The indigenous peoples of Thailand live mainly in three geographical regions of the country: indigenous fisher communities (the Chao Ley) and small populations of hunter-gatherers in the south (Mani people); small groups on the Korat plateau of the north-east and east; and the many different highland peoples in the north and north-west of the country (known by the derogatory term Chao-Khao). Nine so-called “hill tribes” are officially recognised: the Hmong, Karen, Lisu, Mien, Akha, Lahu, Lua, Thin and Khamu.1
The Hmong, the Karen, the Lisu, the Mien, the Akha, the Lahu, the Lua, the Thin and the Khamu are the recognized indigenous peoples of Thailand. Most of them live as fishermen or as hunter-gatherers.
Although Thailand adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it does not officially recognize the existence of indigenous peoples in the country. There were some developments for the indigenous peoples of the country, but they continue to be stigmatized and challenged especially by land grabbing by the government.
Thailand has ratified or is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Indigenous peoples in Thailand
The indigenous peoples of Thailand live mainly in three geographical regions of the country. The people of Chao Ley, who are indigenous fishing communities, and the mani, who are small hunter-gatherer populations, live in the south. Some small groups live on the Korat Plateau, northeast and east, while the highland villages, Chao-Khao, live in the north and northwest of the country.
Nine so-called mountain tribes are officially recognized. These are the Hmong, Karen, Lisu, Mien, Akha, Lahu, Lua, Thin and Khamu. According to the Department of Welfare and Social Development, there are 3,429 villages of mountain tribes with a total population of 923,257 people. The indigenous peoples of the south and northeast are not included.
Misconceptions that indigenous peoples are drug producers and pose a threat to national security and the environment have historically shaped government policies toward indigenous peoples in the northern highlands. Despite the positive developments in recent years, it still underlies the attitudes and actions of government officials.
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Main challenges for the indigenous peoples of Thailand
A major struggle for the indigenous peoples of Thailand is land grabbing by the government, such as Rawai, located in the province of Phuket. Rawai is a popular tourist spot in southern Thailand and also home to Chao Ley, a collective term for three indigenous groups: the Mogan, Moglen and Urak Lawoi.
Its population is approximately 13,000 living in the five provinces of Phang Nga, Phuket, Krabi, Satun and Ranong along the Andaman coastal area and the sea. Baron World Trade Co. Ltd claims ownership of more than 5 hectares of land, including the public beach in the subdistrict of Rawai in the Muang Phuket district, which overlaps with the ancestral lands of Chao Law, which have been used to celebrate sacred ceremonies for generations.
The situation degenerated into violence in 2016 when the company hired a group of young men to prevent the villagers from entering the area. The youths destroyed the huts and fishing equipment of Chao Ley, and around 30 Chao Ley were injured in the violent encounter and 10 seriously injured.
The government approved a master plan to solve the problems of deforestation, and that includes the suppression and arrest of people who are invading or destroying forest lands. These operations raise serious concerns for indigenous peoples, as they have not made an explicit distinction between illegal intruders and indigenous communities that have lived in those areas for a long time.
In a recent statement the Cross Cultural Foundation demands immediate explanation from relevant authorities regarding the disappearance of Karen Hill-Tribe Human Rights Defender Mr. Billy or Por Cha Lee Rakcharoen. The Cross-cultural Foundation also urges all parties throughout the line of command of responsible authorities including police to investigate the matter in order for information about the whereabouts of Mr. Billy is disclosed promptly.
On 19 October, 39 Karens charged with land encroachment and illegal logging in a national park that has been their home for generations, were convicted for their alleged crimes. They are the latest victims of a new hard liner policy against forest encroachers, which is resulting in the criminalisation of some of Thailand most poor and marginalised ethnic groups living in areas overlapping with national parks
In the video "When Can We Go Back? The Rights of Indigenous Peoples to their Lands" AIPP, with support from IWGIA, tells the story of how a community of Karen indigenous people has been displaced from their ancestral land in Thailand’s national park Kaeng Kretan.