Burmese Children in Thailand: Legal Aspects

Nyo Nyo*

People from Burma have become the major group of displaced persons in Thailand. Most of them are currently being sheltered along the Thai-Burma border, particularly in the Thai provinces of Mae Hong Son, Tak, Kanchanaburi and Ranong. It is estimated that there are some 40,000 children from Burma under the age of 15 accompanying their parents. In addition, thousands of unaccompanied children are driven across the border by the desperate circumstances in Burma.1

Policy on Burmese Children in Thailand

This paper highlights some legal aspects of children from Burma residing in Thailand, also in terms of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Thailand ratified the Convention in 1992, but imposed reservations on Article 7 concerning nationality, and Articles 22 and 29(c) concerning refugee children. The Convention requires States parties to undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures to implement it adequately. Regarding economic, social and cultural rights, states must “undertake such measures to the maximum extent of their available resources and, where needed, within the framework of international cooperation”.

Successive Thai governments have not favoured the forced return of refugees. They have taken a humanitarian approach and granted them temporary refuge pending durable solutions. However, Thai policy concerning different groups of refugees varies according to each group. The Laotians and the Vietnamese are covered by a special arrangement under the Comprehensive Plan of Action adopted at the International Conference on Indo-Chinese Refugees in Geneva in 1989. According to this Plan, those who are determined to be refugees under the criteria of the 1951 Geneva Convention are eligible for third-country resettlement, whereas those who are determined to be nonrefugees will be repatriated to their countries of origin. Unaccompanied minors are also given special treatment under the Plan: they are carefully handled by a Special Committee on Unaccompanied Minors to avoid the normal refugee status determination procedure. Unfortunately there is no such agreement or arrangement for people from Burma, including their children, who fled internal armed conflicts. In most cases they have been given temporary refuge. They are still considered illegal immigrants. This is said to be the reason behind Thailand’s reservations to three articles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, namely article 7 concerning nationality, and articles 22 and 29(c) concerning refugee children. Despite these reservations, Thailand has already granted Thai nationality to tens of thousands of children of Vietnamese refugees who fled Vietnam in the 1950s, as stipulated by the Thai Nationality Act (version 2) of 1992. This policy, even though considered a suitable compromise for the Vietnamese refugees, has not yet been extended to Burmese children.

Burmese children in Thailand have become obvious targets for abuse and exploitation, as their illegal status makes it impossible for them to demand their rights.2 They are generally classified as illegal immigrants in Thailand, and are subject to arrest, imprisonment and deportation at any time, with hardly any protection from international agencies. In the refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border, where over 100,000 people live, aid is tightly restricted to a bare subsistence level, by way of pressuring the refugees to go back to Burma. Children’s access to education, health care and social services in the camps is also restricted. As a result, many refugees, including thousands of unaccompanied children, avoid the camps and instead go to the cities of Thailand where they often end up as low-paid or unpaid construction or sex workers.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s government policy toward Burmese migrant workers is markedly different from that of the previous administrations, which tried to control the numbers of Burmese workers for reasons of national security. Over the last two years, Burmese workers were allowed to work only in 18 business sectors in 37 selected provinces. All this has changed due to the Thai Cabinet resolution of 28 August 2001, which allows unlimited numbers of Burmese to work in Thailand, in all sectors and in every province, at least as long as they register with the authorities. This resolution has resulted in 447,093 Burmese migrant workers being legally registered for a maximum period of six months, at the Ministry of Labour between 24 September and 25 October 2001. Out of this figure, the main areas of Burmese concentration such as Tak province, saw registration of 47,489 persons, and Ranong province 25,280 persons. This influx of Burmese workers will no doubt increase the number of children being born in Thailand, leading to an increase of Burmese stateless children. Moreover, Thailand has not ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Definition of ‘Child’ in Thai Legislation

According to the definition in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a child is a person under 18 years of age, “unless under the law applicable to the child, maturity is attained earlier”. Although this definition is now universally accepted, in Thai law the word ‘child’ has a number of different interpretations. First, Revolutionary Party Announcement No. 294 of 1972 defines a child as a person below 18 years of age who has not attained maturity through marriage. Second, the National Youth Promotion and Coordination Act of 1978, a key law in the development of youth, defines ‘youth’ as a person not older than 25. Here the definition of ‘youth’ covers that of ‘child’. Third, the Act Instituting the Juvenile and Family Courts and the Juvenile and Family Procedures of 1991 define the word ‘child’ as a person over 7 years old but below 14. It also defines ‘youth’ as a person who is over 14 years of age, but below 18.

