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Stateless in Thailand: Two men’s quest for belonging at the Thai-Myanmar border

By Nicha Wachpanich

Photography by Panumas Sanguanwong

Half a million people in Thailand remain stateless, many of them descendants of Myanmar refugees from one of the world’s longest civil wars. Two men are fighting to claim their birth rights and challenge the nation’s rigid system in a groundbreaking lawsuit.

 

When Chanin created an account on Facebook, he was struck by the sign-up page’s opening line: “It’s quick and easy,” it read, encouraging him to join the social network. But for Chanin, fitting in wasn’t so simple.

As he filled in the personal information box, he used “Chanin” and a variation of the name as his first and last name. His friend Yao, meanwhile, put “Mr. Yao no last name”. 

It was a familiar encounter for the two of them, as they are both stateless. Without last names or a clear legal status, they often received doubtful looks in school or when they presented their pink identity cards identifying them as “foreign nationals living in Thailand temporarily.”

Their experiences are not unique. Millions have fled Myanmar due to decades of political instability and civil war, and the 2021 military coup has caused another one million people to join them. Tak, a province in northwest Thailand on the border with Myanmar’s Karen state, has become a destination for many displaced ethnic Karen people, like the parents of Chanin and Yao.

The war between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the central Myanmar government has become one of the longest ongoing civil wars in history. Thailand’s temporary refugee shelters have turned into permanent settlements, and many descendants of refugees face complications such as their legal status.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2021 there were about 560,000 stateless people in Thailand, with 107,000 in Tak alone. It is one of the highest reported stateless populations in the world.

“I was born in Thailand, I don’t speak Burmese and I have no family there. But I’m not recognized as Thai,” said Chanin. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t belong anywhere, neither in Myanmar nor in Thailand.” 

Now in their forties, Chanin and Yao remain stateless despite working as full-time public health officers, which – somewhat ironically – includes providing legal advice for minority groups at the border. After many unsuccessful requests for Thai nationality, they embarked on a quest to investigate their births and filed a lawsuit against their government in hopes of setting a new standard in this rigid system.

 

Falling through the gaps 

In Thailand, every newborn used to be entitled to Thai citizenship, regardless of their parents’ nationalities, until the 1970s. As the Burmese military waged a bloody war against the country’s ethnic groups, the fear of being overwhelmed by refugees grew in Thailand. In 1972, the Thai military regime declared that any child born to non-Thai parents would no longer be granted citizenship. Instead, only those born to Thai bloodlines were considered citizens. This order also retroactively affected the children of refugees born before 1972.

Chanin and Yao’s parents were living in Hpa-an, the capital city of Karen state, until they fled the war to the Thai side, 12 kilometres away. In Tak’s Tha Song Yang district, both families gave birth to the boys. Chanin was born in 1981, and Yao two years later.

In 1992, Thailand adopted a new, more foreigners-friendly nationality law to address the increasing number of stateless people. It now became easier for newborns of non-Thai parents to receive citizenship. Under certain conditions, the new law also gave Thai citizenship to those whose parents had migrated irregularly before the new regulation.

When Chanin was in his 30s, he heard a call from the village chief that people in his generation – those who had been in legal limbo for 20 years – could apply for Thai citizenship. Chanin remembered looking through a faded yellow copy of his identity record excitedly. His younger sister’s name was on the list of those eligible for Thai citizenship, but his name wasn’t. “Your paper says you were born in Myanmar,” explained the civil clerk.

This was due to a documentation process carried out in 1991 when Chanin was ten years old. The process aimed to register the number of ethnic populations living in Thailand’s remote areas for the first time. It was carried out with volunteer interpreters who were local teachers and bilingual.

“There were many people queuing up for registration on that day. The process was short and confusing. Some information might have been recorded incorrectly,” recalled Mui Hae, Chanin’s mother and the neighbours who attended the registration process.

Yao, the friend of Chanin, also had his birth country incorrectly listed as Myanmar. The two are not alone in this situation. In 2022 alone, the Bureau of Registration Administration received 529 requests from various districts in Thailand to correct similar errors in identity records. 

