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FOCUS December 2010 Volume 62

Indigenous Peoples of Thailand

Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand

The indigenous peoples of Thailand are commonly referred to as “hill tribes,” and sometimes as “ethnic minorities.” The ten officially recognized groups are usually called “chao khao” (meaning hill/mountain people or highlanders). These and other indigenous peoples live in the north and northwestern parts of the country, a few other groups live in the northeast, while indigenous fisher communities and a small population of hunter-gatherers inhabit southern Thailand. According to the Department of Social Development and Welfare (2002), the total of the officially recognized “hill-tribe” population is 925,82521 and they are distributed across twenty provinces in the north and west of the country. There are still no figures available for the indigenous groups in the south and northeast.
The indigenous peoples of Thailand belong to five linguistic families: Tai-Kadai (e.g., the various Tai groups in the North, the Saek, or Shan, also called Thai Yai,), Tibeto-Burman (e.g., the Akha, Karen, Lahu, Lisu), Mon-Khmer (e.g., Lua, Khmu, Kui, Mlabri), Hmong-Mien(Hmong, Mien), and Malayo- Polynesian (Moken).
The ten ethnic groups that are officially recognized as “hill people” living in the north and west of the country are: the Akha, Hmong, H’tin, Karen, Khmu, Lahu, Lisu, Lua, Mien and Mlabri.2 There are however several other small groups that reside in the North: several so-called local Tai groups (Tai Lue, Tai Khuen, Tai Yong), Kachin and Shan.
With the drawing of national boundaries in Southeast Asia during the colonial era and in the wake of decolonization, many indigenous peoples living in remote highlands and forests were divided. On the Korat plateau of the northeast and especially along the border with Laos and Cambodia live various ethnic groups that bear characteristics common with others that are considered indigenous peoples in Thailand. They consist of several Tai speaking groups (Saek, Phuan, Phuthai and Tai song Dam), the Mon-Khmer speaking Kui (also called Kuoy or Suoi) and the So. Larger populations of these peoples live in the respective countries across the border. In Chaiyaphum province lives a group known as Nyahkur, Niakkuoll, Niakuolor or Chao Bon and are considered to speak the old Mon language.
In Trat Province and Chanthaburi Province of eastern Thailand (as well as the adjacent areas in Cambodia) live the Chong. They also call themselves Chong-Samré in the Trat Province, or Chong la and Chong heap in the Chanthaburi Province.
The Sa’och of Trat province and neighboring Cambodia speak the same language as the Chong but are physically very different (negroid features). Both groups used to live mainly from swidden farming, hunting and gathering.
In south Thailand, along the Thai-Malaysian border, live people who across the border in Malaysia are classified as belonging to the negrito group of the Orang Asli. They are sometimes called Ngo, Ngko, Ngok Pa or Sakai in Thailand. Sakai has a negative connotation in Malaysia, but not so in Thailand. In some records they are also called Manni, a generic term for the negrito groups of the Orang Asli in Malaysia.
Along the coast and the islands of the Andaman Sea, from Malaysia through Thailand and into the Mergui archipelago of Burma live the so-called “sea gypsies” or, in Thai, chao le (meaning sea people). In the southern part, between Puket island and the Malaysian border live the Urak Lawoi; in northern Puket and into the Mergui Archipelago of Burma live the Moklen and Moken.

Stereotyping and Discrimination

The official term chao khao has been used since the late 1950s, earlier called chao pa (forest people), to refer to non-Thai minority groups.
For the Thais, pa – meaning “forest” – has the connotation of “wild,” which is generally conceived as opposite to “civilized.” The adoption of the term chao khao was part of a nation-building process in which national identity and definition of “Thai-ness” was linked to cultural traits, particularly Buddhism, Thai language and the monarchy. With the negative stereotyping of the hill tribes as forest destroyers, opium cultivators and communist sympathizers, the social category of the chao khao came to be defined as being “non-Thai ,” underdeveloped and environmentally destructive. Other terms applied in Thailand are more or less equivalent to terms commonly used in English like klum chat tiphan (ethnic groups) or chon klum noy (ethnic minorities). The (former) hunter-gatherer groups in the South are still often referred to by the derogatory term sakai (literally meaning slave).
These stereotyping and discrimination have been reinforced directly and indirectly in the national education curriculum from primary to university levels.
In opposition to these negative connotations of the official designation chao khao or other commonly used derogatory terms, indigenous organizations and indigenous peoples’ rights advocacy groups began to promote over ten years ago the term chon phao phuen mueang (ชนเผ่าพื้นเมือง) as the translation of “indigenous peoples.”
The government of Thailand has rejected the use of the term “indigenous peoples,” and stated that these groups are as much Thais as the other Thai citizens, able to enjoy the fundamental rights, and are protected by the laws of the Kingdom.3 However, until today the indigenous peoples of Thailand continue to suffer from the same historical stereotyping and discrimination like other indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world.
Underlying many current laws, policies and programs targeting indigenous peoples are the same prejudices and widespread misconceptions of indigenous peoples that have been prevalent over the past decades: indigenous peoples being drug producers and posing a threat to national security and to the environment. Although there have been some positive developments away from this approach in recent years, discriminatory attitudes and actions are still prevalent among government officials.

