Da’s parents are from Karen State and left Burma over 45 years ago to escape the conflict. Da was born in Thailand and the family lived in a small village, Baan Tharue in Mae Hong Son with 21 families. The village had limited resources – and there was no school and no clinic. Da’s father believed strongly in education and wanted Da to go to school: she left home at the age of seven to live and study at a temple which was located in another district – she was the only female student.
When she left first home she had no concept of being stateless but this changed as she got older and experienced first hand verbal abuse and prejudice for being “stateless”, having no Thai citizenship and therefore no rights. She started to see that her life was different to children with Thai citizenship – when she graduated from primary school she was not granted a school leaving certificate because she was stateless, and she was at first denied a scholarship she had been awarded. These problems persisted throughout high school – she was constantly asked for documentation such as a birth certificate and education certificate which she could not provide and when she graduated from high school she was unable to get a diploma which was a requirement for getting into university.
Da, is a fighter, and was determined: “I wanted to learn. My father was the leader of the community who taught me a lot including the importance of education”. Even when teachers told her “education is not important for you, just quit school, work for your family - studying is not useful for your life” she kept on following her dream of education and being in a position to assist other stateless children. Her determination was fuelled by her passion to make changes for herself and others: “When I was a stateless student they said stateless people is garbage. Nothing useful for our country. I was very sad and also very angry”.
Her growing consciousness about her own challenges of being stateless and the plight of other stateless children led to Da getting involved in activism around stateless issues: she wanted to be a representative of stateless children so began to tell her story and the problems that she faced. “I needed to do something so I started to do many activity to develop myself”.
Da realised that Human Rights were the key to solving the situation of stateless people, and that conventions such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) were important tools to offer protection. and decided that she should study law: of course the same constraints that had affected her access to education throughout her school career also impacted on her ability to attend university, coupled with her restriction on travel and her lack of access to student financial support due to her stateless status. Whilst at a seminar on stateless issues the president of Payap University, a private university located in Chiang Mai heard Da speak on the rights of stateless people and her own dream to study law and offered her a scholarship to attend the university. Da was the first stateless person to attend and graduate from the University. Whilst at University Da continued to raise the issues facing stateless people and set up a University group to address human rights violations.
For Da, activism was and still is important. “Every place, every time that I have the opportunity to talk about stateless people I will do it” The problems for stateless people begin at birth: being denied a birth certificate creates problems for people throughout their lives – around issues of education, health access (Da’s father died due to lack of access to health care), the right to have a registered marriage, the right to travel – within Thailand and beyond. The lack of rights makes people more vulnerable to abuse such as not being protected by labour laws, human trafficking and denies people the benefits given to registered Thai citizens. People without nationality are viewed as alien – and are often subjected to verbal abuse which impacts on their sense of dignity and self-esteem.
After graduation Da volunteered at the Stateless Children’s Protection Project and the Development Centre for Children and Community Network and she set up her own project – the Mekong Youth Assembly. MYA is an advocacy organisation of and for youth in 6 countries (Burma, Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand and Viet Nam working on children and youth rights and the environment that was facilitated and set up with financial and technical support from terre des homes South East Asia Regional Office. The vision of MYA is for young people to be empowered and be at the forefront of addressing issues that affect them most. With over 200 members, the network of youth groups strengthens communities capacities to defend their earth rights. Da represented Southeast Asia region in the first International Youth Network meeting organised by terre des hommes in Germany in 2011, and she has joined several regional meetings of the terre des homes Southeast Asia Youth Network (SYN). Da has represented the SYN in the ASEAN Youth Forum and other regional events.
Changes in legislation governing the citizenship laws in Thailand after ten years of advocacy impacted directly on Da’s situation With the support of her NGO DCCN Da fought to get Article 23 (allowing for people born in Thailand before 1992 to apply for citizenship) passed. Her story was used as a case study for Article 23 and she was the first person to gain citizenship under the Article in 2008.
“Why did we fight for this? Because if we don't have Thai nationality that means we cannot get any rights. I am non-citizen but I am human so that means if you have rights I also have rights the same with you”
Although there has been some successes stateless people are still discriminated against and Da acknowledges that there are many changes that need to happen. Da’s dream, growing up, was to be educated, to become a lawyer and to help people. Now she says she has studied law and she can help people but that is not the end for her, she can use her experience even more in her activism. She wants to see youth stand up to protect their rights and their lives, to see the community use their knowledge to help young people.
"I don't fight for myself but I fight for my family and also my village. If I fight, if I win, they win with me."