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What are the dreams of families who migrated from Shan State and currently reside in Thailand? Many families hope to be reunited with family members in their home country; but there are many families who hope to begin new lives here, in Thailand.  While Shan children have been growing up in Thai society and feel that Thailand is their home, how should the Thai policies on citizenship and the status of stateless people be adjusted to the needs of this cross-border population?  These issues are addressed in the following report.

For many decades, many Shan people have decided to cross the border to northern Thailand where they used their skills and hard work to earn a living and support their families. They consider Thailand as their second home. The young generation has attentively and devotedly studied in the Thai education system and hopes to repay society; but the rights to residence and citizenship are still restricted.

At the end of a housing village in a Chiang Mai suburb is located a community of construction workers who work on the housing project. The owner of the project provided this land to house construction workers who are mostly Shan from Shan State. The residents pay only utility fees for electricity and water.

Visiting the community of migrant labourers from Shan State

A walkway in front of the construction workers’ community behind a housing village in a Chiang Mai suburb.

An evening market in the community yard as a travelling vendor sells groceries and fresh and preserved food from a pickup truck.

The houses in the community are made of wooden or bamboo walls with galvanized roofs, built in 3 rows and each of 10 houses. A four-metre wide walkway runs between the rows, there was about where people can pass with their bicycles. Electric wires running along wooden poles radiated from a main pole in front of the community. The elevated porch in front of each house contains water containers and is used for cooking and washing dishes.

About 5 o’clock in the evening, community members come home from construction sites. Parents buy fresh food and essential groceries from the travelling vendor.  Some parents ride motorcycles with their children who they have just picked up from school in Chiang Mai city.

After arriving home, some families start cooking in front of their houses while others take a shower at two outdoor wells, and then most families have dinner.

A married couple, Mr. Song and Mrs. Sang, have just finished dinner. The couple do construction work for the housing estate project.  Mr. Song, a 43-year-old Shan, was born at Ban Ngong Kong, Amphoe Wiang Haeng, Chiang Mai Province. He holds a card for highland people from. According to the announcement of Interior Ministry dated 15th June 2016, card holders must obtain permission from the District Officer to travel outside of their designated area.

Mrs. Sang, 36, came from Lai Kha, a southern district of Shan State, Burma. She has worked in Thailand since 1999 and currently holds a work permit as a Burmese worker. She told us that most families in the community migrated from Lai Kha by word of mouth from family members to work for the housing estate project.

Lai Kha geography in warfare and conflict

Lai Kha location (pink area) and a map showing the enforced relocation of villagers from 1,478 villages in 11 districts of Shan State in 1996-1998.  More than 300,000 villagers became homeless. In Lai Kha more than 8,735 families were affected. (Source: Report of Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF)-April 1998)

In the past, Lai Kha was considered a conflict area in Shan State with frequent attacks between the Burmese military and the Shan State Army (SSA). The Burmese military used a strategy of ‘four disruptions’: news, food, manpower and funds.    

A report of Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) indicated that from 1996-1998, Shan people from 11 villages from southern Shan State migrated to the city, leaving more than 1,478 villages abandoned and more than 300,000 villagers homeless. In Lai Kha district, people from 201 villages were forcibly relocated and 8,735 families were affected. (See SHRF report)

In addition, in 2009, there was a report that the Burmese military had forced more than 30 families in Lai Kha to Maklang district to disrupt support for the minority group. (See relevant news)

A survey of Burmese migrant labourers in Thailand in 2015 by the International Organization of Migration (IOM) shows that for most economic factors were the major reason for migrating to Thailand, while 7% indicated that political conflict and oppressive government were the reasons.

If we classify responses by hometown, the survey shows that more than 50% of migrants from Shan State gave insecurity as a reason for migrating to Thailand.

There was a similar armed conflict in Karen State and 21% of Karen respondents also gave insecurity as a reason for migrating to Thailand.

