Born a threat: highlanders with no citizenship

Ten hill tribes comprising 1.3 million people are officially recognised as ethnic groups by the government. 100,000 of them do not have citizenship.

By | Wed 1 Jun 2016

Imagine being born in Thailand but having no national identity. Imagine going to a Thai school, with Thai friends, eating Thai food but not being recognised as Thai. Imagine your application to be a person with rights and civil liberties just left on the desk of a provincial officer for twenty years, collecting dust. Imagine the lives of over 100,000 highlanders living in Thailand – a home that still sees them as a threat to national security.

There are 56 ethnic groups in 67 provinces of Thailand, with over 6 million people identified as ethnic. Out of these 56 groups, ten are officially recognised by the Interior Ministry as hill tribes in the north of Thailand. Out of the 1.3 million people identified in these ten groups, roughly 100,000 are without Thai citizenship. This list of ten includes Karen, Hmong, Mien, Akha, Lahu, Lisu, Lua, H’tin, Khamu and Mlabri. Anthropologically speaking, these people, both with and without citizenship, are referred to as ‘Problematic Thais’ by scholars in an attempt to highlight their perceived status within Thai society. These ethnic groups often share different histories, cultures, religions and politics to that of the central Thai government, which, historically, has led the state to believe that they are a threat to national security and the idea of true Thainess. Interestingly, ‘True Thais’, according to this academic distinction, only refers to those from central Thailand. Those from the north, northeast and south are referred to as ‘Regional Thais’.

Bureaucratic Barriers

“The problems for indigenous and highland people really began in the mid-20th century when Thailand changed to a nation state,” explained 50-year-old Dr. Mukdawan Sakboon, lecturer at the Department of Social Sciences and Development Chiang Mai University, who has a PhD in Anthropology from the Macquarie University in Sydney. “The central Thai government began to control land, goods and people, and quite quickly things became a lot more difficult for the millions who were undocumented – many of whom were unaware of any of these changes.”

The government soon began creating documents; lots and lots of them. By 1944, licences had to be obtained for guns, opium cultivation and even for livestock. All of this was to increase taxation, and no one, not even people living in mountains far from the capital, were exempt. The irony is that even though undocumented people were brought into the proverbial fold, having to pay taxes, register their possessions and apply for licences, there was still no pathway for them to register to become citizens.

Dr. Prasit Leepreecha, an ethnic Hmong, works with Dr. Mukdawan at Chiang Mai University. He was the first ever Thai Hmong to have received a PhD after graduating in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Washington. “I was born on the mountains, but I moved down to the lowlands at the age of six,” said 52 year old Dr. Prasit. “I was still not a Thai citizen, but my parents were, thankfully.”

“My parents didn’t register me at birth not because they couldn’t, but because they wanted to avoid the massive taxes that were imposed on families like ours. At the time, you had to register everything from belongings to cattle, and the government would often come and steal a bit for themselves. So we kept off the grid.”

After Dr. Prasit graduated from prathom 6 his father took him to the local provincial registration office along with several neighbours as witnesses, and registered him as a Thai citizen.

He was lucky. His parents were already citizens so the process was fairly easy. But for those without nationalised families or any official documents tying them to Thailand, the application can be very difficult. Many of these people have ancestors who have lived on this land for generations, if not centuries, yet because they lack documentation, they are not eligible for citizenship.

A Day in the Life

Problems for the undocumented highlanders arise when the exclusivity characteristic of citizenship engages the politics of ethnic difference. According to the two academics’ recent talk at the Informal Northern Thai Group, the term ‘hill tribe’ is still strongly associated with the idea of The Other. While they are not outsiders, like foreigners who come from ‘muang nok’ (abroad), they are still ‘others within’ and thus a threat to national security. More progressive scholars now choose to use the word highlanders, a word without such negative connotations, which can also be used to include all sorts of people living in the mountains, from lowlands Thai citizens who’ve moved to the hills, to settled migrant families (registered and unregistered) and indigenous tribes.

“One of the biggest issues affecting highland people in the North of Thailand is the constant stereotyping, misunderstanding and negative attitudes towards them from people across the country,” said Dr. Mukdawan.

