• 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.

The Indigenous World 2021: 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 decolonization, 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 Ley[3] and Karen, on 2 June and 3 August respectively.

COVID-19 pandemic: its impacts and Indigenous Peoples’ response

The coronavirus outbreak in Thailand began in January 2020. The first reported local transmission was confirmed on 31 January. The number of cases remained low in the beginning but rapidly increased in mid-March 2020, forcing the government to take drastic measures to deal with the situation, such as the closure of public places and businesses in Bangkok and several other provinces. Later, on 25 March, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha declared a state of emergency, followed by a curfew in early April 2020 to control the situation. The country was in lockdown.

These measures were considered effective in controlling the spread of the disease. At the same time, however, they also very negatively affected the country’s economy and the way of life of ordinary people, including Indigenous Peoples. Impact on Indigenous Peoples in Thailand Many communities felt anxiety and panic over the spread of the disease. Some communities decided to lock down their villages for at least two weeks and perform specific rituals to protect their village members, such as the “Kraw Yee ceremony” of the Pga K'nyaw people, the “Pua Sia” ceremony of the Mien people, etc.

Indigenous Peoples who had migrated to live in the city faced greater problems. Many of them became unemployed and suffered a lack of income after companies and businesses were temporarily shut down. They lacked sufficient food to sustain their families. They had no land to farm and could not travel back to their communities.[4]

For those who live in forest areas and still practise traditional farming systems, the impacts were minimal. They had enough food from their farms and surrounding forest to feed their families for more than a month without leaving their communities. However, some farm produce such as cabbages, tomatoes, pumpkins, etc., could not be transported and sold in the city as all markets were closed in line with the lockdown measures imposed by the government. This resulted in a loss of income and funds for investment.In addition, the price of some products sky-rocketed as there was great demand but insufficient supply of goods such as dry foods, canned foods, eggs, salt, face masks, hand sanitizer, etc. Helping each other Given the above, a large number of Indigenous Peoples’ organizations, civil society groups, academic institutions and Indigenous communities formed an ad-hoc self-help group to find ways to support and help each other. The actions of this group included: mobilizing foods (rice, vegetables, shallots, etc.) from various sectors, including from Indigenous communities, in order to help communities and people affected by the epidemic, especially those living in the city; an exchange of rice for fish between Indigenous Peoples living in the north and south of Thailand; training village leaders on how to make simple sanitizing hand gel and face masks; sharing information on the coronavirus and basic prevention measures in different Indigenous languages (e.g. Hmong,[5] Karen,[6] Lisu,[7] Dara-ang and Mien languages) in order to reach out to Indigenous communities in different areas through social media platforms and applications such as Line, Facebook and YouTube.The situation of the pandemic began to improve from May on. The number of new infections gradually decreased and even fell to zero. The government therefore eased the restrictions step by step. The state of emergency, however, remained in effect.

A second wave of the virus broke out in Samut Sakhon province in early December 2020 and spread rapidly to nearby provinces. The government has already imposed the necessary measures to contain the spread of disease. Many Indigenous communities have also begun locking down their communities and closely monitoring the situation and information from the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA).[8]

Land surveys according to the new National Park law

 The Thai government passed several forestry laws in 2019.[9] One of them was the National Park Act which came into effect on 25 November 2019. According to Articles 64 and 65, this law requires the park authorities to conduct a land-use survey of all villages located in the park areas. This has to be undertaken within 240 days of the date the law comes into force. Due to the spread of COVID-19, the land survey process has been delayed. Several areas have been unable to complete the survey or have not had time to re-check the information gathered.[10] This will become a problem later on as some villagers could lose their land rights and consequently face legal action when they farm their lands.The land-use survey process has, however, been rejected altogether by some Indigenous individuals and families such as in the Kaeng Krachan forest complex (KKFC) area and in some communities in the north, stating that the government should recognize their traditional land tenure rights. The land-use survey will only provide the communities with a temporary use right. Communities have to renew this permit once every 20 years and it will be subject to certain conditions. This makes villagers feel very insecure. They propose using the measures in the Cabinet Resolution of 3 August 2010 (revitalization of Karen traditional livelihoods) as a mean of resolving the land problems. It is more appropriate and relevant to the Indigenous Peoples’ way of life.Another issue related to the new park law is the enactment of a decree to elaborate on the scope of work under Articles 64 and 65 of the law. The draft decree has been completed and opened for an online public hearing.[11] This process was strongly protested by P-Move (Peoples’ Movement for a Just Society), civil society organizations and Indigenous communities as the law has a significant impact on a large number of people, especially those living in protected areas – most of whom do not have access to the Internet nor to devices to engage in the consultation. The National Parks Department finally agreed to conduct additional public hearings in different sub-regions before finalizing the decree.[12] The dates will be determined once the pandemic has subsided.