A factor that significantly affected the results of the IOM survey of Shan and Karen labour is that there is a refugee camp located on the Thai border adjacent to Karen state whereas there is none on the border with Shan State. As a result, Karen refugees may stay at the camp or work outside, while most Shan refugees have no choice other than to become migrant labourers in Thailand.     

Skilled labourers and the education of daughters

Song and Sang met each other working at a construction company for the housing estate project in Chiang Mai. The company has continuously has projects, so the couple continued working for the company. They get paid bi-monthly, at the beginning and middle of the month.

Song works as a plasterer which is skilled work with an inadequate supply of labour. Song said that the daily wage depends on workload.  When asked for an estimated daily wage, Song said not less than 500 baht per day. “For example, today, there is 20 square metres to plaster and he gets paid at 70 baht per square meter.” However, he does not get the same work and pay every day.

Sang works as a general labourer and earns about 350-400 baht per day depending on workload, less than skilled workers.

They have two daughters. The elder is 16 years old studying at Matthayom 3 in a high school in Chiang Mai city. The younger daughter has just started kindergarten level 3. They reside in a small wooden house in the construction community. Sang said that their elder daughter was good at studying and was considering whether further her studies in a vocational or academic stream.

When asked if they planned to return to their home in Lai Kha, Sang replied that she wants to. However, having children here and their children growing up, they feel that they belong here.

The 2015 IOM survey (See report) showed that there were about 3.5 million migrants in Thailand of whom 3 million were in the labour market.  This represents about 7% of the labour force in Thailand. About 2.3 million of the migrants were from Myanmar.

The IOM survey showed that workers from Myanmar remitted home approximately USD 962 each annually. The annual total remittances from workers was estimated at about USD 1.7 million and USD 1.4 million of this was remitted to ethnic states in Myanmar such as, Mon, Shan, Karen and Tanintharyi.

Shan workers remitted about USD 545 each annually with an estimated annual total of USD 197.67 million.

Money was remitted every few months through unofficial channels of middlemen, families or friends.   These channels were used because of the upcountry location of their hometown and because formal banking processes requiring an identification card or bank account.

A single Shan mother with a four-year-old son

In a small house in the construction workers’ community, Mrs. Mung (assumed name), a Shan from Lai Kha, aged 39, was feeding her four year old son, Nong Yo (assumed name). Mrs. Mung was divorced from her husband who left her with the burden of taking care of their son.

Mrs. Mung has four siblings; two are still in Lai Kha. Her family back home earns a living from growing rice and garlic. They also plant sticky rice for making desserts.  Mrs. Mung’s elder sister lives in Tambon Piang Luang, Amphoe Wiang Haeng, on the northern border of Chiang Mai Province with Shan State. Mrs. Mung previously worked in Chiang Mai in 2003 for about a year, moved back home and then returned to work in Thailand in 2006 with an alien work permit.     

At the construction site, Mrs. Mung works as a plasterer and cement floor polisher. In addition to a daily wage of about 300 baht, Mrs. Mung works 3-4 hours overtime a day and earns about 9,000-10,000 baht a month.  Currently, her main expenses are food and her son’s nursery fees at a private kindergarten, costing about 1,600 baht per month.  Mrs. Mung also has the instalment payments on a motorcycle used to take her son to school. She spends only about 100 baht a month on gasoline as she only rides the motorcycle to and from her son’s school not far from her home.          

Mrs. Mung said that she previously transferred money to her parents in Shan State. But now that she has to take care of her son alone, she has to save for her son’s future education.  Mrs. Mung’s future dream is different from that of Song and Sang’s family; she hopes to save a big amount of money and return home with her son who has started talking and practising Thai language from television and school.  

Extra Classroom and Volunteer Teachers for Workers’ Children

Students in extra classroom together with volunteer teachers from Shan Youth Power

“Children of Shan born in Chiang Mai are able to speak Shan to communicate with their parents, the local language for neighbours and can speak Thai language only when studying in class”, said Sang Muang, a Shan volunteer teacher for construction workers’ children.

