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Thailand’s indigenous leaders chart new path amid political uncertainty

Celebrating World Indigenous Day, Thailand’s Council of Indigenous Peoples announces fresh leadership and new strategies for 2023-2027, pushing for legal recognition and protection.

Photo: Indigenous Media Network
Photo: Indigenous Media Network

BANGKOK – Thailand’s Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIPT) is ushering in a new era as it welcomes new board members and leadership. The main collaborative committee for indigenous communities across Thailand marked World Indigenous Day on 9 August by revealing its renewed focus and plans for the coming four years.

The newly formed council comprises representatives from 42 ethnic groups, led by Kraingkai Chichuang, a Paw Karen man from Ratchaburi province, who has been working with youth networks on the Thai-Myanmar border for several years. The previous two administrations were chaired by Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri of the Mien ethnic group.

The council’s strategy for 2023-2027 will emphasise strengthening indigenous networks, fostering self-sufficiency for families and communities, and developing a comprehensive database of indigenous populations and locations.

Threats to indigenous communities

According to the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre, Thailand is home to 60 ethnic groups, accounting for 6.1 million people, or 4.3 percent of its 71.6 million population. Thailand‘s indigenous communities struggle with issues related to centralised policies, from the seizure of ancestral lands for conservation and tourism, to the erosion of cultural and linguistic heritage.

A young Moken woman from Phang Nga, south of Thailand, Juthaman Ruennoon, lamented the government’s plans that threaten her community’s ancestral burial ground. “The government will move our communities to the foothills, so we have to live far from the sea,” she said. Her community’s cemetery, which has housed the bodies of their ancestors for three centuries, faces transformation into seaside parking lots.


Kraingkai Chichuang, the new secretary of the indigenous council, speaks at the event. Photo: Indigenous Media Network

Political impasse hinders change

In the past two decades, Thailand has adopted measures to restore indigenous livelihoods. For example, the United Nations’ 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples paved the way for cabinet resolutions in 2010 to restore the livelihoods of Karen and Moken communities. These national resolutions have led to official support for ethnic protection throughout the country.

However, existing mechanisms fall short, with many ethnic groups still excluded and no established law governing these matters. The indigenous network is currently advocating for the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand Act. Though an aspiring draft reached parliament, the cabinet’s dissolution on 20 March 2023 halted progress.

With parliamentary elections for the prime minister set for August, 50 indigenous representatives submitted a letter to the house of representatives, urging the continuation of the drafting process.

A similar draft on ethnic rights is among 40 reforming drafts urgently pushed by the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP). Two of the party’s elected partylist MPs are Manop Keereepuwadol, a Karen man and Laofang Bundidterdsakul, a Hmong legal graduate from Mae Hong Son. MFP is the first political party in Thailand with representatives of indigenous groups.

However, uncertainty clouds these promising developments as Thailand struggles to form its government three months after the general election. The military-backed constitution also hinders the MFP from taking the lead in government setup. Kraingkai Chichuang, the new secretary of the indigenous council expressed optimism, stating, “If Thailand has laws and policies that truly recognise the indigenous people and concretely strengthen our rights, then we will have a true pluralistic society.”