“There are more than a hundred thousand people in similar situations like Chanin and Yao,” said Siwanoot Soithong, a lawyer representing the men and a long-time legal advisor for Four Doctors at the Tak Border, a project to address the problem of statelessness at the Thai-Myanmar border.

Life in legal limbo

“When I was young, I didn’t give much thought to being stateless.” In Chanin’s class of ten students, only two had surnames, which led him to believe that it was common for ethnic people not to have them. “But think of it now, I missed out on many opportunities,” he said.

In the past decade, access to basic healthcare and primary education has greatly improved for non-Thai citizens living in the country. But a lack of citizenship also means a lack of access to many other rights often taken for granted by the majority.

One major obstacle for stateless people is the inability to apply for student loans, which can discourage many from continuing their education. Additionally, travelling outside of their registered province requires approval from the district office, adding an extra layer of bureaucracy to an already difficult everyday life.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of being stateless in Thailand is navigating the paperwork required for everyday tasks, from banking to buying a car. Often, staff are not familiar with the process for non-Thai citizens and may refuse to assist them from the start.

The disadvantage most deeply felt by Chanin and Yao, as members of an educated bilingual class, is the opportunity to work for their communities. Despite years of experience working as health officers in the only hospital in Tha Song Yang, they cannot register as civil servants. This means there is no career advancement or equitable welfare for them. 

Yao earns a salary of about 10,000 baht (304 USD), while colleagues in the same position who are civil servants make 14,000 baht (426 USD). Additionally, the inability to run for political offices or even vote further limits their ability to give back to and serve their community. 

“My friends like to tease me ‘Hey look, the alien is giving legal advice to the Thais’. It’s a joke between friends but sometimes I do feel hurt,” said Chanin bitterly.

Yao is proud of building his career from scratch and being able to provide for his family. But he struggles with the challenges of being stateless. “My house is registered under another person’s address. If I had Thai citizenship, I would register my house under my own name.”

Investigating the past 

Like most teenagers, Chanin didn’t pay much attention when his mother talked about his birth. But as he grew older, he realised that his life depended on proving where he was born.

Determined to correct his birth registration record, he set out on a journey to gather evidence and testimonials from more than twenty living witnesses, including his mother, neighbours, and local elders, to prove that he was, in fact, born on the Thai side of the border.

Accompanied by a team of investigators, including lawyers and district officials, Chanin travelled to the place at the Thai-Myanmar border where he believed he was born. It was once a cluster of make-shift shelters and not considered a proper village.

Based on his mother’s recount, Chanin was delivered in the traditional way with the help of a local midwife four years before the first and only hospital was established in the area. As the midwife and Chanin’s father had already passed away, the mother was the only first-hand witness of his birth.

But a former neighbour, now a 74-year-old woman, remembered seeing Chanin’s mother going into labour. The next day, she went over to the house to help the new mother “stay warm”, a tradition for women to recover after giving birth. Other neighbours also remembered seeing Chanin as a young boy. 

Chanin also collected old school transcripts and photos, which he submitted to the Tha Song Yang district to correct his birthplace information. For Yao, he did the same.

Despite the evidence, Chanin’s request was turned down several times by the district, who stated that the evidence and witnesses were not reliable enough. This is a common problem faced by stateless individuals in Thailand, who are often denied basic rights and opportunities due to a lack of proper documentation. By law, requests to change birth register information are decided by local district offices.

HaRDstories reached out to Chief District Officer Somchai Traitipchatsakul for comment. But his secretary said in a phone call that the chief district officer never gives interviews to the media. 

 

Fighting statelessness

Along the Thai-Myanmar border, in the district of Tha Song Yang, communities from both sides come together regularly. Just a short boat ride across the River Moei allows for access to local markets, schools, and medical care in Thailand, which is much better than in Myanmar.

“The communities at the border speak a similar language, share the same culture and often are relatives,” said Sirada Khemanitthathai, a professor at the Faculty of Political Science at Chiang Mai University. “Their kinship has played an important role in humanitarian assistance to provide basic needs across borders in times of war.”

