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Likes, shares, and citizenship: How Thailand’s stateless youth fight for legal recognition

Tee Nayord, 33, co-founder of Titang, originally hails from Myanmar’s Shan State. He grew up in Thailand after his parents fled the war in his hometown. Today, Tee has yet to acquire Thai citizenship. Photo: Visarut Sankham/HaRDstories

Armed with little more than smartphones and a passion for change, a daring group of young stateless changemakers is using social media to challenge Thailand’s complex citizenship laws, even as the country struggles to cope with a refugee influx that has persisted for nearly half a century.

 

A simple clerical error can carry life-altering consequences in Thailand, where hundreds of thousands are stateless. Just ask Suchart Ingtha, whose parents’ failure to register his birth has left him trapped in legal limbo for decades, unable to access the basic rights of citizenship.

Born to Chinese-Shan parents who often travelled between Thailand and Myanmar, he was left without citizenship in either country, facing a lifetime of legal hurdles. But Suchart has turned his struggle into a mission. 

Armed with smartphones, he and his two friends Tee Nayord and Pattiparn Nalong are taking on Thailand’s entrenched citizenship laws through a social media channel called “Titang,” which means paving the path in the Shan language. The trio are broadcasting crucial information that hopes to reach hundreds of thousands of others, like them, trapped in legal limbo. 

Being unable to hand a driver’s licence to police when stopped on a motorbike, being unable to apply for student loans, or buy property, is a lived reality for stateless people.They may also face harassment and bullying from friends and classmates. But they refuse to live a life as second class citizens.

“The people we help don’t even know we are stateless like them,” said Suchart, who chooses not to reveal his legal status to those he helps in fear of losing their trust. “But we really understand what it is like, because we are one of them.”

 

Caught up in the game of cards

The nation-state is a fluid concept to Suchart’s family, and for those living in Wiang Haeng district, which is located near the Myanmar border in northern Thailand. This is where the Chinese Yunnan and the Shan ethnic groups settled in the middle of the 20th century.

Suchart was born in a public hospital in 1992. His parents – both local traders – failed to register him, which is a basic requirement to obtain Thai citizenship. Suchart’s story is similar to many others’ who grew up along the 2,400-kilometre Thailand-Myanmar border, including his best friend Tee Nayord.

Tee was born in Shan State, the northeastern region of Myanmar. As a child, his parents fled their family home to escape the conflict between Shan ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar military. 

Among Thailand’s estimated 990,000 stateless people, the northern city of Chiang Mai is home to more than 100,000 of them. Due to its proximity to Shan State, Chiang Mai has become the premiere destination for those who have fled from Myanmar, a country known for the longest civil war. 

“When I was little, I didn’t give much thought about citizenship. My family could live in Thailand, make a living and have a home,” recalled Suchart. “It was when I grew up,  everyday life got harder.”

Education may be free for children from low-income families in Thailand, but Suchart spent his childhood as an ordained monk. Since he hadn’t obtained Thai citizenship, Suchart could not pursue higher education or apply for student loans from the government. 

Hoping to acquire documentation proving his upbringing in Thailand, Suchart heard about a Facebook livestreamer named Tee sharing advice on how to obtain official documents. 

“When you are stateless, you have to understand first which cards you have and which categories you are in,” explained Tee. “The cards you hold tells your history of how you entered Thailand, how long you have been here and the rights you have.”

Tee left school at age 14. Since then, he has been learning English at a free class provided by the local labour union. The fear of deportation haunted Tee throughout his childhood. His parents had sneaked into Thailand to work as temporary agricultural labourers.

In 2005, Tee received an ID card for the first time. Thailand had launched an initiative to register and document all stateless people within its borders. The ID card Tee holds is pink, which is different from the regular blue Thai ID card. Tee’s pink card has the words “registered stateless people” emblazoned on it.

Tee’s legal status is among at least 24 categories of statelessness in Thailand. This system began in 1967 with the Vietnamese refugees from the Indochina War. Ever since then, stateless people have been trapped in a complex classification system as a result of Thailand’s struggle to deal with refugees.

A map illustrating the distribution and concentration of stateless individuals across Thailand, based on 2024 official data collected by the Department of Provincial Administration. Map visualisation by Visarut Sankham.

Shining a light on statelessness 

The citizenship law allows Suchart to apply for the pink identification card with a guarantor, which is usually a district officer who can guarantee his presence and birth rights in Thailand. At age 15 while ordained, Suchart decided to apply for a pink ID card in his registered hometown of Wiang Haeng. But he was unsuccessful at the time.

