Searching for Identity and Citizenship for Ethnic Minorities
The Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) was started in early 1828 when Protestant missionaries came to teach Christianity in Thailand (formerly ‘Siam’). The Church of Christ in Thailand is the largest Protestant organization in Thailand. It has more than 900 local churches nationwide with more than 150,000 members. The CCT administers the churches through 19 church districts. Almost half of its members are lowland people and of Chinese descent; the rest of its members are tribal and highland people.
It is estimated that there are between 600,000 to 1.2 million people in Thailand who belong to ethnic minority groups, such as the Karen, Hmong (Meo), Yao (Mein), Akha (Egaw), Lahu (Musoe), and Lisu. Ethnic Karens form the largest group. Most originally came from Tibet, Burma, Laos, and China over the past 200 years. Many live in the mountainous areas in the north and western highlands along the border between Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). Each ethnicity can be distinguished by its language, culture, dress, and spiritual beliefs.
Traditionally, hill villages were sustained by slash and burn agriculture, which required them to move every few years to new fertile fields. There are now great obstacles to continuing this semi-nomadic lifestyle, including the lack of available land. The hill groups are often blamed for destruction of the environment, although they say they have tended to their habitats using the same methods for generations.
The Thai government has tried to settle the hill groups. Roads are being constructed, mainly to assist forestry and mining industries, but also in order to facilitate national integration. However, the roads have also opened up the areas to lowlanders and tourists who treat the hill people as curiosities and have no real respect for their traditions. The government has recognized the existence of hill communities but has not extended citizenship to at least half of the hill population. Many hill people, although they were born in Thailand, do not have birth certificates, meaning they have no citizenship, no identification documents, and no legal identity.
The lack of citizenship means that these ethnic minorities are considered as illegal aliens in their own land and access to basic services like education and health care, and the right to own land, is restricted. Almost 25 percent of the hill children still do not have citizenship which affects their access to schooling, healthcare, and, later, legal employment.
The 19th Church District of the CCT, whose member churches are Karen people, recognizes that people’s initial basic need is become citizens. Citizenship will allow people of ethnic minorities to have more opportunities and access to basic services. The local government office in Chiang Mai and Tak Provinces have acknowledged the importance of the project, “Searching for Identity and Citizenship for Ethnic Minorities in Thailand” initiated by the 19th Church District. The project serves as a bridge of mutual understanding and closer cooperation between churches and local governments for improving the quality of life of the marginalized communities and enabling them to take part in national development.
The goals of the project are:
- To have assistance available from the local governments to aid ethnic minority populations in obtaining Thai citizenship;
- To encourage self-awareness and cultural pride of ethnic minorities and to contribute to community development, including working for the sustainability of the natural resources;
- To provide broader opportunities for promoting their unique cultures, ways of life, and cultural identities of the ethnic minority groups.
The project focus area covers three mountainous areas in Chiang Mai and Tak Provinces encompassing a population of 15,000 to 20,000 people. Chiang Mai is one of the homes of the hill groups who have migrated into the region during the past 100 years and have largely preserved their traditional ways, including their colorful dress. Tak Province is one of the northern provinces of Thailand. The western edge of province has a long boundary with the Kayin State of Myanmar (Burma). About a quarter of the population belongs to one of Thailand’s hill ethnic groups: Yao, Karen, Akha, Lahu Hmong, and Lisu. The largest group in Tak is Karen.
To facilitate this project, the 19th Church District of the Church of Christ in Thailand provides volunteers who are available to assess documents, interview applicants, provide translation as needed, visit ethnic communities, collect additional information, and assist in completing the application form when necessary. The church works with local government entities to provide legal status for volunteers in villages, endorse applications for approval, and follow-up on individual cases as needed. In the first year, 210 people received citizenship documents and an additional 776 people were registered and waiting for official documentation by the end of that year.
Volunteers receive a monthly stipend of approximately $120. The largest expense is for visits to villages which about $1000 total for the year. The total estimated cost for a year of the project is $6,250. After the initial pilot year, this project is now an ongoing program of the Social Development and Service Unit (SDSU) of the Church of Christ in Thailand. The SDSU appreciates gifts supporting the cost of this project.
To read the report about the pilot year of the project, click here.
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