“Even today, people often speak about the ‘hill tribe’ people as a threat to national security. We are all criminals, we all grow drugs and use drugs, we are the cause of deforestation across the north,” Dr. Prasit explained. This common belief is still very prevalent amongst the majority of ‘True Thais’, even ‘Regional Thais’, often propagated by media stereotypes, governmental scapegoating and old wives tales threatening children with being snatched away by ‘dirty hill tribe people’ should they be naughty.

“There is a constant fear in the hearts of undocumented highlanders that the authorities, at any time, can come into their communities and demand to see proof of citizenship, arresting and fining people who can’t provide them, and generally causing problems for those yet to hold official citizenship,” says Dr. Mukdawan. Although officially, there is mutual understanding that people currently ‘in the process of obtaining citizenship’ are beyond the reach of authorities – they can’t be relocated outside the country, they do not belong in jail and they cannot be harmed – many still fear extortion, reprisals and pressure should they fail to pay off corrupt officials.

This pantomime politics that constantly dictates the day-to-day lives of undocumented ethnic minorities is neither progressive nor helpful. With no citizenship, the state has no legal obligation to provide education, welfare, services or healthcare, and the rights we all take for granted such as free travel, the right to vote, to protest or to run in elections does not exist for them.
Ironically, migrant workers have more rights and are allowed to hold more jobs than highlanders yet to acquire citizenship. The Alien Working Act of 2008 lists almost 40 jobs that are reserved exclusively for Thai citizens, from selling fried goods at a market to shoemaking and construction. However, according to Dr. Mukdawan, it is not uncommon for authorities to turn a blind eye to migrant workers, both legal and illegal, doing such jobs. Sadly, she claims, both eyes are wide open when it comes to highlanders, who are often arrested and prevented for doing these same jobs.

“Highlanders also fear checkpoints so they very rarely travel, which restricts their opportunities, experiences and freedoms,” she continued, explaining that if an undocumented highlander travels and is stopped at a checkpoint they can be arrested. Currently, hill tribes, ethnic minorities and undocumented indigenous people without Thai citizenship are banned from travelling out of their local area without an official document allowing them to do so, which they must acquire from the local registration office. Foreigners and migrant workers however, are allowed freedom of movement, with few restrictions (90 day check in, anyone?).

So Why the Paranoia?

At the turn of the 20th century, Thailand went through a period of feeling very threatened by outsiders, what with those Brits and French running amok and colonising swathes of Southeast Asia. This fear gave birth to the concept of Thainess that we still see today, a tool that at the time would help unify the country. Interestingly, the first Nationality Act of 1913 actually promoted inclusion rather than exclusion, accepting everybody in the kingdom as Thai regardless of ethnic backgrounds. Citizenship was reasonably easy to obtain and King Rama VI, even invited foreign nationals living in the kingdom to apply.

When Thailand turned into a nation-state in the mid-20th century however, Thai bureaucracy was born. Restrictions, licences, taxation, and general control of the masses came into effect. “Before Thailand was a nation-state, there was no real concept of citizenship in Thailand,” Dr. Mukdawan explained.

The Nationality Act was revised and re-written several times over the century, becoming more and more restrictive during the lead-up to the Cold War. As the Cold War led to the Vietnam War and its masses of refugees poured into Thailand, the paranoia was exacerbated. Citizenship soon became a privilege, and the state even reserved the right to revoke citizenship of anyone they deemed a threat.

From then on, the fear of the others within stuck, and unfortunate as it was, hill tribes, highlanders and numerous other ethnic groups have been viewed as outsiders ever since.

In 1965, the government organised the Dhammachakrit Project which saw hundreds of Buddhist missionaries and government officials take to the hills in a bid to ‘civilise’ the tribes as well as the communist refugees, teaching them Thai language, converting them to Buddhism and preparing them for modern life. Although there were benefits for those targeted, such as access to free education and healthcare, Dr. Mukdawan refused to go as far as to say she supported the programme. This internal colonisation was based around the idea of national security and the belief that these people were not at all Thai, rather than with an idea to help develop their societies. This resulted in abuse and the lack of any effort being made towards providing citizenship for these people.

To gain Thai citizenship the government demanded applicants to display all Thai characteristics, including being able to speak Thai, sing the national anthem, pledge allegiance to the Royal Family, becoming Buddhist and assimilating into ‘True Thai’ culture. “Sadly, even after trying so hard to prove that they are Thai and nothing else, these efforts are mostly ignored and rarely help speed up applications in any way.”

