BANGKOK – The Council of People with Disabilities of Thailand filed a lawsuit against the military government in early 2017 to try to stop the junta’s attempt to withdraw 2 billion baht ($60 million) from the public Fund for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities.
“We know that we are going to lose ... but it is a symbolic demand for the government to think about whether it is right or not (to make the withdrawal),” said Wiriya Namsiripongpun, a blind university professor of law and a member of the council.
The government said that diverting that amount of money to another state fund is allowed under Thai law, according to Wiriya.
The Fund for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities currently holds some 10 billion baht (about $300 million), which partly comes from special taxes the government has collected under the Persons with Disabilities Empowerment Act.
In January, the Central Administrative Court decided not to accept the lawsuit. The council then appealed to another court, and is now waiting for its decision.
The Thai lawyer, who is also president of the Universal Foundation for Persons with Disabilities, pointed out that the problem was the government’s inability to efficiently invest the money from the fund in projects that will help solve discrimination and the exclusion of people with disabilities.
Another obstacle is that the money from the fund can only be used for organizing or promoting programs, but not for funding the facilities where those programs would be hosted which most NGOs and foundations were unable to afford.
There are some 700,000 people with disabilities of working age registered in Thailand, representing about 1 percent of the total population, but only about 100,000 of whom currently have jobs.
Wiriya added that the actual number of disabled people in Thailand could reach 15 percent of the population, but their families did not want to register them officially.
“Many parents don’t want others to know that their children are disabled,” said the law professor from Thammasat University.
In Thailand, it is widely believed that the disabled are paying for the bad karma they amassed in their past lives. It is also common to see blind people busking on the street.
Wiriya believed that much remains to be done to ensure that people with disabilities receive the same opportunities as the rest of the population.
At the foundation’s headquarters in Bangkok, Wiriya established a coffee shop called Yimsoo – which means “brave smile” in Thai – to train disabled people in the restaurant business.
Sujida, a 26-year-old deaf-mute employee, said that her goal is to learn everything she can at Yimsoo and then open her own cafeteria in Bangkok or Yasothon, her hometown in northeastern Thailand.
In Yimsoo, customers need to point out the dishes they want to order on the cashier’s screen, and, if the conversation gets complicated, another waiter who can speak helps Sujida to take the order.
Over a cup of latte, Wiriya told EFE that when he was 15 years old he became blind and lost one finger and part of another while checking out, unaware of the danger, a US bomb used in the Vietnam War.
Thanks to scholarships, he was able to study at a Catholic school in Bangkok and, after graduating with a law degree from Thammasat University, he continued to pursue his legal studies at Harvard University in the United States.
When asked if he was afraid of retaliation from filing a lawsuit against a military government – in power since 2014 – Wiriya responded that he appealed for the military’s promise to comply with the law.
A source from the public Fund for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, which is under the Ministry of Finance, confirmed to EFE the government’s plans to divert the money, but added that the attempt to halve the amount to be withdrawn is currently under negotiation.
Thai officials have been criticized for increasing military spending since 2014, including orders for Chinese submarines, US helicopters and South Korean aircraft, worth over $900 million.