There wasn't much about Mueda Navanaat's appearance to set her apart from the other young women in the crowd at the meeting hall in Mae Hong Son, but they, along with the men, looked at her with pride and as an example of what the future might bring. The meeting was a gathering of stateless people who are trying to win Thai citizenship, and Ms Mueda, now 24, is a former stateless person who not only now has citizenship but a law degree from Payap University, a well known private university in Chiang Mai.
Their eyes shining with a mixture of curiosity and hope, audience members at the meeting organised by human rights groups asked her many questions about how to go about obtaining citizenship and accessing educational opportunities.
After more than a decade of struggle, Ms Mueda was granted Thai citizenship on Sept 3, 2008, a day she remembers very well.
''It is the day I had my photo taken for my Thai ID card _ with all 13 digits in the ID number,'' she recalled. For a couple of years before that, since 2006, she had held the green ID card with a red border identifying her as a non-Thai, with only limited rights in a particular area. ''It took me four years just to get that card.''
Ms Mueda has been making national headlines since she was young and has been a representative of stateless children in many forums. In 2004, she came to Government House with 50 other stateless children to ask then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to look at their problems. They were expelled from the compound by police and she was pushed to the ground. When journalists on hand interviewed her she cried and said she was not a criminal.
As the holder of a green card, while studying in Chiang Mai she had to go back to her hometown in Mae Hong Son every six months to renew a permit allowing her to leave the area.
Ms Mueda was recruited by the Thai Volunteer Service (TVS) Foundation after her graduation and has just completed one year as a legal volunteer at the Children and Community Development Centre, which had assisted with her own citizenship and education. The centre has offices in Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son provinces.
The TVS Foundation began recruiting and training young college graduates and dispatching them to work with different non-governmental organisations in 1980. Since 2006, due to limited funds and an emphasis on rampant human rights violations, the foundation has only recruited law graduates to send to organisations that need help in providing legal services. Ms Mueda is one of 26 volunteers in the fifth batch of young barristers to join the programme.
After finishing high school in 2006, Ms Mueda had no expectation of being able to further her education, but through the efforts of both the former and present rector of Payap University she was awarded a scholarship. Her hard work and good works have justified their faith in her.
''I have fulfilled my dream of studying law and I'm using my knowledge to work for others,'' said Ms Mueda, adding that the people who assisted her through the tough times had encouraged her to help other stateless people in Thailand, and that's what she is determined to do. There is probably no one better qualified.
Born on Thai soil in 1986 to ethnic Karen parents who had fled civil war in Burma in 1967, Ms Mueda grew up with a realisation of how hard it is to be stateless. For example, when her became ill with cancer, he was not eligible for any government health care and died soon after.
Before 2005, stateless children were not entitled to an education, but as a young girl Ms Mueda wanted so much to study that she begged a local primary school to accept her. She had to leave home to stay in a temple near the school because it was too far to commute. When she finished primary school and then high school, she was not eligible for a graduation certificate, but through her own determination and the understanding of many adults she was granted the opportunity to continue her studies.
In 2005, the Thai government issued a cabinet resolution proclaiming that all Thai children _ including stateless children _ have the right to an education. That same year Ms Mueda applied for citizenship under Section 7 of the 1965 Nationality Act, which was amended in 1992 (see box). She waited three years and saw no progress on her application. Then the 2008 Nationality Act, Section 23, was issued to allow citizenship to people born before Feb 25, 1992.
The law was designed to bridge loopholes in the previous laws by stipulating a specific timeframe. The district office has 90 days to act on an application request before sending it on to provincial officials, who must forward it to the Interior Ministry within 45 days. Finally, the ministry must make its decision on the application within 45 days.
''I had provided all my documentation years before, but I still encountered many difficulties,'' said Ms Mueda. An official at Mae Hong Son's Sob Moei district office advised her to apply under the old 1965 law. She had to show the official a copy of the new law and its announcement from the Interior Ministry. ''At that time, I realised that many officials do not know the laws related to their work,'' she said.
Ms Mueda followed the progress of her application every week by phoning the district office. When the end of the 90-day time period was getting close she was told her case had reached the district chief, who by law had to make a decision within 15 days.
After two weeks she phoned again, expecting good news from the district chief. But no one claimed any knowledge of her application. Getting desperate, she sent a registered letter to the district chief, who later signed her application and submitted it to provincial officials. The Interior Ministry eventually approved her citizenship application.
Ms Mueda learned later that the first official she had talked to never submitted the application to the district chief. During her work as a legal volunteer she found that nationality applications are often given low priority and even lost. It is not uncommon for officials to ask the applicant to reapply, in which case the process starts from square one. However, she said, the blame doesn't lie only with officials; applicants must follow up.
''Many applicants do not record the name of the official who receives their application, so they cannot follow up on the application properly,'' she said, but added that it is frustrating that even those who do follow up are often told ''the application is in progress'' when actually it is just lying around somewhere in the district office.
Ms Mueda's work with the volunteer foundation concerns educating stateless people about human rights, human trafficking and their rights to access education. She has found that in general Thai society is still heavily prejudiced against stateless people. Once she attended a human rights meeting at a church in Mae Hong Son and she asked the participants to indicate whether or not they had Thai nationality.
''Five people raised their hands after I asked who did not have nationality. The others teased them and called them 'aliens'. I know how they felt,'' said Ms Mueda.
Today she is grateful for her legal credentials, but she knows that putting them to use is not always easy, as officials may feel they are being pressured and that she ''knows too much''. ''For example, officials sometimes tell applicants that they have to get people who work for the government to be their witnesses, to verify they were born on Thai soil before February, 1992. I tell them this is not necessary, because the law actually says they should get government witnesses if applicable,'' said Ms Mueda.
The officials also don't like it when she reminds them they have to follow the application timeline or they can be charged with neglect of their duties.
She also has to sometimes tell applicants the unpleasant news that they are ineligible for citizenship. ''I have to be very careful in investigating each case. I try to find as many supporting documents as possible,'' she said. A major obstacle is that her clients sometimes do not reveal all the facts.
''I tell them that they have to give me the truth, because doctored or manipulated information will only make their cases worse and tarnish others,'' she said.
Her one year service giving legal advice and educating on human rights has ended, but she vows to continue her mission to help stateless people in whatever way is best.
''I wish I could right all wrongs by using my legal knowledge,'' said Ms Mueda. ''Nobody wants to be born stateless or status-less, but we can all choose to live with respect for the rights and dignity of others.''
Reference: Supara Janchitfah, "Stateless doesn't mean fateless", Bangkok Post, Spectrum Section, 3 July 2011 by (http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/investigation/245162/stateless-doesn-t-mean-fateless)