In Officer’s Hands

“Bureaucracy, negative attitudes and corruption are what is holding progress back today,” says Dr. Mukdawan. Despite the fact that only 100,000 out of 1.3 million highlanders are left without citizenship, it is still 100,000 too many. Citizenship approval has now become an instrument for social and political control of marginalised ethnic communities.

Some people have waited over 20 years for their citizenship application to be processed, and despite concerted efforts by the central government to help make the application process easier, more often than not applicants get stuck at the very first gate.

“It all depends on the attitude of the local district authorities when they receive an application,” said Dr. Mukdawan who went on to explain that if the official at the desk has no sympathy, understanding nor interest, then the application often gets stuck before it has even begun its journey. “Officials do one of three things – they do not understand so they just ignore the application, they are corrupt and ask for money (which often cannot be paid) or they just refuse the application before they even look at it because they are ‘playing it safe’, not wanting to jeopardise an upcoming promotion or retirement by doing something wrong.”

In the last few years, the government has made steps to address this issue. A large number of NGOs are now working in collaboration with the government to help process these applications and work as translators and assistants for the highlanders who often have no real understanding of the complexities of bureaucracy or legal protocols and often lack fluency in Thai language. Unsurprisingly, these initiatives have not been well received by many local officials, to the point that the government had to forcefully make them work with NGOs, with threats of punishment if said officers didn’t comply.

Today, 32 NGOs, ethnic group representatives, officials and members of the media are part of an alliance called the Legal Status Network Foundation, a network aimed at promoting the human rights of stateless people in five provinces in northern Thailand. This alliance has found its way into many corners of politics and society in an attempt to change opinions, influence government policy, train officials and actively work with highlanders and ethnic groups in a bid to improve their chances of obtaining citizenship and ultimately accessing the rights they deserve.

Indigenous or Not?

Now that the country is in a state of reform, the Legal Status Network Foundation has managed to make its way into the National Reform Committee, seizing this opportunity to help change the laws from within the system. The ‘Indigenous Peoples Law’ aims to change the way the government categorises and perceives indigenous and ethnic groups, moving away from the out-dated ‘threat to national security’ nonsense.

The two academics do sympathise with the government…to a point. Should all highlanders and ethnic groups be classified as indigenous, then according to the UN’s Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People, they should all be granted citizenship and gain all the rights that come with it. Yet not all these people are indigenous, explained Dr. Prasit, many having moved to Thailand only in the past few decades, which means that while they deserve the rights to citizenship, they should not necessarily be identified as indigenous.

“Things are getting better,” she said, describing recent movements that have brought the issue to the public’s attention. Every year the Indigenous People’s Fair invites the public to get involved in academic and cultural events to raise awareness; a fair that has only grown in popularity since it began in 2007. The Indigenous Media Network is also a very active group of local rights activists from universities across Thailand. This network pushes for a change in opinion towards highlanders and ethnic groups, and lobbies the media to pay more attention to this home-grown issue. Attitudes are slowly changing, and even small things like a change in terminology can further the cause.

Despite so much progression in the last few years, there’s still a long way to go. Officials sitting in provincial offices letting applications collect dust are just as static in their opinions as their actions. “What the government needs to do now is to stop with the status-quo and create a specific timeline, set aside a budget, and finally provide citizenship to those who deserve it,” concluded Dr. Mukdawan.

There are clear misconceptions regarding highlanders and other ethnic minorities in Thailand that need to be seriously addressed. Although the average ‘True Thai’ citizen may not consider highlanders a threat on the level of national security, the old wives tales, textbooks referring to hill tribe people as drug users and criminals, and mass stereotyping still remains. If the government is not careful, this imagined threat could become a reality with more and more highlanders losing any last piece of confidence in a system that proactively ignores them. These people are born in Thailand, they have grown up in Thailand, they eat Thai food, the laugh and joke with Thai friends and they enjoy Thai soap operas. These people are Thai, and it is about time they were recognised as such. They need their rights, so let’s start by giving them that, and then after that we can address that ‘threat’ to national security everyone seems so scared about.