• 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 2023: 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 (previously known by the derogatory term “Chao-Khao,” or “hill tribes”). Nine so-called “hill tribes” are officially recognized: the Hmong, Karen, Lisu, Mien, Akha, Lahu, Lua, Thin and Khamu.[1]

The Indigenous population in Thailand is estimated at around five million people, or 7.2% of the total population.[2] According to the Department of Social Development and Welfare (2002), the total officially recognized population number is 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 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 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 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) 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 recognize the existence of Indigenous Peoples in the country. The Constitution 2016 section 70 refers to ‘Ethnic groups’.

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.

In 2014, Indigenous people in Thailand established the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (CIPT) to promote and protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand.


Natural resource management and conservation policies and laws

Indigenous Peoples in Thailand are generally concerned about the lack of land tenure security and control over their natural resources that they have used, occupied, and taken care of for hundreds of years.

The State’s centralized policy on natural resource management focuses mainly on forest and biodiversity conservation. The social aspect of forests, especially the close and inter-dependent relationship between people and nature, is totally lacking. The government continues to apply this conservation concept by keeping people away from the forests in order to ‘protect’ only the flora and fauna on the land. This can clearly be seen from existing forestry laws.[4] None of them refer to land rights or communities’ customary land tenure rights or, where reference is made to community rights (as in the Community Forestry Law 2019 and National Park Law 2019), it is limited only to user rights. This has become problematic and has led to conflict over natural resource management between communities and the State,[5] including direct criminalization of community members who carry out traditional, sustainable activities. These have increased in number over the years with no concrete solution in sight there are 1,502 legal cases reported from January – December 2022, including forest encroachment; forest fires; illegal logging; wildlife poaching and collection of NTFPs).[6]

In addition, the proposed solution on the land-use issue, according to the new forestry laws amended in 2019,[7] especially with regard to conducting community land-use surveys and mapping, have posed grave concerns to many Indigenous Peoples.


Feedback from Indigenous communities on the land-use survey

The very limited timeframe given for conducting the community land-use surveys makes it very unlikely that all communities living in forest areas can be mapped within the identified timeframe. Most communities are still not aware of the new law, and it remains unclear how the full, effective participation of villagers will be ensured in the process.

On 18 September 2022, Indigenous Media Network (IMN) was invited to document and cover information on the verification of community land-use surveys undertaken by the Royal Forestry Unit at Huay E-kang village and nearby communities in Maewang District, Chiang Mai province.

Most villagers expressed concern that information on land-use surveys conducted by the Royal Forestry Unit was incorrect and undertaken without the full and effective participation of the villagers. Ms Thasanee Kapyarom, an Indigenous woman leader from Huay-Ekang said:

I do not understand the land-use survey process. Why has the Information of the Royal Forestry Unit and the one jointly conducted by villagers and the Local Administrative Organization (LAO) been totally different?[8]

Villagers proposed and recommended that the Royal Forestry Unit use the existing land-use map that villagers had jointly produced with the Local Administrative Organization (LAO) as baseline information for verification. Failing this, there would be a negative impact on more than 80% of community members, especially as regards lack of land for farming.


Land claim of Karen people at Bangkloi in Petchaburi province, Thailand

Bangkloi is a Karen village situated in the Kaeng Krachan National Park that was recently registered as a new natural World Heritage site by the World Heritage Committee on 26 July 2021, despite massive protests and years of campaigning against the nomination.[9] Karen people were relocated from their traditional homeland (Jaipaendin or Bangkloi Bon) to Bangkloi Lang in 1996 and 2009 respectively.[10]

 On 14 January 2021, 85 Karen people (65 men and 20 women) from Baan Bang Kloi Lang walked back to their ancestral land at Baan Bang Kloi Bon[11] to live and farm there as insufficient farm land had been allotted to them despite promises by the government. They were later arrested and detained at the Kaengkrachan National Park office on 5 March 2021 on charges of encroachment, construction, clearance, seizure, possession and other acts of degrading or changing areas from their original nature in the Kaengkrachan Forest Complex (KKFC) without permission (in accordance with Section 19 of the National Park Act, B.E. 2562.) Twenty-two of these were imprisoned in the central prison of Petchaburi province.

