PHUKET: The ‘Sea Gypsy Summit’ recently held in Phuket sheds a great deal of light on the many issues currently facing the people of the Andaman Sea as they try to maintain the language, culture and traditions handed down to them by their ancestors. (See story, current issue of the Phuket Gazette. Digital subscribers click here to download the full newspaper.)
To its credit, the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has expressed far more interest in helping the sea gypsies than previous administrations, as was evident in the Cabinet resolution issued in June last year.
But far more needs to be done to address the root cause of the problems they face in trying to set a course for a brighter future amid increasing globalization, environmental deterioration and other changes that seem to be coming at us at an ever-increasing rate.
Although most sea gypsy groups traditionally lived aboard all-purpose houseboats and moved to safe harbors when necessary, circumstances over time forced them to abandon this truly nomadic way of life in favor of a semi-nomadic one, inhabiting stilted villages on the beach and venturing out in longtail boats in search of fish and other marine creatures.
The change may have seemed like an improvement at the time. They were no longer constantly imperiled by rough monsoon-season conditions at sea. But little did they know that they were taking their first steps down a path that would eventually land them in the same predicament as numerous other shanty communities that have sprung up all over the island in recent years – including one right behind Phuket Provincial Hall.
The root cause is the lack of legal claim to the land they inhabit, often because it has been zoned as part of a national park or protected mangrove forest, or simply because the sea gypsies dwell on beaches, which are by definition in the public domain.
Many of the shanties have been allowed to stay, in part because their presence is suited to shameless tourism promotion policies allowing busloads of tourists to ‘go have a gawk’ at the unfortunate inhabitants. Those who have visited the squalid ‘long neck’ Karen villages of Mae Hong Son or the Hill Tribe communities in Chiangmai will be familiar with the practice.
However, as the 2004 tsunami made clear to the world, there have also been numerous cases in which the land occupied by the sea gypsies for decades somehow ended up in the hands of property developers or other private-sector parties, typically Bangkok-based.
Mr Abhisit and associates know full well how property rights issues in Phuket can be a real Pandora’s Box. It is of course impossible to redress all the injustices of the past, but paying special attention to the indignities still facing these people today is surely warranted.
Not only would redress be fundamentally fair, but it might well foreshadow a future in which Thailand itself could enjoy a better world reputation for respect for human rights.
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