Sea gypsies turning the tide
Land claim cases have plagued sea tribes for several years now, but a recent victory debuts a new strategy of asserting their place
On Jan 31, the Phuket Provincial Court cleared four sea gypsies accused of unlawfully occupying beachfront land on Phuket's Rawai beach, saying the sea tribe owned the land before the title deed was issued for the property.
Boonsri Tantiwatanawallop and Jindarat Thammajak, relatives of the late Than Mukdee, issued a lawsuit to evict four villagers -- Aew, Woranan and Bancha of the same family name, Hadsaithong, and Niran Yangpan -- from a 12-rai plot of land they claimed belonged to them in Muang district.
"I'm glad the court recognised the tradition, history and culture of the sea gypsies," said Mr Niran after the ruling. "And we have all the evidence to prove our long-standing stake in the area."
The way of life of the Sea Gypsy is being challenged by investors who are looking at their land from another perspective. (Video by Jetjaras Na Ranong)
But despite the recent victory, the fight for sea gypsies to establish legal ownership over land in Phuket is far from over. The Court of First Instance has only dismissed six cases out of around 100 pending lawsuits against the sea gypsies at Rawai beach. A strong chance also remains that the most recent case's plaintiffs will appeal the court's ruling.
"We have to continue to fight by reinstating our culture and the truth," said Mr Niran. "The fight is not over."
Sea tribe groups have seen a series of legal setbacks over the years.
A few years ago, two sea gypsies were evicted from Rawai beach after a plaintiff presented a title deed to the court. Though the sea gypsy defendants had in fact signed the land lease paper, they later claimed that they misunderstood the implications of the document.
"We have gradually lost the right to stay on our property because we did not know how to fight these battles," said Sanit Saesua, a sea gypsy who has helped collect research on his Rawai beach community for legal purposes.
The most recent decision from the Court of First Instance sets a precedent for future cases, says Preeda Kongpaen, manager of the Chumchonthai Foundation. The organisation helps offer legal aid to sea gypsies dealing with lawsuits.
The court's verdict should encourage the use of anthropological evidence in future decisions, instead of considering only the legal evidence of title deeds, she added.
"The most recent trial is significant since the judge took into account all sorts of evidence, including aerial images of the village, the age of the area's vegetation and ancestral burial sites," said Ms Preeda.
"We sought help from MR Akin Rapeepat, a senior researcher at the Thailand Research Fund (TRF), the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) and the Chumchonthai Foundation to prove that our sea gypsy community has lived here for a long while," Mr Sanit told Spectrum.
The Jan 31 ruling likely gained strength from a Dec 13 case last year in which the Phuket Provincial Court dismissed charges filed by the same plaintiffs against another two sea tribe defendants -- Taew Sengbutr and Charoon Hadsaithong -- accusing them of illegally occupying their property.
According to the Dec 13 court statement, the defendants used a collection of evidence, from the age of the coconut trees in the village to the bones of ancestors and, most importantly, a photo of the late King Bhumibol and Her Majesty the Queen's visit to Rawai beach in March 1959 as proof they had been around well before the plaintiffs' claim to the property.
Sea gypsy tribes have resided in the Andaman coastal provinces for several centuries.
A study by Anna Gislen of Lund University in Sweden shows that these tribes, who spend extensive time in the sea, have developed better-than-average eyesight under water.
The study found that the Moken, one of several sea gypsy tribes in the Andaman region, have visual acuity levels twice as strong as those of the average European child.
"Our investigation shows that Moken children achieve their superior underwater vision by maximally constricting the pupil at 1.96mm, compared to the 2.50mm in European children, and thus surpassing the known limit of human performance," Ms Gislen states.
"This extreme reaction -- which is seen across all Moken children -- is completely absent in European children. Because they are completely dependent on the sea, the Moken are likely to derive significant benefits from this."
Sea tribes have historically neglected to register official ownership of their land.
"We thought the land belonged to the state and, as members of the state, everyone should be entitled to use the land," said Mr Sanit.
In June 2010, the Thai government announced new policies to help improve the livelihoods of sea gypsies negatively affected by the tourism industry.
But the implementation has been too slow to effectively respond to the challenges, such as the threat of hotel developers.
Meanwhile, some sea gypsies have yet to obtain Thai citizenship.
Further aggravating their survival is the skyrocketing prices of the Phuket property market.
While sea gypsies do not have a religion, they worship their ancestors, said Mr Sanit.
In sea tribe tradition, the deceased are buried below the house of their family -- a rite that proved most useful when ancestors' bones were recruited as legal proof of their long-standing ties to Rawai beach.
According to Mr Sanit, conflict over land ownership first arose after the tsunami in 2004. The enormous tidal wave swept away the sea gypsies' settlements along the stricken coast.
After some villages were forced to relocate, some investors began to claim ownership by presenting title deeds to the courts they said were authorised by the Land Department.
Several were successful in evicting sea gypsies from their settlements from 2009 onwards.
However, Thai law entitles indigenous villagers to remain on the land if they can sufficiently prove that they settled there before the date that the title deed was issued, said Pasit Thawornlamlert, a lawyer representing sea gypsies from the Chumchonthai Foundation.
To address the growing volume of lawsuits, Mr Sanit formed a group of 30 fellow sea tribe villagers to collect research proving their right to the land. They gathered maps, alongside information about the sea tribes' livelihoods and cultures, to explain their case.
Narumon Arunotai, a Moken researcher at Chulalongkorn University, and MR Akin of the TRF, joined in to help Mr Sanit's research efforts. They found that several sea tribes have lived at Rawai beach for over 300 years and practised rice farming. There are currently around 2,000 sea gypsies in the area. The village has 246 houses, covering 24 rai of land. This was later cut down to 19 rai and two ngan after a slew of legal disputes.
