Active citizens can become a powerful driver of development by holding to popular account those who traditionally wield decision-making power at the local and national levels. Active citizenship draws from a long history of understanding the importance of community participation and ownership of development interventions. However, in spite of its inherent strengths, active citizenship may not be a possible (or optimal) outcome in all circumstances. This article argues for the realistic expectation of active citizenship (and indeed participation) of one specific sub-population in Thailand, where the overwhelming majority of illegal migrants (of an estimated total of 800,000-1.5 million) are Burmese. Their precarious existence as illegal migrants compounds the development needs that confront any poor community. This in turn hinders their ability to engage actively in the development process. This article reviews the lessons learned by a Thai-based NGO that has worked with illegal Burmese migrants for more than 15 years. It discusses the unique strengths and weakness of these illegal communities, whether or not it is appropriate to seek to engage them as active citizens, and the implications for NGOs working with such communities. It suggests that the unique role that NGOs must play, in cases where public participation could endanger the lives of community members, is that of advocate-guardians, whereby they assume the role of active citizen on behalf of the community in question and simultaneously provide development interventions and advocate on its behalf.
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