• 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

Indigenous World 2019: 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 5 million people, which accounts for 7.2% of the total population.2 According to the Department of Social Development and Welfare (2002), the total of the officially recognised “hill-tribe” population is 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 SouthEast Asia were drawn during the colonial era, and as a result in the wake of decolonization, 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.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and 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. It voted in support of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) but does not officially recognise the existence of indigenous peoples in the country.

In 2010, the Thai government passed two cabinet resolutions to restore the traditional livelihoods of the Chaoley3 and Karen, on 2 June and 3 August respectively.

Situation of indigenous peoples in Thailand

Key problems faced by indigenous peoples in Thailand over the past few decades centre around three main issues, namely: stereotyping and discrimination; rights to land, forests and resources; and rights to traditional occupation, livelihood and food security. 

Stereotyping and discrimination against indigenous peoples

Derogatory terms for indigenous peoples, including Chao-Khao, are still used by the Thai. The Mani, a hunter-gatherer group in the south, are often referred to by the derogatory terms Sakai and Ngaw Pa (literally meaning “slave” or “savage”). The Moken, Moklen and Urak-rawoy are called “Chaoley” or “Sea gypsies”, which has negative connotations. In opposition to these negative connotations, indigenous organisations and indigenous rights advocacy groups began to promote the term “Chon phao phuen mueang” as the translation of “indigenous peoples” over ten years ago.

While many laws, policies and programmes targeting indigenous peoples still carry misperceptions and prejudices, in recent years there have been some positive developments, such as the use of the neutral term “Chon Chatiphan” or “ethnic group” within these policies. Unfortunately, discriminatory attitudes and actions are still prevalent among government officials and the general public. 

Rights to land, forests and resources

Many indigenous peoples live and have been dependent upon the forest and natural resources for their survival for hundreds of years. This right has never been recognised by the government. At the same time, the declaration of protected areas and imposition of conservation laws overlapping indigenous communities’ lands have posed grave concerns to indigenous communities and sometimes led to conflict and violence.4 Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ struggles over land rights and forest management have led affected communities to form different networks, e.g. the Northern Farmers’ Network (NFN), the Assembly of the Poor (AoP), the Assembly of Indigenous and Tribal People in Thailand (AITPT) and the Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (NIPT).5

The communities’ right to their lands, forests and resources was clearly stipulated in Chapter 3, Section 66 of the 2007 Thai Constitution. Thailand’s various, mostly older, forestry laws and cabinet resolutions are, however, major obstacles to achieving this right, as most of these laws came into force before the passing of the 1997, 2007 and 2016 constitutions. They classified the areas inhabited by indigenous peoples as being parts of national parks, no-hunting areas or wildlife sanctuaries. The state has used these laws as tools to establish control over forests and the country’s natural resources while disenfranchising indigenous and other communities, as they have no title deeds to prove their ownership over their land and forests. For instance, according to the Land Law, all land that does not have a title is owned by the state and so when the state claims this land, indigenous peoples suddenly become encroachers and violators of the law.6

Many communities, especially in the mountainous, upper Northern provinces and in the west of Thailand, thus live in constant fear of being arrested or relocated. The nature of the problem is well illustrated by the case of Wang Mai village in Lampang Province, and the case of Bang Kloi Bon in Kaeng Krachan National Park (KKNP), Phetchaburi Province. In early 2008, villagers from Wang Mai village in Wang Neua District, Lampang Province, were told by park officials to discontinue their yearly return to areas they had been evicted from years earlier because of the 1994 relocation policy. They would return to these areas every year to harvest their former fruit and coffee trees. On 29 July 2008, these trees were cut down by the park officials and their allies (police officers, soldiers and local administrative organisation officers), resulting in the loss of land for food production as well as income for the families. The villagers submitted this case to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The case was investigated and the NHRC reported that villagers’ rights has been violated, requesting that the park officials redress this problem. So far, however, no action has been taken. 

Kaeng Krachan eviction case 

As mentioned in previous Yearbooks, in 2010-2011, Karen communities living in Bang Kloi Bon, an administrative area of Kaeng Khachan District, Phetchaburi Province, and in KKNP, were forced to move from their traditional homelands to live in Bang Kloi Lang, the designated relocation site. Their houses and rice barns were destroyed and burned down by the park officials and military. This has had serious consequences for their lives and livelihoods (for more detail see The Indigenous World 2011).

In response to this, the affected Karen and their supporters have jointly voiced their concerns at national and international fora. At a national level, the affected villagers entrusted the Lawyers’ Council of Thailand to take a legal case against the KKNP officers both at the Central Administrative Court and the Civil Court, on charges of human rights violations and causing damage to personal property. Both courts took up their case.

On 7 September 2016, the Central Administrative Court ruled that the park authorities were not breaking the law by burning the Karen people’s properties and forcefully evicting them from KKNP in 2011. The court dismissed all the demands of the Karen, who had filed the case in 2014, including compensation for the loss of their properties. The court ordered the Department to pay compensation of 10,000 Baht (approx. USD 287) to each of the six Karen plaintiffs, as opposed to their initial demands of 100,000 Baht each.7 The Department has refused to pay this compensation and pledged to appeal against it.8

The plaintiffs were also not satisfied with this verdict. They therefore decided to launch an appeal with the Supreme Administrative Court on 5 October 2016.9 On 12 June 2018, the judges overturned the Central Administrative Court’s decision. In its verdict, the court stated that although the national park officials had the authority to remove the properties, which encroached on the forestland, they could not burn down people’s properties without prior notice and so this operation was in violation of Article 22 of the National Park Act. The court ordered the National Park Office to compensate the affected families with 50,000 Baht each.