“The local [district officer] asked me for 70,000 baht (about $1,910 USD) for registering me,” said Suchart with anger in his voice. He called the local district office but he was told to go back to [pay him]. “How could I even find that kind of money? So I made up my mind – fuck it! I will spend my life as a low-paid worker.”

Due to bureaucracy and the complicated process, corruption is common in the world of statelessness. Bribes are usually required to close the loopholes.

Suchart reluctantly gave up his dream of higher education, which was stopped short in middle school. He was able to find temporary work.

Suchart shared his story with the public media outlet ThaiPBS. As a result, the headman was dismissed, but he faced death threats as a result of his audacity. 

“When the media spotlight these stateless issues, every slow process then gets quicker and follows the steps the way they are supposed to,” said Suchart, who years later received his pink ID card back home in Wiang Haeng district. Over his chest hung a Buddhist statue so big that it calmed his mother’s nerves when she saw him wearing it. He believes it could even stop a bullet.

Suchart and Tee realised that advocacy for the stateless in Thailand was the next step on their journey, so they launched Titang in 2019 after winning a prize from an entrepreneurship competition hosted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Citi Foundation. “We will use the media – the kind we have in our hand – to pressure the authorities: Do your job!”

Titang attempts to use social media to break down the complicated legal process involved in applying for Thai citizenship, so stateless people can build the confidence to apply on their own. This would allow them to stand up for their rights and avoid paying bribes to officials.

Titang’s Facebook page has more than 10,000 followers, who ask questions in real-time during their livestreams, or reach out for help via private message. While some legal experts make business out of these consultations; 500 – 1,000 baht ($14-28 USD) for a session, Titang’s goal is to run on donations in order to help stateless people with limited income. 

“You can support Titang, starting from 0.1 baht ($0.0027 USD),” This humorous call to action has become a call sign during their live streams. Suchart now makes a living from driving a tuk-tuk, while Tee works as a cook at a local made-to-order restaurant. 

Lost opportunities

Thailand has a policy that allows education for all children, including those who are stateless and refugees. But in reality, they can become easily discouraged from pursuing higher education due to the layers of bureaucracy involved in applying for Thai citizenship.

“I never went to school in uniform. I put [it] in my backpack,” said Tee, remembering how he avoided being pulled over by police on his motorcycle which he drove without a driver’s licence. “I cannot get a driving licence, so I have to fit in the Thai authority’s perception of stateless people – a low-paid migrant worker.” 

Getting a driver’s licence is another indignation Tee and his colleagues at Titang face. In 2023, they jointly advocated for change at the network of stateless advocates, known as the Local Community Network. With a series of  persuasive letters and negotiations, the Ministry of Transportation finally allowed some stateless people to obtain driver’s licences.

Even though Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has several ways for refugees to integrate into Thai society.

Suchart and Tee can apply for Thai citizenship, so they will be able to access more educational or employment opportunities. But to achieve this, going through each required step can take five to ten years. 

“Going to school now in [my] thirties?” asked Suchart. “There is no age limit for that. But getting citizenship in your thirties is too late to do anything that matters in your life.”

“While Thailand says they want a resourceful population, you oppress them. So what resources do stateless children have to build themselves [up]?” he added. 

Many stateless people plan to solve legal hurdles early on. In January 2024, Jaam Lungtima, an ethnic Shan in his early thirties who runs an auto repair shop, came to Tee looking for advice.

Jaam has a seven-year-old daughter who was born in Chiang Mai. But when he went to apply for her ID card at the district office, she was denied because he was unable to provide a legal status document for Thailand. 

Jaam was born in Shan State, so he doesn’t have a Thai birth certificate. His parents brought him to northern Thailand at a young age. But the civil registration office mistakenly listed Jaam as someone who was born in Thailand. It did not want to provide Jaam’s daughter a Thai ID card unless he provided the required documents.

“I don’t mind not having Thai citizenship myself. But now my issue has become an issue for my daughter,” said Jaam. Apart from being told about his family’s history in Myanmar, Jaam has no other connection to Myanmar.

Tee accompanied him to meet with the office clerks once again. They let Jaam into the storage room to dig through the piles of papers, but he still could not find it. A man working at a photocopy shop suggested to Jaam to report the missing document to police.

