Connect to share and comment

Paper airplane, or paper tiger?

Meet Mong Thongdee, a 12-year-old "security threat" in Thailand.

A woman takes part in the All Japan Paper Airplane Championship in Tokyo, Nov. 1, 2008. Mong Thongdee qualified for an expenses-paid, global paper airplane competition. (Yuriko Nakao/Reuters)

BANGKOK — Maybe the Thai government shouldn’t have deemed 12-year-old Mong Thongdee a security threat.

That was the declaration that — in the public’s eye, at least — seemed to pit stodgy officials against adolescent dreams.

For weeks, the media here has been smitten with Mong, a Thai-born fourth-grader with a passion for flight. “Since first grade, I’ve loved observing planes in the sky,” he told GlobalPost in a phone interview. “One day, I started building little planes out of plastic and, later on, out of paper.”

Mong’s designs have proved agile. After one of his planes stayed aloft for 12.5 seconds, he qualified for an expenses-paid, global paper airplane competition held Sept. 19-20 in Chiba, Japan. Mong’s flight time has bested all others in his age bracket.

But Mong, born to Burmese construction workers in the Thai city of Chiang Mai, is essentially a citizen of nowhere. Thai law insists that, by parentage, Mong belongs to Burma — a neighboring country that does not even recognize his birth. Though Mong calls Thailand home, he’s always been a “temporary resident” at risk of deportation.

For stateless kids like Mong, a passport — much less citizenship — is largely out of the question. Only through talent, tears and the prime minister’s intervention has he secured temporary papers allowing a one-time-only trip to Japan. After Thailand’s Interior Ministry ruled that Mong’s travel request countered a law protecting “national security,” Thai TV outlets broadcast footage of him sobbing and begging for help. “He was so hurt,” said Yoon Thongdee, the boy’s father. “He cried for a whole day.”

As the contest’s registration deadline drew close last week, Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva decided to intervene. Mong’s next major TV appearance was taped inside parliament. There, the premier and the 12-year-old — a visitor’s pass clipped to his pastel blue school uniform — played with paper planes in front of cameras. The bureaucratic barriers suddenly melted away.

Mong now appears Japan-bound via a special temporary passport. Each night, he folds planes and does push-ups to grow “strong enough for the competition,” his father said.

“I’ve been making my muscles strong,” Mong said. “The prime minister told me to bring that championship back to Thailand and ‘fight, fight!’”