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Stateless Minorities Struggle for Recognition, Services in Thailand

  • Daniel Schearf

In this 2005 file photo, some 480 hill tribe ethnic minority men temporarily entered the Buddhist monkhood for five days at a ceremony in Chiang Mai, Thailand, after the Thai government granted them citizenship, and they became monks to celebrate

In this 2005 file photo, some 480 hill tribe ethnic minority men temporarily entered the Buddhist monkhood for five days at a ceremony in Chiang Mai, Thailand, after the Thai government granted them citizenship, and they became monks to celebrate

Thailand is home to hundreds of thousands of people who were born there, but are not recognized as citizens because they lack documentation. Some are ethnic Thais, though many more are ethnic minorities living in remote hill tribes.

As many as one third of them lack citizenship. Without citizenship they cannot own land or vote, often are excluded from state-funded health care and must get permission to leave their villages.

Gaining citizenship

A group of people receive proof of citizenship in a ceremony at the Thai parliament. DNA tests proved their parents were Thai citizens, so they can now become citizens.

It is bittersweet for the mother of Bangkok native Adisak Lertchum, an ethnic Thai who has waited 45 years to get access to social services, such as subsidized health care. It came too late to save her son's leg.

He said he had cancer for more than 10 years in his leg but, since he did not have any money, he could not afford to go to the hospital. Since he did not have any treatment, he said, they had to cut his leg off.

Adisak Lertchum was stateless because his parents failed to register his birth.

Determining ethnic minority status

Rights groups say an estimated 300,000 ethnic minorities in Thailand are in the same situation.

However, Senator Tuang Untachai heads a committee supporting DNA testing and argues there are only about 100,000 stateless who should be given Thai citizenship. The rest, he said, are migrants from other Southeast Asian nations who want access to Thailand's social welfare.

Tuang said those people are migrating to avoid war. He also said some illegal migrants come to Thailand to work, while others come, but do not work.

Indeed, many hill tribe people came illegally to escape conflict and poverty in neighboring Burma. Often they are unable to prove citizenship in Burma.

Others have families that have lived in Thailand for generations, but their births were not registered.

Ma Sa, an ethnic Karen, is one of the only people in her village who was born in Thailand. She is applying for citizenship, and said it will be good for her to become a Thai citizen in case she needs to go to the hospital. She can get a card to get free health care.

Huge disadvantage

Without proof of citizenship, she cannot own land, hold certain jobs, or even leave her village without permission.

At a government office in Mae Hong Son Province, about 20 villagers sit in plastic chairs while their documents and requests are examined and processed. Many stateless minorities are not even aware they lack citizenship until they apply for government services or try to leave their villages.

On the wall are posters explaining the different types of identity cards issued to ethnic minorities. It is a tiered system that grants benefits such as health care to those with certain types of identity papers, but not to others.

Rights groups say the system breeds corruption and that prejudice is a common obstacle. Jaroon Jinakan, a registration official, denies such problems but acknowledges the power to grant citizenship is held by local authorities.

U.N. survey of tribes

Jaroon said the chief will be the one to make the decision to approve citizenship or not. He said it depends on his opinion, knowledge of the law, witnesses provided, and the person applying.

To get a more accurate picture of their plight, the United Nations is working with Thai authorities on the largest survey ever of the tribes.

The last one in 2007 revealed that more than half of those surveyed lacked birth certificates and that stateless children were less than half as likely to get a basic education as other children.

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