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Thousands of Thai nationals who for more than a century lived a quasi-legal existence in Burma’s border regions could be officially recognised as Thai citizens, following a recent cabinet meeting of the Abhisit administration.
The ‘stateless’ Thais in question refer to the thousands who ended up on the Burmese side of the border following the joint Thai-British demarcation in 1868. The agreement saw an area running from northern Karenni state in Burma to the southern tip of Tenasserim division, opposite Thailand’s Ranong, designated as British territory.
Although recognised by neither Burma nor Thailand, many began crossing over to Thailand several decades ago. Some were granted hill-tribe residency permits by the Thai government, while around 30,000 now live in Ranong. Some 10,000 are thought to still be in Burma.
The recent meeting voted unanimously to award them full Thai citizenship, but according to Daruni Paisalpanitkul of the Stateless Watch for Research and Development Institute of Thailand (SWIT), this may never be realised, with parliament set to be dissolved and Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva likely to leave office in July.
Surapong Kongjantuek, a stateless persons advocate at the Lawyers Council of Thailand, added that it would be up to the new government to reignite the proposal.
A resident in Kawthaung, the southernmost town in Burma, which lies opposite Ranong, told DVB that what people generally referred to as the town’s Shan population were in fact Thai.
“There has been a population of Thais living here for generations – they make up about 30 percent of the population in Kawthaung,” he said.
Burma became a province of British India in 1885, at a time when the British empire was carving up much of the Southern and East Asia region. Although surrounded by British-owned Malay and Burma, Thailand remained independent.
Attempts at citizenship verification for the stateless Thais have been going on for years, with the Committee to amend the Thailand Citizenship Act formed to act on behalf of those displaced by the colonial demarcation.