• Indigenous peoples in Thailand

    Indigenous peoples in Thailand

    The Hmong, the Karen, the Lisu, the Mien, the Akha, the Lahu, the Lua, the Thin, and the Khamu are the recognised indigenous peoples of Thailand. Most of them live as fishers or as hunter-gatherers.
  • Peoples

    3,429 “hill tribe” villages with a total population of 923,257 people can be found in Thailand according to the Department of Welfare & Social Development
  • Rights

    2007: Thailand votes in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Current state

    2016: 30 Chao Ley peoples are injured and 10 seriously hurt when the Baron World Trade Co. Ltd prevents them from entering their homes in Rawai in Phuket


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: 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. 

The estimated Indigenous population in Thailand is around five million people, which accounts for 7.2% of the total population.2 According to the Department of Social Development and Welfare (2002), the total officially recognised “hill-tribe” population numbers 925,825 and they are distributed across 20 provinces in the north and west of the country. There are still no figures available for the indigenous groups in the south and north-east.

When national boundaries in South-East Asia were drawn during the colonial era, and as a result in the wake of decolonisation, many Indigenous Peoples living in remote highlands and forests were divided. For example, you can find Lua and Karen people in both Thailand and Myanmar, and Akha people in Laos, Myanmar, south-west China and Thailand.

Get the latest updates from this IWGIA and EU supported portal for Indigenous Peoples information in Thailand >>

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.

Thailand: Cross Cultural Foundation demands explanation for disappearance of Human Rights Defender

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.

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Community land title law passed in Thailand

In Thailand, a law on the issuing of community land title deeds officially called “The Regulation of the Prime Minister Office on the Issuance of Community Land Title Deeds” has been passed by the Cabinet on 11 May 2010. The essence of this law is to legally allow communities (both highland and lowland people) to collectively manage and use state-owned land for their living.

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IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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