A controversial land row on idyllic Koh Lipe that has marginalised the indigenous Urak Lawoi people for far too long demands more attention from the government and authorities concerned.
A new confrontation arose last week when a land developer fenced off a road used by the Urak Lawoi community. In order to get to school, students had to climb over the structure, while their parents, who are fisherfolk, were unable to get to the coast where their boats were moored. Even those who needed to visit their local hospital were unable to do so as they had been effectively blocked.
A protest which saw young students join their struggling parents drew media and public attention. Overnight, society was made aware of the plight the Urak Lawoi have endured for decades on this world-famous tourist paradise.
As the incident made headlines, the land developer agreed to a compromise by reopening the road. However, there seems no end in sight to the long-standing strife given the reluctance of authorities concerned to step in and resolve the matter.
Land conflicts on Koh Lipe are usually quite complicated as they involve the local community, wealthy landlords, and corrupt officials.
While Interior Minister Gen Anupong Paojinda deserves some credit for responding promptly to the problem, as raised by Somchai Fangchonchit, a Move Forward Party MP, in parliament last week, he also showed a certain lack of understanding.
Gen Anupong's comment that the conflict was mainly between the landlord and the community failed to recognise the decades of struggle that began when a local village leader volunteered to help the indigenous people upgrade their land ownership documents from the so-called Sor Kor 1 land occupation paper to Nor Sor 3 Kor.
But the man in question cheated them, and several mostly illiterate "sea gypsies" were ultimately swindled out of their land.
The community only learned they had lost their land rights after the local leader was gunned down. Now about half of the community, or 125 families, are illegal occupants of their own land. As Koh Lipe emerged as a tourist destination, these indigenous people were pushed deeper inside the island, stripping the fisherfolk of any beachfront land.
Unfortunately, Gen Anupong has not grasped the root of the problem nor paid enough attention to the irregularities exposed by social activists, such as those related to the issuance of land documents. No doubt, there are a few bad apples that need rooting out.
Judging by his comments to the House inquiry, the interior minister was too easily satisfied with the reports from the land authorities, insisting that "everything must proceed in accordance with the law even if it is deemed unfair (to the indigenous people)".
It's unfortunate he overlooked the recommendations of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which has called for any unlawfully obtained land documents to be revoked, and that he paid scant attention to the resolutions of a panel tasked with probing the issue. The panel concluded the state should take back the illegally obtained land and allocate it to those with ancestral rights via an acceptable verification process. The study also suggested land zoning to ensure tourism doesn't strip the Urak Lowoi people of their way of life.
Gen Anupong should ensure these conflicts are resolved fairly, and justice is served.