• 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.
  • Peoples

    3,429 “hill tribe” villages with a total population of 923,257 people can be found in Thailand according to the Department of Welfare & Social Development
  • Rights

    2007: Thailand votes in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Current state

    2016: 30 Chao Ley peoples are injured and 10 seriously hurt when the Baron World Trade Co. Ltd prevents them from entering their homes in Rawai in Phuket

Indigenous World 2020: 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.1

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.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and 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. It voted in support of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) but does not officially recognise the existence of Indigenous Peoples in the country. In 2010, the Thai government passed two cabinet resolutions to restore the traditional livelihoods of the Chao Ley3 and Karen, on 2 June and 3 August respectively.

General election

Thailand’s general election was held on 24 March 2019. The Phalang Pracharath party and their allies won a majority and formed a new government. General Prayut Chan-o-cha was elected as the 29th Prime Minister of Thailand on 5 June 2019. This time, a large number of indigenous leaders participated in the election. There were two candidates who were elected as Members of Parliament (MPs) under the Future Forward Party’s (FFP) party list system. Another indigenous candidate from FFP became an MP in November to replace the FFP leader who was disqualified by the Constitutional Court on charges of holding shares in a media company.4 There are now a total of three indigenous persons in parliament. FFP and a few other political parties have committed to pursuing the adoption of the existing draft Council of Indigenous Peoples Law, which was drafted by Indigenous Peoples and has been forwarded to the Law Reform Commission. It was tabled for consideration in parliament for the first time in 2015.5

Establishment of a parliamentary standing committee on Indigenous Peoples and ethnic groups

With support from the FFP, the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (CIPT) has requested that MPs establish a parliamentary standing committee on Indigenous Peoples and ethnic groups. Standing committees are set up as an internal parliamentary mechanism to investigate or study a specific issue or set of issues assigned by parliament. The establishment of this committee was not feasible, however, as the number of standing committees had already been fixed. A proposal was therefore made to include Indigenous Peoples’ and ethnic group issues in a standing committee on children, youth, women, people living with disabilities and LGBT. To make the issues of Indigenous Peoples and ethnic groups visible, CIPT and their allies proposed creating a sub-standing committee on Indigenous Peoples and ethnic groups to directly address indigenous-related issues.

The standing committee later decided to create only two sub-standing committees: the first on children, youth, women and LGBT, and the second on the elderly, people living with disabilities and ethnic groups. The primary mandate of the sub-standing committees is to study problems and concerns faced by each specific group and make recommendations for necessary action. Four out of eight advisory board members to the sub-committee on the elderly, people living with disabilities and ethnic groups were from CIPT. The main priority issue for CIPT is to advocate for the draft CIPT law before the standing committee members and MPs to obtain its consideration and adoption. The next sub-standing committee meeting, at the time of writing, will be held in January 2020 to discuss and elaborate on the draft CIPT law.

Passage of new and amended forestry laws

The Thai government passed two new and two amended forestry laws in 2019:

  • National Land Policy Committee (NLPC) Law on 12 April 2019;
  • Community Forestry Law on 24 May 2019;
  • Amendment to the National Park Law on 29 May 2019; and
  • Amendment to the Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act on 24 May

These new laws represent both positive developments as well as threats to communities. On the positive side, it shows that the government under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has attempted to resolve the long-standing land conflict between communities and the state in the protected areas by documenting and demarcating community land use and traditional livelihood practices outside the forest areas.6 Further, it also allows basic infrastructure development, such as road building, installation of electricity, water supply, etc., to be legally undertaken in the communities within protected areas once the registration process is complete. This will help improve the quality of life of community members. This, however, will be carried out under certain conditions. On the negative side, the National Park Law in particular will impose stricter penalties and further limit the rights of farmers and Indigenous Peoples.7 The process and timeframe to document and conduct communities’ land-use surveys are, moreover, very challenging. The new amended law came into effect as of 25 November 2019. Park authorities have to complete the documentation of community land-use and livelihood practice surveys under articles 64 and 65 within 240 days, or 8 months. They have to officially inform communities living in protected areas about the surveys and obtain their approval to participate. However, participation of community members in this process has yet to be clarified, although the landowner normally has to be present to identify the lands. Theoretically, once the survey is completed,  a community land-use map will be produced and verified before being sent to the Department of National Parks. There will be no further survey conducted after this deadline.

