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The unexpected bonus that came with the dramatic rescue of the Wild Boars footballers from a flooded Chiang Rai cave was the spotlight that suddenly shone on the technically stateless legal status of two of the boys and their assistant coach. It is hoped that the outpouring of sympathy from Thais and the global community will improve their chances of obtaining much-awaited Thai citizenship.
The three are among half a million members of ethnic minorities and highland people residing in northern and western Thailand who have no country to call their own, despite – in the case of many of them –having been born here. The dire circumstances of the cave operation revived the usually dormant issue of these stateless people. As much as the three who were plucked from the dark deserve to be granted citizenship, a speedy resolution of the issue for all the people affected would be most gratifying.
For now, in the glare of international attention, the government has promised to give the cave trio legal assistance in the process of nationality verification. If no complications arise among their personal documents, they could be Thai citizens within six months.
Stateless people in Thailand endure limitations in many aspects of their lives. They are denied rights and opportunities that citizens can take for granted.
The process of obtaining citizenship can be extremely lengthy, sometimes stretching into decades. Applicants must provide proof that at least one parent was a Thai national and establish the circumstances of their own birth.
The verification is typically slow and complicated because local administrative organisations struggle to cope with the volume of applications and the tedious procedure dictated by numerous requirements.
Too often, the process of obtaining citizenship must feel to the applicants like a coin toss. They’re at the mercy of their case officer who, like the cave rescuers, is sometimes working in the dark. All that time spent in limbo represents opportunities lost for a full and happy life.
One of the boys, Adul Sam-on, 14, crossed the border from Wa territory in Myanmar in the hope of being properly schooled and earning a better future. He speaks fluent English, Burmese, Wa, Mandarin and Thai. He was the interpreter when foreign rescuers needed to speak to his teammates. The youngster is smart, caring, ready to help others and has a lot of pluck. He’d make a fine citizen.
Thailand has a long, troubling history in its dealings with refugees and other immigrants. There is a general mistrust of outsiders among the populace, their suspicions fanned by nationalists who insist foreigners are always poised to take over our homes and livelihoods.
The newcomers who are fortunate enough to gain citizenship might well be subjected to demands they embrace “Thainess” as well as the language and customs.
Yet there are few qualms in Thai society about exploiting the stateless people along our borders. Members of ethnic hilltribes make great tourist attractions, presented as “Thais” in brochures and on postcards peddled to visitors. The people on the perimeter who aren’t so “exotic” are exploited as cheap sources of labour.
All of this has to change. The government and people of Thailand must adopt a more humane approach in assessing applications for citizenship and demanding documentation. We can start by respecting their inalienable rights as human beings and proceed from there.