No common ground

No common ground

The Maniq tribe has relied on the forest for many centuries, but their lifestyle is being threatened by encroachment and exploitation

Open house: A temporary shelter set up by the Maniq near Phu Pha Petch cave in Satun province, left. The Maniq are a traditionally nomadic tribe who depend on the forest for their livelihoods. (Photo by Chumpol Pothisarn)
Open house: A temporary shelter set up by the Maniq near Phu Pha Petch cave in Satun province, left. The Maniq are a traditionally nomadic tribe who depend on the forest for their livelihoods. (Photo by Chumpol Pothisarn)

The Khao Banthat range was once shrouded by myths of savage people and mysterious spirits. Then, in the 1960s, the mountains, stretching over southern Thailand, became a battlefield for communist insurgents. As the war ended in the '80s and residents regrouped, the forest fast turned into a hotbed for disputes over what lands belonged to whom.

Caught up in the claims were the Maniq-Negritos tribe, hunter-gatherers with a population of less than 500 people.

We arrive at Trang province's Khao Banthat Wildlife Sanctuary in the western part of the Khao Banthat range during the rainy season. It's the start of our trek to meet the Maniq tribe, who live uphill along a steep and narrow trail.

Leading our trek is Chumpol Pothisarn, an independent researcher who has studied the Maniq for eight years. We're accompanied by a small group of Thai academics and forest rangers, who are dressed in camouflage uniforms.

An hour into our trek, we come across the first trace of forest dwellers. An abandoned rubber plantation sits in a forest clearing. But it doesn't belong to the Maniq -- we're told the land was used by Thai villagers after being seized by the state for illegal encroachment. The tracks of a motorcycle can be faintly discerned on the ground.

Soon after, we reach a cluster of timber houses with raised floors. Around it, rubber and fruit trees mix with wild plants.

We encounter a family of six Maniq. They're warming themselves around a fire under one of the houses.

Mr Chumpol, who speaks the Maniq language, slowly approaches them. They are talkative with him, but shy with strangers. They speak Thai with a southern accent.

The family is dressed in a mix of traditional and modern clothes -- T-shirts, shorts and sandals, mixed with loincloths for men and southern-style sarongs for women.

Like many families in the tribe, they tap rubber. Some even own rubber plantations, although they exist in legal grey zone.

Some of the Maniq own TVs and mobile phones powered by diesel generators.

It's clear that the band has settled down permanently, no longer pursuing a nomadic life.

The only physical traits marking them as distinct are their dark skin and curly hair. These traits have made them the frequent targets of exploitation and discrimination by the surrounding Thai population for at least the past 50 years.

I take a seat next to a middle-aged Maniq man named Aeng Sripalian. His first name comes from the Maniq language, but his surname is Thai. He offers me a three-in-one coffee. His family sits quietly while listening to our conversation.

"Many people in the forest come to look and hunt for wild products," Mr Aeng says. "We can't catch up with them. The forest gave us enough to live. But now, it's no longer enough."

Forest encroachment is an ongoing issue in the Banthat range, and the Maniq are the group feeling the brunt of it.

With a dwindling food supply, they are being forced to abandon their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

While tourism authorities promote the Maniq brand, little is done to respect the tribe's independence and desire for isolation.

THE PEOPLE

The Maniq is the only tribe in Thailand, and one of very few in the world, that practise hunter-gatherer lifestyles today.

About 350 Maniq live in the forests of Phatthalung, Satun and Trang. Around 100 are estimated to be living in the southernmost provinces. For their livelihoods they depend entirely on the forest, where they hunt animals with a "balao", a long bamboo stick used to blow poisonous plants at targets.

Traditionally, they live in small bands, and the nomadic ones inhabit temporary shelters. They move to a new place when the food supply runs out or when somebody in the band dies.

Maniq society is based on the principle of equality, with no one leader governing.

The Maniq try to accommodate their surrounding natural environment as much as possible. On each hunting expedition, they must limit their kill to only one animal. Wild tubers are carefully removed without uprooting the plants.

They practised this lifestyle for centuries until their exposure to outsiders.

Mr Chumpol, who has worked in archaeology and comparative linguistics, notes that the Maniq tribe resembles the Agta tribe in the Philippines. They are both part of the Negrito ethnic group, physically characterised by their dark skin and short stature. They are also said to resemble the Jarawa tribe of the Nicobar Islands and Australia.

Archaeological ruins in Malaysia indicate the Negritos have lived there for at least 25,000 years. This means they may have been in the region long before the Kingdom of Siam.

In the early 20th century, King Chulalongkorn was introduced to a Negrito couple when he travelled south to Nakhon Si Thammarat. According to "Tribal Communities in the Malay World", a paper from the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies, the king took a strong interest in the couple.

Later, inspired by his encounter, he adopted a Maniq orphan from the Phatthalung forest named Kanang.

The boy was sent off to live in the royal courts of Bangkok, where he was taught how to dance and play the role of a Negrito in a Songtong play -- a drama in which the prince disguises himself as Negrito. The character is called Ngo-Pa -- ngo means rambutan, pa means forest.

