Evicted & Excluded: The Struggle for Citizenship and Land Rights by Tribal People in Northern Thailand

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Upland minority people in Thailand -- the `hilltribes' -- have traditionally lived on the edges of Thai society. Despite the volume of information being collected about tribal people, the demographic characteristics of these various upland minority groups remain largely unknown because existing data are both inaccessible and inaccurate. While the nine hilltribes of upper northern Thailand are a diverse group, both ethnically and culturally, they share a common history of marginalization. 40 to 60 percent are denied citizenship rights even though they were born in Thailand. Few have secure land rights because a lack of proper identification papers prevents them from registering land. Many are victims of official and unofficial discrimination. Numbering nearly one million, they generally have poor access to health care and schooling and consistently rank among the poorest groups in Thailand.

Many ethnic Thai (especially those living in areas without large hilltribe populations) harbor prejudicial stereotypes and biases against hilltribe people. Given the popular press' sensational reporting and the government's penchant for blaming tribal people for everything from deforestation to drug smuggling, such attitudes are not surprising.(1) Many ethnic Thai who actually know and work with hilltribe people understand that the stereotypes are not accurate.

Racism and bias toward tribal people exist even at the highest levels of government and impact the formation of laws and policy governing tribal people. In response to concerns about tribal rights, Newin Chidchob, deputy minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, last year said, "I feel for the Thai who have no place to sleep, no land to till, nothing to eat. [However,] the state should take care of the Thai citizens first and the other groups later." (Bangkok Post June 6, 1999) The attitude persists that working on behalf of tribal peoples is a waste of time. One senior government official even called tribal people "animals without souls."

Many Thai officials and academics are beginning to understand and sympathize with the problems faced by tribal people, an encouraging sign of change. Due to the efforts of Thai university professors, government officials, members of the media, and tribal NGOs, some progress is being made. The power to grant citizenship, once the province of governors, is now being transferred to district chiefs, which may speed up the process of registering for citizenship.

On May 18, 1999, hilltribe peoples united in protest of widespread official and unofficial discrimination. Demonstrators in Chiang Mai demanded citizenship and land rights. Highlanders wanted the forestry law amended to allow them to stay in their villages, many of which existed before the forest areas became protected areas. Lowlanders wanted protection from eviction due to private and public sector claims on their land.

Many competing interests complicate the land rights issue. Some environmental and government groups want to see people evicted from all forest areas while others fear that illegal logging will increase if there are no communities watching the forests. This fight over eviction is exacerbated by hilltribe peoples' ongoing struggle for citizenship rights.

Citizenship in Thailand is determined not by place of birth but by the citizenship status of a person's parents. Thus many tribal people born in Thailand -- even those of the second or third generation -- lack citizenship. Citizenship in Thailand depends largely on ethnicity: ethnic Thai are considered a "natural" part of the state, but non-Thai are often denied the rights and protections of the ethnic majority. Thai government policy has been one of ethnic homogenization. A few encouraging signs do not negate the harsh reality faced by many tribal people born in Thailand: citizenship is still an elusive goal for many of them.

A significant number of those tribal people without citizenship are issued tribal identity cards. These cards are similar to those issued under the pass system in South Africa under Apartheid; cardholders are prohibited from leaving the district in which they are registered without permission. A tribal person caught at one of the many police checkpoints outside his area without a pass can be arrested and detained, facing both fines and imprisonment. Getting permission to travel legally is very difficult, sometimes requiring bribes to corrupt local officials. As a result, tribal people outside of their registered districts are unable to go to the police for protection and are.vulnerable to further human rights abuses.

In addition, tribal people (as well as many lowland ethnic Thai) are being pushed out of areas they have inhabited for generations. The government is stepping up efforts to forcibly evict tribal people and ethnic Thai from forest and upland areas. Some Thai environmentalists align themselves with these government efforts to evict tribal people from the forests, applying to Thailand an inappropriate Western model of forest management rather than an indigenous Asian model of co-existence.

While increased population pressures in highland communities have led to forest degradation, environmental damage is compounded by the fact that many tribal people cannot -- by law -- leave their immediate area to look for work. Restrictive citizenship laws thus indirectly lead to environmental degradation. The claim that tribal people are being evicted to "save the forests" rings false; "protected" forest areas are in fact being exploited (both legally and illegally) by both private and public sector interests. In 1998, for example, a large corporation was granted a mining concession, completely destroying the forest and polluting the entire watershed.

In the public sector, corrupt Forestry officials are often involved in extensive logging in protected forest areas, sometimes after reclassifying them as "degraded" forest. These areas are replanted with substandard tree seedlings and Forestry officials pocket the difference in price. The seedlings are then sometimes burned by officials in order to clear the area for replanting -- and further embezzlement. Forestry officials blame tribal people for the fires, validating eviction campaigns against forest inhabitants and freeing up even more land for exploitation.

Land pressures are compounded by the increasing orchardization of forest areas. In one area of Chiang Mai province (Fang District), lowland Thai are encroaching on upland forest, clearing it and planting fruit orchards. The ecological impact of these orchards includes serious pollution from pesticides, a decline in upland biodiversity, loss of forest cover, and a lowering of water tables from over-irrigation. Tribal residents have restricted access to land and are forced to work in the orchards since their lack of citizenship papers prevents them from travelling. Because these tribal people are visible working in the fields and their villages are scattered throughout orchardized areas, they are associated with forest destruction even though the orchards are owned and operated by ethnic Thai.

The issue of tribal involvement in deforestation has been debated for years and many academics (and others) support the formation of "community forests" -- forest areas managed and protected by local communities, both Thai and tribal. The evidence in Thailand and elsewhere indicates that if communities are given the right to manage their own resources, they will improve the condition of local forest and watershed resources. Without citizenship, tribal peoples can make no progress toward such a goal.

(1). The Nation, May 2, 2000, claims: "Hilltribe people born in Thailand have been excluded from citizenship for security reasons. The restrictions on citizenship are stated in several laws, including the Citizenship Act." Statements like this one are common and accepted, and help perpetuate the idea that tribal people are a threat to the integrity of the state.

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