Thai campaigner for the stateless nominated for U.N. award

Tuenjai Deetes, a woman who began her career by teaching Thai to hilltribe villagers in the 1970s and evolved into a campaigner who helped thousands of tribal people gain Thai nationality, was nominated as the regional finalist last week for an award from the United Nations refugee agency.

The UNHCR Nansen Refugee Awards are bestowed on those who have gone to extraordinary lengths to support stateless people, refugees, and asylum seekers. It is named for Norwegian explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees appointed by the League of Nations in 1921.

“Tuenjai helped everyone in my village, and other hill tribe communities,” a tribal woman from Northern Thailand named Natee told The Nation newspaper. “She helped us to acquire Thai nationality, to have basic rights that everyone is entitled to.”

Those rights include access to education, healthcare, the freedom to travel within Thailand without restrictions, the ability to own land and property and the right to marry.

Tuenjai, now 66, began working with hilltribe villagers in Chiang Rai, Thailand’s northernmost province, when she was 20 years old. Chiang Rai is nestled between the borders of Myanmar and Laos, the tip of an area known as The Golden Triangle.

The area is populated by a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups and tribes. Some of them migrate across borders in traditional patterns related to the seasons. Others live in villages that are extremely remote and were once barely accessible.

Consequently, the times and locations of tribal peoples’ births were never recorded by Thai officials.  The result has been large numbers of people living in the region who lack citizenship and were stateless.

Although Tuenjai’s early work with tribal people was teaching them the Thai language, she soon realized the hardships and difficulties they faced because they were stateless.

“When I first started working, around 40 years ago, there were not many people in Thailand who understood the issue and gave importance to resolving statelessness successfully,” Tuenjai told UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency. “I dreamt of an inclusive society where diversity is embraced, and all people can fully exercise their rights and develop their potential.”

She helped establish the Hill Area Development Foundation, which works to develop self-reliant communities, promote education, sustainable agricultural practices, and leadership.

Tuenjai came to believe, however, that she could have an even more significant impact if she became part of government. She ran for senator from Chiang Rai in 2000 and won a six-year term. In 2015, she was appointed as a National Human Rights Commissioner.

In government, she has pushed for and helped pass laws to expand civil registration and extend Thai nationality to the stateless people living within the Kingdom’s borders. Consequently, since 2008, more than 90,000 of those people have been granted Thai citizenship.

The United Nations has praised Thailand in recent years for the steps it has taken and the results it has achieved in trying to end statelessness. Tuenjai Deetes has played an essential role in achieving those results, and she continues to work to end statelessness to this day.