Peals of laughter erupt from the upstairs offices at The Freedom Story Foundation just outside of Chiang Rai. The work they do is serious but the instigator of the laughter is their Legal Advisor, Win. He makes the work positive with his cheerful countenance; one that belies a life of hard won success that can be accredited to his inner determination and indomitable spirit.
His story begins in a small Akha village in the Mae Sai region, on the border of Thailand and Myanmar. Members of an ethic minority group, Win and his family were also without papers or citizenship. This made life very difficult, as the lack of citizenship and documentation in Thailand means you cannot own land or a home, do not have the same access to education and healthcare, and cannot travel freely outside of your province. It makes it almost impossible to break out of the cycle of poverty. Moreover, you are not protected by the Thai legal system because, legally, you do not exist. Employers were not legally required to pay Win’s family minimum wage. Because they were not Thai, they had no way to hold their employer accountable. Lack of citizenship has also been identified by UNESCO as a leading risk factor for trafficking among ethnic minorities.
Win’s parents worked very hard as farmers, with the constant fear of the police, and had to purchase annual work permits that cost 3,000 Thai Baht (US$100) a year per person, while the average household income of a farmer in Northern Thailand is approximately 17,320 THB (US$490) per month. As minority group farmers who could not own their own land, it is likely Win’s family made less than the average amount due to discrimination and exploitation of minority groups. Regardless, a cost like this can be devastating to a family.
A BROTHER’S SACRIFICE
Traditionally, Win’s older brother would have been the one given the opportunity to continue education past Grade 6, but he knew at that time that the family circumstances were poor and Win, his little brother, was still young, so he decided to work to support his family instead. In Akha tradition, the youngest son is expected to support the family, but when Win was ready to graduate from Grade 6, it was his older brother who advocated for Win to take his own missed opportunity. Defying tradition, Win moved forward with his education.
Win continued his education in the village, until Grade 9 when he had to move to Chiang Rai city for high school. He sought help from the Thai-Akha Youth Development Center for basic living support during his vocational school program. Despite having support from the foundation, Win worked from 5pm-midnight every night at a BBQ restaurant for 65THB (US$1.50) His shakes his head when he thinks about this, but he also says he learned good time management. While his friends were playing in between classes, he continued studying and doing his homework.
He completed and received his nursing assistance certification, but as he had no identification he didn’t have the rights in Thailand to get work in this field. This disappointment reinforced for him the impact of his lack of citizenship.
Since he couldn’t get work, he thought about other options and decided to continue his education at Chiang Rai Rajabhat University (CRRU). Incredibly, Win chose to study Law—even though he knew he would never be able to practice Law if he didn’t receive citizenship, which seemed impossible.
It was a proactive move because, by studying law, he could empower himself with the education needed to gain citizenship and rights, and hopefully help others like him. There were also a lot of scams to be aware of, and with knowledge and his degree, he hoped to avoid these pitfalls.
Since he didn’t even have the right to apply for a student loan, he had to work for tuition and living expenses. He found work at a different BBQ restaurant at a salary of 130 THB per night. When the restaurant had a break-in, Win added to his work load and income by becoming a night guard at 50 THB per night. He bought a small tent and lived outside the restaurant for 3 years. He says that it was the rats and not the robbers that threatened him most.
It was discouraging. There were a lot of things his friends had that he didn’t. For example, they all had motorbikes while he only had a bike. Nevertheless, he believed that he would get through it. His dreams grew as he became stronger and more educated.
In his freshman year, he started working at a pineapple farm. It was at this time that he was told about The Freedom Story by a friend from the Akha-Thai Youth Development Center Foundation, who helped him apply for a scholarship. He says that receiving the scholarship made him “feel secure and added hope that he would eventually graduate.”
Win never failed a single class and eventually graduated early—in just 3.5 years. He had earned a law degree but, without citizenship, had still had not earned the right to practice law. The disappointment was intense.
Then there was an incident, after his graduation, when he went home to visit his parents, and was stopped by a policeman asking for his ID. He showed his student card, which was still valid, but his other papers were issued from a different province, meaning he should not legally be able to travel. The policeman was typing up the charges and only his signature was left to complete the charge. Having a criminal charge would have had an impact on his ability to practice law. So, using his newfound legal skills, he persuaded the policeman to let him go. The policeman ended up tearing the ticket up.
Win’s situation was incredibly precarious. He decided that if he couldn’t get a job, he would create his own employment. So he rented fields and started his own pineapple farm, using Facebook to sell the pineapples. Pineapple farming turned out to be a key source of comfort to him, helping him through such a difficult and scary time. He jokes about even talking to the pineapples sometimes, which underscores how stressful his situation really was.
Finally, after years of persistance, Win gained citizenship. He came on staff with The Freedom Story to help teach basic law to students and community members while he studied for the bar exam.
Meanwhile, his brother, who had advocated for his continued education, passed away and Win has started helping to support his brother’s family as well as his own parents in Mae Sai. His 16-year-old nephew lives in Chiang Rai with Win and goes to school there. They have all gained citizenship now too.
PAYING IT FORWARD
Win has succeeded in passing the bar exam. He is now mentoring with experienced lawyers, starting his own law firm with a couple of friends, and his future goals include getting married and owning his own home. He wants to down the roots of belonging that he did not have.
When asked where his inspiration and motivation came from, Win says they came from within. He credits his faith in God, his determination, and belief in himself for his achievements thus far. His friends from the village have always been supportive of his dreams and he hopes to serve as a role model for other younger Akha people.
Win still has his pineapple farm and has expanded it to 4 plots. When he’s there, one can see a visible change in his stance. He is comfortable and content in the peacefulness of the countryside. He finally feels that he is at a point in his life when he can start to reward himself and take some hours off. For fun activities, he likes to exercise after work, play guitar and read law books and biographies. He never ceases in his endeavors to learn and improve.
The Freedom Story works with children who are at high risk of exploitation by providing financial resources to pursue education as well as mentoring and emotional support. Children living in poverty with one or both parents unable to provide basic needs are at the highest risk. Each year, The Freedom Story works with the local communities in Northern Thailand to identify children at the highest risk and works to get them involved in the scholarship program through sponsorship.
Join us on the 10-year anniversary of The Freedom Story as we celebrate a decade of child trafficking prevention. Help us achieve child trafficking prevention by teaching human rights, raising awareness and understanding, and facilitating healing in the Chiang Rai region of Thailand. Please consider donating your support today!
Article & photos by: Rhonda Chapin