Sang Muang is now a volunteer teacher from Shan Youth Power, a youth network from Shan State working on education and communication. The network has sent its members as volunteer teachers to support education among Shan communities in Chiang Mai by teaching the Shan language, English and other subjects as extra to the classes for Shan children. The target areas are construction site communities and agricultural villages where parents help to provide places for these volunteers.

In Chiang Mai, there are four classes in communities of Shan workers from Shan State. Each class has 20-30 students with 11 teachers in total, 8 full-time and 3 volunteers.

At the construction site, people built a simple raised room from bamboo, roofed with thatch and with two walls made from galvanized sheeting. The other sides are open. The floor is covered with reed mats and three to four floor tables are placed at one corner of the room and there is one blackboard. When class starts, both teachers and children put the tables at the centre of the room. The class is separated into three groups: teenagers, older children and small children. Each group sits in a circle around a table.

For that evening, the class was Shan language. Two volunteer teachers separated the children into three groups by age. The teenagers learned advanced Shan, the older children had beginners’ lessons but for the small children the main job of the volunteer teachers was to make them sit still and teach them to read and write the Shan consonants and vowels while going back and forth to teach the teenagers and older children.

Sang Muang said that in the past the school drop-out rate of children following their families to Chiang Mai was high. Only a few decided to finish compulsory schooling. That was why education became critical for the children of Shan workers. At present, most Tai Yai stay longer in Chiang Mai and are willing to pay for their children’s education. Therefore, the education work of the Shan Youth Power volunteers turned into teaching extra courses required by the children in the community.

Sang Muang also said that Tai Yai students have recently decided to study further in vocational schools and universities. Some students study in non-formal education schools while some take the Equivalence Test to study in university. Most applied using Myanmar passports, but if they have a highlander’s card issued by the Thai government they could use that.

According to Sang Muang’s survey, two to three main factors influence the choice of higher education of Shan youth in Chiang Mai. The first is distance. If the higher education institutions are far from their parents’ work or home, either the children decide to end their education or the parents will not send them to school as the cost of transportation is a priority.

The second are their parents. If they decide to move back to Shan State, their education will end. However, most of them will allow children in Mathayom 3 or Mathayom 6 to finish the year and then encourage them to return to their hometown.

Financial support from families is also an important factor, even though many Shan youths are trying to finish gain a certificate and then work to support themselves. Some drop out for a year to work and then go back to finish their course.

On the choice of between high schools and vocational schools, Sang Muang pointed out that Shan boys would like to study technical fields in vocational schools, whether construction, mechanics or architecture, because of the job opportunities; girls are interested in vocational schools for accounting, the hospitality industry and nutrition. Though girls can take the same industrial subjects as boys, cultural norms frame the choice of careers for girls.  

Sang Muang said that there was a case of a child who wanted to study in high school, but after counselling from a teacher changed their mind despite not wanting to study in a vocational school. There was also a child who wanted to study nursing, but a teacher said that the nursing profession was prohibited to foreign workers. In fact, this is not the case according to the Professional Nursing and Midwifery Act. What is prohibited is work as a government official. However, the child decided to study accounting instead.

Sang Muang also disclosed that parents’ relocation back to Shan State is still a big challenge to the decision of their children about further study. “Sometimes they’ve been back to their hometown. In one way they thought it was great to be home. In another way they thought it was so hard to think how they could live there. This was because they grew up and got used to the way of life in Chiang Mai”. Sang Muang proposed that children who had grown up in Chiang Mai could actually go back and live in Shan State if they could adapt, but he thought that when it was time for families to make a decision on settling in Chiang Mai or moving back to Shan State, it was very difficult choice.

Family Relocation for Better Lives and Citizenship

A dormitory at the foot of Doi Suthep behind Chiang Mai University where Phi Nuan lives

A Tai Yai-style Buddhist Altar at Phi Nuan’s place


One evening in the middle of a garden and dormitories at the foot of Doi Suthep, we had an appointment with Phi Nuan, a 43-year-old Shan woman who was just back from her job as a cook in the restaurant of a medium-sized hotel in Chiang Mai.

