Chief of the sea gypsies’ concerns is forced relocation through court-ordered evictions to uphold claims to land that the indigenous people had long lived on uncontested, explained Sangsom Harnthalay, who heads the sea gypsy community on the popular tourist island of Koh Lipe to the south in Satun.
“This issue affects up to 12,000 people of many different types of sea gypsies, including the three main tribes: Moken, Moklen and Urak Lawoi,” he said.
The Moken, Moklen and Urak Lawoi are found from as far north as the Similan Islands off Phang Nga, to Koh Siray and Rawai in Phuket, on Phi Phi Island and Koh Lanta Island in Krabi, and Koh Lipe in Satun.
“There are more than 100 cases in which sea gypsies are being sued, including those in Rawai,” he said.
“Twenty-one locations are being disputed, even though sea gypsies graves have been found in those areas, while two locations disputed involve homes that have already been registered with government,” Mr Sangsom said.
Niran Panyang, representing sea gypsies in Rawai, pointed out that the forced evictions threatened sea gypsies’ traditional way of life.
“The tourism industry is greatly affecting sea gypsies’ traditional lifestyle, too,” he added.
Phuket Vice Governor Snith Sriwihok was at the event, but said that he was present only so that he could report results from the proceedings to Phuket Governor Chockchai Dejamornthan today (Nov 21).
“This is a very complicated issue, and many of the issues raised are to be passed on to the Ministry of Culture for consideration,” he told The Phuket News today.
V/Gov Snith declined to present his personal opinion on the issues sea gypsies are facing in modern-day Thailand.
“I can’t give my own opinion about them. It is a sensitive issue, but I am ready to take action. My job is to help people,” he said.
Also present at the mass gathering at Rawai yesterday was Gen Surin Pikulthong, who heads the national-level committee expressly set up by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha two years ago to resolve sea gypsy issues along the Andaman coast. He also is a former president of the Community Organisations Development Institute (CODI).
“The Ministry of Culture should protect and preserve sea gypsies’ culture in Phuket, where they have married, made their living and practised their beliefs for more than a century,” he said.
Gen Surin recognised that the problems sea gypsies faced were long-standing and remained unresolved through several terms of Phuket Governors in office.
“And now it is up to the current Governor to figure out,” he said.
Gen Surin has come under increasing pressure to resolve the issues affecting sea gypsies, with activists calling for PM Prayut to sack the general for his ineffectiveness during a protest when PM Prayut visited Phuket on Sept 16. (See story here.)