Stateless in Thailand

The plight of Thailand’s Shan youth highlights the inadequacies of international borders, Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington anthropologist Dr Janepicha Cheva-Isarakul says.

Rough lines drawn by bureaucrats along the middle of rivers or linking the highest points of mountain ranges may delineate nations but they fail to reflect ethnic groups whose homes lie across several countries.

Dr Cheva-Isarakul, a lecturer in social policy in the University’s School of Social and Cultural Studies, recently completed her PhD studying the lives and everyday experiences and frustrations of 1.5-generation and second-generation stateless Shan youth in northern Thailand.

During 13 months of fieldwork across three years in urban Chiang Mai, she researched how young Shan people, most of whom had grown up in camps, made sense of their “statelessness” label and how they challenged the idea of national identity, developing the traits of “Thai-ness” necessary to become citizens.

She also examined the Thai state’s approach to the “stateless children” or “migrant children” and the assumptions that the ability to read legal documentation will lead them out of statelessness.

“The mechanisms of exclusion have been designed in a special way that, for a lot of the people, the documents they are required to present in order to gain their citizenship rights actually have not been issued to them.

“So basically they are not able to prove who they are or prove that they have met the criteria because of that exclusion.

“What motivated me for this project is that we live in this world of hyper-connectivity and lots of people in the world have multiple citizenships and passports, which allow them to travel and move around so freely.

“But then there’s this other extreme of people who do not have any proof of their existence and that, because of this lack of proof, are being basically grounded. That’s especially in Thailand where, even to move from one province to another, you need to present certain kinds of document.”

The Shan ethnic group spans several countries, including the southern part of China, Myanmar, Laos and northern Thailand.

Dr Cheva-Isarakul has focused on Shan labour migrants pushed in several waves to Thailand by the political and economic situation in Myanmar.

“They can’t call Myanmar home, because they fled from there. But they also face a lot of obstacles to being recognised as a full citizen in Thailand, where a lot of my participants were born and raised.

“In one chapter of my thesis I demonstrated that, even though we have this idea of national identity as something fixed, actually throughout history we have seen that borders, boundaries and membership have always been fluid. So we allow more people to gain status because we need more manpower or whatever.

“We need to see statelessness as an issue of recognition and marginalisation, rather than just an issue of documentation. It has been framed as a failure to provide documents to have proof of existence, but I want to push the debate more into the ‘why did they not have them?’.

“A lot of the literature I have seen or depiction of stateless persons by international organisations have always been of being an object, destitute, having no hope, no home, no roots, in order to gain some kind of public awareness and sympathy.

“But the youth I have met have shown a wide range of tactics and awareness of their situation, and shown what we call ‘agency’ - that just because they don’t have the legal status, the situation is not one of complete hopelessness.”

The young Shan try to camouflage themselves by acting as “Thai as possible”, she says.

Yet while attempting to blend in, they also try to stand out, by participating in the national competitions.

“Usually in Thailand we have competitions on national etiquette in terms of the greetings, the Thai calligraphy, the Thai role-play of how to be as Thai as possible.

“By winning or surpassing in their performance of ‘Thai-ness’, they raise the question of ‘what does it mean to be Thai?’, if these people who, quote-unquote, have no legal status and are stateless and don’t belong here, perform well as Thai.

“If you are obedient, you show your loyalty to the monarch or to institutions publicly, you are saying: ‘I want to be a good person, being a good person means to act Thai and I act Thai’.”

The border between Myanmar and Thailand is one of the longest borders in Southeast Asia.

“A lot of participants try to cross by themselves and apply this aesthetic citizenship – so at the Thai border they act as Thai as possible. So the border guards say, ‘you’re not Thai, but OK you act Thai, so you can come in’.

“I’m hoping my work will provoke debate about not thinking having the documents is the only solution or should be equated as the true identity.

“Documents are sometimes fiction – they are fake and there is a whole industry in producing documents that are not reflecting the lived experience of people.”

She says her thesis shows that citizenship is a complex phenomenon.

Dr Cheva-Isarakul moved to New Zealand from Thailand about five years ago.