This Supreme Administrative Court decision has opened up more space for the promotion of community rights. Firstly, it recognised Karen people as the original people living in that area. Secondly, it referred to the cabinet resolution of 3 August 2010 to restore the traditional livelihoods of the Karen. This will help publicise the cabinet resolution to be legally used against the Forestry Law.10

Karen spiritual leader Ko-ei Meemi’s request to return to his birthplace at Bangkloy Bon was denied because he did not have legal land ownership documents issued by the government.11 

New body established to solve land issues in Thailand

With regard to land rights, the current policy initiated under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to resolve the longstanding land problems in forest areas was adopted by the cabinet on 26 November 2018. This policy is under the responsibility of a newly-established body the National Land Policy Committee (NLPC). This body has been tasked to resolve problems both in national forest reserves and protected Criticism against such action includes complaints that it does not recognise community or indigenous peoples’ rights, that it lacks their participation, and that it is a state-centric and temporary solution. In addition, state conservation policy and measures used to resolve the problem have contributed to gross human rights violations against indigenous peoples, both on an individual and a community level. One of the most prominent cases is the forced disappearance of Karen activist Pholachi Rakchongcharoen who is known as “Billy”. He was arrested on charges of possessing wild honey and was taken into custody by park officials under Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn on 17 April 2014, after which he went missing. He was one of those protesting against the eviction of Karen people from Bangkloi Bon and Jai Paen Din. In addition, he was a primary witness to the case. His case is currently being investigated by the Department of Special Inspection (DSI) but progress has been very slow. 

Rights to traditional occupation, livelihood and food security

According to Section 43 of the 2016 Thai Constitution, all Thai people including indigenous people have the right to their traditional occupation or livelihood practices. In fact, such rights have never been realised on the ground, particularly in marine and forest areas. The peoples who live in these areas are, for example, the Chaoley people of the south of Thailand. Their traditional way of life has been totally wiped out as many of the areas where they used to fish no longer exist or fishing has become prohibited. Many areas are now occupied by hotels, resorts and private houses. Further, more marine protected areas have now been declared, covering a larger area of the sea and overlapping with Chaoley traditional fishing areas. To survive, the Chaoley must fish further from the coast, in the deep-sea areas, which they are not accustomed to. Some get decompression sickness and become paralysed or semi-paralysed. Some have even lost their lives.12

Another example is the practice of shifting/rotational agriculture in the uplands, which has resulted in some villagers being arrested by state officials while preparing their rice fields. Despite scientific studies proving the opposite,13villagers are now being penalised for “causing deforestation and a rise in temperature”.14 Making specific reference to climate change has added a new dimension to the nature of the socalled “crime”.

These actions have threatened indigenous peoples’ food security and increased their poverty. It has also resulted in deep-seated conflicts with the authorities and many have been forced to leave their homelands or have been relocated to distant places, imposing an alien lifestyle on them. Some have migrated, mostly to urban areas in search of employment. Many are employed as construction workers, masseurs, or are doing menial jobs in restaurants and petrol stations, selling flower garlands at the road intersections or soybean milk on the roadside. Some have also joined the sex industry. Their lifestyles are consequently being transformed. 

Indigenous peoples’ movements

Since 1992, indigenous peoples in Thailand have become more active in monitoring, documenting and reporting human rights violations, such as the evictions of indigenous peoples from Doiluang National Park (covering three provinces – Phayao, Chiang Rai and Lampang) in 1994 and 2008. Another example is the staging of a protest against the Master Plan for Highland Communities, Environmental Development and Narcotic Plant Control in 2002. This was undertaken under the umbrella of the Coordination Centre for Non-governmental Organisations (CONTO), the Assembly of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Thailand (AITT) and the Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (NIPT). In 2015, a draft law on the National Council of Indigenous People in Thailand was finalised and forwarded to Parliament for consideration. The process is still ongoing.

Notes and references

  1. Ten groups are sometimes mentioned, i.e. the Palaung are also included in some official documents. The directory of ethnic communities of 20 northern and western provinces of the Department of Social Development and Welfare of 2002 also includes the Mlabri and
  2. From the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (CIPT)’s
  3. Composed of Moken, Moklen and Urak-rawoy.
  4. For example, the conflict over resource use between lowland and highland communities in Chomthong district area in
  5. nterview Sakda Saenmi, the NIPT Coordinator 12 January 2019.
  6. For example, NCPO Order 64/2557 or, as it is known, the government land reclaim
  7. See Thai PBS news at http://bit.ly/2IyNBTc
  8. See The Nation news at http://bit.ly/2IEWRVS
  9. See Prachatai at http://bit.ly/2IBFkht
  10. From the viewpoint of a lawyer from the Lawyer Council in
  11. See IPHRD Net, “Thailand: Elder Karen Ko-i Mimi dies, aged 107” at http://bit.ly/2IG3RSF
  12. From the survey jointly conducted by Indigenous Peoples’ Foundation for Education and Environment and its partner organisations in 2017-2018, nine of Moken people experienced water decompression sickness. Two out of the nine died. The rest remain semi-paralysed.
  13. FAO, IWGIA and Shifting Cultivation Livelihood and Food Security: New and Old Challenges for Indigenous Peoples in Asia. 2015
  14. See Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), “Global Warming Scapegoat: A New Punishment Measure Imposed on Indigenous Peoples for Practicing their Sustainable Traditional Livelihood Activities” at http://bit.ly/2IDQ3Ij


Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri is a Mien from the north of Thailand. He has worked with indigenous communities and organisations since 1989. He is currently General Secretary of the Indigenous Peoples’ Foundation for Education and Environment (IPF) based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.



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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