With the help of older community members, researchers mapped out family trees and the migration paths of different tribes.
The village is home to two main ethnic groups -- first, the Orang Laut, then followed by the Moken in the 1950s. The two tribes lived in the same community and came to intermarry.
In March 1959, the village received a historical visit from the late King Bhumibol and Her Majesty the Queen Sirikit.
"The photos from the visit turned to be important pieces of proof, showing that the sea gypsy community had long occupied the land there," said Mr Sanit.
But in 1965 authorities received a Sor Kor 1, a property ownership claim, from Than Mukdee. The claim was later upgraded to a land title, undermining the sea gypsies' right to the area.
However, the King's 1959 visit was brought back into the picture with the Dec 13 Rawai beach case as photos of him at the beach were used to support the villagers' case.
The photos, featuring the village coconut trees, seemed to indicate the trees had been around for over 30 years. Villagers argued this on the basis of the trees' coverage area and height.
The plaintiff originally claimed the trees were only around 10 years old. But the photos seemed to support to the villagers' case, suggesting the village had laid down roots long before the date the plaintiff had claimed to own the property.
Furthermore, an aerial image certified by the Court of Justice in Phuket shows that sea tribes settled along Rawai beach in the 1950s. Further images show how regular Thai homeowners only began to build and move into houses at Rawai beach from 1976 onwards.
Evidence Mr Sanit's team obtained from Sawang Arom Temple School, the main public school in the community, further helped cement their case. Drawing from 1931 records, they found that around 30 students attending the school were sea gypsies. The school principal also mentioned she could remember sea tribe students attending the school before 1955. Additional records uncovered at the school found that, at the time, around 90 sea gypsies were settled in the area.
The bones of ancestors buried beneath villagers' houses, alongside sea shells and other ritualistic offerings, were also used as evidence to indicate the longevity of the settlements.
"The bones basically proved the age of the community," said Mr Sanit.
In 2014, the DSI dug up bones from beneath the residence of Nhim Lakkoh, a sea gypsy, and conducted a forensic test on them. Results showed that DNA in the bones of two corpses, over 50 years old, matched those of around 10 sea gypsies now settled in the area.
"The results go to show we've been around for a long time," said Mr Sanit.
SETTING A PRECEDENT
Despite the favourable outcome of the Dec 13 case, the four defendants of the Jan 31 case were concerned about what could happen to them.
Preeda Kongpaen of the Chumchonthai Foundation, who has worked with the sea gypsy community since the 2004 tsunami. SUPPLIED
"This judge might not share the views of the previous judge," said Mr Pasit, the defendants' lawyer.
On Jan 31, several sea gypsies went to court to show moral support for Mr Niran and the other three defendants.
The court eventually dismissed the case, saying evidence gathered by officials and credible witnesses pointed to the fact that sea gypsies had lived in the area long before Than Mukdee's claims.
The land ownership document held by Than was deemed to be illegally issued.
Around 100 sea gypsies gathered outside the courthouse erupted in joy upon hearing the ruling.
Somsri Damrongkaset, one of the sea gypsies waiting outside the court, told the local press: "After I heard that the court dismissed the case, I was speechless. I never thought we would have this result today."
Ms Preeda said: "It is a historic case. This mission to determine the truth drew from every possible piece of evidence available." The case could change the tone of future fights between sea tribes and property developers.
ROUGH SEAS AHEAD
Ms Preeda reminds the public that the sea gypsies' legal battles are still under way, with around 100 land ownership cases remaining to be dealt with -- and that's only on Rawai beach.
"It is not just Rawai but Ko Lipe, Phi Phi and Siray [where sea gypsies' land ownership struggles are taking place]," she said.
"These land ownership issues with marginalised people tend to emerge in very commercially viable areas," she said.
Mr Sanit said he was, however, encouraged by the court's Jan 31 decision.
"The court knew so little about where we come from, but they do now after having read the paper put together by MR Akin.
"They realised that we have our own identity, drawing from information that looked back on seven generations."
A full compilation of the team's research will soon be presented in administration court as evidence for another dispute in a different location along the beachfront area of Rawai, said Mr Sanit.
Mr Sanit admitted that the local team faced some challenges in completing the research.
Sea gypsies are not researchers by training and some lost their commitment to the project over time.
"But eventually we got what needed to be done," said Mr Sanit.
"The team is very proud and very glad. We have learned about ourselves and we are more confident in asserting the rights of the community and our ethnic group in the Andaman Sea," he said.
making waves: Niran Yangpan, one of the four sea gypsies once charged with illegally occupying Rawai beach. The court later dismissed the case on Jan 31 in a landmark victory for sea tribes. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
waving the flag: Sea gypsies set up a large photo of the late King Bhumibol at Rawai beach on Dec 5 of last year to pay tribute to the monarch and his contributions to their community. SUPPLIED
royal recognition: Photos of the late King Bhumibol's 1959 visit to Rawai indicate the coconut trees had been there for at least 30 years, suggesting the sea gypsies had lived there for a while. SUPPLIED
shoring up: A sea gypsy and his fishing boat on Rawai beach. The volume of lawsuits against sea gypsies begun to rise rapidly following the 2004 tsunami, which displaced many of these communities. PHOTOS: Patipat Janthong
facing forward: Sanit Saesua, a sea gypsy who led a research team gathering information about the sea tribes' historical roots on Rawai beach. PHOTO: Thanarak Khunton
fingers crossed: On Jan 31, around 100 sea gypsies gathered in front of a Phuket court awaiting the verdict on four defendants' land ownership case. PHOTO: POST TODAY ARCHIVE