To address the issue of statelessness and access to healthcare, health officials at the border have taken a proactive approach, starting with birth registration at the maternity ward. Since 2014, the Tha Song Yang hospital and three other hospitals formed the “Four Doctors at the Tak Border” project to register births and inform people of their rights. Parents are given birth certificates for their children, regardless of their legal status. Staff from a legal clinic also provide advice about the child’s legal rights.

For people like Yao, born before the hospital existed, their only birth certificate may be a bamboo plate with Burmese scribbles about their birth date and time in the lunar calendar. These are not officially recognised as proof of birth in Thailand.

“Providing healthcare to the people at the border is not case by case philanthropic work. There is a system and the people are entitled to their rights. Knowing about their legal rights, people come to the hospital with dignity,” said Dr. Tawatchai Yingtaweesak, the director of Tha Song Yang hospital, one of the main supporters of Chanin and Yao’s case.

Internationally, according to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to recognition as a person before the law. However, the difficult process of proving birth within the country to acquire nationality has led some to illegally purchase Thai citizenship, which can cost anywhere from 5,000 to 200,000 baht (150-5,900 USD).

While the improved birth registration system has led to fewer stateless people, the ongoing political upheaval in Myanmar following the coup d’etat in 2021 may complicate the situation. Academic Sirada explains that many Burmese migrants in Thailand who are politically active refuse to go through registration processes, such as renewing their Myanmar passport, out of fear of accepting the establishment of the new military government and being monitored. This could lead to more undocumented people and raise questions about the legal status of migrants and their descendants in the years to come.

“With the ongoing political crisis that will last many years, these people will potentially live permanently in Thailand. Amid this complicated legal status of a person, which status would the descendants of these people become?,” Sirada asks.

Landmark Lawsuit

After several rejections to correct their birth place information, Chanin and Yao filed a lawsuit against the Minister of Interior and the six related authorities in 2016 for unfair rejection. It is one of the very few lawsuits by stateless people against the government.

The first hearings by the Phitsanulok Administrative Court in early 2022 were in favour of the men, but a ruling later that year surprisingly overturned that decision, stating that the authorities had made the correct decision to deny the requests.

“The evidence is not reliable enough to convince” and “the witnesses are the men’s family members” stated the Phitsanuloak court’s ruling that is open to the public upon request.

Siwanoot, the lawyer who took on the case, stated that the court’s decision did not take into account the context of the area, where it is common for witnesses to be relatives in small rural villages. “It shows that the court is prone to be more bureaucratic and theorist than humanist,” she said.

“If you don’t believe that I was born in Thailand, where was I born?,” asked Chanin “I can’t disprove that I was born in Myanmar because I don’t have any witnesses there and that’s not the truth.”

Chanin and Yao have now appealed the case to the Supreme Court, not only in hopes of obtaining Thai citizenship but also to set a standard for correcting legal status information rather than leaving it to the decision of local authorities. However, the appeals process could take at least three years, leaving the men at an age where it would be difficult to advance in their careers as public health staff.

“I have been waiting for Thai nationality for my whole life,” Chanin wrote in a recent Facebook post. “But will it matter, when it comes too late?”

The men are faced with a difficult decision; they could apply for Thai citizenship through marriage to a Thai spouse or accept that they are Burmese migrants and apply for citizenship that way, but this would mean acknowledging that their witnesses and evidence were false.

“This would mean that our witnesses and all that we have done is a lie,” Yao said.

Yao is also already making plans for the day when he receives Thai citizenship. Many ethnic people who became citizens either use a name proposed by the state or adopt the same family name as their relatives, but Yao has other ideas.

“I want to create my own last name combining bits of the last names from the people who helped me,” said Yao laughing. “And I will change my facebook account from Mr. Yao, No Last Name to Mr. Yao with Last name.”

Nicha Wachpanich is a Bangkok-based journalist covering stories from a rights-based and human-interest perspective. She previously worked with a local environmental news agency under Thai Society of Environmental Journalists. 

Panumas Sanguanwong is the founder of Thai News Pix, a Thailand focused news photo agency. He has more than 18 years experience working as photojournalist for online media and newspapers.

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