The Negritos are also called Sakai, a condescending name taken from Malay and used only by outsiders of the Maniq community.

However, despite the racist undertones of the terms, academic literature tends to use "Ngo-Pa", "Sakai" or "Ngo-Pa Sakai".

When Mr Chumpol began to work with the Maniq in Satun province in 2009, he learned that they did not refer to themselves as Sakai, but "Maniq", meaning "people".

Since then, he has encouraged people to use this name instead.

The Maniq dislike the terms Ngo-Pa and Sakai. Mr Aeng says he feels uneasy when people call him this. "We are people, not savages," he says.

The Maniq based in the Khao Banthat range have managed to maintain many elements of their traditional lifestyle. But other similar tribes in different parts of the country are unlikely to follow the same path, with groups like the Mlabri in the North and Moken along the southern coast being forced to leave their nomadic lifestyle and permanently settle.

A pattern of settlement has been linked to the decline of natural resources and the state's declaration of conservation areas, forcing tribes to hold onto what land they can.

This change was an unwelcome one from the start. With increased contact with outsiders, tribes are more prone to suffer from hunger, exploitation and discrimination.

It hasn't been easy for Mr Aeng's band to settle down in Trang. While his parents and grandparents could hunt freely in the forest, he can't.

NO CHOICE

The communist insurgency in the early 1960s saw military units dispatched to the jungles of the Khao Banthat range. In Phatthalung, Satun and Trang, insurgents fled across Maniq-occupied land to fight against the military government of Thanom Kittikachorn.

In the family: A Maniq mother and baby near the Klong Tong Forest Protection Unit, Trang. SUPPLIED

Clashes between the army and communists forced many people to flee the area.

The government ordered the brutal killing of civilians accused of supporting communists. Near Maniq forests, roads were cut off by the government to stop insurgents.

When the war ended with the communists' surrender in the 1980s, people returned home. But disputes arose over who was entitled to claim ownership over the forest land. Ever since, the issue of forest encroachment in the Banthat range has been contentious -- even as major parts of it have been declared wildlife sanctuaries or national parks.

Between 2004 and 2015, according to the Office of Forest Land Management, forest space in Phatthalung, Satun and Trang has declined from 3,025 to 2,873 square kilometres.

Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha's government set a goal to reclaim the forest by slashing about 958 square kilometres -- 46 in Phatthalung, 136 in Trang -- of rubber plantations that trespassed on forest areas between 2015 and 2016.

Amid the rapid takedown, the Maniq population is struggling to find enough food to feed themselves.

They've also become fearful of hunters who enter the forest with guns, and occasionally threaten to shoot them. As a result, some sections of the forest have been shut down for hunting.

In addition, the wild animal population has declined, alongside wild plants and herbs.

"The Maniq's wisdom and culture comes from the forest," says Mr Chumpol. "When it's taken away, they can't depend on themselves any more."

His study identified three types of Maniq groups -- mobile, semi-sedentary and sedentary groups.

Mobile groups practise traditional hunting and gathering lifestyles. Four such groups have been found in the Banthat range area.

However, two of them will likely become semi-sedentary groups.

These groups remain in one place for a short period, in which they grow crops. They are the most vulnerable group as they can't fully inhabit the forest due to the precarious food supply. They also don't have permanent shelters.

Sedentary groups, like the Maniq living in Klong Tong, have adopted agricultural practices and have power to negotiate with outsiders. They have 56 members and 14 households. Most have a Thai ID card.

Despite these adaptive measures, they are still prone to exploitation by land grabbers and villagers.

For example, the Maniq have been lured by villagers to clear the forest for rubber plantations, led on by the false promise that the land and profit will be shared.

After alcohol and cigarettes were introduced to the community, some villagers imposed debts on the Maniq by claiming the cost for small portions of the products.

The Maniq learned to plant rubber around the late 1990s, and sell it to villagers downhill. But they were often taken advantage of by price suppression tactics.

Chai, who is about 70 years old, is a Maniq who doesn't like the idea of agriculture as it conflicts with the nomadic lifestyle's disavowal of property ownership. "But I have no choice. It's hard in the forest," he says.

Meanwhile, the Maniq language is disappearing among young generations. With no written alphabet, it is at serious risk of extinction.

Recently, seven Maniq children were sent to schools run by the Border Patrol Police at the community's foothill. However, they are often made fun of by other students for being "undeveloped" forest dwellers.

HISTORY OF EXPLOITATION

A study from the 1990s, "Recent Maniq Settlements in Satun province, Southern Thailand" by Gerd Albrecht and Johannes Moser, maps out Maniq groups near Wang Sai Thong waterfall, Satun's most famous tourist spot. However, the new map formed by Mr Chumpol's survey shows that the area is now urbanised. Maniq groups have moved further into the forest.

The growth of tourism could seriously impact the Maniq lifestyle.

In July, a tour operator at Wang Sai Thong took a group of Maniq to a press conference about tourism in a department store in Hat Yai, Songkhla province.

The Maniq were dressed in shabby clothes and seated on the floor. A model of a traditional house was set up behind them. A slogan, "Visit the land of Sakai, wander in the forest, raft the Wang Sai Thong", echoed over a loudspeaker.

