Bangkok: Boon is a 44-year-old, barefoot lawyer who heads the human rights clinic in Mei Aai district, Northern province of Chaing Rai in Thailand. Aided by UNICEF, she visits villages and district authorities to pursue the cause of stateless people in the country.
Neeta Kolhatkar / DNA
Nasoh is a 12-year-old student, born in Chai Sen. Her parents are Thai, but hold a pink card
Boon herself is a victim of the stateless problem. She was 22 when she learnt that although she was born and lived in Thailand, she had no nationality. “My mother missed the census and although she is Thai by birth, I am not a citizen. In 2002, some of my relatives got Thai citizenship. I got an identity card and then realised I was not a citizen of this country,” Boon says.
Boon began making enquiries with district-level authorities, who told her she needed to prove she was a Thai national. “I was frustrated with the system but I did not get bogged down. Instead, I decided to take this up as a challenge. I studied law and began to pursue my citizenship,” she says.
She went to her birthplace and spoke to relatives, a midwife, neighbours and relatives who had witnessed her birth. She drew a family tree of those relatives who had received Thai nationality, and was helped by professor Phunthip Sasoonthorn, faculty of law, Thammasat University, lawyers and UNICEF. “They took DNA samples from me and my relatives. The cost was exorbitant, but finally, my case was admitted in court and I won it,” says a beaming Boon.
Human Rights Clinic has paid for the families of two of us and it came to nearly 80,000Bahts because of the distance between the relatives.
After 2006, 1,243 applicants could be admitted. There are more than 100 students and a total of 3,000 people who have applied for citizenship. Till now, 100 of them have received Thai nationality.
Apart from Boon, others, like Panee Sukom, 25, are suffering despite being the children of Thai nationals. Sukom’s mother came to Thailand from Myanmar over four decades ago; Sukom was born before 1992, and under Thai law, that makes her eligible for citizenship. But her civil registration certificate says she was born in Burma, while her birth certificate says she was born in Thailand.
“In my case it is the local officer who made a mistake in my civil registration. I don’t know if it was deliberate, because my mother is illiterate and could not read it at the time and correct it on the spot,” Sukom says. Today, she is married to a Thai man, has a child who is a Thai national, but still has a long fight ahead.
“The fact is, not having Thai nationality or citizenship means one is deprived of all rights. I get no voting rights, I can’t own land or a house,” says a sad Sukom.
Nasoh, a 12-year-old student, was born in Chai Sen. Her parents are Thai but hold a pink card. When the refugee problem escalated, the Thai government came out with a proposal to give refugee cards to Burmese migrants. Nasoh’s parents took the card with the hope that they would get benefits, not realising that their citizenship would be nullified.
“My parents took it because they could not read. They thought the pink card was free and would give them some benefits, but it changed our status completely. Today we have zero status,” says Nasoh.
Her parents gave her up for adoption to her aunt and uncle, who were childless and who notified her as their daughter. However, last year, when volunteers came to tell her of her status, Nasoh realised she had zero none. “I began to feel different from others the minute I realised I was not a Thai national. In class, nobody treats me badly or excludes me, but I feel odd about this whole experience.”
The fact is, the Thai government has been trying to address this issue based on the national security concern. The Thai national human rights commission, civil society organisations and academicians have pressured the government into seeing this with a humanitarian approach. In the last three years, three acts – the Immigration Act, the Nationality Act and the Civil Registration Act – have been amended to solve this problem.
“The stateless people’s issue is of concern to the government because they see it as being related to national security. This is the mainstream, conventional way of seeing things,” says Dr Amara Pongsapich, anthropologist with Chulalongkorn University.
The shift in this approach, Amara says, came when the sub-commission roped in academicians and human rights groups. However, victims face problems at the district level because officials are not accustomed to the human-rights approach.
“A paradigm shift was pushed by civil society and academicians. However, district officers who work on this issue are caught in a dilemma – whether to follow the law to the letter, or be humanitarian. They don’t have an open mind about human rights. Although information has been passed down regarding the amendments to the law, they seem reluctant to implement them,” Amara says.
The government Human Rights Commission says one of the biggest hurdles is making other departments and ministries understand the human security issue and help them shed their traditional roles as security officials.
“We are not only the implementing agency, but the monitoring agency as well. Cabinet ministers take our views and reports seriously. It is not easy at the district level,” says Ekachai Pinkaew, a senior officer of the Human Rights Commission. “On the other hand, it is equally hard working with other ministries. I have to convince and negotiate with the military and immigration officers. We need their support but this is a typical characteristic of the bureaucracy,” Pinkaew adds.
An important development this week was that the Human Rights Commission could get the approval of the National Health Commission to pass the right to health for stateless people. “Ministers are open to new ideas; this week, we discussed the right to health for stateless people as it has already been passed by the National Health Committee. It will soon be passed in Parliament,” Pinkaew adds.