Notes from the Field

Greetings, Thai Citizens!

April 2, 2008

Last week, just before dawn on Tuesday morning, six boats loaded with over 120 people left the island of Sin Hai and sailed for the mainland. Elsewhere along the coast of Ranong province, hundreds of other people climbed into buses and pickup trucks to travel to Ranong city for an event held by The Asia Foundation in conjunction with the provincial government. The long-awaited day was the culmination of a program organized by the Foundation’s Tsunami Rights and Legal Aid Referral Center (T-LAC) to provide free DNA tests which enabled unrecognized Thai citizens to prove their nationality and obtain ID cards.

For the islanders of Sin Hai and all others who attended the event, the receipt of an ID card is a life-changing event. Sitting next to me at the press conference panel prior to the main ceremony was one islander who spoke movingly about his plight. Like many on Sin Hai island, he did not register his children at birth and therefore they did not have an ID card. “My children were not able to complete their studies,” he said, speaking shyly into the microphone. “They were unable to work legally and could not support their own families. Today, I am very proud and happy. My children and their children now have rights and are equal to others. As of today, they are proper Thai citizens. They can speak out against injustice without being afraid.”

The ceremony to hand out ID cards was well-organized by the office of the Governor of Ranong province and was held in honor of His Majesty the King of Thailand’s 80th birthday celebrations. Hundreds of people living in tsunami-affected areas of Ranong took part in T-LAC’s DNA testing program to receive ID cards, and the hall was filled with many more as family members came to witness the event. The atmosphere was quite wonderful. It was a day of celebration. Everywhere I walked, people came up to hug me ” so grateful were they to finally become bona fide citizens of Thailand.

As a representative of The Asia Foundation, my speech was scheduled after those of the Governor and a forensic science expert from the Central Institute of Forensic Science, who had conducted the DNA tests. It was with much happiness and sincerity that I greeted my fellow Thai citizens: “You have been Thai citizens since birth ” it’s just that the law has not recognized you as such until now.” I spoke about once losing my ID card, and how scared I had been that day when I realized how vulnerable I was. I said: “Starting today, with an ID card you can now travel freely, you can buy a bicycle or a motorcycle, you can own a house or land, you can carry a health care card The list goes on and on.”

After we finished our speeches, people stepped up to the stage to receive their ID cards. As I handed a card to one man, he seemed stunned. “Look at the photograph on the card,” I suggested, hoping to focus him. “Is that you?” He replied that it was. “How long have you been waiting to get an ID card?” I asked. He gripped his card tightly and replied, “Fifty years.” When I heard that, I became quite overwhelmed myself.

With the cards handed out, I joined the assembled recipients to recite an oath pledging allegiance to the Thai nation and vowing to adhere to Thai laws and democratic practices. The voices of hundreds of people echoed loudly across the hall. I believe it was a proud moment for all of us.

On our drive back to Krabi, where the T-LAC office is based, we stopped off to visit Soranee To-Aem, a teacher who had helped spread the news about our DNA program to potential candidates. Soranee talked so enthusiastically of people’s excitement that it nearly brought tears to my eyes. She told me that she had spoken with one family of 20 people who had received ID cards at the event; they were so mesmerized that they forgot to eat lunch, as they examined their new cards and showed them to each other. Soranee is one of 129 paralegal volunteers who work with our network of 6 T-LAC staff, all of whom have made this program a success.

Read more about T-LAC’s DNA project.

Ruengrawee Ketphol is a Senior Program Coordinator for The Asia Foundation’s Tsunami Rights & Legal Aid Referral Center (T-LAC) project in Thailand. To contact her, please write to dfelix@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Ruangrawee Ketphol

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