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Cablegate: Long-Neck Minority Group Caught in Refugee and Citizenship

VZCZCXRO4754
PP RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHCHI #0076/01 1141015
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 241015Z APR 07
FM AMCONSUL CHIANG MAI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 0454
INFO RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE
RUEHCI/AMCONSUL KOLKATA PRIORITY 0013
RUEHCN/AMCONSUL CHENGDU PRIORITY 0050
RUEHCHI/AMCONSUL CHIANG MAI PRIORITY 0498
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
RUEHGV/USMISSION GENEVA PRIORITY 0015
RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI PRIORITY 0011
RHHJJPI/PACOM IDHS HONOLULU HI
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK PRIORITY 0008

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 CHIANG MAI 000076

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PHUM PREF TH BM
SUBJECT: LONG-NECK MINORITY GROUP CAUGHT IN REFUGEE AND CITIZENSHIP
LIMBO


CHIANG MAI 00000076 001.2 OF 002


1. Summary. Northern Thailand's large population of stateless
people struggles with complex and ambiguous RTG residency
policies, as evidenced by the dilemma of a small group of ethnic
Padaung caught between the cracks. In recent months, NGOs have
criticized RTG officials for denying a group of 500 Padaung
originally from Burma the right to resettle in third countries,
a problem that is emblematic for refugees, migrant workers, and
ethnic minorities living near the Thai-Burma border. In the
Padaung case, NGOs claim local officials want to hold on to
tourist revenue derived from the group's exotic "Long Neck"
appearance. However, Padaung and other stateless groups face
even greater challenges navigating bureaucratic Thai citizenship
and refugee policies than they do coping with the tourism
industry. End Summary.

2. Organizations such as the U.S. Campaign for Burma (USCB)
lashed out at the RTG this month for denying a group of ethnic
Padaung living in Mae Hong Son near the Burma border the chance
to resettle in third countries through the office of the United
Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). NGOs say the Thai
tourism industry exploits the "Long Neck" Padaung women, bussing
in tourists to visit villages in northern Thailand for quick
photo opportunities and marketing the images as part of "Amazing
Thailand" tribal life.

3. Thai officials counter, however, that this Padaung group is
ineligible for resettlement. They note that most Padaung living
in Thailand do not have refugee status, which is given only to
specific groups fleeing political violence in Burma and not to
those seeking greater economic opportunities in Thailand. RTG
officials in Mae Hong Son told the Consulate they are
consolidating the three Padaung villages frequented by tourists
into one site closer to the provincial capital, so as to give
the Padaung better access to non-tourism related livelihoods.
However, many Padaung and NGO activists are skeptical about this
plan, claiming it will further lock villagers into a life
trapped in a "human zoo."

AN ALMOST LOST TRADITION IS REVIVED FOR TOURISM

4. The Padaung, a sub-group of the Karenni people from Burma's
Kayah State and sometimes also called Kayan, have literally
stuck their necks out to become one of the more memorable images
of a visit to northern Thailand. From post cards to magazine
ads, tourism agencies promote tours to see Padaung women and
their apparently elongated necks. Anthropologists say the custom
of placing up to dozens of brass rings around the neck - which
actually force the clavicle bone into a lower position so as to
give the illusion of a longer neck - dates back hundreds of
years, but had nearly disappeared in modern times.

5. Decades of conflicts between Burma's military junta and armed
ethnic groups led the Padaung to flee to Thailand in significant
numbers in the 1990s. Once in Thailand, many Padaung preferred
to work in the tourism industry rather than face an uncertain
future in a refugee camp. Ambitious businessmen encouraged
Padaung women to revive the Long Neck tradition and pose for
tourists seeking glimpses of exotic cultures. Hundreds of
Padaung took the bait and soon found themselves marketed as a
"Thai hill tribe" alongside other non-Thai minority groups mired
in citizenship limbo in northern Thailand.

NGOs DECRY THE HUMAN ZOO TOURIST ATTRACTION

6. According to NGOs and some Karenni activists, RTG authorities
have denied Padaung requests to apply for resettlement to third
countries, preferring to keep them as tourist-draws in Thailand.
They say the RTG will not classify the 500 Padaung villagers as
refugees, allow their children to attend Thai schools, or allow
adults to seek outside employment. Children instead attend
school in nearby Karenni refugee camps.

7. Local UNHCR staff say many Padaung registered as refugees
several years ago with the RTG. Some entered refugee camps
while others ended up in their current settlements, which some
local UNHCR staff believe should count as de facto camps. UNHCR
staff say Padaung face continued hardships as a result of the
tourism industry's exploitation. One local human rights group
charges that RTG authorities collude with the Karenni
Nationalities People's Liberation Front, an ally of the Burmese
government, to traffic Long Neck women from Burma into the
tourist villages in Thailand.

8. Despite the iconic image of the Long Neck women, many

CHIANG MAI 00000076 002.2 OF 002


tourists and tour agencies reject the exploitative marketing of
the group. Most English-language guide books, including Lonely
Planet, discourage visits to the Long Neck villages and several
local tour guides have told ConGen staff that they do not take
tourists to these villages. However, other agencies regularly
include the Long Neck villages on their tours and dozens of
tourists per day pay a small fee to enter the villages and take
a quick photo.

RTG SAYS IT'S TRYING TO HELP, BUT WON'T ADDRESS CITIZENSHIP ISSUE

9. Local officials in Mae Hong Son say they have decided, with
input from Ministry of Interior officials in Bangkok, to
consolidate the three villages into one site near the provincial
capital by the end of April. While some groups suspect the
governor and business interests in the local tourism industry of
further manipulation, the RTG says the relocation will allow
Padaung to diversify their opportunities beyond tourism. RTG
officials reject international criticism on the Padaung issue,
claiming critics have confused the situation with the ongoing
resettlement of non-Long Neck Karenni and Karen refugees.

10. The Thai commander of one nearby Karenni refugee camp said
the RTG does not classify the Padaung in these villages as
refugees. RTG officials believe that many Padaung come to
Thailand for reasons other than fleeing fighting in Burma, such
as to pursue better economic opportunities, and have voluntarily
chosen not to live in refugee camps. But activists charge that
the RTG's refusal to grant either refugee or permanent status
leaves many Padaung in a bureaucratic no-man's land.

11. Moreover, few Padaung are granted permission to leave the
villages. Some receive one of a variety of differently colored
residency cards that allow them - and other groups who enjoy
less-than-full citizenship status in Thailand - to leave their
settlements under certain circumstances. USCB has reported that
local officials threatened to take away the cards if Long Neck
women stray too far from their role as tourist novelties.

COMMENT: THAILAND'S CITIZENSHIP DILEMMA

12. Despite signs of cultural exploitation, it is not clear what
outcome the Padaung themselves want to see. Some have chosen a
taste of freedom and economic opportunity in the tourist
villages over an uncertain life inside a refugee camp. Although
understandable, this choice runs afoul of ground rules for
refugee status set up between the RTG and UNHCR, and leaves the
villagers in legal limbo - effectively disqualified from refugee
status, but without a clear path to legal residency or
citizenship that would allow for free movement and
opportunities. Thailand's stateless population - one of the
world's largest - must contend with complicated and bureaucratic
citizenship laws. This dilemma has left thousands stranded in
border camps while many more slip farther inside Thailand to
work illegally and risk exploitation.
CAMP

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