Ending statelessness

A human rights activist is hard at work to normalise the lives of people without citizenship in Thailand

Tuenjai Deetes, back row, is always happy to see elderly tribal people receive their ID cards. Photos Courtesy of the Hill Area and Community Development Foundation (HADF)

A veteran advocate for the rights of stateless communities in Thailand, Tuenjai Deetes has for close to half-a-century devoted her life to helping them achieve their rightful status in a nation they have resided in for long enough to love and cherish as their own.

Since 2015, she has been commissioner for the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, and continues to take every opportunity she receives to share her passion about ending statelessness in Thailand.

Affectionately addressed as Kru Daeng by her many admirers, Tuenjai's latest accolade was a finalist spot at the Asia-Pacific 2018 Nansen Refugee Award.

According to stats from Thai authorities, there are over 2 million non-Thais registered under the 2008 Civil Registration Act, out of which approximately 480,000 are reported to be stateless.

The human-rights crusader's hard work through the decades has borne fruit in the form of ending statelessness among elderly tribal people in the north of Thailand, when she and her team helped initiate amendments of laws and regulations for naturalisation and other benefits they were then entitled to.

Tuenjai, who's committed herself to working to end statelessness in Thai society since 1974, also had a big hand in helping accelerate naturalisation, under the Cabinet Resolution dated Jan 18, 2005, for six groups of people facing personal legal-status issues, especially groups born outside of Thailand, so they could properly assimilate into Thai society by having rights to such basic necessities as education and health.

Her persistence and devotion to the cause has also helped in speeding up glitches arising from addressing bottleneck problems, which often stem from proposals to re-engineer pending issues such as backlog of cases, lack of registration officers, and more.

"I had always heard so much about the tribal groups in Thailand that it was my deepest of desires to see them in their element," remarked the legislator, who contributed to the enactment of two pivotal laws concerning nationality and civil registration. "It was as a young first-year student at Chulalongkorn University that I first had the opportunity to visit their communities in the north of Thailand, and found they had much to teach us city people about the benefits of living a grassroots existence."

Tuenjai was just 20 when she began her work with tribal communities as a volunteer.

She observed how, through personal know-how and that of the royal patronage projects, they worked the land and looked after their families.

Growing from strength to strength in their natural habitat, they appeared grateful for being given the opportunity to reside on Thai soil under the patronage of the royal family.

Through the decades, as their communities grew in numbers, Thai government agencies founded charities which donated and supported what they required to sustain themselves.

Having worked closely with them, Tuenjai did not feel they needed charity, as she explains: "From personal experience I discovered that they are capable of looking after themselves, because, for one, they are self-sustaining communities who are well-versed in caring for nature because it is from it that they get their sustenance.

"From growing their own produce to raising poultry, they have high reverence for nature. Another aspect of their life that I observed was how they thrived in their natural habitat."

The more time Tuenjai spent with them, the more she realised the importance of embracing differences in society and viewing it in a positive light.

The issue of legal status actually arose when tribal development projects such as the Hill Area and Community Development Foundation (HADF) was introduced to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Tak, she said. Prior to this, statelessness was never an issue because they were rather content with residing under the patronage of the king.

"During this period, civilisation was brought into their otherwise primitive communities, and major changes began to take place. While the royal projects introduced them to growing winter fruits like peaches and strawberries instead of opium, keeping up with changing times, they began to leave the confinements of their tribal surroundings to seek employment and career opportunities outside.

"This is when they began to require personal legal status so they would have rights to education, health, work and travel.

"This is when the issue of stateless people became an agenda."

In the past, obtaining Thai citizenship was rather easy, as the number of people seeking to do so was few.

After the promulgation of the 1997 Constitution, there were protests and demonstrations from various groups such as the Assembly of the Poor and Community Forest movement.

Then in 1998, there was the uprising of groups of ethnic minorities in the name of the Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (NIPT) in front of the Chiang Mai Provincial Office, demanding their rights be heard.

"Since then, there has been a greater focus on addressing the issue of statelessness; and laws have been drafted to address this issue head-on. While some people might be under the impression that developments have been slow, stats have shown that in this region, Thailand has progressed more and made more inroads into addressing statelessness than its neighbours."

Tuenjai said that while much progress has been made, ongoing concerns such as the entitlement of rights with the acceleration of personal legal status for the elderly and young stateless persons born outside Thailand need to be kept under scrutiny, and brought to the attention of Ministry of Interior (MoI).

So far, she added, over 25 stateless senior people in Chiang Rai have been granted citizenship, while others are on the waiting list to get screened so their cases can move forward -- thanks to the collaboration between district officers, academics and local non-profit organisations.

"To achieve our goal, we need collaboration between people who share the common belief that stateless people have the right to live a life with basic necessitates like education, health and the career of their choice. When you truly understand this, we can empathise with the difficulties they are facing and do our best to see that their rights are not infringed upon.

"No one individual can claim overall success when it comes to addressing statelessness, which I believe can end in Thailand once there is continuity from everyone involved."

Having legal status means a lot to the stateless tribal communities that have resided in Thailand for centuries. Courtesy of the Hill Area and Community Development Foundation (HADF