The week started with an unexpected long, warm hug. Thai people usually do not hug each other when they meet, especially if it is for the first time. Instead, they put their palms together in front of their chest and bow in a show of respect called a wai.
67-year-old social and environmental activist Tuenjai Deetes does that too. But right afterwards, the tiny; slim, short-haired woman approaches with open arms, initiating an embrace.
After a short talk and a coffee in the city office of the Hill Area Development Foundation (HADF), that Deetes established in Paka Sukjai village in 1986, she takes off for the mountains of northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai province. It is in this area that the foundation has been running their activities aiming to eliminate statelessness in the country for decades, as well as education programmes and sustainable agriculture projects.
Deetes has dedicated most of her life working with the hill tribes and other minorities in Thailand. Field trips, where she listens to the unheard, are an essential part of her job that she does Monday to Sunday.
“I do not know the weekends, my husband says,” she smiles when talking about the schedule for the upcoming week.
Upon arrival to the first hill tribe village, where Deetes has been working for more than 45 years, the initial hug is more easily understood, with it clear that the multi-ethnic environment she has emerged herself into has impacted her.
The Lisu people in Chiang Rai province’s Pang Sa village, who are dressed in traditional clothes mostly worn at special occasions these days, welcome Deetes and her colleagues with open arms, excited smiles, and – a ceremonial dance.
Men and women, mostly the elderly, create a human circle in the dirt yard of one of the local houses and invite Deetes to join them. A grey-haired man is playing a handmade traditional string instrument, similar to a ukulele but with less strings, in the middle of the circle and the rest of the attending villagers are repeating simple rhythmical steps, moving around the circle, holding each other’s hands. They continue even as the rain starts.
The first time Deetes, a Bangkok-raised descendant of one of Thailand’s royal clans, came to Pang Sa in Thailand’s far north near the Myanmar border was as a volunteer during her university studies in 1974. Her task in the highlands was to teach the local children the Thai language, but with time, the adults wanted to study too.
“They built a school, a hut for me, and they provided me with a lantern and petrol at night because during those times, there was no electricity in the village. They did it all by themselves,” Deetes remembers.
At the beginning, she was not sure if she would be able to change her fast-paced life in the capital for the much simpler one of life in a remote village. But fascinated by the wisdom of the hill tribes and their connection with nature, she made the region her home, meeting her husband, also a volunteer, here and raising her first daughter, Pai, in Pang Sa.
After years of working in Pang Sa village, Deetes began to assist the Secretariat of the Ministry of Education in creating a curriculum for teaching Thai to the country’s remote hill tribes – a precondition for them gaining Thai citizenship. She later decided to broaden her work to eliminating statelessness in the kingdom.
The Food and Agriculture Organization reports that there is about 750,000 hill tribe members altogether in Thailand, with the biggest groups being the Karen, Hmong, and Lahu, respectively. They inhabit the northern parts of the country, with the majority residing in the highlands of the Chiang Mai province. UNHCR reports about 480 000 stateless people in Thailand, with the hill tribe people constituting the majority of these.
Located in the far north of the country, many of Thailand’s hill tribes have their historic origins in nearby China, Laos or Myanmar. Some of them have lived in Thailand for generations but lost their Thai nationality due to the border demarcation in 1904, and later the 1972 amendment to the country’s Nationality Act, which tightened controls on citizenship in response to illegal immigration from Myanmar.
Others, like the Akha people in Paka Sukjai village, fled civil war in neighbouring Myanmar that has raged throughout much of the 20th century, with about 80,000 settling down in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai in search of peace and safety. However, despite decades of living here, many elders only have their residencies and are just now applying for their citizenship.
“We feel we are not equal to other Thai people who have citizenship. When there is a check-point, the police always asks us for ID cards,” says an elderly lady as she sips her morning tea. Drinking locally grown tea is a ritual that accompanies every visit at the hill tribes’ villages.
While every individual has a different story in regards to why they are not Thai citizens, from bureaucracy to a lack of official documents, the impact of being stateless is the same – limited access to social welfare and health care, restricted movement, and limited livelihood options and job opportunities.
Deetes spends half a day listening to the worries of the elders while her colleagues from HADF write down notes and take pictures of their residence cards. At the end, they will collect information and fingerprints – as they are not able to sign themselves – of each elderly person who wants to apply for Thai citizenship. The whole process can take months.
Turning right, down the hill from the main road leading from Mae Chan to the Thai-Myanmar border lies another Akha tribe village where HADF works, Kiw Satai.
A group of local elders gathers underneath the roof of a local shop to gain shade. Women dressed up in their black knee-socks, skirts and jackets, embellished with embroidery, satin stitches of different colours, and silver buttons. Their hats are decorated with silver, and all of them are wearing weaved bags across their arms – each of them gives one such bag to Deetes when they greet her. In their bags, their pride and a sense of identity are hidden, a nationality card proving that they are now Thai citizens.
In Thailand, one obtains citizenship if he or she was born there or if one of the parents is Thai, but many hill tribe members are not able to prove either of these conditions. Due to the lack of infrastructure and remoteness of the villages, many people in the highlands lack birth certificates to prove they were born in the country. If previous generations do not have nationality – no matter how long they have lived in Thailand – the stateless status is simply inherited.