Laws and Indigenous Peoples

Thailand has ratified several international human rights and environmental conservation instruments such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Thailand also voted to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) at the United Nations General Assembly. These international legal commitments obligate the Thai Government to recognize, respect and protect the rights of indigenous peoples through laws, policies and programs. However, the reality on the ground has hardly changed.

Interactive Dialogue with Thai IPs and the Special Rapporteur, photo AIPP Archive.JPG

Representatives of Indigenous Communities in Interactive Dialogue with Professor James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Photo - AIPP Archive)

The historical discrimination against the indigenous peoples of Thailand as “uncivilized”, in opposition to the “civilized” majority Thais, and now also as a threat to national security, continue to shape the laws, policies and programs affecting them. Thailand does not have laws recognizing and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples and the new Constitution passed in 2007 does not explicitly recognize their identity. This constitutional gap arose despite the fact that indigenous peoples’ representatives participated in different constitution-drafting discussion forums at the provincial as well as national levels.
The Citizenship Act of 1965 grants Thai citizenship to people belonging to indigenous peoples who were born in Thailand, provided their parents were Thai nationals. Many indigenous peoples with a legitimate claim to Thai citizenship are excluded, however, because of lack of birth registration or other means of proving birth. Approximately 296,000 indigenous individuals in Thailand still lack citizenship,4 which restricts their freedom of movement, and the ability to access public services such as basic health care or admission to schools.5
Policies and programs specifically addressing the “hill tribes” have been implemented since the late 1950s after the creation of the Central Hill Tribe Committee and later the Hill Tribe Welfare Division within the Ministry of Interior. Until the 1980s, Thai policies toward indigenous peoples were dominated by concerns about opium cultivation and communist insurgency. By the 1980s, deforestation and control of resources in the uplands became important national issues and in 1982, the “Committee for the Solution of National Security Problems involving Hill Tribes and the Cultivation of Narcotic Crops” was established to implement and coordinate policies (including the Master Plans for the Development of Highland Populations, Environment and Control of Narcotic Crops, and the National Economic and Social Development Plans) aimed at indigenous peoples. The objectives of these policies, which are still effective at present, include the integration of the indigenous peoples into Thai society, the reorganization of their way of life, the elimination of opium cultivation and consumption, the reduction of population growth, and improvement of living standards.
Aside from these policies, the following laws and resolutions directly or indirectly affect indigenous peoples’ livelihoods:

i. Forest Act (FA), 1941
ii. National Forests Reserve Act (NFRA), 1964
iii. Wildlife Sanctuary Act (WSA), 1964
iv. National Park Act (NPA), 1961
v. Cabinet Resolution, 30 June 1998
vi. Community Forest Act (CFA), 2007
vii. Cabinet Resolution, 29 April 2008.

These laws and resolutions have had severe impacts on indigenous peoples’ rights to residence and land. Under these laws and resolutions millions of hectares of land have been declared as reserved and conservation forests, or protected areas. Today, 28.78% of Thailand is categorized as protected areas.6
As a result, thousands of farmers previously living in the forest or relying on the forest for their livelihood have been arrested and imprisoned and their lands seized. Cases have been filed against them for the so-called encroachment on government lands.
The Community Forest Act was passed on 21 December 2007 despite much opposition from the civil society organizations and indigenous peoples’ rights advocates. This law deviated substantially from the original proposal of civil society organizations and resulted in de facto nullifying of the rights of numerous forest communities. Sections 25 and 34 of the law are considered similar to the conventional forest laws that curb peoples’ rights to forests. According to indigenous peoples’ rights advocates, the law makes the full participation of indigenous communities in community forestry and resource management impossible, and contradicts the provisions on community resource management rights in the 2007 Constitution.7
Topping it all is the passage of the new National Security Act, 2007 that has led to increased human rights abuses perpetrated mainly by government officials and security forces against indigenous and other minority peoples. Throughout 2008, while claiming to help combat the “drug epidemic” in the country, this law was used to control and suppress indigenous peoples and other forest dependent communities from “encroaching” into the forests, to control cross-border labor migration, and for the “problem of terrorism” in the three southern provinces (i.e., Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani). Aside from the three southern provinces, this law is also frequently employed by government officials in addressing the “problem of terrorism” in the border areas of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Tak, Kanchaburi and Ratburi Provinces.8
The summary executions and disappearance of persons in Thailand carried out by the government officials since 2003 under the drug suppression policy include the cases of execution of six Mien people in Huay Chompu Tambon, Municipal District, Chiang Rai Province on 22 February 2003.9 In addition, government officials accused twenty Lahu people in Mae Ai and Fang Districts of Chiang Mai Province of drug pushing. They suffered severe beatings and electrical shocks, were incarcerated in pits in the ground, and were either executed or disappeared between 2002 and 2004.10

