Hill Tribe minority groups in Thailand find it difficult to lead normal lives. 1
Solomon Paya, born to the Akha tribe in a remote hillside village near Chiang Rai, has never traveled more than 150 kilometers away from his home. It’s hard to imagine Paya’s world shrinking any further but it is – thanks to Thailand’s web of laws and bureaucracy that penalizes those without citizenship.
"We are afraid to go to the city; we don’t speak Thai. People would cheat us, the police would arrest us," says the 28-year-old Akha highlander, who now hardly ventures far from the Thai border town of Mae Sai, where he makes a living teaching English to Thais and underprivileged kids.
Stricter law enforcement, alleged corruption and bureaucratic mismanagement have imprisoned him in his tiny town. It’s a situation that runs counter to the semi-nomadic culture of Paya’s tribe, whose failure to register his birth has effectively locked him out of mainstream Thai society.
Many years ago, the checks at roadblocks around northern Thailand were merely cursory. So much so that once Paya bribed a cop 5,000 baht to drive him to Chiang Rai, just to go sightseeing – many times the normal bus fare to the city. Paya and the cop were waved through numerous checkpoints during their 60km journey.
Now, however, he doesn’t bother venturing far. "I cannot move anywhere. The police will ask for a bribe or put me in jail," he says.
A government official downplays these claims of corruption. "We have heard of [corruption] but it is not as much as people think. Just one or two cases. But people always speak about it nevertheless," says Sirirat Ayuwathana, deputy director general of the Social Development and Welfare Department.
Paya is just one of hundreds of thousands of minority people of his age to never have been issued a Thai ID card, even though he was born in the country. Paya has, in effect, fallen into a legal black hole. Without proper papers, Paya cannot marry, attend a government school or get an official job. He is not eligible for medical and social benefits. And he cannot even travel outside of the area around his home. Until he obtains official records, he will remain part of a shadowy underclass, eking out a parallel existence in a country he cannot call his own.
"Undocumented people are treated as illegal people, although they are not," says Karm Sermchaiwong, a lawyer who has been dealing with highlander issues for many years. Out of Thailand’s one million hilltribe people, including the Akha, Lisu, Karen, Lahu, Mien, Mhong, and Lua, only an estimated 50 percent have been issued Thai ID cards, according to figures from UNESCO. Hilltribe campaigners, however, caution that these numbers are just guesswork. "Nobody really knows how many there are," says David Feingold, international director of UNESCO’s trafficking and HIV/AIDS project.
Celebrated in only tourist brochures, the government has only recently stepped up efforts to come to grips with its minority groups. Now, UNESCO – with support from the British government and the Social Development and Human Security Ministry – is launching a survey to look at hilltribe demographics. It will be the largest survey of its kind, covering 11,000 households (out of 18,000) in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son. Part of the program includes an awareness-raising campaign aired on the radio in the minorities’ own languages. Crucially, it will also try to get to the nub of the problem, determining which factors are major barriers in the path to procuring citizenship.
Up to 25 years ago, the lack of legal status wasn’t a problem for Thailand’s minority groups, as many lived in isolated communities, with little contact with the outside world. But since the government crackdown on opium-growing started around 30 years ago, countless hilltribe people have been forced to drift down to the lowlands in search of work. Many get sucked into an undertow of poorly paid or illegal jobs, forced to run the gauntlet of human trafficking agencies who promise to smuggle them to bigger towns. Some minority girls, who are disproportionately represented in the sex trade, have inadvertently ended up in prostitution this way. As a result, HIV/ AIDS is rampant in hill tribe communities (see sidebar).
Despite the government’s periodic efforts to grant citizenship to its minorities, starting some 40 years ago, a vast number are still left out in the cold. This is allegedly due in part to a combination of fiendishly complex registration procedures, discrimination toward highlanders and petty corruption. The lack of awareness and language skills on the highlanders’ side and the difficulty of reaching these centers of officialdom from remote, mountaintop villages complicates the situation further.
In the past, to ease the process for highlanders, the government carried out sporadic campaigns to survey and register people living in the country; the most recent one being in January 2005. However, in reality, progress has been sluggish, held back by a number of issues, including limited resources. "The policy of the government is not so clear on how to solve the problem. There has been no progress," says Sakdah Saenmi, director of IMPECT, a hilltribe advocacy group.
Despite the government’s moves to make the process simpler, Thailand’s citizenship laws, among the most complex in the world, are still a bureaucratic nightmare. No less than 18 types of ID cards exist for various different ethnic groups; applying for one can take years. There are two birth certificates: one legal, the other just a delivery document recording that the mother gave birth. Dauntingly complex, the process fazes even government functionaries, who may be penalized for the slightest administrative mistake. As a result, few officials appear willing to go the extra mile for highlanders.
The government also views the hilltribe people’s citizenship as a national security issue, a problem exacerbated by intermittent flows of tribal groups from the Mekong subdelta region, such as Burma’s Shan or Karen groups fleeing guerilla wars at home.
"The government uses the influx of migrants as an excuse, saying that if we register the hilltribes, maybe illegals will also get in," says UNESCO’s Feingold.
In 2005, the government completed a national survey of school-going children under 18. This, however, does not cover adults and children not attending school. Some campaigners say that people over 18 actually form the larger half of the great number of unregistered, as many back then were simply born at home, not in hospitals, where they would have at least obtained a delivery certificate.
"This problem must be solved immediately," warns IMPECT’s Sakdah. "When the newer generation of minority groups grows up, if they find no security in the mountains, they will go to the cities." Like many of his generation, Paya’s family moved from village to village, especially when he was a boy. Neither of his parents, who were themselves without papers, thought to register his or his siblings’ births. By the time they woke up to their lack of legal status, it was already too late, at least according to officials. "You should have done this 10 years ago," he was told by surly clerks when he went back to his home district, at the age of 19. In theory, even a 10-year delay should not have been a bureaucratic impediment, yet Paya has since spent more than 100,000 baht on lawyers willing to take on his case. Nine years of battling with officialdom have left him bitter. "The land in which I was born does not give me any rights. It even wants to push me out. Yet government officials are cheating and giving other people fake IDs," he says.
Amalee McCoy, a child rights advisor for Plan Thailand, is an American-born national whose mother is Thai. Even for her, obtaining citizenship, was a complex process which took weeks and involved bringing the village headman with her to the district office. McCoy was already prepared with legal knowledge and the financial wherewithal but she says that the highlanders she assists aren’t so lucky. "The odds are stacked against you, it’s so confusing. But especially for people with no money, and who are discriminated against, it can be horrendous."1 Adapted from: Lim Li Min. IHT/ ThaiDay.
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