Embattled indigenous seafarers win land dispute case

After years of battle over land rights, an embattled indigenous seafarer community in Phuket has won a lawsuit filed against them by a land development company.

On 31 January 2017, the Provincial Court of Phuket read the verdict on a dispute over the 33 rai plot on Rawai Beach of Phuket between an indigenous seafarer community and Baron World Trade Co, a real estate development company.

The company accused the indigenous seafarer community of about 2,000 people, which includes three sea nomad groups, the Moken, Moklen and Orang Laut, of trespassing on their land.

Despite the fact that the company possessed a title deed for the disputed land, the court dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that the seafarers were settled on the land before the Land Department issued the title deed to the company in 1965.

The court cited video footage of the late King Bhumibol’s visit to the seafarer community on Rawai Beach in 1959 as prime evidence on the case.

The judges added that student records at a local school show that about 30 pupils from the Rawai seafarer community were enrolled in the school before 1955.

The battle between the seafarer community and Baron over the land on Rawai Beach made headlines on 27 January 2016 after a violent confrontation broke out between about 70 seafarers and a group of men reportedly hired by the company.

The skirmishes began as the Rawai Beach seafarer community representatives were on their way to Phuket Provincial Hall to submit a petition to the Damrongtham Centre, one of the centres established to accept public complaints, to urge the authorities to protect their community and livelihood. Men allegedly working for the investors used an excavator to lift big rocks to seal off the entrance to the community while military and police officers reportedly just looked on.

On 11 February 2016, representatives of the seafarer community travelled to the Ministry of Justice to submit a petition to then Minister Gen Paiboon Koomchaya, to urge the authorities to investigate the land dispute between their community and Baron.

The seafarers claim that their ancestors settled in the disputed area over 300 years ago.

Confrontation between the sea nomad community and a group of unidentified men who attempted to block the entrance to the disputed land plot on Rawai Beach in Phuket on 25 May 2016 (Photo from Maitree Jongkraijug’s Facebook page)