THAILAND: Legal Obstacles to Citizenship for Indigenous Groups

JURIST Staffer Necia Hobbes, Pitt Law '11, volunteered in Chiang Rai before starting graduate school:

In the United States, citizenship is granted to those born within US borders or to US citizen parents, and can be obtained through naturalization. The Kingdom of Thailand, however, places more severe restrictions on obtaining citizenship, effectively limiting human rights access for the hill tribes, indigenous populations living along the Northern and Western borders of the Kingdom. Lacking citizenship status, thousands of indigenous persons are excluded from education, health care, and employment, and the vulnerable population is an easy target for the human trafficking operations that plague Southeast Asia.

I witnessed the effect of Thailand's restrictive citizenship laws while traveling with a mobile medical clinic among Lahu and Karen hill tribe settlements in the jungles of Northern Thailand. Many hill tribe members lacked citizenship status, although they had been born and raised within Thai borders. Anyone over the age of 15 must prove citizenship to have access to health care, education, employment, and even to be able to travel freely. Without national citizenship, hill tribe members turn to subsistence farming or other means of employment, such as prostitution, in order to survive.



As we traveled among villages, we brought vegetables, rice, and beans in our backpacks so that we could share meals consisting of more than the usual water-soaked bamboo and saplings. In the villages, starvation and malnutrition are constant problems, simple illnesses are life-threatening, and mortality rates are high. Some people successfully bribe local officials so they can travel and find menial labor, but the threat of deportation and ethnic cleansing lies just across the Burmese border. I met people who had lived in Thailand their whole life, but lived in constant fear of detention or even deportation because of their lack of citizenship.

The major legal barrier to citizenship is the Nationality Act B.E. 2508 (1965) as amended by Acts B.E. 2535 No. 2 and 3 (1992). Most hill tribes were not included in Thailand's first national census in 1956, which recorded Thai origin and nationality. Nine years later, the government passed the Nationality Act, which guaranteed citizenship only to people who could prove that they were born to Thai citizens or legal aliens. The birth registration process is inadequate and must be improved, but unless a person can prove that the parents listed on their birth certificate are Thai citizens or legal aliens, even a birth certificate will not be enough to obtain citizenship. Since most people in the hill tribes were not registered as Thai or otherwise in the first national census, neither they nor their children are guaranteed citizenship under the Nationality Act.

Additionally, Section 7 of the Nationality Act excludes from citizenship the children of parents who entered the state illegally or temporarily. Hill tribe members have been fleeing from Burma for nearly 40 years and joining hill tribes in Thai jungles near the borders, so Section 7 excludes them and their children from citizenship, unless they can prove they entered Thailand legally. With no legal records, it is difficult for hill tribe members whose ancestors have been in Thailand for centuries to distinguish themselves from hill tribe members who entered as unregistered refugees or who are the children or grandchildren of unregistered refugees.



Numerous international aid organizations and U.N. agencies, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Committee on the Rights of the Child, have called for changes to Thailand's Nationality Act, birth registration process, and legal process for obtaining citizenship. They also recommend that Thailand loosen restrictions on basic rights so that persons who are not citizens can at least access opportunities like employment and basic health care.

To resolve the problems of statelessness, Thai regulatory bodies and agencies have attempted to allow certain portions of the hill tribe population to obtain citizenship, but the Nationality Act remains intact. In 2000, the Cabinet of Ministers decreed that hill tribe children could obtain citizenship if their parents entered the country before October 4, 1985 and if they could prove that they were born in Thailand. However, this decree and other regulations are not entirely consistent with each other, nor widely understood or enforced. Without a fundamental change to the Nationality Act, it seems unlikely that these piecemeal regulations will have much of an effect.

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