 

Climbing the ladder to citizenship 

Tee took out a piece of paper and a pen to draw a long ladder. He showed Jaam that he was still at the bottom, and at the top was Thai citizenship for his daughter. 

“Acquiring Thai citizenship is like climbing up a ladder. At the beginning, we don’t have anything but ourselves in this country, then we have to be documented in the registration system to get an identification card,” explained Tee, tapping on their stateless pink cards. 

“You cannot do much with this illegal migrant status, so you have to start advancing your rights – upgrade yourself to the next levels, so then you can later apply for Thai citizenship.”

First, they will have to submit their paperwork to the Department of Provincial Administration to amend their legal status from illegal to legal migrants. Then, they can apply for permanent residency status. After five years of living in Thailand, they are finally eligible for citizenship. The final phase of waiting for the Ministry of Interior to review the list and grant citizenship can take several more months. 

Over the last five decades, Thailand has made significant progress in ending statelessness. It has become one of the main missions of the border towns’ civil registration offices. In January this year, the Wiang Haeng district together with advocates for the stateless hosted a two-day training about citizenship law with civil clerks and local volunteers, who were themselves stateless.

But challenges remain, especially the shortage of civil registration staff. Jaam filed a request to amend his document to correct the data in the official record, but he faces a wait of several months before his case can be processed. 

In May, HaRDstories contacted the Wiang Haeng district office for a media interview. The request was denied, with officials citing the vacant district chief position as the reason. The previous chief had been reassigned earlier in the year, leaving the post unfilled.

“The longer the processes take, the more stateless populations grow,” said Darunee Paisanpanichkul, a law professor at Chiang Mai University. “Because being stateless is transgenerational. When the refugee descendants grow up and have their own family, their kids carry on the statelessness.” 

Darunee is concerned that the intensifying conflict in Myanmar, since the 2021 military coup, will lead to a surge of refugees into Thailand. This could increase the population of stateless people and tighten up citizenship policies.

Darunee and other university staff are running a legal support centre to help solve the statelessness issue for students. She has also developed an interactive online course on citizenship laws for stateless people.

Ultimately, Darunee believes the quickest way to end statelessness is for Thailand to grant citizenship to those who are already part of Thai society. 

“Our citizenship laws open up possibilities. What we need is the political will,” she said. “With this magic wand of policy, a single swirl could transform hundreds of thousands stateless folks into citizens overnight.”

How to end statelessness

Sitting in a nine-square-metre room that Suchart built next door to his house, he and Tee congratulated a stateless man via Facebook who had recently received his Thai ID card.

Despite having helped many stateless people reach the finish line, both are reluctant to apply for their own citizenship. 

“Why do we call it ‘asking for Thai citizenship’? Isn’t it our right?” Tee questioned, referring to the Thai phrase commonly used for the citizenship application process. “Following all these required steps feels like surrendering to a hierarchical system and conditions I don’t believe in.”

According to Thailand’s nationality law, proficiency in the Thai language and loyalty to the monarchy – the head of state in this constitutional monarchy – are among the six criteria required for applying for Thai citizenship.

Titang conducts its operations in Thai, as the majority of stateless people speak the language fluently, having attended Thai schools. Like many young Thais, Titang’s two founders are critical of Thailand’s current government system. 

While the third member of Titang obtained Thai citizenship in 2023, Suchart and Tee view their reluctance to apply as a form of civil disobedience against the complex bureaucracy involved in the citizenship process.

Since 2005, Thailand has been classified as an aged society by the World Health Organization (WHO), with citizens aged 60 and older making up ten percent of the population. This proportion is projected to rise significantly, with Thailand expected to become a ‘super-aged society’ by 2030.

Thai policymakers have urged couples to have more children. Meanwhile, migrant advocates propose a different approach: easing legal restrictions on long-term refugee descendants, allowing those already integrated into Thai society to contribute more fully.

“Thailand has made significant steps in handling stateless issues,” said Darunee “But remember, stateless issues are a quest that needs an end one day.”

While Titang works to help stateless people safeguard their existing rights, Suchart and Tee advocate for a more radical overhaul of the citizenship application process.

Despite remaining stateless, Suchart finds solace. “I feel like I am sharing the misery with the rest of the stateless folks and not leaving them behind.”

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. 

Visarut Sankham is a photographer, project coordinator and multimedia producer. His work regularly focuses on issues related to migrant worker rights and anti-human trafficking efforts. He holds a Master’s degree in Social Science and is based in Chiang Mai.

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