Post-tsunami dispossession of Indigenous seafaring people in Phang Nga and Phuket, Southern Thailand

Thailand’s Andaman coast is home to three distinctive yet inter-related Indigenous communities known collectively as chao leh, or sea people. The Moken, Moklen and Urak Lawoi who comprise the chao leh communities have a combined population of around 7,000 in Thailand. Until recently, they were seafaring communities with cultural identities and subsistence practices rooted in marine and coastal resources. Nearly all chao leh communities in Thailand were severely impacted by the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami which killed several thousand local residents and foreign tourists in the provinces Phang Nga, Phuket and Krabi. In the aftermath of the tsunami, the chao leh were confronted with a new brand of disaster capitalism, orchestrated by powerful public and private actors. The following subsections are based on the author’s long-term research into the struggle of the chao leh against dispossession and displacement (Neef et al., 2018). Box 5.3 presents a brief overview of the three Indigenous communities.

Box 5.3 Indigenous communities of the Andaman Coast, southern Thailand, in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami


The Moken, the most ‘mobile’ of the chao leh communities, have used the islands of Koh Surin as their temporary settlements between sea travels forcenturies. Their seasonal migration around Koh Surin had them classed as stateless and thus kept under the watchful eye of authorities especially once the islands collectively became a national park in 1981. Although the tsunami destroyed their entire settlement, the Moken were able to draw on traditional knowledge which warned them of the imminent disaster and saved all but one member of their community.


Unlike the Moken, both the Moklen and Urak Lawoi communities have longer histories of ‘semi-permanent settlement’ along the coast. In the case of the Moklen, one of their settlements Baan Tungwa suffered catastrophic impact including the loss of lives and survivors’ livelihoods. With all of their subsistence means destroyed, the Moklen were temporarily relocated and had attempts made against them by the government to permanently relocate them further inland.

Urak Lawoi

Further south in Baan Rawai reside the Urak Lawoi. Among the three groups, Urak Lawoi communities have the longest history of living in ‘semipermanent settlement’ along the coast. Given their location at the southern tip of Phuket Island, they were least impacted by the tsunami. Though their customary land rights have never been formally acknowledged in the region, the Urak Lawoi have a long history in Baan Rawai dating back to at least the late 19th century.

Source: Attanavich et al., 2015; Robinson and Drozdzewski, 2016;

Neefetal., 2018

The Moken and post-disaster tourism in the Surin Islands Marine National Park

The Moken’s informal residential rights on Koh Surin have long been marked by the presence of cultural artefacts predating the conversion of the islands to a national park. Near their settlements and cemetery grounds the Moken would erect lobong, or spirit poles, to demarcate both cultural and geographical space and hold annual ceremonies to instil their spiritual significance (Figure 5.1). Although lobong were appropriated by the national park and commandeered as the park’s symbol, the ceremonies were still respected and permitted by park authorities (Neef et al., 2018).

Following the tsunami, the relationship dynamic between the Moken and the park authorities changed dramatically. Post-tsunami recovery encouraged a new wave of tourism to Koh Surin, prompting authorities to tighten regulations over the Moken’s settlements and drastically reduce their access to forest,

Moken spirit pole

Figure 5.1 Moken spirit pole (Jobong) on Koh Surincoastal and marine resources. Under these new regulations the Moken have been legally confined to a singular location in northern Koh Surin and denied their customary migration practices. Having been demobilised by the authorities, the formerly semi-nomadic community began to face issues of increased resource use and slower resource regeneration, and a concentration of demand for employment. Post-tsunami relief attempted to address the latter issue by capitalising on the distinctive cultural element that the Moken had to offer tourism on Koh Surin. By commodifying the cultural practices and beliefs of the Moken, tourism development essentially turned the settlement into a human zoo, appropriating the profitable parts of their culture and heavily restricting their customary livelihood practices.

With strict legal regulations over resource use within the national park, employment opportunities have drastically decreased for the Moken. Prohibited from felling trees for building their traditional boats (kabang), collecting sea-snails and commercial fishing, the only options left for them are selling souvenirs (Figure 5.2) or working for the park - both forcing them into dependency on seasonal tourist streams and the appropriation of their culture in order to make a living.

The cramped living conditions in a single space under the Park authorities’ scheme proved disastrous in February 2019, when a fire broke out in one house, quickly spreading through the village and destroying 61 out of the 81 thatched-roofed houses, leaving 273 people homeless and without belongings (Bangkok Post, 2019; Smillie, 2019). While Park authorities and the Thai

Moken villagers on Koh Surin selling souvenirs to touristsmilitary provided quick post-disaster recover)' support

Figure 5.2 Moken villagers on Koh Surin selling souvenirs to touristsmilitary provided quick post-disaster recover)' support, the Moken were not consulted in the rebuilding efforts and design of their new homes, despite their wealth of Indigenous knowledge in vernacular architecture (pers. comm., M. Attavanich). This disregard of Indigenous cultural practices may well expose the Moken to future disaster risks.

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