Phi Nuan told us that her parents were Shan from Loy Leam. She is the fourth child of six. She moved to Chiang Mai with her parents in 1975 when she was two years old. Their first destination was Ban Yang, Tambon Mae Ngon, Amphoe Fang, Chiang Mai, a Yunnan community which was evacuated here with the Chinese Nationalist 93rd division. Her parents moved to Thailand thinking that earning a living here was better than staying in Shan State. They worked and also had savings. Therefore, they decided to sell all their land in Shan to fund moving the entire family to Ban Yang. All her family members held a highlander card (pink card) from the Ministry of Interior.

In 1996 when she was 23 years old, her family moved to Amphoe Fang. Before she became a cook in 2012, she applied as a dishwasher and kitchen cleaner at a hotel. The hotel owner suggested learning what to do from a cook in the kitchen, so that she could move to another job or career. Even though she was illiterate, she remembered the suggestions of the former cook by heart. She knew the quantity of ingredients in each dish.

“So I tried to make many dishes and have them tasted. My boss trusted me. He told me to stay focussed and try, not to worry about wasting things. If things were not good, no worry. I cooked and have the dishes tasted. My boss was very kind”, Phi Nuan recounted.

Phi Nuan became a cook in the hotel in 2014. Now her monthly salary is 11,000 baht or 10,500 baht after the social security deduction. The hotel has two full-time cooks and one helper.

Phi Nuan’s daily duty is to prepare enough breakfast for the guests each day. If there is a group of 30 guests, a buffet breakfast will be prepared. If fewer, the breakfast can be just enough for everyone or à la carte. “I don’t have to worry about anything. If I want to cook a curry, I just tell the helper who can read and write to prepare the ingredients.”

“The hard part is certainly that I am afraid that it would be too salty, not good enough, over-cooked or smelly. Anyway, I use everything in me to make it as good as possible.” Phi Nuan told us her way to work.

“Whatever the boss teaches me, I remember. Because they pay me a full wage, I do everything whole-heartedly. Otherwise, we cannot do anything. My only way of doing things is by memory, as I cannot read or write.”

She married a Myanmar man from Yangon who works as a security guard for a private company in Chiang Mai and has two children; a 23-year-old daughter, who is now married to a Thai man from Lamphun, and a 15-year-old son who works in an orange grove after finishing Mathayom 3. He stays with his grandmother, Phi Nuan’s mother, in Amphoe Fang and still holds a highlander card.

When asked where her children feel is home, her answer was Thailand. Her husband used to ask them to visit Myanmar but they refused saying that they cannot speak the language.

Even after living in Thailand for almost 40 years, none of her family members have yet acquired Thai nationality. They still hold highlander cards and they are still recorded as living in the highlands, following a 1998-9 survey by the government.

When asked about the future, Phi Nuan said that she would keep working in Thailand. Her children grew up here while her mother has still lived in Amphoe Fang with a monthly allowance of 1,000-2,000 baht from her children. Phi Nuan has no worries about her daughter as she is married and has her own family. She just hopes that her son can study beyond Mathayom 3. The problem is just financial support.

None of Phi Nuan’s siblings received Thai nationality from their parents. But a 2012 Ministry of Interior announcement ‘on the granting of Thai citizenship in general and in individual cases to those without Thai citizenship born in the Kingdom of Thailand whose fathers and mothers are aliens’ applied to 14 ethnic groups and displaced persons without Thai nationality. At that time, the district officer recommended her to apply for citizenship. When the Government institutes a policy on citizenship, they can immediately process the case.

Population and Immigration Policies: When Thailand Moves to an Aging Society

Adisorn Kerdmongkol, Labour Researcher, Coordinator of Migrant Working Group (MWG)

Adisorn Kerdmongkol, Researcher and Coordinator of the Migrant Working Group (MWG) talked about Thai population policies. In the near future, Thailand will face a labour shortage in the construction industry, domestic services, manufacturing and agriculture. The government responded through a Prime Minister’s Office announcement on 15 November 2016 on “Categories of Work for which Aliens are Permitted to Acquire Work Permits according to the Alien Working Act, Section 13.” This meant that highlander card holders and their children can work in every occupation.