In addition to the definitions in various laws, the official Thai dictionary—as published by the Royal Institute in 1982—defines ‘child’ as a person below the age of 14 years. And the Child and Youth Development Plan (under the Seventh National Economic and Social Development Plan, 1992-1996) divides children into two groups: those aged between 0 and 4, and those between 5 and 14 years of age, primarily for the convenience in addressing each group’s particular needs and requirements. Those between 15 and 25 years of age are termed ‘youth’.

Burmese Children and Thai Nationality

Articles 24 to 99 of the Thai Constitution of 1991 (amended in 1995), on rights and freedoms of Thai people including children, stipulate that every Thai citizen is equal under the law and is entitled to equal legal protection. Chapter 3 of the Constitution has provisions on political and religious freedom and also specifies labour protection and social freedom. The Constitution guarantees for Thai people equality and legal protection regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion or other status. Thai children not registered at birth are said to be covered by the guarantee of protection and rights under the Nationality Acts of 1965, 1992 (version 2), and 1992 (version 3). Although the Thai Constitution covers only the rights of Thai people, “the rights of non-Thais are encompassed by general criminal and civil laws, which offer protection to all persons irrespective of race and nationality”. The Thai Constitution of 1997 also guarantees a broad range of rights, liberty and equality “to every Thai citizen”. However, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as applied to all children under the jurisdiction of the State party, stipulates that non-nationals shall enjoy the same civil rights and freedoms as nationals.

The status of refugees and the question of nationality are two separate issues, and it is important that every newborn child should have a nationality.3 The Thai government should consider new legislation to do something about the statelessness of children of non-Thai origin. The grant of Thai nationality is regulated by the Nationality Act of 1965 (amended in 1992). Originally, a child could acquire Thai nationality only through having a Thai father and/or by reason of birth in Thailand. This was changed by Announcement No. 337 of 1972, which revoked the right to nationality by reason of birth in Thailand. Previous nationality laws did not recognize the acquisition of Thai nationality through the mother. In 1992, this situation was rectified: Thai nationality is now conferred on anyone who has either a Thai father or mother. Thailand, however, is not prepared to grant Thai nationality to the children of illegal immigrants, and states that this is because of the difficult economic situation. The problem is that many Burmese children in Thailand do not know anything about Burma and cannot even speak Burmese. They have grown up in Thailand and speak the Thai language. Moreover, if these children ever go to Burma they will not be eligible for Burmese citizenship under the Burma Citizenship Act, due to birth in Thailand and due to their parent(s) illegally leaving Burma.

Depending on the bureaucratic process, Burmese children may now be permitted to obtain a birth certificate if they were born in Thailand. Since there is no clear government guideline on how Thai hospitals should deal with the birth of babies born to parents who have illegally entered Thailand, these hospitals simply do not record the births. In Ranong and Samut Sakhon, pregnant Burmese women are allowed to deliver their babies in hospitals.4 The babies are given health and medical support based on humanitarian principles. The hospitals, however, remove the birth records of these babies from the last page of the doctor’s appointment books, to prevent the children from claiming Thai nationality in the future.5

Policy on Education and Employment for Burmese Children

Articles 23(3), 28 and 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child spell out the right to equal educational opportunities. Primary level education is compulsory and any higher level is to be developed and made more accessible. There are, however, no legal provisions relevant to registration at birth of Thai children or children of Thai nationals. Although the Registration of In-habitants Act applies to every Thai citizen, most people do not know about it. This causes many problems when it comes to birth registration in Thailand. In order to overcome this problem, the Regulation on Evidence of a Child’s Birth for School Admission was issued by the Thai Ministry of Education on 10 February 1992. The regulation grants access to education for children without Thai nationality and children who do not possess civil registration documents.

