Ministry hears sea gypsy plight

Ministry hears sea gypsy plight

Action promised on loss of land, livelihoods

Various problems, from alleged land encroachment by authorities to dwindling livelihoods, have beset the sea gypsies on Koh Lipe, the Ministry of Natural Resource and Environment has been told.

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa toured the island in Satun and was briefed on the problems faced by the ethnic groups who have occupied the island for generations.

Accompanied by the ministry's executives, Mr Varawut met the sea gypsy residents to follow up on the authorities' work to restore the ethnic people's way of life.

The sea gypsies raised their plight with the minister after the state issued Sor Kor 1 land access rights which allegedly overlapped on 30 rai of ancestral land occupied by 125 sea gypsy families.

According to the group, the land dispute has deprived them of their legal rights, including repairs due on their homes.

Mr Varawut later witnessed the signing of a cooperation pact to promote and protect the group's way of life.

The pact recommends ways to recognise the cultural integrity of the sea gypsies, drawn up through input from the ministry and related agencies.

These included the Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute (Cusri), the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre, the Chumchonthai Foundation and the Lay Ethnic Network.

The minister said the government had paid heed to the complex and longstanding problems encountered by the ethnic group, which would take time to resolve.

He said the ministry would bring the issue to the attention of various parties and would deal with the dispute over land rights and people's livelihoods.

Preeda Kongpan, adviser to the Chumchonthai Foundation, said the laws related to promotion and protection of ethnicity must be amended to widen their coverage.

The laws recognise only two of 56 ethnic groups who call Thailand home but the problems affecting the groups touch on a deep social structure and are multi-faceted with land disputes just one of many issues.

Mr Preeda said that when the authorities designated forest reserves, they failed to reserve areas for the sea gypsies to live and make a living on.

Under threat from encroachment are 23 cemeteries belonging to sea gypsy groups across five provinces on the Andaman coast. Also, some tourism businesses are fighting with 46 sea gypsy communities for access to beachfront areas in the provinces.

The ethnic communities need the areas to park their trawlers while the businesses want the beaches to accommodate their customers.

"The situation on Koh Lipe in particular is dire because the sea gypsy residents' backs are against the wall," said Mr Preeda.

"They feel there's no way out of them. The government must hurry and solve the problems for them."

Saengsom Charnthaleh, a Lipe resident, said many tracts of land on the island had been snapped up by rich people who had tricked their way to ownership of the sea gypsies' land.

The people would pretend to befriend the gypsies by selling them rice at cheap prices over a long period until they got into heavy debt, she said.

In the end, the gypsies had to surrender their land, which they had used as collateral.

She added many national parks and tourism attractions also encroached on the coastline areas where the sea gypsies fish for a living, forcing them to venture deep in the water to fish.

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