A netizen posted a picture of the event on social media, leading a large number of critics to condemn the act as a human rights violation. The Maniq had been treated like a silenced spectacle instead of real people with a voice.

A flood of public anger prompted Satun's La-ngu district chief Silapachai Ruensoong, a partner in the event, to apologise. He assured people that none of the Maniq would be taken out of the forest and put "on display" again.

This wasn't the first time the Maniq were addressed as Sakai or treated as novelties.

Discrimination against the Maniq has long been known to Banchoed Suwanwong, the chief of the Tung Naree Forest Protection Unit in Khao Banthat Wildlife Sanctuary, Phatthalung province.

His district is home to two Maniq groups, where they have been taken to shows or markets in a stunt for donations. However, a majority of the donations are kept by villagers, with the Maniq only receiving some bags of rice as compensation.

"When I took up my position here years ago, I saw pickups loaded with Maniq passing by my office on many occasions [accompanied by Thai people from outside the forest]," said Mr Banchoed. "I thought, 'That's enough.'"

It depressed him to see park officials react passively to the exploitation problem.

He later ordered rangers to block vehicles from entering Maniq communities.

"The Maniq can be considered a human resource, which we must protect until they are ready or want to change their lifestyle voluntarily," he said. "They've been pressed in every element of their traditional lifestyles."

During the National Human Right Commission's August meeting in Hat Yai, five policemen unexpectedly showed up to arrest a Maniq man who travelled from Satun to tell a story about his people's struggle of being stateless.

The police wanted to charge the Maniq man for having no ID card. However, they cancelled the charge after negotiation with a National Human Rights Commission executive. The incident tells of a broader trend of official bias.

COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN

Why has Thai society misunderstood the Maniq for centuries? Miscommunication is a key factor.

Last year, Mr Chumpol set out to solve the conflict between the Maniq and park officials by involving rangers in a research project about the tribe. His work, funded by the Thailand Research Fund, encouraged park rangers to conduct surveys about the Maniq's livelihood in their given area to find the best way to encourage the Maniq's well-being.

The survey allowed officials and the forest dwellers to communicate, with Mr Chumpol bridging the language gap.

Before the start of the research project, some Maniq in Klong Tong said that if they saw a park ranger nearby, they would flee to hide in the forest until they left -- an impulse born of many decades of exploitation and mistrust.

But the project has given rise to a dialogue between both parties.

"Many people believe the Maniq are a brutal tribe," said Mr Chumpol. "They're not. They are mild people if you treat them as equals to you -- authorities usually treat them as being below them.

"People paint this portrait of the Maniq from centuries of misinformation, rather than asking them who they really are. This makes communication fall short even before the start of the conversation. Bias is a huge barrier."

The Maniq are often judged by social norms that don't exist in their traditions or beliefs.

Those who meet the Maniq for the first time often ask, "Who's your leader?"; "How old are you?"; "When will you move?" The Maniq don't understand such questions since hierarchy, ownership and time are foreign concepts.

A great deal of Thai academia and literature fails to recognise these differences, and thus offer a skewed portrait of the tribe.

When Mr Chumpol first approached the Maniq in Satun, he treated them as equals -- they were his friends, and he was there to study their language and lifestyle without judgement. His research is among the first to understand the Maniq in the modern era.

During my trek in Klong Tong, I heard a story of a Maniq teenager who followed his parents into the forest to hunt when he was a little boy. Now, he misses the freedom to navigate the woods and experience calmness in isolation.

Another story referred to a catch of wild squirrels, slightly larger than the size of a palm. The squirrels were cut into pieces the size of a finger to share with the family in the Maniq band. It's a social rule to always share food.

Once, a boy from the band went missing. The members desperately searched all over for him.

Park rangers say that the Maniq have a fathomless love for their children.

As long as these stories go untold, the Sakai or Ngo-Pa will survive. The Maniq will not.

In dialogue: A park ranger from the Klong Tong Forest Protection Unit in Trang province. The relationship between the Maniq and park rangers has improved after researcher Chumpol Pothisarn intervened. SUPPLIED

Making adjustments: Members of the Maniq community. This band has adjusted their lifestyle and learned the Thai monetary system. Most also possess a Thai national ID card. PHOTOS: PARITTA WANGKIAT

Banded together: Maniq men living in the forest near the Klong Tong Forest Protection Unit, Khao Banthat Wildlife Sanctuary, Trang. Maniq society is based on the principle of equality, with no single leader governing the community. PHOTOS: PARITTA WANGKIAT

The life nomadic: A Maniq man in a mobile camp in Satun. These groups continue to practise traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyles. (Photo by Chumpol Pothisarn)

Here for good: Permanent shelters of the Maniq in a forest near the Klong Tong Forest Protection Unit. While the Maniq originated as a nomadic tribe, these communities remain stationary.

Growing up: A Maniq child with a temporary shelter in the background, Satun province. Lacking a written alphabet, the Maniq language is at risk of disappearing if not upheld by younger generations. (Photo by Chumpol Pothisarn)

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