Study on the problems faced by Indigenous Peoples approved by National Legislative Assembly

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Children, Youth, Women, Elderly, Disabled, Ethnic Groups and LGBTQ people (PSC) conducted a study into the situation, problems and ways of promoting and protecting ethnic groups in Thailand in mid-2020. The study was presented to and approved by the National Legislative Assembly on 16 December 2020.[13] The outcomes and findings of the study will be used as a framework to formulate and/or enact a specific policy and law to protect and promote the rights of Indigenous Peoples and ethnic groups in Thailand.

The study identified the key problems and challenges facing Indigenous Peoples. These include the lack of a comprehensive policy addressing the needs and problems of Indigenous Peoples. Their rights to land and resources have still been ignored.

The Committee recommended that:

1) The government should expedite the enactment of a “Draft Act on Promotion and Protection of Ethnic Groups B.E (Buddhist Era)”.

 2) The Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (Public Organization) should consider the merging of two draft laws – the draft law on the Promotion and Preservation of Ethnic Groups’ Livelihoods B.E and the draft law on the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand B. E – so that the single, integrated law could easily be considered by members of parliament.3) The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and the Royal Forestry Department should act in accordance with the Cabinet Resolution of 3 August 2010 on policy guidelines for the revitalization of Karen traditional livelihoods. Any prosecution of Indigenous Peoples as a result of the enforcement of recently adopted forestry laws (e.g. the Community Forestry Act, Wildlife Sanctuary Act 2019 or the National Park Act 2019) that directly affects the livelihoods or lifestyle of Indigenous groups should be deferred.

4) The Ministry of the Interior should expedite the process of granting Thai citizenship to eligible Indigenous and ethnic groups in order to gain access to education and other rights such as medical treatment, and welfare for the elderly and disabled.

The 4th nomination of Kaengkrachan Forest Complex (KKFC) as a natural World Heritage site by the Thai government

At a press conference in January 2020, the Thai government clearly stated that Thailand would again nominate the KKFC for consideration at the next World Heritage Committee meeting. This has created considerable anxiety among the local Karen communities with regard to the continuation of their traditional lifestyle and farming and use of forest resources in the area.

In response, together with their allies, the Karen Network for Culture and Environment (KNCE) in the west conducted a public dialogue on 16 December 2020 to monitor and examine the Thai government’s actions in addressing the problems cited and recommendations made by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)[14] as well as the recommendations of the Karen communities suffering the impact of those problems to ensure that the registration of the KKFC as a World Heritage site is founded on the genuine participation of the affected communities in all respects.

In the dialogue, villagers stated that many problems had not yet been addressed, such as land rights issues, the expansion of the protected area boundary to overlap with villagers’ farmlands and settlement areas, charges made against villagers who are not participating in the land-use survey and registration under the 30 June 1998 Cabinet Resolution framework.

The 44th meeting of World Heritage sites has been postponed until an unspecified date in June or July 2021 in Fuzhou, China due to the COVID-19 virus pandemic. The KNCE will closely monitor the discussion.

Progress in drafting a new law on promoting and protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples

Three draft laws on the promotion and protection of the rights of ethnic groups and Indigenous Peoples are currently being reviewed and finalized. These include:

  • The draft law on the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand B.E.[15] The Executive members of the Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIPT) agreed to conduct another round of review before tabling this for cabinet consideration.
  • The draft law on the Promotion and Protection of Ethnic Group B.E. This has been drafted by the Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC). It will be opened up for another round of public hearings before being submitted to Parliament for consideration.
  • The draft law on the Promotion and Preservation of Ethnic Group’s Livelihoods B.E. This draft has been prepared by the Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (SAC). It is considered a governmental draft law. It is being discussed and will be finalized in March this year.

These three draft laws have some similarities and differences. The challenge is how to ensure these draft laws are integrated, complementary to each other and address the real needs of Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrations

The Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrations are held annually on 9 August. This year, due to the spread of COVID-19, the event was split up and held in four different sub-regions (north-east, west, south and north). The aim was to mainstream the issue of Indigenous Peoples and strengthen solidarity among Indigenous Peoples in Thailand.[16]


Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri is a Mien from the north of Thailand. He has worked with Indigenous communities and organizations 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 35th edition of 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 2021 in full here


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 Padong.

