her mother, who told him that other teachers had ignored what was happening between Fos and her friends.
“[They ignore it] because, they told me, this problem is normal. That they could not solve it. [They think] this is not a big problem. They think not many luk khruengs must suffer this. They think many luk khruengs can solve the problem by themselves.”
Fos’ struggle with bullying is not uncommon for mixed-race children in Thailand. She is what is known as a luk khrueng, a Thai word for a mixed-race person. Thailand has a complex history in its attitude toward luk khruengs. While many have found fame and fortune in the entertainment industry due to their unique looks, many like Fos are bullied and made outcasts. Stereotypes about luk khruengs being prostitutes’ children began in the 1970s when during the Vietnam war. American soldiers often came to Thailand during their breaks, and formed relationships with Thai women, some of whom were sex workers.
Since then, relationships between Thais and foreigners have occurred in many other forms. Interracial marriages began to increase in 1990, Thichanon said, due to Thailand’s tourism industry bringing in foreigners from abroad. Many relationships, he said, formed through genuine love and connection.
In 2004, approximately 87 percent of the 20,000 Thai women in the Isaan region, Thailand’s Northeastern region, married to foreigners are married to men from Europe, North America, Australia, or New Zealand. While the number of foreigners in Udon Thani specifically is not documented, government records stated that there were 27,000 foreigners living in the Isaan region in 2010. 90 percent of those foreigners were men married to Thai women. In Fos’ secondary school of 1700 students, 17 of them are luk khruengs of Australian, English, Japanese, South Korean, and Finnish descent.
Still, Thais young and old continue to believe that luk khruengs are largely products of the country’s sex industry, resulting in bullying like that of Fos’ situation. While there are not many available statistics on the extent of bullying towards luk khruengs, many have detailed such stories of ostracism by their peers in interviews.
In July 2020, Thichanon noticed that many of the 17 luk khruengs at his school experienced similar bullying to Fos. Their peers mocked their physical appearances being different than other Thais, or said that their mothers must have been sex workers. The 33-year-old knew he had to act. He has since been designing a curriculum to help students better understand the diversity of their local demographics, and the experiences of their mixed-race peers. At the same time, he is earning a PhD in education, and now focuses on the challenges that luk khruengs face.
“Other teachers ignore this problem, and it continues. I thought if I ignored this problem, it would continue. I thought I must bring this topic to the classroom and talk about it and make them understand diversity in the community,” Thichanon said.
Thichanon gave Fos the opportunity to share her family history with her class. She also discussed the bullying she had experienced and how it made her feel. After this, the situation improved a lot.
He now teaches his students about the diverse history of interracial and transnational marriages between Thais and foreigners, and the struggles that luk khruengs face in Thai society. He believes that Thai schools only teach diversity in a superficial way, and do not do enough to teach students about the challenges that minorities face. The Thai school curriculum, he says, does not teach the reality of local communities’ diversity, and how that diversity came to be.
“Thai schools teach a surface level of diversity that only teaches the beautiful dimensions of diversity. They never teach the history or oppression of subjugated groups. They teach only the culture of dominant groups,” he said.
Some schools in the surrounding area have since heard about Thichanon’s curriculum, and other teachers have contacted him asking how they can implement such changes at their schools. But some educators think Thailand will take a long time to make such changes.
Kasama “Mai” Yotin, a mother and teacher at a bilingual school in Chiang Mai, said that diversity is not a priority in social studies curriculums in Thai schools.
“The adoption of diversity management has not happened at school. History class or social science class in Thai schools are predominantly about Thai history where Thailand and its people are the center of the stage, thus creating nationalist sentiments where the identity of ‘Thainess’ is distorted,” she said.
The bullying against luk khruengs may be part of the country’s larger issue of racism and xenophobia, and the way it leaks into the country’s school system. Some have accused Thailand’s education system of labeling Malay Muslims in Southern Thailand as threats to national security. Mai said that Sikh children who wear turbans are also bullied for looking different. She added that xenophobia is upheld in the way that children of migrants from Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar are not allowed to attend Thai schools.
According to BBC Thai, despite the Thai government ruling in 2005 that children of migrant laborers had the right to study in Thai schools, many Thai school administrations still do not understand the procedures of admitting migrant students who lack Thai citizenship and identification documents. This makes it difficult for migrants’ children to attend schools in Thailand.
Some politicians are noticing problems with bullying in Thai schools. On 29 of March 2021, newly appointed Education Minister Trinuch Thienthong vowed to combat bullying, in addition to violence by teachers toward students. .
Thichanon said that in order to decrease racial bullying against mixed-race children in Thailand, young Thais must be taught how difficult it is for luk khruengs to face bullying and discrimination.
“They should understand luk khruengs’ lives and their family backgrounds. Not surface level, but deep understanding. I think if people understand difference and diversity, this could change behavior,” he said.
Fos said that being given space to express how being bullied made her feel was helpful in making it stop.
“A good way is to talk with other people about my feelings. It’s a good way to teach other people about bullying because other people will understand my feelings. Then other people will stop bullying me,” she said.