In January 2008 an elected parliament convened in Bangkok for the first time since the military seized power in September 2006. Yet the calm was relatively short-lived – political unrest as the year drew to a close saw a state of emergency declared in Bangkok, 16 killed and hundreds injured in Thailand's worst anti-government protests in 16 years, suspension of flights from the main airports as protesters blockaded terminal buildings and the occupation by protesters of Bangkok's main government complex. In late December opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva secured a coalition within parliament to become Thailand's prime minister and its fourth new leader in just three months.

The highland minorities of Thailand live in the mountainous west and north. As many as 20 different 'hill tribes', totalling 1 million people according to some estimates, live in Thailand and include, among the more numerous, the Akha, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, H'mong and Mien. The government does not recognize the existence of indigenous peoples in Thailand. It maintains that they are migrants and thousands of them continue to be denied registration for an identification card.

Non-citizen hill tribes are among the most vulnerable groups. Without proper political status, they face expulsion when their temporary stay expires. Without nationality and treated as second-class citizens, they suffer multiple discrimination, including lack of access to land and deprivation of basic human rights.

In August 2008 the UN Special Rapporteur highlighted the case of the Akha indigenous people in Chiangrai province, whose land was allegedly seized in 2003 as a result of the Highland Development Station Project. The objective of the station was purportedly to serve as a 'centre of knowledge on agriculture for the hill tribe people'. The Akha claim that the project has left them with only a few small plots around the village, and they have lost their traditional livelihoods. The land seizure was reportedly accompanied by widespread harassment of Akha villagers by members of the military and forestry personnel. Villagers say they were not consulted, nor did they consent to the project, and they have not yet been compensated for their loss. The government has so far not responded to the concerns raised by the Special Rapporteur.

The recent UNESCO Highland Peoples survey studied a sample group of 192 border villages in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son provinces, to determine the impact of a person's legal status (citizenship and birth registration) on access to social services, education, health care, land tenure and agricultural credit. A study of a sample group revealed that 38 per cent of highland minorities do not have Thai citizenship. Compared to highlanders with Thai citizenship, those lacking citizenship are 73 per cent less likely to enter primary school and 98 per cent less likely to progress to higher education. Similarly, highlanders who lack birth registration are 64 per cent less likely to enter lower primary school and 85 per cent less likely to enter secondary school relative to highlanders with official Thai birth registration.

Highland peoples' lower rates of participation in schooling, are also possibly linked – in addition to poorly equipped and staffed schools – to the almost complete absence of instruction in their mother tongue in state schools.

UNESCO research has also identified 'lack of citizenship' as the greatest risk factor for highland girls and women in Thailand to be trafficked, or otherwise exploited.

There are some 340,000 refugees in Thailand: around 140,000 of them in nine camps along the Thailand-Burma border and about 200,000 more elsewhere. Most are from ethnic groups such as the Karen, Karenni and Shan, fleeing the war in Burma. Some 40,000 children have been born and raised in refugee camps. Refugees have established a parallel education system in the camps with the Karen and Karenni Education Departments acting as de facto ministries of education. Schools are not accredited, which means that students leave school with a certificate that has little value outside of the camps.

Recently, the government has considered accreditation of refugee and migrant schools. This would require an alignment of the current curriculum with the official Thai curriculum. While accreditation presents an opportunity, it is also met with some resistance by some refugees who fear losing their cultural identity.

In July 2008 the Bangkok Post reported that 11 members of the Padaung community were abducted from the northern province of Mae Hong Son. The Padaung are refugees in Thailand who fled heavy fighting in Burma. The women, who traditionally wear brass rings around their elongated necks, have been placed in 'villages' in tourist hotspots. In return, they receive a modest monthly income. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is calling for a tourism boycott of the area.

Ethnic H'mong from neighbouring Laos continue to suffer an uncertain future in border area refugee camps. During the Vietnam War, the H'mong fought alongside United States forces and after the war ended many fled Laos. Most entered Thailand in 2005.

Around 78,000 Lao H'mong now live in Huai Nam Khao camp. Following protests by some 5,000 inmates in June, more than 800 were forcibly repatriated. According to Human Rights Watch the whereabouts of many of the repatriated H'mong is unknown and Lao authorities restrict international aid agency access to the resettlement areas. (See also Laos.)

In the Muslim Malay majority provinces of Kala, Narathiwat, Patanni and Sohgkhla in Thailand's south, the insurgency continued unabated throughout 2008. Government statistics reveal that just over half of those killed were Muslims.

Rights groups accuse the elected government, which took office in January 2008, of leaving southern policy to the military. Reports of torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of the security forces increased significantly between mid-2007 and mid-2008. Reconciliation in the region is further complicated by a generalized inability to identify the real leaders of the insurgents. No organization is reported to have claimed responsibility for any of the attacks in the past four years.

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