• Indigenous peoples in Thailand

    Indigenous peoples in Thailand

    The Hmong, the Karen, the Lisu, the Mien, the Akha, the Lahu, the Lua, the Thin, and the Khamu are the recognised indigenous peoples of Thailand. Most of them live as fishers or as hunter-gatherers.


Although Thailand adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it does not officially recognize the existence of Indigenous Peoples in the country. There were some developments for the Indigenous Peoples of the country, but they continue to be stigmatized and challenged especially by land grabbing by the government.

Thailand has ratified or is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Indigenous Peoples in Thailand

The Indigenous Peoples of Thailand live mainly in three geographical regions of the country: Indigenous fisher communities (the Chao Ley) and small populations of hunter-gatherers in the south (Mani people); small groups on the Korat plateau of the north-east and east; and the many different highland peoples in the north and north-west of the country (known by the derogatory term Chao-Khao). Nine so-called “hill tribes” are officially recognised: the Hmong, Karen, Lisu, Mien, Akha, Lahu, Lua, Thin and Khamu. 

The estimated Indigenous population in Thailand is around five million people, which accounts for 7.2% of the total population.2 According to the Department of Social Development and Welfare (2002), the total officially recognised “hill-tribe” population numbers 925,825 and they are distributed across 20 provinces in the north and west of the country. There are still no figures available for the indigenous groups in the south and north-east.

When national boundaries in South-East Asia were drawn during the colonial era, and as a result in the wake of decolonisation, many Indigenous Peoples living in remote highlands and forests were divided. For example, you can find Lua and Karen people in both Thailand and Myanmar, and Akha people in Laos, Myanmar, south-west China and Thailand.

Get the latest updates from this IWGIA and EU supported portal for Indigenous Peoples information in Thailand >>

Main challenges for the Indigenous Peoples of Thailand

A major struggle for the Indigenous Peoples of Thailand is land grabbing by the government, such as Rawai, located in the province of Phuket. Rawai is a popular tourist spot in southern Thailand and also home to Chao Ley, a collective term for three indigenous groups: the Mogan, Moglen and Urak Lawoi.

Its population is approximately 13,000 living in the five provinces of Phang Nga, Phuket, Krabi, Satun and Ranong along the Andaman coastal area and the sea. Baron World Trade Co. Ltd claims ownership of more than 5 hectares of land, including the public beach in the subdistrict of Rawai in the Muang Phuket district, which overlaps with the ancestral lands of Chao Law, which have been used to celebrate sacred ceremonies for generations.

The situation degenerated into violence in 2016 when the company hired a group of young men to prevent the villagers from entering the area. The youths destroyed the huts and fishing equipment of Chao Ley, and around 30 Chao Ley were injured in the violent encounter and 10 seriously injured.

The government approved a master plan to solve the problems of deforestation, and that includes the suppression and arrest of people who are invading or destroying forest lands. These operations raise serious concerns for Indigenous Peoples, as they have not made an explicit distinction between illegal intruders and indigenous communities that have lived in those areas for a long time.

Community land title law passed in Thailand

In Thailand, a law on the issuing of community land title deeds officially called “The Regulation of the Prime Minister Office on the Issuance of Community Land Title Deeds” has been passed by the Cabinet on 11 May 2010. The essence of this law is to legally allow communities (both highland and lowland people) to collectively manage and use state-owned land for their living.

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Indigenous Knowledge, Customary Use of Natural Resources and Sustainable Biodiversity Management

This research project studied the sustainable, customary use of biological resources by highland communities in Northern Thailand. It was undertaken with the objectives of studying the knowledge, customs, and traditions practiced by the Hmong and Karen (Karen) tribes in the management of natural resources and biodiversity, in terms of both the sustainable use and conservation of these resources. The project also studied how highland communities have adapted to the impacts of externally imposed laws, policies and development processes. The study has the further objective of being used to lobby for the effective implementation of government policies in line with Article 10(c) of the Convention on Biological Diversity(CBD). The study used a Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach. Interviewing, observation, and data analysis were done jointly by community leaders, researchers and the advisory team.

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Indigenous World

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