“Fon” means rain in the Thai language. It’s also the name of a lovely young woman living in the mountains north of Chiang Rai, Thailand, close to the borders of Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. Fon is a member of a “hilltribe” called Akah. The Akha are originally from China, near Tibet, and migrated to Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand more than 100 years ago. They’ve always been considered an ethnic minority.
The Akah make their living farming and selling rice, coffee, tea and vegetables. They also live in villages frequented by tourists, who come to observe their rich culture, and purchase traditional handcrafted items as souvenirs. Most of these people are barely getting by.
Fon is a devout Christian, which is unusual, considering Thailand is mostly Buddhist. Missionaries began converting them from their own religion, “Zahv”, in the mid-20th century. Zahv centered on the Akah’s relationship with the earth, and their ancestors.
Fon’s family has very little money, and they live without running water and electricity. Meals are cooked daily over an open fire. It’s a rustic lifestyle to say the least. Despite what most people would consider hardships, Fon and her family are very close and happy. The one thing she feels she is missing, is travel. Fon has never been to the beach, and rarely leaves her village. Money has something to do with this, but it’s not the only obstacle. Fon isn’t considered a Thai citizen, and being caught outside her village could mean big trouble.
Before she was born, Fon’s parents lived in Myanmar. They made the move to an Akah village in Thailand to make a better living growing rice. It wasn’t long before Fon was born. She was born in a house, and the birth was never documented, as it would be in a hospital. Fon also never attended school. Her parents had three other children, and Fon being the oldest, had to start helping to care for them at a very young age. She was cooking meals and taking care of babies before most of us leave elementary school. Her siblings attended the small village school, but Fon was too important at home for such nonsense.
Now, Fon, born in Thailand, should be considered a Thai citizen. Unfortunately, her parents came into the country undocumented. She has no birth certificate, no school registration paperwork, and she’s never even been to a hospital. She’s not a citizen of Myanmar, and cannot prove her Thai citizenship. Her younger siblings managed to get special “hilltribe” identification cards, which give them sort of a limited citizenship. They aren’t considered Thai citizens, but are allowed to travel within the country. They can’t do certain other things, such as buy land. They were able to acquire these IDs because they attended school.
Fon is an intelligent, attractive young woman, who in a normal society would have unlimited potential. Unfortunately, her circumstances have limited her. Thai immigration is very strict. I am often stopped at police checkpoints, having to show my passport and driver’s license. If Fon were to be stopped in a similar situation, what would happen to her? There is nowhere to deport her. She can’t travel, because even the buses and trains ask for ID. If she were to get into an accident outside her village and need medical attention, she wouldn’t get it. She can’t pursue an education or work outside her village. She is basically a prisoner to her community.
The really sad part is this is not uncommon. I personally know three people in similar situations. Two are from hilltribes, and one is from Myanmar.
We have the same types of problems in the U.S., although it would be much easier to travel undocumented within the U.S. than it is here. I’m not for open borders by any means. In fact, until I started meeting people in Thailand in this situation, I was very staunch in my belief that illegal immigrants should be deported. Now, my opinion has softened. Situations need to be examined on a case-by-case basis, and handled with as much compassion as possible. In Fon’s situation, she actually is a Thai citizen, and just can’t prove it. Her parents either didn’t know the implications of denying her a birth certificate, or were afraid to risk completing the paperwork, for fear of their own deportation. She shouldn’t be in this predicament, and doesn’t deserve to be restricted in this way. There should be an avenue for her to apply for citizenship. There are organizations working to tackle this problem. It’s much more common than it should be. Hopefully, Thailand will figure out a way to provide a path to allow citizenship to those who deserve it – especially to those born in this country.