With the support of civil society organizations and the Lawyers Council, all 22 villagers were released on bail shortly after.

Save Bangkloi Group was established in February 2021 to campaign and help the affected villagers.

Affected villagers from Bang Kloi, together with their #SAVEBangKloi allies, staged a rally near the Government House on 1 February 2022 to follow up on the earlier proposed solutions for Bangkloi villagers who had returned to their ancestral lands.[12] These included (i) suspend the arrests and take no legal proceedings against any villagers; and (ii) issue the Order to set up the Land and Arable Areas Dispute Resettlement Committee to study and resolve the problem faced by Karen Indigenous people, particularly in relation to their inadequate land allocations and the continued practise of their traditional livelihoods. This agreement was signed by Capt. Thammanat Prompao, Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives on behalf of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-cha. Following negotiations, it was finally agreed on 3 February 2022 to form an independent fact-finding and problem resolution committee to study the case and propose solutions for the affected villagers.[13] The study is now ongoing.


Expansion of Ob Khan National Park area

Ob Khan National Park covers an approximate area of 574 square kilometres in Chiang Mai Province. The geographical features of the National Park consist largely of high mountains.[14]

Ob Khan National Park is one of the parks whose protected area the Thai government, through the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plants Conservation, has been planning to expand since 1996. On 18 October 2022, there was a public hearing conducted with stakeholders involved, including Indigenous communities, at the Samoeng district office meeting hall in Chiang Mai. Indigenous people from different villages were unanimously opposed to the proposal to expand such protected area boundary. Mr. Sira Pongpanit, village headman of Moo. 5 said:

… We propose an area of 24,513 rai or 3,891 ha. be mapped out from the Ob Khan National Park. It is our spiritual land. We have taken good care of this for a long time…We would like the officers to see us as forest caretakers, not encroachers… that way we can mutually work together.[15]

There will be further consultations with the communities involved to agree on this issue. Villagers will need to closely monitor the information to ensure they are informed and form part of the consultations.


Update on the status of the proposed draft laws to promote and protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples and ethnic groups

In all, five draft laws on the promotion and protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples and ethnic groups have been submitted to Parliament for consideration. These include:

  • The draft law on the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand B.E.[16]
    This was drafted and submitted by the Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand to the President of the National Assembly on 7 April 2021 and was put on the official agenda of a parliamentary session in early 2022. According to the procedure for considering laws, there is a requirement to submit a governmental draft law to Parliament before the parliamentary members can proceed with its consideration. As of the end of 2022, this draft law was still listed as an agenda items to be considered by parliamentary but it will not now be brought for discussion unless a governmental draft law has been submitted.


  • The draft law on the Promotion and Protection of Ethnic Groups B.E.
    This was drafted by the Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) and submitted to the President of the National Assembly for initial review to consider whether this law has a financial aspect or not. It was determined that the draft law does have a financial aspect and prior approval is therefore required from the Prime Minister before it can be listed and put on the official parliamentary agenda. There has been no progress as yet.


  • The draft law on the Protection and Promotion of Ethnic Groups’ Livelihoods B.E.
    This draft was prepared by the Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (SAC) and is considered to be the governmental draft of the law. Its submission was delayed due to additional information and documents needed from some of the government agencies involved, such as Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was tabled in late 2022 for the President of the National Assembly’s initial review as to whether it has a financial aspect or not and the appropriate parliamentary procedure will now follow but it will take some time.


  • The draft law on Promotion and Protection of Ethnic Groups submitted by the Forward political party


  • This draft was considered as having a financial aspect and is therefore with the Prime Minister for approval.


  • The draft law on the protection and promotion of the livelihoods of ethnic groups and Indigenous Peoples submitted by the People’s Movement for a Just Society (P-Move)
    This draft law also has a financial aspect and has to obtain initial approval from the Prime Minister. There has been no progress as yet.


