Strangers in a familiar land
Born in Myanmar and registered as 'Siamese', a small minority of migrants with roots in Thailand that go back generations have tried with little success to return and reconnect with the Kingdom, only to come up against a bureaucratic wall
Forty-nine year old Prayoon Srisuwan lives in limbo: considered Thai and refused ID papers by the country of her birth; denied citizenship in the country she and her ancestors have always considered their motherland.
THAI TIES: Ethnic Thais gathered at Wat Thungput to listen to Senator Thanom Songserm, chairman of the Committee on Human Rights, Rights and Liberties and Consumer Protection.
Mrs Prayoon was born in Myeik city, in the Tanintharyi region of Myanmar, and is among 18,000 ethnic Thais from the city who remain stateless. The Tanintharyi region was part of Siam until the Myanmar invasion of 1765 and a sizeable community of ethnic Thais remains there. Authorities in Myanmar designate members of this ethnic group as "Siamese", denying them Myanmar citizenship, a situation that effectively renders them stateless.
"My parents always told me that we were Thai," Mrs Prayoon says. "Even though we were born in Myanmar, no one could take our 'Thainess' away from us."
Facing such discrimination in her birthplace and wanting to reconnect with her Thai roots, Mrs Prayoon decided to come to Thailand with her husband and six children in 1995, when she was 32.
She now lives in Prachuap Khiri Khan's Bang Saphan Noi district, where she and her husband have had two additional children.
"I applied for my ID card five years ago, and received a card whose number started with zero, which means I have no rights as a Thai citizen at all _ I can't apply to become a citizen and can't even leave the district without asking for permission from the district chief," she said. "The ID card I was given was nothing more than a registration card like those given to Myanmar nationals who enter Thailand illegally. But I'm not an illegal Myanmar immigrant _ I am Thai."
Noi Op-tien who originally came from Myeik city in the Tanintharyi region of Myanmar.
The cards mean that migrants are officially registered and can do migrant labour in Thailand, but it entitles them to little else _ their movements are restricted and they have none of the other rights of Thai citizens.
Mrs Prayoon lost even what limited benefit the ID had late last year when the card was seized by her district chief as part of a Department of Special Investigation probe. The DSI was investigating the illegal issuance of ID cards to immigrants, mainly Rohingya and Myanmar, in three districts _ Thap Sakae, Bang Saphan, and Bang Saphan Noi _ in Prachuap Khiri Khan. Some immigrants were illegally issued cards starting with the digit "6", which makes it possible to apply for full citizenship. As a result, all the immigrant ethnic Thais in the three districts have lost their jobs because they have no ID cards.
Noi Op-tien, 40, was also originally from Myeik and came to Thailand 20 years ago with her mother, husband, son and three friends.
"While my city is in Myanmar, there used to be very few Myanmar nationals there at all. There were only us ethnic Thais living there."
She said that situation changed over time as more and more Myanmar nationals moved into the area.
"Many of the ethnic Thais were enslaved. That's why we decided to come to Thailand."
She applied for a Thai ID card and received one in 2004.
"The card has zero as the first digit, which means I'm stateless. But I am Thai, and I have Thai roots. She was fortunate enough not to have her card confiscated during the DSI investigation as she registered in Muang district, which wasn't part of the graft probe.
OH, GIVE ME A HOME
Late last month, Ms Noi was among more than 300 immigrant ethnic Thais gathered at Wat Thungput in Thap Sakae district to attend a meeting of the Committee on Human Rights, Rights and Liberties and Consumer Protection, chaired by Senator Thanom Songserm.
In the eyes of the migrants in attendance, the committee and its works represent the best chance they have to attain Thai citizenship.
PLANTING SEEDS: Exotic wild orchids from Myanmar that are not found in Thailand are sold along the border.
"The reason I'm here today is because I want to ask the government to give us full rights as Thai citizens," Ms Noi said. "We've been living like this, stateless, for so long and the government doesn't seem to do anything to help us. Right now, my eldest son can't even get a job because his ID card's number starts with a zero."
Mr Thanom and his committee were in Prachuap Khiri Khan to encourage officials in Thap Sakae, Bang Saphan, and Bang Saphan Noi to implement relevant provisions of the Nationality Act _ which went into effect on March 22 of last year and guarantees citizenship to properly documented ethnic Thai immigrants _ as swiftly as possible.
Viroj Srisawas, director of the Civil Registration section of the Bureau of Registration Administration of the Interior Ministry's Provincial Administration Department, said that the issue is on his agency's agenda, but the process moves slowly.
"Ever since the law approving citizenship for displaced ethnic Thais came into effect, we've been working on the issue continuously. We've had many meetings and we started estimating the number of displaced Thais across the country. We discovered that there are at least 18,073 people who want to apply for Thai citizenship."
Once that initial assessment was complete, his office began accepting applications, one province at a time. The first was Trat province where 30 displaced Thais were given citizenship, receiving ID cards that started with the number "8", meaning they had full rights as Thai citizens.
They began another review on Feb 1 with another group in Trat with more than 100 applicants.
"The reason we started with Trat first was because they were ready. They submitted applications before anyone else," he said. "I think the delays in Prachuap Khiri Khan are on their side. So far, they haven't submitted any applications."
However, the senator remained optimistic that they would receive Thai citizenship
"With the proper evidence, they will get citizenship with no problems. But from what I've heard in Prachup Khiri Khan provincial office, delays have been caused by the three districts under investigation by the DSI.
"The head of the Muang district has already submitted application forms to the provincial office, while the three districts with problems haven't submitted any. The reason we're here is to push the district offices to work faster, and we're going to bring the problem up with central government in Bangkok.
"The job of a senator is to push forward and monitor the government's work. Even though we in the Senate have no right to give citizenship to displaced people, we are trying to do everything we can to help them. There are plenty of them throughout Thailand.
IT'S IN THEIR DNA
Senator Thanom Songserm said that as a means of tackling the problem his committee is taking a groundbreaking step by bringing DNA testing into the process.
"This year, we're going to launch free DNA tests for displaced ethnic Thais, a project that will continue for two years," he said. "I know a DNA result is the only proof that will persuade some district chiefs that people are entitled to Thai citizenship, but the cost of DNA testing is high. That's why we're going to do it for free for all displaced people who need it.
"We will announce the first results on Aug 12, and the second on Dec 5, and we'll carry on making announcements on those dates for two years so we can all celebrate people gaining their Thai citizenship on the same day we celebrate the birthdays of Her Majesty the Queen and His Majesty the King."
BORDERLINE EXISTENCE: Many shops along the border are owned by displaced ethnic Thais.
About the author
- Writer: Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai