Thai tourism threat­ens ‘peo­ple of the sea’

Viet Nam News - - LIFE - By Rina Chan­dran

When Sutem Lakkao's grand­mother and fa­ther died, they were buried much as their an­ces­tors had been: on the beach, close to their beloved boats so they could lis­ten to the waves and watch over the Chao Lay com­mu­nity of fish­er­folk in their after­life.

But when his time comes, Sutem will be laid to rest in a ceme­tery where all he will hear is the roar of traf­fic on Phuket, Thai­land's largest is­land and a key tourism des­ti­na­tion.

The land in which Sutem's an­ces­tors were buried now heaves with daytrip­pers tak­ing self­ies, while the Urak La­woi com­mu­nity of the Chao Lay are con­fined to a small patch of Phuket's Rawai beach that is also claimed by de­vel­op­ers and in­di­vid­u­als.

"Our way of life of the olden days is gone - when we could fish any­where, and we had a con­nec­tion to the land be­cause of our an­ces­tors' burial site and spir­i­tual shrines," said Sutem.

"We do not have that con­nec­tion any more," he said stand­ing on the sandy beach of Koh He, a small is­land off Phuket's south­ern coast, where his an­ces­tors were once buried.

The Chao Lay, or peo­ple of the sea, have lived on the shores of Thai­land and Myan­mar for gen­er­a­tions, fish­ing and for­ag­ing.

Some, like the Mo­ken, are no­madic, spend­ing weeks on the sea and free-div­ing to spear fish. Oth­ers, like the Urak La­woi on Rawai beach in Phuket, have a more set­tled life while fish­ing in the An­daman Sea with their traps of rat­tan and wire.

They grabbed the world's at­ten­tion in 2004 when they es­caped the dev­as­tat­ing In­dian Ocean tsunami by flee­ing to higher ground when they saw the wa­ters re­cede.

But the com­mu­nity may be fac­ing its great­est threat yet as marine con­ser­va­tion ef­forts limit their tra­di­tional fish­ing grounds, and a tourism boom pits them against de­vel­op­ers keen on the patch of land that their boats, homes and shrines sit on.

Shared by many

At the heart of the strug­gles of the Chao Lay - also known as "Sea Gyp­sies" - is not just their right to the sea and land, but also a more fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of le­gal­ity and iden­tity, said Naru­mon Aruno­tai at Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity in Bangkok.

"Their cul­ture and tra­di­tions are not pro­tected by the Con­sti­tu­tion, and they do not have ti­tle deeds and per­mits, so it is dif­fi­cult for them to as­sert their claim," she said.

"But they were there long be­fore the tourists and the con­ser­va­tion­ists. If man­aged well, indige­nous rights can go well with con­ser­va­tion and tourism," she said.

Across the world, indige­nous peo­ple are fight­ing for the recog­ni­tion of their rights to land, for­est and wa­ter.

While they own more than half the world's land un­der cus­tom­ary rights, they have secure le­gal rights to only 10 per cent, ac­cord­ing to Washington DCbased ad­vo­cacy group Rights and Re­sources Ini­tia­tive (RRI).

From Peru to In­done­sia, laws aimed at con­serv­ing forests are lead­ing to the evic­tions of indige­nous peo­ple.

The Chao Lay's right to the sea is even more ten­u­ous as they of­ten lack per­mits and li­cences for fish­ing, and get ar­rested or fined for stray­ing into newly es­tab­lished marine pro­tected ar­eas or is­land parks that au­thor­i­ties say are key to con­ser­va­tion.

The Chao Lay in Phuket, which lies about 700 kilo­me­tres south­west of Bangkok, face more than two dozen cases re­lated to en­croach­ment of land and tres­pass of na­tional parks.

Two fam­i­lies on Rawai beach lost their cases, and have to leave the homes in which they had lived for about 40 years.

Four cases have found in favour of the Chao Lay on the ba­sis of DNA ev­i­dence culled from old bones, as well as pic­tures of a 1959 visit to Rawai by the revered late King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej.

In a sep­a­rate case, dozens of Chao Lay were in­jured in 2016 in clashes on Rawai beach protest­ing a de­vel­oper who had a land ti­tle and a per­mit to build hol­i­day vil­las, which vil­lagers said would cut ac­cess to their boats and shrines.

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials or­dered an in­ves­ti­ga­tion and a halt to con­struc­tion, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by ad­vo­cacy group Hu­man Rights Watch (HRW), which said the Chao Lay had suf­fered "decades of poverty, marginal­iza­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion".

"They gen­er­ally do not as­sert own­er­ship rights be­cause they be­lieve that land and wa­ter should not be owned or con­trolled by one per­son, but rather shared by many," said Brad Adams at HRW.

"Yet they them­selves face evic­tion from their an­ces­tral land," he said.

A 2010 Cabi­net res­o­lu­tion to re­spect the tra­di­tions of Thai­land's Karen indige­nous peo­ple and the Chao Lay, and to al­low them ac­cess to na­tional parks, has not been ef­fec­tively im­ple­mented, cam­paign­ers say.

A draft law to es­tab­lish spe­cial so­cial and cul­tural zones for indige­nous groups could re­solve con­flicts over land and sea with shared rights, said Thanya­porn Chankra­jang, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity.

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"The small-scale, sea­sonal fish­ing that the Chao Lay prac- tice is not harm­ful to marine life or the en­vi­ron­ment," she told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion.

"Shared rights in marine na­tional parks can be eas­ily im­ple­mented, mon­i­tored and eval­u­ated, and help pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment, as well as their in­come."

Changed lives

At the small vil­lage in Rawai, the open drains and mod­est tinand-wood homes of the Urak La­woi stand in sharp con­trast to Phuket's plush ho­tels.

Their wooden boats and old-fash­ioned fish­ing traps - which can be as big as a small car - are an ano­maly amidst the speed-boats car­ry­ing tourists for snorkelling and para­sail­ing.

Faced with re­stricted ar­eas and a dwin­dling catch be­cause of pol­lu­tion and over­fish­ing by com­mer­cial fleets, more Chao Lay are seek­ing jobs on land in con­struc­tion and in ho­tels, said Ri Fong­saithan, an Urak La­woi com­mu­nity el­der.

"Our lives have changed. We have to go farther and dive deeper to catch fish, and that is af­fect­ing our health," he said, look­ing at chil­dren play­ing nois­ily in the sea.

"Tourism is boom­ing, but we are ex­cluded. And we are wor­ried that we will lose the cases and be removed from here."

A spokesman at the gover­nor's of­fice in Phuket said the au­thor­i­ties had al­lo­cated a site on a nearby is­land for the Urak La­woi to move to, but that they were not will­ing to re­lo­cate.

The site is far from the beach and their shrines, said Ni­ran Yang­pan, an as­sis­tant to the vil­lage leader.

"We have al­ready adapted to many changes and chal­lenges, and we are will­ing to adapt fur­ther and re­spect the law," he said.

"But they must also re­spect our right to the land and to the sea. It is all we have." REUTERS

Life on the wa­ter: Rawai is home to the peo­ple known as Sea Gyp­sies, who were no­madic until they set­tled in this vil­lage and sev­eral other nearby lo­ca­tions. Photo

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