One of the key challenges for these draft laws is that the current government’s term in office ends in March 2023, which means Thailand will head into a general election. If these draft laws have not been considered by Parliament and the Prime Minister at that point, all processes will have to be restarted.



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 37th 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 2023 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] This report (in Thai) is available at the IPF website: www.ipfinfo.org via the following link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1kjKmySt5ssoDAr7PwTLVmN5f2cIFUiLt/view

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

[4] These include the National Forest Reserve Act, Forestry Act, Wildlife Sanctuary Act and National Parks Act.

[5] See more information in Yearbooks 2012 and 2013: Rattanakrajangsri, Kittisak. “Thailand” in The Indigenous World 2012, edited by Cæcilie Mikkelsen, 298–304. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2012, https://www.iwgia.org/images/publications/0573_THE_INDIGENOUS_ORLD-2012_eb.pdf

Rattanakrajangsri, Kittisak. “Thailand” in The Indigenous World 2013, edited by Cæcilie Mikkelsen, 265–271. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2013, https://www.iwgia.org/images/publications/0613_EB-THE_INDIGENOUS_ORLD_2013.pdf

[6] Summary of legal cases related to forests from 2013- Jan. 2023 by the Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plants Conservation (DNP) from http://portal.dnp.go.th/Content?contentId=2134 This document can also be accessed at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1rf_Iv1CwgeZHDiqJwpGUmZK49uC7RVyl/view?usp=sharing

[7] See more information in the Yearbook 2020: Rattanakrajangsri, Kittisak. “Thailand” In The Indigenous World 2020, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 332–341. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2020, https://www.iwgia.org/en/thailand/3610-iw-2020-thailand.html

[8] The Indigenous Media Network (IMN) interviewed Ms Thasanee Kapyarom, a woman leader from Huay-Ekang village on 18 September 2022 https://www.facebook.com/imnvoices/videos/799864794550083

[9] IWGIA, News, “UNESCO World Heritage Committee tramples on human rights”, 28 July 2021, UNESCO World Heritage Committee tramples on human rights - IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs

[10] See more in The Indigenous World 2012: Rattanakrajangsri, Kittisak. “Thailand” in The Indigenous World 2012, edited by Cæcilie Mikkelsen, 298–304. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2012, https://www.iwgia.org/images/publications/0573_THE_INDIGENOUS_ORLD-2012_eb.pdf

[11] TheCitizen.Plus, “Karen community in Kaengkrachan is reclaiming their ancestral territory – Land of Heart.”, 21 January 2021, https://thecitizen.plus/node/39404

[12] Manushya Foundation, “Save Bangkloi is possible with the power of people!”, 3 February 2022, https://www.manushyafoundation.org/post/savebangkloi-is-possible-with-the-power-of-people

[13] Isranews, “นายกฯแต่งตั้งคณะกรรมการเร่งรัดแก้ไขปัญหากะเหรี่ยงบางกลอย 'อนุชา' เป็นประธาน”, 3 February 2021, https://www.isranews.org/article/isranews-short-news/106315-Isranews-3.html

[14] Mi Chiang Mai Tour, “Ob Khan National Park: Chiang Mai Attraction Place”, Ob Khan National Park : Chiang Mai Attraction Place (mychiangmaitour.com)

[15] Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, “สรุปเหตุการณ์ประกาศอช.ออบขานในพื้นที่จิตวิญญาณชุมชนปกาเกอะญอ”, 22 October 2022, สรุปเหตุการณ์ ประกาศ อช.ออบขาน ในพื้นที่จิตวิญญาณชุมชนปกาเกอะญอ  - มูลนิธิสืบนาคะเสถียร (seub.or.th)

[16] From IPFINFO.ORG, “Draft law of Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand B.E…”, 23 December 2020, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QfwMVhfG_ypg-L8-aPN7mEnD3IJ9ArM-/view and the Parliament House’s website: https://www.parliament.go.th/section77/survey_detail.php?id=162

Tags: Global governance



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