Do not be fooled by the smiling faces of the Akha hill tribe women selling trinkets to tourists in Chiang Mai's night bazaar. In the 'Land of Smiles', as Thailand calls itself, the grim reality is that most of these highland women do not have Thai citizenship. The faces of hill tribe women adorn the tourism posters that beckon visitors to Thailand. But few tourists realise the women, decked out in their silver and black headdresses and costumes in this northern city, are technically stateless. Ask one of them to show you an identity card and usually all they can produce is a paper that identifies them as an 'alien', not a Thai citizen. Hundreds of thousands of hill tribe people lack even that most basic form of identity document. Seewigaa Kittiyoungkun, who runs an educational project for hill tribe children outside the city, says most of Thailand's 1 million hill tribe people were born in the country. But virtually half do not have citizenship because lowlanders and the media paint them as 'bad people' and the local authorities appear reluctant to register them as citizens. 'People are prejudiced against hill tribe people even though they are in fact Thai,' says Ms Seewigaa. It is a vicious circle, she says. Because they lack identification as Thais, they have difficulty getting an education and jobs. The police arrest and harass them. There is a sinister undercurrent to the discrimination. Lowlanders, businessmen and people with vested interests are struggling to get their hands on the highlanders' land. According to hill tribe support groups, thousands of highlanders have been evicted from their land since the programme of citizenship registration slowly kicked into gear in the early 1980s. Punyarat Tamee, a worker with the non-governmental organisation Inter-Mountain Peoples' Education and Culture in Thailand Association, says: 'The ancestors of hill tribe people used to live in the hills, but now that the authorities claim these are 'reserved forests', how can people stay and work?' The painfully slow process of citizenship registration makes it easier for land-grabbers to take possession of the land even though the authorities claim the forest is protected. Those with no citizenship have no rights, and can be evicted easily. Those with the alien card have only limited rights and need official approval to leave their district. Even hill tribe people who hold a Thai identity card do not feel safe. The Thai authorities have threatened loss of citizenship for infractions of the law. In one case, over 1,200 villagers lost their citizenship last year over what supporters say was a mere clerical error in their registration. The neighbouring communist states of Vietnam, Laos and China have better records of giving citizenship to their hill tribe people. A temporary reprieve last month extends the citizenship registration deadline by one more year, but offers only faint hope. Hill tribe support groups say there is little to indicate the local authorities will take the issue of registration seriously. A year from now, hundreds of thousands of hill tribe people may still remain stateless and on the brink of expulsion from their land. Remember this, when you next see an Akha woman hawking trinkets.