[2] From the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand’s (CIPT) report.

[3] Composed of Moken, Moklen and Urak-rawoy.

[4] IMN Voices. 2021. “ชนเผ่าฯ ปันน้ำใจ ฝ่าโควิด-19.” Facebook, 20 April 2020. https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?vanity=imnvoices&set=a.1612844622197555

[5] UNDP Thailand. 2021. “7 Steps to prevent the Spread of COVID-19.” khun Pojong Seng-kue, Hmong ethnic community. Facebook, 2 May 2020. https://www.facebook.com/UNDPThailand/videos/255547295626332

[6] UNDP Thailand. 2021. “7 Steps to prevent the Spread of COVID-19.” Khun Masu, Karen ethnic community. Facebook, 24 April 2020. https://www.facebook.com/UNDPThailand/videos/2600431686728828

[7] Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact. 2021. “Message from Mr. Sakda Saemi (Lisu), Director of IMPECT and NIPT Coordinator.” Facebook, 23 April 2020. https://www.facebook.com/AIPPnet.org/videos/264172371641805

[8] A central response centre established by the government to deal with the spread of COVID-19.

[9] Rattanakrajangsri, Kittisak. “Thailand.” In The Indigenous World 2020, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 335-336. IWGIA, 2020. http://iwgia.org/images/yearbook/2020/IWGIA_The_Indigenous_World_2020.pdf

[10] Transborder News. “ครบ 240 วันสำรวจถือครองที่ดินในป่าอนุรักษ์-ชาวบ้านโวยตกหล่นอื้อ นักกฎหมายแนะออก พรก.ขยายเวลา.” 21 July 2020. https://transbordernews.in.th/home/?p=25616

[11] Thai National Park. ขอเชิญร่วมแสดงความคิดเห็นประกอบการจัดทำร่างกฎหมายลำดับรองตามพระราชบัญญัติสงวนและคุ้มครองสัตว์ป่า พ.ศ. 2562 [Invitation to express their opinions in conjunction with the preparation of a draft law under the Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act B.E.] http://portal.dnp.go.th/Content?contentId=18216

[12] Mr.Prayong Doklamyai (an advisor to the Peoples’ Movement for a Just Society (P-Move)). Interview, 16 December 2020, Nong Ya Plong district.

[13] National Legislation Assembly, Government of Thailand. “Study Report.” 16 December 2020. http://edoc.parliament.go.th/getfile.aspx?id=731811&file=(4)+%E0%B8%8A%E0%B8%B2%E0%B8%95%E0%B8%B4%E0%B8%9E%E0%B8%B1%E0%B8%99%E0%B8%98%E0%B8%B8%E0%B9%8C.pdf&download=1

[14] OHCHR Regional Office South-East Asia. “Supplemental Information concerning the application to designate Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex (Thailand) as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 30 April 2015. https://drive.google.com/file/d/18t8Rkgm5Z7q4O_KUHLMNJoWlrrclpO5l/view

[15] Brache-a, Rfoo. “ร่าง พ.ร.บ. สภาชนเผ่าพื้นเมืองแห่งประเทศไทย พ.ศ..” IMN Voices. 23 December 2020. https://imnvoices.com/%e0%b8%a3%e0%b9%88%e0%b8%b2%e0%b8%87-%e0%b8%9e-%e0%b8%a3-%e0%b8%9a-%e0%b8%aa%e0%b8%a0%e0%b8%b2%e0%b8%8a%e0%b8%99%e0%b9%80%e0%b8%9c%e0%b9%88%e0%b8%b2%e0%b8%9e%e0%b8%b7%e0%b9%89%e0%b8%99%e0%b9%80/

[16] North Public News. “ชนเผ่าพื้นเมืองปี 63 ชูมั่นคงทางอาหาร “ปันรัก ปันสุข จากภูผาสู่มหานที”.” 8 August 2020. http://www.northpublicnews.com/%E0%B8%8A%E0%B8%99%E0%B9%80%E0%B8%9C%E0%B9%88%E0%B8%B2%E0%B8%9E%E0%B8%B7%E0%B9%89%E0%B8%99%E0%B9%80%E0%B8%A1%E0%B8%B7%E0%B8%AD%E0%B8%87%E0%B8%9B%E0%B8%B5-63-%E0%B8%8A%E0%B8%B9%E0%B8%A1%E0%B8%B1/



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