Thailand’s Indigenous Chao Lay Struggle to Preserve Identity

RAWAI BEACH, Thailand — Chaem Damrongkset says she has lived a stone’s throw from Rawai Bay in southern Phuket her entire life. Now, the 64-year-old is being sued for trespassing on land she has always called home.

Chaem is an Urak Lawoi, one of Thailand’s nomadic seafaring tribes. Collectively referred to as Chao Lay (People of the Sea), tribes of Urak Lawoi, Moken and Moklen people used to roam freely across the Andaman Sea without ties to any country or nationality.

Today, economic development and marine conservation efforts are forcing them off the land and out of the sea.

“The key problem is you are illegal when you are on the sea and you are illegal when you are on the land,” says Chokdee Somphrom from the Chumchonthai Foundation, a nonprofit organization helping the Chao Lay community in Rawai fight to keep their homes.

Rawai is on the island of Phuket, a popular tourist destination drawing more than 9 million international visitors in 2019. Before the pandemic, travel and tourism contributed nearly 20% of Thailand’s gross domestic product and 21% of total employment.

For more than a decade, Chaem’s community of 2,000 has been contesting private developers over rights to the beach and Chao Lay village. The developers, whose title deeds for the properties were given by the government as much as 50 years ago, have plans to turn the area into a tourist resort.

Conflict over the land turned violent in 2016, when villagers were attacked by unidentified men. Several members of the community were injured while protesting the attack.

More recently, a legal battle has unfolded, with Somphrom saying that more than 100 Rawai villagers have faced lawsuits for trespassing in 28 cases. Those trespassing suits are a tactic called slap-suing, Somphrom says, a strategy commonly used by developers in Thailand’s land rights cases to pressure people to move.

“They didn’t want us to go [to the beachfront], so they try to block us,” Chaem says. “But we think that this is our ancestors’ land, we must use it. This is what they sued us for.”

Representatives of the companies involved in this land rights conflict could not be reached for comment.

Many communities, including the Chao Lay at Rawai, have never legally claimed ownership of the land they occupy. When private developers obtain the deeds, communities are forced to relocate and assimilate, losing touch with their own culture and language. Similarly, national parks sometimes encroach on ancestral lands, and government agencies usually force Chao Lay to relocate.

A Culture Tied to the Sea

There are approximately 12,000 Chao Lay people in 44 communities spread across five provinces in Thailand. All of the communities face problems with land ownership or fishing rights.

Chao Lay culture is historically reliant on the sea as its food source. But government regulations aimed at protecting marine resources have cut off the Chao Lay from areas where they once fished.

Some Chao Lay have been arrested for straying into designated conservation areas intended to protect coral and other fragile marine resources. Others are forced to stop fishing entirely because of commercial fishing or accidents while at sea.

Chao Lay practice subsistence fishing, which activists claim could be safely integrated into conservation efforts. Environmental degradation, generally caused by factors such as tourism, commercial fishing, or inadequate waste disposal, are harmful to Chao Lay communities.

But government responses to those issues often don’t address their needs.

“We misunderstood them, and we didn’t allow our policy to accommodate their livelihood,” says Dr. Narumon Arunotai, an anthropologist who has researched Chao Lay for many years. “The problems that we face are not their problems.”

Phuket’s luxury resorts and upscale tourist facilities draw thousands of international visitors, but at Rawai, more than 2,000 Chao Lay live in slum conditions. The village’s tin and concrete residences are densely packed into 7.5 acres, navigated by narrow zig-zagging alleys. Sanitation is limited. In such tight quarters, disease or fire could be devastating.

The government has offered a plot of land a mile inland for the villagers to move to, but the community has refused to go.

“They used to live near the sea,” says Ali, the village shaman, speaking of traditional Chao Lay culture. “They used to fish. How are they going to live in the hills?”

Besides cutting them off from their livelihood, relocation would distance them from important spiritual practices. The Chao Lay people practice a form of animism involving ancestor worship. Their ancestral shrine is on a contested site, but the villagers refuse to move it because the beach is their holy ground.

Pushing for Recognition in Parliament, in the Courts

Although Thailand has more than 30 ethnic minority groups, none are recognized as indigenous, including the Chao Lay and hill tribes in northern Thailand. Without legal protection for their traditional lifestyles, indigenous groups such as the Chao Lay are increasingly vulnerable, Dr. Narumon says. Land security is a top concern.

During the past two decades, Chao Lay and other indigenous groups have banded together to push back and ask for government concessions to protect their culture. They are currently lobbying for a bill to establish community land rights. The bill is based on a 2010 Cabinet resolution that called for laws to protect indigenous culture.

[MORE: Australia Uses Technology to Preserve Indigenous Languages]

Activists and community leaders are optimistic about the bill, especially since Thailand’s first representatives from ethnic minorities were elected to parliament in 2019.

In the meantime, the community at Rawai has gone to court to fight for their land and prove that they and their ancestors occupied the beach long before private developers obtained the deeds to it. Archival photo evidence establishes that the community has been at Rawai for at least 70 years. Family trees and oral history go back for at least eight generations.

DNA evidence from nearby ancestral burial grounds has matched with 20 members of the community. A government commission is continuing to carry out similar DNA testing among Thailand’s Chao Lay communities.

The Rawai community filed their claim with Thailand’s court of justice in December 2019. It may take two years or more for a court decision to be reached.

Rawai is the first village to use these methods to back up their claim of ownership. If they are successful, that legal strategy could be a model for other Chao Lay communities in Thailand facing similar land rights conflicts.

However, nonprofits working with the community feel land ownership is a small part of a larger struggle to protect a way of life.

“The government clearly supports the tourism policy because it’s Thailand’s income,” says Sonchai Rittichai, who works for the Ban Nam Khem Community Network, a grassroots organization advocating for land rights for Thailand’s indigenous people. “In the end, the people [at Rawai] may have to change their way of life … instead of being able to make a living in the sea like before.”

If the Rawai community lose their land rights case, they could appeal the ruling, dragging out the case for many more years. Community leader Ngeem Damrongkaset says the villagers intend to stay where they are no matter what the court decides.

“We were born here,” Ngeem says, “and we will die here.”

Anna Lawattanatrakul contributed reporting. This story was produced in association with the Round Earth Media Program of the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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