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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Being Thai is no guarantee of citizenship

As an ethnic Thai living in Cambodia, Bantom Sommai successfully fled to Thailand when the horrors of the Khmer Rouge began. But her battle for security is far from over.

"I am Thai. My family and my ancestors are Thai. But when we return to our homeland, we are not counted as Thai people. This is so painful," said Bantom.

Fleeing for life, Bantom and her family walked 10 days through the Thai-Cambodian jungle to escape to Trat and join their Thai relatives. She still remembers vividly the fear, the hunger, and the joy when they finally reached Trat to start a new life in her motherland.

"I was 16 then. Now I am 55. I don't know how long it will take me to be a Thai citizen," said Bantom with a sigh.

Without citizenship, all assets she earns from her hard work must be in someone else's name. She cannot join the formal work sector with labour protection and welfare. Up until last year when she was finally included in the Thai diaspora survey, she could not even get a driving licence, nor access to universal health care.

"Every time a policeman looked or stopped me on the road, I froze with fear," she recalls. Her life of constant fear, frustration and lack of legal rights is also shared by several thousands of returning Thais in this coastal province.

Koh Kong, the island adjacent to Trat, had been part of Siam until 1906 when territorial disputes with France ended with King Chulalongkorn's painful agreement to cede Koh Kong, Siem Reap, Battambang and Srisophon to French-ruled Cambodia, in exchange for Chanthaburi and Trat. Many Thai people stayed on in Koh Kong, travelling back and forth to Trat to make a living as usual. Many returned permanently during the Cold War and after the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. But they remain shunned legally, despite their Thai bloodline and cultural heritage.

They are not alone in their plight caused by territorial change. Thais returning to Ranong after having lived elsewhere outside the country, also face the same problem of being treated as illegal immigrants. The official survey says there are about 20,000 of them, while rights activists say the real figures are higher.

A draft law is in the pipeline to help them, but Senator Supojana Liad-prathom, chairman of the Senate's ad hoc committee on citizenship problems, fears that it might end up being useless.

As things stand now, the beneficiaries of the draft law are defined as the Thai diaspora affected by territorial changes in the last century. "But most of them have already passed away. So we need to widen the definition to include their descendants," he said. But resistance is high in the Senate and the bureaucracy, due to deep fears that the new law will attract new immigrants and affect national security. "Is it fair not to give people who are born Thai their legal rights?" Sen Supojana asked. "Also, if people do not have legal rights, they are forced to live underground. Is that good for national security?"

Prejudice and corruption aside, the matter is complicated by the extremely complex laws and regulations regarding nationality. Officials from the central government often misinterpret the law and label returning Thai migrants as illegal immigrants.

Like Nipon Krongkaew, for instance. His mother and grandmother were Thai, with documents to back the claim. But his application for citizenship has been turned down by local officials. When told by the Senate team that he is actually qualified, his eyes glistened with happy tears, as he gathered up the old crumbling documents like some treasure.

The main problem is the officials' negative attitude, says Venus Srisuk, the Interior Ministry's expert on nationality and civil registration. "This is why the definition of the 'returning diasporas' in the new nationality law must be clear, to avoid negative interpretation."

Currently in her 70s, Granny Nye Palakit does not know anything about the law. She only knows that she is Thai and wants to hold a Thai ID card of her own before she dies.

"Is it possible?" she asked.

Bantom asks the same question every day. "And no one can answer us yet why we are still denied our rights as Thais."

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