“Some of these people were waiting for their citizenship for twenty-five years,” Deetes explains, referring to fifteen villagers who were recently granted Thai nationality thanks to HADF and their cooperation with the local headman, the district governor, as well as lawyers from Thammasat University in Bangkok.
“It is an integrated effort, nobody can work alone; we have to work together. I listen to the communities and what they need. It is impossible to do things without the participation of the villages,” states Deetes.
She sees herself as a bridge between the grassroots and all kinds of government levels, the media, and academics – the messenger for the communities towards those who have power to find solutions to their situation.
Providing travel for these remote tribes to visit estranged relatives around the country and region is also an important part of Deetes’ work.
“I went with my cousin to China to visit my family members there. It was the first time we saw each other,” Sosun Bekaku recalls.
Bekaku’s neighbours start sharing their travel experiences. Many flew to Pattaya, near Bangkok, to visit their children who work there. It was their first time in a plane, reaffirming that citizenship means freedom of movement for these tribes, not only outside of the country but also within.
Others mention that they now have the right to receive social welfare, starting at $18 per month, so they are not totally dependent on their children.
If an elderly person receives citizenship, the following generations in their family can also become Thai, even without birth certificates. So after Aroe Beche received citizenship, three following generations in her family were granted citizenship thanks to the DNA tests.
“We did a DNA test to prove that my children are mine. Now they have citizenship, too,” she says.
Thailand has joined the UN #IBelong campaign and has pledged to end statelessness by 2024, and last October, the government changed guidelines that meant 60,000 stateless students could gain citizenship. But unlike the Thai government, that largely focuses on granting citizenship to the younger generation, HADF has been working mostly with the elderly for the last seven years.
“The elders are a very fragile group of people. They are old, they cannot hear well, they cannot see well. They don’t speak Thai and they don’t know the law. It is not fair to exclude them because they are the ones who pass wisdom from one generation to another,” Deetes says.
Early in the morning, Deetes – or Kru Daeng (Teacher Daeng), as her closest people call her – wakes up and walks out from her cabin barefoot in a HADF centre in the mountains. Dressed in comfy pants and a T-shirt, wearing a hat, she exercises yoga on the grass of a football pitch.
After that, Deetes takes her time to pray and meditate in a meditation hall decorated with a large Buddha statue and meditation pillows in one corner. The view from the hall is stunning, overlooking the tops of the surrounding hills, some of them covered with tea plantations.
“The prayer is to understand the teaching of the Lord Buddha, and affirm that I will do this. The Lord Buddha teaches monks to go help other people and all kinds of life. Everyday you should be useful for yourself and other life – not only human beings, but any life, such as trees, animals,” Deetes says, explaining her motivation to meditate as well as do her social.
Since she was a little girl, she followed the sister of her grandmother, who was a nun living in a Buddhist centre. Nowadays, Deetes finds peace in meditation, not only when she practices in the mornings and evenings, but throughout the day.
“I may be tired and work too much but with mindfulness meditation I feel like I can relax in the middle of the work,” she explains.
She also applies Buddha’s teachings in the principles of her work.
“I cannot persuade people to believe what I believe. The same like the Lord Buddha, he will only teach those who want to be taught,” Deetes says.
At her work, it sometimes happens that individuals lie about their residence or birth certificates in order to gain citizenship. She encourages them to speak the truth, that has in the past resulted in some individuals blaming her for not securing their Thai nationality. But little by little, doing her best every day remains Deetes’ motto.
While largely working with grassroots people and organisations, Deetes has also made forays into politics to try and impact change. As a Goldman Environmental Prize Winner for Asia, an Ashoka fellow, and a winner of Global 500 Roll of Honour, Deetes saw that a lot of other winners and nominees of these prizes were entering politics.
“I already had good relations at the grassroots level and a network across Thailand so I thought it would be good to be at a high position so that I can propose new policies and laws,” she recalls.
Firstly, she became a senator and then a member of the National Legislative Assembly of Thailand. As a result of her activity in politics, two laws – the 1972 nationality law and the civil registration law – were loosened in 2008, with 90, 000 people consequently obtaining Thai citizenship. This Deetes considers her biggest achievement to date.
Walking in the wild forests around a hidden Karen village, Huay Hin Lad Nai, Deetes excitedly points at two metres tall bushes of tea, and many herbs that locals use in their cuisine or as medicine.
When arriving to a creek that is impossible to jump above or cross without getting wet, she does not hesitate to take off her shoes and continues her forest walk without them, barefoot. She greets a Karen woman who is coming back from her rice fields, and later stops by the motorbike of a farmer harvesting rice, carrying home a few pieces of bamboo.
She hugs them and stays with her arms around their shoulders for a while, sometimes throughout their entire conversation, showing admiration and appreciation for the protection of their forests, which Huay Hin Lad Nai is famous for across the country.
Deetes goes there to gain inspiration, and she leaves even more determined to pursue her fight for the Mekong River and surrounding wetlands, for the minorities in the south of Thailand that are facing evictions from national parks, or for sustainable agriculture methods and the healthy air that comes with them.
“The philosophy of HADF is the mutual relationship between humans, and human and nature. I want every human being to have dignity, to have equal rights by the law and to participate in social development. And I also wish for all human beings to live with nature peacefully and mutually.”
Magdalena Rojo is a journalist fellow with the Spiritual Exemplars Project.
Noel Rojo is a journalist fellow with the Spiritual Exemplars Project.