Sea people still wait for justice
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Sea people still wait for justice

For online Lipe island was once a quiet, pristine paradise populated by the Urak Lawoi sea gypsy tribe. The island is now a tourism destination where local people are victims of illegal land grabs from outside investors.   Courtesy of Transbordernews
For online Lipe island was once a quiet, pristine paradise populated by the Urak Lawoi sea gypsy tribe. The island is now a tourism destination where local people are victims of illegal land grabs from outside investors. Courtesy of Transbordernews

Against a background in which the government refuses to recognise indigenous peoples, two recent landmark court verdicts have acknowledged the rights of Urak Lawoi, or Chao Lay in Thai (sea people) to live and earn a living in their traditional homes. Efforts to give them justice must not stop here. Their fight for their traditional rights are far from over.

Both verdicts involved the aboriginal sea people at Rawai beach in Phuket, a place they have called home for generations, long before Phuket became a tourist destination much desired by developers. Despite their longstanding presence, the sea people living on the fringe do not have formal land ownership documents, which has subjected them to land evictions by developers who often acquired the title deeds illegally.

The first court case involved four Chao Lay being sued by land title owners seeking to evict them from 8 rai of beachfront land in Rawai, while demanding they pay 10,000 baht a month in damages.

The Supreme Court in March upheld the Appeal Court's ruling to dismiss the case, bringing to an end a long legal battle. Since the land title exceeds the original land document, it is invalid, giving the landowners no right to evict the four sea people, the court ruled.

The second court case involved the aboriginal sea people's right to earn a living on their traditional land. It involved five people being sued by the land owners who wanted them to move their seafood stalls from the land. The owners also demanded they pay 6,000-12,000 baht a month in damages. Similarly, the Supreme Court dismissed the case, ruling the developers' title is illegal.

The verdict is based on aerial photos of the disputed land dating back to 1950, showing the Rawai Chao Lay's village on the beach under coconut groves. Archeologists also found remains of Rawai Chao Lay in the area. DNA tests of the remains by the Institute of Forensics show they were ancestors of the Rawai Chao Lay.

In addition, student registration records from Sawang Arom School, the nearest school to Rawai Chao Lay village, showed records of Chao Lay students dating back to 1955.

Crucially, photos of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great visiting Rawai village on March 10, 1959, show him being greeted by the Rawai sea people and their village surrounded by large coconut groves.

Although these court rulings should be applauded, they focused on the legality of land titles, not the legitimacy of Chao Lay to live and work on their traditional lands. The Rawai sea people still cannot sell seafood on other beaches although the sea people have long lived in the area and the beaches are public properties by law.

Apart from that, by focusing on the legality of land titles in dispute, the court rulings do not apply to other Chao Lay communities in Phuket facing similar eviction threats from developers. For poor aboriginal people, lengthy court battles takes a heavy financial toll and also poses risks to their safety. The court procedures demand overwhelming amounts of evidence, a heavy burden on people without means. Forcing them to resort to lengthy and costly legal battles to seek justice only perpetuates injustice against an already marginalised population.

Policy intervention is necessary. The court's rulings on illegal land titles over the sea people's ancestral land should prompt the Land Department to revoke these unlawful titles and grant legitimate ownership to the traditional Rawai community whose residence predates modern legal systems.

The government also should undertake comprehensive investigations into illegal land titles in Phuket, revoke them, and take corrupt officials to task.

In addition, the government must go beyond the issue of formal ownership to recognise the Urak Lawoi's historical and cultural heritage rights. This step is key to unlocking the sea people's rights on land and at sea.

Currently, marine national parks overlap with the Urak Lawoi's traditional territories. It is imperative to reassess the boundaries of marine national parks to ensure they do not infringe on the sea people's rights to live, work, and preserve cultural heritage in their ancestral homes.

Recognising the identities and rights of the Urak Lawoi sea people -- as well as for other indigenous peoples in the country -- is not just a matter of legal necessity but of moral responsibility. The government must rectify past injustices and prevent future ones.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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