The main concerns relate to the limited timeframe and process used for conducting the survey. The given timeframe may not be feasible to cover all communities (around 3,973 communities) living in forest areas. Most communities are still not aware of this new law and the full, effective participation of villagers in the process remains unclear. Further, registered communities are allowed to temporarily live and use their land only up to 20 years regardless of how long they have been in existence, although there is an option for renewal if the community is not violating the agreed rules and regulations.

Referral of the nomination of Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex (KKFC) as a natural world heritage site back to the Thai government

At the 43rd session of the World Heritage Committee meeting convened in Azerbaijan from 30 June – 10 July 2019, the committee upheld a referral decision on KKFC to be inscribed as a natural world heritage site.8 One of the main reasons was to ask the Thai government to demonstrate that all the concerns (of the Karen people who live there) had been resolved, in full consultation with local communities, in accordance with paragraph 123 of the Operational Guidelines.9

This was in line with the demands of the Karen Network for Culture and Environment (KNCE), Tanaosri section, which released a statement appealing to the committee to support their demands and concerns as follows:

  • Authorise community-based management for 10 years of traditional rotational farming;
  • Establish the Huai Krasu area as a government/community co-organised rotational farming research centre;
  • Ensure self-determination for the Karen indigenous population;
  • Embrace the traditional livelihoods and community and human rights of the Karen Community; and
  • The KNCE Tanaosri region and Thai government shall be the co-nominators proposing the forest complex as a UNESCO World Heritage

The KNCE concluded that the Karen community would not accept KKFC as a UNESCO World Heritage Site unless these requests were fulfilled and acted upon. The Government of Thailand has recently announced that Thailand will resubmit the KKFC to the World Heritage Committee for consideration in 2020.

Drafting a new law on the promotion and protection of ethnic groups’ traditional livelihoods

The Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (SAC) has been tasked with drafting a new law on the promotion and protection of traditional livelihoods of ethnic groups in Thailand. This is in accordance with the current constitutional law section 70 and a 20-year national strategic plan adopted last year. The SAC has so far conducted a series of consultations with different Indigenous Peoples and ethnic groups on the concept and main substance of the law. The draft law is expected to be completed in four years and the process is ongoing with the active involvement of CIPT, which is trying to include Indigenous Peoples’ issues as much as possible into this new law.

Billy’s  murder case

On 3 September 2019, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) announced they had found bone fragments in a 200-litre barrel under the Kaeng Krachan suspension bridge. The bone fragments were confirmed to belong to Billy or Mr. Porajee Rakchongcharoen, who went missing on 17 April 2014 after being detained by park officers, as the DNA matches with his mother. He is now officially declared dead.

KNCE, CIPT, AIPP and other civil society organisations (CSOs) expressed concerns over this issue, demanding a continued investigation to bring the perpetrator(s) to justice, find appropriate measures to redress Billy’s family and prevent further forced disappearance cases in Thailand. They also demanded faster enactment of domestic law, including implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and requested that the Thai government ratify the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CPED).

A number of public events were organised to raise awareness of this issue, including a commemorative workshop for Billy at Rangsit University on 16 September 2019 and at Chiang Mai University on 2 October 2019.

DSI recently obtained court warrants to arrest the former chief of Kaeng Krachan National Park, Mr. Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn and his three team members on charges of alleged murder. He and his team members denied the charges and have been released on bail.10 The case is ongoing.

Proposed coal mining operation in Omkoi district

The Thai business 99 Thuwanon has been applying for a coal mining concession to operate in Kabeudin village (a Karen village) located at M.12, Omkoi sub-district, Omkoi district, Chiang Mai since 2000. The proposed mining area covers 284.3 rai (around 45.3 ha.). The process to obtain a legal concession was being carried out quietly until the Primary Industries and Mines Department (PIMD) announced the project and placed plans with the Omkoi district office on 26 April 2019 to solicit views and comments from villagers living in and near the proposed coal mining areas. The deadline for feedback was 24 May 2019.

This project was then shared and circulated to a wider group of Omkoi residents. After that, Omkoi residents, CSOs and concerned people, who have become aware of the project, tried to stop the proposed coal mine, under the name of the Omkoi Anti-Coal Mine Network

(OKACMN). Community leaders have faced intimidation and threats from government authorities for their protest activities.

