For generations, 71-year-old Ngeem Damrongkaset’s ancestors ran long-tail boats off Rawai beach on Phuket’s southern coast, where their bones now lie deep in the sand.
Ngeem did that too as a young man and well into middle age.
Today, he still goes out on the boats once in a while with friends or visitors. He likes showing them the place where his father died from a shark bite when he was just three months old.
Ngeem is an Urak Lawoi, one of the tribes living off the sea and coastal forests known collectively as the Chao Lay or people of the sea, and also called the sea gypsies.
Of Malay extraction, they live along the Andaman coastlines of Myanmar and Thailand. Apart from the Urak Lawoi, the Chao Lay also include the Moklen and the Moken.
In Thailand, the Urak Lawoi is the largest of the three, with 4,400 living in Phuket province.
In recent years, and now more than ever, the tribes have found themselves squeezed between a way of life that has for generations marked their attachment to land through the burial sites of their ancestors and spiritual shrines, and the inexorable encroachment of development on these lands.
Rawai is the epicentre of this collision. In late January, lean and hungry men with sticks – thugs for hire – arrived to drive the Chao Lay community from land which a company said it had bought and had the papers to prove it.
The Baron World Trade Company wants to build villas on the 5.2 beachside hectares where the Urak Lawoi have their shrine, and where they and the Moken tie their boats.
The Chao Lay community resisted and there was a pitched battle, leaving many injured.
A second confrontation took place on April 11, when men with backhoes showed up, sent by the same company. The community told them to leave, and police had to rush to the spot to defuse a potential fight.
The Urak Lawoi still have access to the shrine to their ancestors, a small wooden structure, through a break in the concrete wall built by the company to keep the community off the land.
The government has stepped in and asked each side to explain its case. “We want justice for both sides,” said Colonel Manot Jankiri of the local command.
The Department of Special Investigation has confirmed bones dug up in the village next to the land are Chao Lay remains dating from over 60 years ago.
The Chao Lay do not own the lands on which their shrine and village sit, but they cite the bones of their ancestors as proof they have long occupied these lands and have the right to remain.
‘Not Thai enough’
The conundrum in Rawai is a particularly acute example of a traditional community encountering urbanisation and state bureaucracy.
But the Chao Lay’s problems go beyond contending with encroachment of their land.
Like the hilltribes in the North they also face a struggle for recognition.
Many Chao Lay have only in recent years been given Thai citizenship, which qualifies them for state healthcare and schooling. There are still a handful without any citizenship.
Thailand’s notion of “Thai-ness” is a unitary one, based on commonalities like the Thai language and Buddhism.
The tribes speak their own tongues and practise their own forms of religion or spirituality, and are thus not widely regarded as Thai. Scholars have occasionally applied a new term for them: Thai Mai or new Thais. “We do feel marginal,” Ngeem said.
Professor Narumon Hinshiranan, an expert on the Chao Lay at Chulalongkorn University, said: “Because they go by land titles, local people tend to look down on the sea people and side with the landowners.”
Phuket province governor Chamroen Tipayapongtada said in an interview: “The problem is their transition into the new world, into the developed world.
“It is the transition from being water people to land people. The first thing they have to face is legality, rights and identity.”
He added: “The Chao Lay have longstanding traditions and we are trying to find a solution so they can keep the rights over the lands which are now privately owned or, even in some cases, government land.”
A site has been allocated on a nearby island to resettle the Rawai community. But they are reluctant to move.
“The site is 2km from the beach,” explained Sanit Saesua, 40, a Chao Lay rights activist who still fishes for a living.
“Here, we are just a few metres from our boats.”
He added: “The government always talks to us in language that is difficult to understand.
“These disputes have been dragging on since 2009. In the past, people in the community have been tricked into signing documents saying they rent the land that they have lived on for generations.
“There must be 110 court cases of this sort.”
Tuenjai has urged that the courts dealing with the land cases use more than government documents and laws in their decisions. They should consider anthropological evidence and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, she said. “This is a long story, not just in Rawai but all over Thailand, in which the concept of community ownership clashes with individual ownership.”
A way of life threatened
Another fear among the Chao Lay is the loss of their traditional way of life as fishermen.
On Rawai beach in the shade of a banyan tree, Sanit, an Urak Lawoi, sat making his fish traps.
“Deep-sea fishing is freedom,” Sanit said.
“But we don’t know how long we can maintain such a life.”
For the Urak Lawoi, says Sanit, dignity is in life in the sea, and on the land where they have lived for generations.
He looked around.
“My ancestors are buried here,” he said simply.