Growing Up Without a Country: Stateless People in Thailand

BY: Hilly McGahan

On my first day in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I met two bright 20-year-olds named Sang and Ter. Sang is a top student who dreams of studying medicine and working as a doctor in Thailand. Ter is an athlete who was recruited to play for a professional Thai soccer club. Both were kind and quick to laugh.

But Sang and Ter also happen to be stateless. This means that they have no citizenship or legal status in any country. And as such, they cannot pursue their dreams in any country. Just as Ter was signing his contract to play professional soccer, the Thai government informed him he cannot legally play. Citizenship in any country is required to play professional soccer in Thailand. And despite Sang’s academic success at her university, she will never become a doctor because she is not eligible for scholarships and cannot legally work in Thailand even if she graduates from medical school.

I didn’t know much about stateless people before I met Mueda Nawanat, a human rights attorney and legal consultant based in Chiang Mai. Mueda (she goes by “Da”) and I first met through the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Program when she traveled to Montana as part of a professional exchange. In Montana, Da learned about my work as a domestic violence attorney on the Flathead Reservation. Now I am in Thailand with Da, learning about her work with stateless people.

Da herself is a former stateless person who was born in Thailand to a family from the Karen ethnic group. Da’s parents fled the civil war in Myanmar 49 years ago and crossed the border to Thailand, where she was born 20 years later. When a stateless peoples’ activist named Santiphong Moonfong met Da, she was 12 years old and had been told that she could not continue to study without Thai citizenship. With Moonfong’s help, Da was able to continue her studies and her story was used as a case study that ultimately urged the government to change Thailand’s Nationality Law. Da had to wait 10 years for the law to change. She was finally granted citizenship at the age of 22. Today, Da travels around the Thai-Myanmar border region to conduct mobile legal clinics and community education about stateless peoples’ issues.

I joined Da on a trip to a remote Karen village in the jungle called Ban Po Sor. There, Da joined other non-governmental organizations, local government agencies, and the Thai National Human Rights Committee to conduct a mass registration of stateless people. Stateless people from three villages gathered in Ban Po Sor over four days to begin the process of obtaining legal status. Stateless families gathered outside an open-air community hall near the school, surrounded by stilt houses and tall palms, waiting to meet with one of the nine legal consultants working on laptops charged by solar cells. Some families waited for three days before meeting with Da or another consultant.

Much of Da’s work involves compiling complex family histories, analyzing the ages and birthplaces of stateless family members, and then determining what evidence exists to prove these facts to the government. Depending on these factors, Da determines who is eligible to apply for Thai citizenship or permanent residency, and who is ineligible under current Thai law. On the first day, Da worked with one family for more than 10 hours, and still their application for Thai citizenship was not completed until the next day.

An estimated 4 million stateless people live in Thailand. This number includes indigenous people from Thailand, indigenous people who have fled to Thailand from civil war in countries like Myanmar, some migrant workers, and some refugees. (Many migrant workers and refugees have citizenship in their birth countries, which means they are not stateless). I was surprised to learn that the Thai government surveys communities of stateless people and issues them identification cards. These cards confer no legal status, though—they essentially provide documentation that an individual is stateless.

Sang and Ter’s families are both from the Shan ethnic minority. They fled to Thailand to escape the violence in Myanmar. Sang was born in Thailand, and Ter was born in Myanmar. I asked Sang and Ter how often they think about the fact that they are stateless. Without hesitation, both said they are keenly aware of their statelessness every single day. “I think about it when I first open my eyes in the morning,” Ter told me.

Although Sang was able to get a limited Thai driver’s license, it allows her only to drive within the small district where she lives. Travel for stateless people is limited to their districts. They need special permission to travel outside their district or province, and even then, they can only travel for seven days. Sang told me about a time when she took all the necessary steps to travel outside of her district. She filled out all the paperwork properly and carried everything with her on the bus trip. At a checkpoint, all the passengers were asked for identification, and only Sang was asked to step off the bus, which left without her. The police detained Sang and searched her bags. After they found that she had the proper paperwork, the police made her buy a new bus ticket. These things happen to her all the time, she said. She cannot escape her statelessness.

Like U.S. immigration and naturalization laws, Thailand’s policies on immigration and stateless people are complex and have changed often and contradictorily over the last half-century. Although Sang was born in Thailand and Ter was born in Myanmar, both fall into a category under Thai law that makes them ineligible to apply for Thai citizenship or residency. Da hopes that within 10 years, the policies will change and Sang and Ter will finally obtain legal status in Thailand. Until then, their dreams will be deferred.

Moonfong, the director of Thailand’s Legal Status Network Foundation (LSNF)—and the activist who first inspired Da to fight for her citizenship—believes in the ability of Thai law to solve the problem of statelessness. To get there, though, he says the LSNF must continue addressing negative attitudes about stateless people among the Thai government, police, and citizens. This will require the government to enforce existing laws that protect stateless people, and to improve the nationality policies to protect people like Sang and Ter. To change attitudes that in turn change laws, Moonfong says education is key. The LSNF’s 32 member organizations organize mobile classrooms around Thailand to educate stateless communities about their existing rights, and the LSNF also educates Thai government officials at all levels about the rights of stateless people.

Although my work as a domestic violence attorney in Montana differs vastly from Da’s work with stateless people in Thailand, our methods and ultimate goals are strikingly similar: to use education and direct representation to ensure the enforcement and improvement of laws that uphold fundamental human rights. But changing attitudes—and especially laws—is a slow, uphill battle, and no one feels this more than Sang and Ter.

I am grateful to the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana, the U.S. Department of State, and the YSEALI Program for this powerful opportunity to exchange experiences working in the field of human rights. The struggles of Da, Sang, and Ter have opened my eyes to an issue that I will now follow with a sharper and more personal interest. And I will forever be inspired by the people of Ban Po Sor and the Thai organizations that work to guarantee their fundamental human rights.

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