World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Thailand : Overview
|Publisher||Minority Rights Group International|
|Cite as||Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Thailand : Overview, 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4954ce64c.html [accessed 21 May 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
The Kingdom of Thailand is centrally located in South-East Asia, in between Laos and Cambodia to the east, Burma (Myanmar) to the west, Burma and Laos to the north, and Malaysia and the Gulf of Thailand to the south. Its climate is generally tropical. While much of the north of the country is mountainous, the centre is predominantly flat river valley.
Main languages: Thai (official), Chinese, Malay, numerous languages with Tibeto-Burman, Mon-Khmer and Miao-Yao roots
Main religions: Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, traditional belief systems (animism)
Main minority groups: Chinese 6-7.2 million (est. 10-12%), Malay 3 million (2000 Census, 5%), Mon, Khmer and highland ethnic groups 600,000-1.2 million (2000 Census, 1-2%)
The country's population is approximately 85 per cent ethnic Thai, differentiated among central Thai (Siamese), Thai-Lao (north-eastern Thai or Thai Isaan), and the much smaller groupings of northern (highlanders) and southern Thai (Chao Pak Thai). All speak one of the Tai family of languages, though speakers can have difficulty communicating with each other. They share other cultural features, such as Theravada Buddhism. It is the central Tai language which is used by the government and taught in schools. Non-Thai minority groups who speak other Tai family languages include the Shan, Le and Phutai. Cultural differences among the groups have tended to dissipate with internal migration and the modernization of Thai society.
The two largest minorities of Thailand are the ethnic Chinese and Malay Muslims. The Chinese play a crucial role in the country's economic and urban life and are well integrated in mainstream society, often intermarrying with Thais. The Malays, for their part, have only been recently incorporated into the state of Thailand, and feel disadvantaged and excluded in many areas of public life.
Smaller mountain-dwelling ethnic groups include the Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Mein. These minority groups struggle to survive economically and culturally in the face of development projects, landownership issues, and the influx of ethnic Thais, which contributes to the erosion of their traditional lands and livelihoods.
The prevailing theory is that the ancestors of modern Thais came from southern China to the Chao Phraya river valley after the tenth century to establish a kingdom at Sukhothai. Ethnic Thais are relatively late arrivals in the region of what is now the 'Land of the Thais', having been preceded by numerous and still remaining minorities such as the Malay, Khmer, Mon, and various highland ethnic groups.
Displacing or absorbing already existing Mon, Khmer and Malay kingdoms in the region, the kingdoms of Sukhothai and, later, Ayutthaya gradually engaged in intermittent military struggles with neighbouring states and each other. Following the destruction of Ayutthaya by the Burmese in the eighteenth century, a unified Thai state was established in Bangkok in 1782.
Thais take great pride in the fact that they are the only South-East Asian state never to have been under colonial rule. Nonetheless, Britain and France exerted considerable political and economic pressure on the Thai government in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1932, a bloodless coup brought an end to the absolute monarchy and established a constitutional monarchy. Since then the country has been run by numerous governments, many of which were dominated by the military.
In 1991, another bloodless military coup toppled an elected civilian government, abolishing the constitution and national assembly. A year later, in May 1992, the middle-class combined with students to protest against continued military rule. The military fired on the protesters, creating the potential for a civil war. The King stepped in and forced the departure of the military junta. Although the King has little direct power, he is deeply revered in Thai society as the symbol of national identity and unity. The middle class revolt of 1992 led to two democratically elected governments. Since then, Thailand had rather steadily moved toward strengthening its democratic institutions, adopting in 1997 its first constitution, which contained numerous human rights provisions and was drafted by a popularly elected Constitutional Drafting Assembly. Open general elections based on this new constitution were held in 2001 and 2005, electing the government of Thaksin Shinawatra. He was deposed in September 2006 by a popular military coup, accused of corruption, abuse of power and other charges. The junta declared martial law (revoked in January 2007), suspended the constitution and dissolved Parliament and the Constitutional Court. An interim constitution is currently in place and Retired General Surayud Chulanont currently serves as Prime Minister. All political activities were suspended, and the new regime has been accused of a number of human rights violations, as well as sluggishness in prosecuting politicians and others accused of corruption.
While retaining a strong agricultural base, the economy of the Kingdom of Thailand has expanded rapidly in recent years – particularly in the service industry – earning it the designation of a 'tiger' economy. Thailand's rapid industrialization was uneven, and industry is mostly concentrated in the region around the capital Bangkok. Rapid economic growth has caused problems such as excessive tourism and environmental degradation. In the long run, this is likely to create problems for those living in rural areas, including minorities in the south and northern sections of the country. In the 1990s there were credible reports that developers, working in tandem with local politicians, have taken land illegally from highland ethnic groups for business projects, and that land for the purposes of development in the southern part of the country was being taken over by state authorities in ways that disadvantaged the Malay minority.
New human rights institutions such as the National Human Rights Commission (which was established in 2001) were starting to build up Thailand's reputation and effectiveness in the area of human rights. The Commission, despite rather modest staffing and resources, prepared annual assessments of the human rights situation for the National Assembly, proposed policies and recommendations for improving the country's legislation, and investigated human rights abuses. The Commission also started to investigate complaints from minorities, including for example complaints from the Malay minority of beatings and abductions by Thai security forces. Its slow start in these areas came to an abrupt end when its operations were suspended after the 2006 military coup.