The Prime Minister’s Office announcement allowed people from ethnic minorities who hold highlander cards to fully utilize their abilities. In the past, even university or vocational college graduates were not able to work in some fields because of the restrictions in the Alien Working Act. However, some professions requiring special skills, such as government service and the legal profession, are still not open to ethnic minorities because they require Thai nationality.

On the long-term possibility that ethnic highlanders and their Thai-educated children will acquire Thai nationality, Adisorn said that it depended on government policy. Recently, however, the Thai birth rate has declined and the government is beginning to realize the importance of people born and raised in the country. So the government seems to be granting Thai citizenship to these people or permanent permission to stay.

The laws and regulations of the Ministry of Interior on granting Thai nationality can be categorized by recipients.

1: Parentage. Children automatically acquire Thai citizenship if either the father or mother has Thai citizenship.

2: Aliens who have resided in the Kingdom of Thailand for a long time who meet fully the legal qualifications can apply for citizenship for consideration by the Minister of Interior.

3: Thai citizenship can be granted by government policy, such as the 2012 announcement of the Ministry of Interior mentioned above which covers those in 14 ethnic groups born in Thailand to alien and stateless parents. The government also grants the Thai citizenship to the children of skilled specialists.

Adisorn added that according to recent Thai government policy “the Thai Government usually grants Thai Citizenship to those who have stayed in the Kingdom for a period of time and who already feel attachment to Thai society.”

There are many positive sides of granting Thai citizenship in such cases. The labour force is expanded; citizens have greater attachment to Thai society; improved accessibility to government services such as health services. The Government sees this as one of many steps in human development, hence the policies granting Thai citizenship.

“Special Status”; a Policy Proposal to Serve Cross-Border Populations and Future Thai-Myanmar Economic Links

Children whose parents are migrant workers with Myanmar citizenship and hold alien work permits are not granted Thai citizenship but grew up and were educated in Thailand. They are concerned about their status if they have to follow their parents back to Myanmar.

Adisorn said that there were two policy options: granting Thai citizenship to those educated in the Kingdom with qualification meeting future national requirements.

The second, in the case of children who feel connected to Thailand, is for the government to identify the citizenship of migrant parents and give the children a choice of citizenship. The government can also grant temporary and permanent permission to stay. In this case, the government does not grant Thai nationality but allows the right of residence. This option enables the government to decide either it wants to allow these people to stay temporarily or allow them to stay permanently. The government can use the Immigration Act to manage this.     

Adisorn also proposed the granting of “special status” to migrants’ children who grow up and study in Thailand. Even though these children hold Myanmar citizenship from their parentage, the Thai government can implement special measures in special cases, allowing them to stay in Thailand, the length of time depending on Thai policy. The advantage of this measure is that it allows these people to cross back and forth between Thailand and their home country and encourages future investment and trade connecting two countries.

Adisorn summarized that Thai policies on population and immigration tend to comply with dynamic conditions. Thailand is progressing to an aging society and demands an economically active labour force. The children of migrants are qualified; they were born, raised and educated in Thailand. Many are skilled and possess specialisms required by the nation. Thailand can learn from the population policies of Singapore, which is open for skilled foreigners to work and be granted permanent stay.



International Organization for Migration. Supplementary Report – Assessing Potential Changes in Migration Patterns of Myanmar Migrants. 11 February 2016,  

Shan Human Rights Foundation. DISPOSSESSED: A report on forced relocation and extrajudicial killings in Shan State, Burma. April 1998.

Ministry of Interior Announcement on the granting of Thai citizenship in general and in individual cases to those without Thai citizenship born in the Kingdom of Thailand whose fathers and mothers are aliens, Government Gazette, no. 129, special chapter 177 ง 23 November 2012.

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