Responses by the Government

The responses of the Government of Thailand to some of the key issues are the following:

  1.  Regarding summary executions related to drug suppression, the Thai government established the “Independent Commission to Investigate, Study and Analyze Thai Drug Suppression Policy and Practice and the Impacts on People’s Life, Reputation and Property.” However, the government has not yet taken any action on the findings in the report of this body and has not provided redress and justice to the victims.
  2.  Regarding the problems arising from conflict between indigenous peoples and the government over land and forests, there has not been much progress. This is evidenced by the lack of revision of the four forestry laws in order to make them comply with the Thai Constitution and international laws. The Office of the Prime Minister under the current government has however issued a regulation concerning community land titles. This has already passed the Cabinet and final approval is being awaited.
  3. Regarding traditional occupation and livelihood systems and practices, particularly rotational farming, the government has not yet accepted them and deep-seated conflicts continue as a result.
  4. Regarding citizenship and individual status, the government revised the Citizenship Act of 1965 (4th revision, 2008) that facilitated the faster processing of applications for, and granting of, Thai citizenship. The procedures for screening and preparation of evidence prior to approval by the Minister of Interior have improved. This has increased the opportunities for those whose citizenship has been revoked and have been limited by Revolutionary Decree 337. They are now permitted to request for the restoration of their citizenship. However, the process still gets stuck at the district level where the new law is not followed.

Overall, the government has not paid serious attention to the solution of the above issues and problems. Nevertheless, independent organizations established under the Constitutions of 1997 and 2007, such as the National Human Rights Commission and the Constitutional Court, have played an important role in addressing the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples. At present, the National Human Rights Commission takes cases to court on behalf of the victims, thereby assisting in protecting the rights of the indigenous peoples.

The Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (NIPT) is an alliance of twenty-six indigenous organizations in Thailand. NIPT works for the promotion of indigenous peoples’ rights and issues such as identity, citizenship and natural resources management.  

For further information please contact: Sakda Saenmi, Coordinator, Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (NIPT), 188/544 Khurusapha Soi 23, M.10, T. Sannameng, A. Sansai, Chiang Mai 50210 THAILAND; ph (6653) 344 582,398 591; fax (6653) 344 945, 343 713.

∗ This article is an excerpt from the Report on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand, submitted to Professor James Anaya, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People on 19 January 2010 in Chiang Mai by the Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (NIPT) in collaboration with the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) and the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA).


1. See Department of Social Development and Welfare, A Directory of Ethnic Highland Communities in Twenty Provinces, in Thailand, B.E. 2545 (2002).
2. Sometimes only nine are mentioned, with the Palaung being excluded. The inclusion of the Palaung is considered problematic because of the community’s comparably late arrival. Dr. Chayan Vadhanaputi, personal communication.
3. United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Sub- Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. WGIP 10th session. E/CN.4/Sub.2/AC. 4/1992/4.
4. Background document provided by the Office of National Security in the workshop on finding solutions for illegal immigrants, 18 June 2009 at Rimkok Resort, Chiang Rai.
5. International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, The Indigenous World 2009 (Copenhagen: IWGIA, 2009), page 335.
6. Christian Erni, editor, The Concept of Indigenous Peoples in Asia: A Resource Book (Copenhagen/Chiangmai: International Work Groups for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) and Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact Foundation. 2008), page 445.
7. Ibid., page 445.
8. Ibid., page 446.
9. Report of the Highland People’s Taskforce (HPT).
10. Data from the Lahu Association for Development of the Quality of Life.