Phuket sea gypsies allowed access to ceremonial site, for now

PHUKET: Private land owners have temporarily allowed Rawai sea gypsies access to a traditional ceremonial site, pending consideration of donating the land to the seafaring nomads.

The issue was brought to a head after more than 30 sea gypsies were injured in a violent confrontation with private business owners after they blocked access to the sea gypsies’ Balai table, a traditional ceremonial site (story here).

At a meeting called by Phuket Governor Chamroen Tipayapongtada, Baron World Trade Lt Co representatives initially offered to give the sea gypsies 2 ngan, approximately 800 square meters, of land on a different portion of the property to perform their ceremonies. The offer was turned down.

With this in mind, Baron World Trade agreed to allow the sea gypsies use of the ceremonial site during the decision making process. However, the company remained stern in its stance against allowing access to the site via the private property.

“Sea gypsies must now use the public beach to access the area or else face trespassing charges,” confirmed Governor Chamroen. “Those who still choose to walk on private land to access the site will do so at their own risk.”

Nonetheless, the sea gypsies argued that they need to access the ceremonial grounds through private land, as the beach is difficult to walk on during high tide.

Backing their claim to the property, Baron World Trade presented Chanote land titles, as well as other documents showing that the original deed was issued in 1968 and subsequently sold three times. The Chanote land titles issued to Baron World Trade were dated April 20, 2005.

“Therefore, in terms of the law, the company has the right to possess and benefit from the land,” Gov Chamroen said.

However, a complication arose when it was noted that the Chanotes did not specifically designate the beachfront as public land, a necessary clause.

“The beach is public land. However, we will try to provide a NorSorLor land document for the beach in order to avoid any further problems,” Gov Chamroen said.

Nonetheless, the error further fueled the gypsies claim that the deeds were issued illegally, a case that is already being dealt with by the courts.

The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) backed the gypsies claim to the land with DNA tests on skeletal remains unearthed at the sea gypsy village in 2014, which confirmed that they have called Phuket’s southern beach home for more than 100 years (story here).

In addition to Baron World Trade Company, other private land owners voiced their concerns at the meeting.

“Land owners have been trying to sort out this issue for so long,” said Weerachai Tantiwattanawalop, who owns five rai of land on which the sea gypsies live. “I want people to understand that we did not steal this land from the gypsies. My ancestors were living here before they arrived. We have documents dating back to 1916 to support this claim.”

Mr Weerachai suggested that the government buy up the land in question on behalf of the sea gypsies, in order to prevent any further issues.

Gov Chamroen did not make any promises, but said he would look into it.

— Kongleaphy Keam

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