With a relatively combative free press and numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Thailand had been among the most open societies in South-East Asia, also hosting thousands of refugees from Burma (Mon, Karen, Shan and others fleeing government repression in Burma). Nevertheless, its policies of 'integration' in the north and south, and numerous policies in relation to landownership and development have had serious detrimental effects on some minorities and could be discriminatory.
Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples
Lack of citizenship is a particular problem for many ethnic minorities in the north. The government has undertaken registration schemes targeting highland minorities, but statelessness continues to restrict access for a significant number to education, land, employment and health care, and renders them vulnerable to exploitation. Though the registration schemes have reduced the number of ethnic minorities who still have not been able to obtain citizenship, requirements such as the need to demonstrate literacy in the Thai language constitute an unreasonable barrier for many, especially among the highland minorities of the north. Women and girls from minorities are especially vulnerable to trafficking. More than 2 million Burmese have crossed the border into Thailand where they seek a living as undocumented migrants. They are vulnerable to exploitation by employers and deportation to Burma by the authorities. Many migrant workers, particularly from Burma, were not provided with humanitarian assistance following the tsunami of 2004 because of their lack of legal status in Thailand.
There have been continuing reports in 2006 that highland minorities, perceived as being involved in drug trafficking because traditionally they grow poppies and use opium, were subjected to indiscriminate searches of entire villages for drugs, with serious allegations of mistreatment, beatings and abuse by soldiers, police and other enforcement officials in regions such as Chiang Rai. To a large degree, most hill tribe minorities have been forced to abandon opium poppy cultivation for other, high-value crops, to such an extent that local production in Thailand has been reduced dramatically, though there are still some small pockets of local cultivation remains among highland groups.
In addition, utilization of land and forest resources in highland area is also one of the long-standing problems that remain unsolved. The 1997 Constitution, in particular Articles 46 and 56, guarantee that 'traditional communities' have rights to the preserve and revive customary practices and local knowledge in the management and use of natural resources. However, in practice, communities in highland areas are unable to have this right implemented, or formally participate in the management of natural resources, or utilize the forest areas that they have resided in and farmed for decades or even over hundreds of years. Instead, they have been accused of violating the country's laws by encroaching on forests and residing there illegally. This is largely a result of the enforcement by Thai authorities of four forestry laws (the 1941 Forest Act, the 1961 National Park Act, the 1964 National Forests Reserve Act, and the 1964 Wildlife Sanctuary Act) over the agricultural, residential and forest areas of highland communities for conservation purposes, despite the fact that these laws have content that contradicts the 1997 Constitution.
The declaration of conservation areas overlapping the traditional lands of indigenous peoples means that the original communities – resident prior to declaration – become illegal trespassers on their own lands and are subject to arrests, threats and intimidation on a regular basis. If the area is declared 'at risk', then the communities will be relocated or removed from the forest area, which results in a large number of communities facing great difficulties with their agricultural and residential lands. There are, for instance, repeated arrests of villagers in Pang Daeng community in the Chiang Dao district of Chiang Mai, where whole villages were arrested in dawn raids on three separate occasions in 1989, 1998 and 2004 for 'forest encroachment'.
Examples of relocations out of forested areas include the case of communities being relocated out of an area adjoining Lampang, Phayao and Chiang Rai provinces on 14 February 1994, or the relocation of the Huai Wad community (381 people) which occurred in September 2003, or the case of relocation of communities out of the Thung Yai Naresuan National Park in Tak and Kamphangphet provinces with over 1,000 affected households in 1990. As a consequence, many members of the minority groups involved have become landless and jobless, and children and young people have to work as wage labourers in big cities. Many of these minority women have been trafficked into the sex industry.
A year after the coup that overthrew Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawata, armed violence has continued to plague the Muslim Malay-majority southern provinces of Kala, Narathiwat, Songkhla and Patanni. According to a July 2007 HRW report, in their efforts to establish an independent Islamic state in Thailand's southern border provinces, separatist groups have killed 2,463 people in bomb attacks, shootings, assassinations, ambushes, and machete hackings since January 2004 (89 percent of victims were civilians). Killings of Buddhists and government officials continue largely unabated, as well as attacks and killings of Malay Muslims, including school children in 2007, blamed by some on Thai reprisals and by others on militant Muslim agents provocateurs. HRW also says that "Thai security forces have carried out extrajudicial killings, disappearances and arbitrary arrests of those known or suspected to be involved with separatist groups." The use of strong-arm tactics by the Thai state has reinforced the separatists' claim that the entire Muslim community is being repressed, and has helped them recruit more militants. The government blames Islamic schools for teaching radical Islam, and also blames Islamic radicals in Malaysia for helping the separatists.
Despite the continued violence in some ways the September 2006 coup in Thailand has led to improved management of the conflict in the South. The current military-installed civilian government, headed by former army commander General Surayud Chulanont, made an historic apology to southern Muslims for past abuses and announced an end to blacklisting of suspected insurgents. However according to a March 2007 International Crisis Group report "attempts to accommodate Malay Muslim identity such as the introduction of the Patani Malay dialect as an additional language in state primary schools and to promote its use in government offices have fallen flat in the absence of high-level political support." In May 2007 hundreds of monks marched across Bangkok to demand that the country's new, post-coup constitution enshrine Buddhism as the official religion. However, the weeks of rallies and hunger strikes outside Parliament, which attracted thousands of monks until late June, were unsuccessful in forcing an amendment to the constitution.