Category Archives: Thailand

Thai government changes its approach to the stateless

Thai government changes its approach to the stateless
Neeta Kolhatkar
Wednesday, May 20, 2009 21:01 IST

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.

Illegal is legal

Often there is fun in breaking rules. Especially when u know that it is safe to break rules, point is how safe is it? And who decides the risk factor can be relevant. I’m on a study course – International peace & conflict resolution, at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Till the 8th of Feb we had mentally stiumalting, challenging theory sessions. From Feb 8-15, we were up north of Thailand. Chian rai, Chian Mei, Sai, Chang Khong, Golden Triangle, hall of the Opium -yes to study the illegal human & drug trafficiking. Now apart fm these subjects we were exposed to very crucial isues like the stateless, nationless people, those people who live & move around the hills wc also entails moving across borders. That means although they are the original inhabitants of these hills, long before new countries or states were formed, they are without citizenship, without access to basic amenities like right to puvlic health or even education.

These hill people are fighting for getting their rights (like many other tribals acorss the world), citizenship, some recognition & are clear they do NOT want to be nobody’s children…in this we can see that the broders are Porous -pentrable, security is lax and people move around the countries often indulging in various illicit trades.

Now as part of this study is another agro-economist, a PhD, Sevinch. mostly a reculse but im sure the outdoor trips always help to break walls, communication wc with any amount of efofrt & stimulus doesn’t happen in classroom sessions. After our breakfast on the 2nd day that we stayed in Chai Khong, we decided to explore this small port town.

We clicked pics as visual evidence plastic sacks that are ‘allegedly’ thrown by chinese people on the upstream. Earlier we are told by the villagers & later corroborated by the port authorities that the allegation is true -yet this is all from other people, except the chinese, though i completely believe the villagers. Earlier the chinese would throw the bags in the lower stream, wt political pressure & Mekong river commission pressure they began throwing it in the upper stream, but ofcourse it all flows down eventually. They lie around the river shore, wt even Thai auhtorities doing little to salvage the situation.

We were put up at the Nankhong river side place – an amazing hotel wt splendid (eeks sound very American..2 superlatives in one sentence??) view that one can get all along the Mekong river. It is truly breathtakingly beautiful! We decided to enjoy the moments along the river and we did NOT take the official road or motorable road. Instead we walked along the river wc means we jumped few fences of various river resorts or hotels, climbed down the hill to the port wc was off the ‘narrow’ path. There is a naval guard, i saw them loading their rifles later in the afternoon, but in the morning there presence was NOT felt or seen at all. The only visual evidence of people was, just as the sun was struggling break through the fog, there were hoards of ‘pherangs’ wanting to go across the river to Laos.

When we first arrived, i walked down the village (please it is like a small hill town, even their poor seem richer than the Indian villagers). We saw innumerable foreigners, as in whits, tourists. What were they doing there was a question we all had? Chaing Khong is NO typical tourist place. It has NOTHING like a national park, or attractive mountains. I snooped around the village & was told the prices of many goods including fares of guest houses had increased over 15 % in the last 2-3 years. It wasn’t a sruprise why. every nook & corner there are tour planners, agents who give visas to foreign tourists for Laos.

Sevinch & I continued on our path off the beaten track, & came striaght to the port side which is definitely out of the eye sight of the immigration authorities on the Thai border. We waited & timed the boats that were plying between both the shores. It takes precisely 2 minutes to get across in boat to Laos. The cost being 30 Bahts when going. We decided to give it a shot. She ofcroz played little safe, NOT wanting to get Rotary international into trouble, more so we wanted NO trouble. She reminded me to enquire about the passport. The boatman was straight up NO passport, no bribe, just 30 Baht & sit in the boat . we just made it clear we did not want to roam in Loas, back fm the shore, we just wanted to prove a point reg the border. Had it not been for the course oh ya, sure i would’ve sneaked in further from the border. But we had to be very responsible and that we were.

In this picture u can clearly see this is the check point on in Laos. We treaded carefully, as we disembarked fm the boat, we looked around. Believe me it was like a kick up ur backside. Felt tremendously overwhelmed, felt the taste of ‘freedom’ of a different kind. More so couldn’t believe it was sooooooo simple to get across. Considering neither of us look remotely Thai, Laos or anywhere near slant-eyed, it was very shocking that nobody thought of asking us for our papers, passport, or any such thing. We in fact walked around taking pics. We went right upto the check point. One immgration officer was in the balcony filling out forms, saw the red colour & stars along his arm. Later another joined him stretching himself fully & yawning as he saw me take their pics, which u can see in the above picture.

Now does this all baffle me? actually no, considering this is exactly what our faculty, speakers (sounds more politically correct:) ) have been telling us. The fact is all this happens with the knowledge and well approval of the authorities/ security. May be we were also lucky that it was one of those days when the security officials had decided to go easy on patrolling. Whatever the reason, we experienced first hand that the borders are porous.

It is something that i have heard, seen on television & read in reports that it is not difficult for people to cross international borders across the world. Well that is what we have seen late at nights in Pilani (close to Rajasthan -Pakistan border), Indo-Pak broder, Kashmir, Bangladesh -india border, US -Mexico, so on & so forth.

The exprience was essential. Not because i got to visit one more country to my credit, but the way i could cross over to this country was interesting. I am not surprised that it is easier on the Myanmar – thai or myanmar- inida border. It is even closer. we went under the cross over bridge in Chiang Mei & saw a militray official on a smoke break. If i was enthusiastic & willing to wade through or swim across some really dirty water it was 2 minutes swimming, unlike the mekong wc has a very strong current & would definitely taken over 30 min swimming.

I shared this wt one colleague who asked us to keep mum. though my colleague wanted me to share this incident wt Jen, the deputy dir of the entre. Eventually i did share it with her. Her concern was that if others heard they would have rushed to do the same thing & may be that would’ve brought mroe trouble. Yes, i agree completely, too many foreigners would have attracted undue attention.

Intertestingly, when we hung around the Laos shore or at the port, i wanted to collect more evidence, besides pictures. I offered 10 Bahts as exchange & got 2000 the currency of Laos. Their economy is in doldrums rt now. As for the boat ride rate fm Laos was 40 Bhts. I was later told by few people that Laos gives many attractive packages to tourists. Some hotels give good offers like if u buy some amount of chips, which is pittance in dollar terms they are given 3 days 2 nights free stay wt free massage & other offers…wc is best left to our imagination.

Im proud of my profession & to be in a field like journalism, wc helps to broaden our their minds.
Learn from the ground to feel the pulse of the people & at the same time face situations head on, take risks too. else one cannot get a good story. It is exhilirating to say the least that i love such adventures & i am able to fulfill them thanks to my profession. Ofcourse that doesn’t mean i am being modest, i am aware i love to skirt (or rather flirt) with trouble, but then so do the army, police & even doctors. All of us who are in a field that entails risk….we allned to take some toruble on hand.

So long, this input is special for me. rather this whole exprience of being at the chulalongkorn University & attending the peace & conflict resolution course is an unusually empowering exprience. It makes you question, want to inquisitively explore so many realms of life, of conflict & general facts.

This was a fabulously learning experience besides the adventure. It teaches to be alert, inquisitive, questioning & understanding how the whole system functions.