Demand for sea views threatens to deprive Thailand’s aboriginal people of their birthright
Tension is on the rise in a community of aboriginal Malay Urak Lawoi and Moken people – the “sea gypsies” – who are engaged in a protracted land dispute with a major developer.
The sea gypsies were of course there long before the developers and tourists arrived on Phuket’s Rawai Beach. Developers arrive, of course, with bulldozers, lawyers and complicated documents. In this case, it’s been claimed, they also brought thugs armed with sticks to chase the settlers away. If the allegation is true, it’s an ugly way of conducting business, no matter how often it happens in Thailand.
The property firm believed it had covered all the bases when it gained assurance from senior military and police officers in the region that its construction crew would be “protected”. Naturally the alleged use of thugs to beat up unarmed residents on January 25 begs the question of who really needs protecting.
With nowhere else to turn, around 30 sea gypsies from Rawai Beach were at Government House this week petitioning Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon for help.
The group’s leader, Sanit Saezua, said they had few options remaining after being assaulted and further threatened during the conflict. “We are all uncomfortable about the situation,” Sanit said with considerable understatement. “There have been talks, but nothing’s been done to help us. We will stay here [in Bangkok] until there’s a resolution for us to have a secure habitat and the right to practise our beliefs freely.”
General Prawit called for calm on both sides and vowed that anyone who violates the law would be duly punished. Interior Ministry Permanent Secretary Grissada Boonrach directed local and provincial officials to be fair while maintaining law and order.
The battle for Rawai Beach is a classic case pitting indigenous people against the state, with its accumulation of thorny issues involving land titles, citizenship, property rights, historical claims and all the rest. Such conflicts occur on every continent, newcomers forever clashing with the established population over whatever resources they both need yet refuse to share equitably.
For the sea gypsies, who once roamed freely along all the coasts of the Andaman, the modern nation-state and its increasingly restrictive requirements have had nothing but detrimental effects on their way of life. Not only has their nomadic existence become the stuff of fading memories, but their livelihood has also been shattered. Unable to live, fish and hunt in the places they used to, many of them have been forced into crowded slum housing.
Because of government-imposed restraints and encroachment on their traditional lands and way of life, the gypsies have been forced to take up the most mundane of municipal jobs, from garbage collection to sweeping the streets. Such manual labour is not per se a bad way to make an honest living, but it’s a far cry from the historic existence of the Moken and the Malay Urak Lawoi and surely a devastating blow to their collective sense of dignity.
The demand for nice bungalows at the seaside has sentenced this proud community of people – Thailand’s indigenous people – to the discouraging, soul-sapping mediocrity of life in the open-air cages that constitute slum dwellings. And it’s important to remember that the land the hotels and bungalows are being built on is more than just the habitat of the sea gypsies. It contains the cemetery of their forebears.
That’s something to think about before you book your next vacation by the beach.