Northern Thailand is a hauntingly beautiful mountainous region, rich in tourism, agriculture and biodiversity. One draw for visitors is their curiosity in experiencing the culture of remote hill tribe communities. This does bring interest in the tribes’ lives and some wealth to the area, however attention to their precarious political, social, cultural and economic situation is superficial, tour operators can lack transparency and communities are often made into a spectacle. The real issues affecting the hill tribe communities, such as statelessness, often fail to be highlighted. Whilst recently travelling in northern Thailand I wished to visit hill tribe communities to discuss first-hand their opinions about and experiences of statelessness. Thus, this blog piece is a collection of my own reflections after spending time with a Lahu community close to Mae Hong Son.
The Lahu are just one of the approximately twenty ethnic groups classed as hill tribes in northern Thailand. Many originate from Burma, Laos and China and are also spread across these countries. As of January 2012 an estimated 500,000 people in Thailand still lacked citizenship despite efforts by the Government, NGO’s and the UN to help hill tribe and rural communities to attain nationality. See an earlier Statelessness Programme blog post for more background on this population. Consequently, the hill tribe communities can experience, inter alia, difficulties accessing health care and education, human trafficking, restrictions on movement and forced relocation. In the case of the stateless hill tribe communities social exclusion from wider Thai society is heightened by the fact they live in remote forest areas, are nomadic and survive by subsistence farming which is dependent on the environment in which they live.
Preservation of their traditional way of life whilst utilising certain positive aspects of living in developed Thailand is a big challenge for the Lahu. Included in the dilemma of adjusting to modern life is the acquisition of Thai nationality, participatory citizenship and whether these are necessary or not. Whilst nationality for all is commonly seen as desirable, is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is often reiterated as the “right to have rights”, my experience with the Lahu lead me to play devil’s advocate and to question whether nationality is always relevant? The catalyst for this was the responses given by Lahu persons when asked about nationality and statelessness.
Thai law does not preclude ethnic minorities from attaining citizenship, however a number of loopholes and impracticalities in gaining nationality results in statelessness for those who, for example, are not registered at birth, cannot prove where they come from or cannot afford administrative fees. This makes the task of gaining nationality arduous for the hill tribe communities who may see money and time invested in obtaining nationality better spent on improving living conditions, farming techniques and cultural preservation. Whilst citizenship is often the key to obtaining the vote, land ownership, education and healthcare, those who are nomadic subsistence farmers may rarely come into contact with a society where administrative authorities, schools or hospitals exist, instead using the support network of their communities to provide these functions. Furthermore, when hill tribe people do come into contact with the authorities, discrimination may result in skepticism about intentions and cause avoidance in seeking assistance. For example, cases of forcible eviction (where the authorities seek out the hill tribes) can create distrust.
When talking, some Lahu people were not aware of or did not understand statelessness or nationality. Instead they discussed their status and social inclusion only in relation to the communities in which they live. For them lack of identity as a result of statelessness was not an imminent worry as they focused solely on their multifaceted roles within the hill tribe, for example as Chief, hunter or wife. This could demonstrate that hill tribe society compensates for or mitigates loss of legal rights due to de jure statelessness and creates a situation where hill tribe persons do not recognise their own statelessness. It also highlights the very Western concept of nationality, which may be undesirable to some hill tribe people who fear that gaining nationality may be a tacit form of accepting a new identity, their indoctrination into Thai society and cultural erosion.
The Lahu people I met did talk about the imbalance of power between their communities and the Government, one example being the restrictions imposed on their traditional farming techniques. In an ideal world one could envisage a system where indigenous groups have an autonomous status in society whilst individuals retain both a recognised membership of their communities and the nationality of the state in which they live. Both formal bonds would be equal so as to prevent a hierarchy between national citizenship and community membership. This way the hill tribes could seek to maintain their identity whilst benefiting from rights which derive from Thai nationality. However in reality it is unlikely that the Thai state is willing and complicated administrative logistics would have to be overcome in order to allow such a system.
For now it is submitted that nationality may not be relevant at a local community level for the hill tribes, however gaining Thai citizenship will rectify statelessness whilst making a step towards remedying some of its symptoms, as well as gaining a stronger platform from which the hill tribes can advocate their human rights and protect their traditional way of life. For this to be positive the communities should be educated about nationality in a way which they understand and is relevant to their lives, such as how they can seek to elect politicians who are favourable to minority rights. In return the Thai Government, NGO’s and the UN should focus on training officials in easing access to nationality and social services for the communities, including mutual capacity building programmes where both hill tribes and others discuss and learn about how citizenship of the Thai state could be used to preserve culture and traditional ways of life. Moreover more should be done to raise awareness among tourists to northern Thailand about the human rights issues affecting the hill tribes; this way visitors can act as a social watchdog.
Ultimately hill tribe communities, like the Lahu, need an educated choice regarding Thai citizenship, to have some individual and community control over the process of naturalisation and to be reassured that gaining it will not necessarily be to the detriment of their traditional way of life. After all if Thai nationality was gained by all hill tribe persons it would not necessarily matter if the benefits it conferred lay dormant, so long as hill tribe persons had the opportunity to take advantage of privileges stemming from nationality should they wish to do so.
Claire Balding, LL.M in Public International Law (Nottingham), Intern at the United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials
The small Lahu community discussed were visited in their remote village from 2 to 4 February 2013 in the Mae Hong Son region of Thailand.