The regulation allows schools to admit children without proper documentation by having their parents, legal guardians, or an accepted humanitarian aid agency fill in the necessary forms on their behalf. Even if there is nobody or no agency available, an official may fill in the forms using information from an interview with the child. These documents are evidence that can be submitted to the education authorities in the admission procedure. The Ministry of Education is said to have widely circulated the regulation to all parties concerned, from provincial governors to regional education officers throughout Thailand, so that they can inform the schools of the regulation.

Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is about protecting children from economic exploitation and work that will interfere with the child’s education or is otherwise harmful to the child’s health and mental, physical, spiritual, moral or social development. The Thai Municipality Act of 1953 and also various Interior Ministry regulations deal with child labour. The regulations pertaining to children were contained in an Interior Ministry Announcement of 1990. This set the legal minimum age for child labour from 12 to 13, and included working conditions, working hours, and wages. The minimum age has since been increased to 15, to bring it in line with the school-leaving age, while the number of years of compulsory education has increased from six to nine years.

The Thai government has ratified two ILO conventions concerning children. First, ILO Convention No. 29 concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour, was ratified by Thailand on 28 February 1969. It requires employers to adhere to the Thai Interior Ministry Regulation of 18 April 1973 on labour protection, prohibiting the use of child labour against the will of the child, detaining or confining the child, or committing acts of violence against the child. Second, Thailand ratified ILO Convention No. 127 of 1967 on Maximum Weight, on 26 February 1988. Consequently, the Thai Ministry of the Interior issued a Regulation on 18 January 1990, article 3(4) of which prohibits children between 13 and 16 from lifting, carrying or hauling objects weighing over 10 kg.

Thai labour laws, also applicable to Burmese children, state that children between 13 and 18 must not work more than eight hours a day. Fourteen-yearolds are prohibited from working on public holidays, overtime, or from 22.00-06.00 hrs, “unless the child is acting in a play or movie or similar show”. Recent regulations, issued by Interior Minister Purachai Piumsomboun, prohibit youth under 18 to be on the streets after 10 pm. Other Thai laws concerning minimum wages, safety, and social security for adult workers are said to apply equally to children. Thai law states that employers are prohibited from employing children under 18 for hazardous types of work, such as refining, blowing, moulding or rolling of metals or other materials; stamping metals; jobs involving extreme heat, cold, vibration, noise or light; jobs involving hazardous chemicals; jobs involving toxic micro-organisms such as viruses, bacteria or fungi; jobs involving toxic substances, explosives or inflammable substances (petrol stations are the one exception); jobs involving driving or controlling fork-lift trucks or cranes; jobs using electric or mechanical chainsaws; jobs to be carried out underground, underwater, in caves, tunnels or craters; and jobs involving radioactivity. Employers are further prohibited from employing children under 18 in abattoirs, casinos, gambling dens, dance-halls, restaurants, and massage parlours.


Due to current legislation, Burmese children in Thailand can neither get Burmese nor Thai nationality, let alone a decent education or the prospect of a job. Introducing clear and fair legislation on nationality, education and employment is necessary. This would not only be beneficial to Burmese children but also to Thailand: these children may become skilled labour for Thailand’s future.


* The author is a researcher with the Burma Lawyers’ Council in Bangkok.

1. Robert I. Rotberg (ed.), “Burma: Prospects for a Democratic Future”. Washington, D.C.: The World Peace Foundation, 1998, pp. 261-262.

2. “Burma Human Rights Yearbook, 1999-2000”. Washington, D.C.: National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, August 2000, pp. 78-85.

3. Paul Weis, “Nationality and Statelessness in International Law”. 2nd Edition. Alphen aan den Rijn: Sijthoff & Noordhoff, 1979, p. 162.

4. Amornthip Amaraphiban, “Needs Assessment for Migrant Children in Thailand: A Case Study of Burmese Children in Ranong”. Bangkok: Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, 2000. 5. Poona Antaseeda, “Children of a Lesser Nation”. Bangkok Post, 7 October 2001.