This project will directly affect 1,541 households (6,115 people) and indirectly affect residents of Omkoi (approx. 56,582 people or 13,556 households). The project’s effects include air pollution, destroyed or severely limited livelihoods of people living in and nearby the mining area, polluted water sources, forest and biodiversity loss, etc.

OKACMN demands included the:

  • Stop or suspension of the proposed open coal mining project;
  • Provision of clear and reliable information to community members;
  • Respect for Indigenous Peoples’ rights;
  • Ceasing of intimidation and threat to community leaders; and
  • Carrying out of a new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) with full and effective participation of community

The PIMD conducted a public hearing at Mae Ang-kang school on 28 September 2019 before granting a legal concession to the company. OKACMN strongly opposed the process. The public hearing was later called off. Some OKACMN leaders have been charged with defamation of the company. The concession has not yet been granted.

Indigenous Peoples’ movement

In addition to issues faced by Indigenous Peoples in Thailand, there were a number of key important activities held in 2019 to firm up Indigenous Peoples’ commitments and rights, including the strengthening solidarity among Indigenous Peoples from different sub-regions. These included the:

  • Observation of Indigenous Peoples Day on 8-10 August 2019 at Maejo University, which included exhibitions, panel discussions, dialogues and cultural performances that were broadcast live online; and
  • Realisation of the 4th General Assembly of the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (CIPT), held on 10 August Key outcomes included: the selection of new CIPT members; review and amendment of the CIPT constitution to reflect the actual situation and needs of its members; adoption of its strategic plan; mobilisation of resources and collaboration with the SAC for future support.

Thailand’s commitment to addressing climate change impacts

Thailand is facing climate risk and it has therefore taken urgent steps to address climate change. These include, but are not limited to, adopting the long-term Climate Change Master Plan in 2015 and implementing its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) commitments. Under  the NDC, Thailand has prioritised adaptation activities in key sectors such as agriculture and water management and committed to a 2025% greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction by 2030. The primary target sector for mitigation is energy which, together with transport, is responsible for more than 70% of GHG emissions. Thailand is in the process of reviewing its NDC commitments and targets.

The government will likely include the forestry sector as one of its key mitigation targets. If this is the case, it will pose further risks and problems to indigenous communities living in forest areas given that the enforcement of laws and other measures will be stricter, thus negatively affecting the livelihoods of indigenous communities.

Thailand is also speeding up implementation of its REDD+ readiness phase because the grant agreement will end on 30 June 2020. A number of the main activities have still not been completed. These include the REDD+ strategy preparation and information system for multiple benefits and safeguards. A few indigenous leaders were invited to participate in the consultations but they are still limited in number.


Notes and references

  1. Ten groups are sometimes mentioned, with the Palaung also included in some official documents. The Department of Social Development and Welfare’s 2002 Directory of Ethnic Communities in 20 northern and western provinces also includes the Mlabri and
  2. From the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand’s (CIPT)
  3. Composed of Moken, Moklen and Urak-rawoy.
  4. “Thanathorn disqualified as MP”. Bangkok Post, 20 November 2019: https:// bangkokpost.com/thailand/politics/1798414/thanathorn-disqualified-as-mp
  5. See the Thailand chapter of IWGIA’s Indigenous World 2015 and
  6. For more detail on the laws, see: https://www.nationthailand.com/ national/30365412
  7. For example, those who are convicted of encroachment and other offences could face up to 20 years in prison and two million Baht (approx. US$ 66,666) in fines.
  8. This was the third time that the Thai government had received such a decision, the most recent being in 2016 at the 39th and 40th
  9. World Heritage Committee meeting report, 43rd https://whc.unesco. org/en/sessions/43com/decisions/
  10. “Chaiwat surrenders to answer murder charge in Billy case”. Bangkok Post, 12 November 2019: https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1792599/chaiwat-surrenders-to-answer-murder-charge-in-billy-case 

Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri is a Mien from the north of Thailand. He has worked with indigenous communities and organisations since 1989. He is currently Executive Director of the Indigenous Peoples’ Foundation for Education and Environment (IPF) based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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