Indigenous rights bill languishes

Indigenous rights bill languishes

Thailand is home to over 6 million indigenous people. Yet many are outlawed, denied basic rights, and subject to many forms of oppression. This must change.

According to the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre, about 10% of the population belongs to 60 indigenous and ethnic groups that are scattered across the country.

While ethnic groups such as the Mon, Tai Dam and Tai Yuan in the river basins have long integrated into mainstream society, the tribespeople live on the margins of society and suffer poverty and hardship from ethnic discrimination. Among them: the Karen, the Hmong and the Lua hill tribes people in the North; the Moken and the Urak Lawoi sea nomads in the Andaman Sea; and the Mlabri and the Mani hunter-gatherers deep in the jungles.

Their problems are manifold. These indigenous tribes live in remote areas with little state welfare assistance. Worse, the government treats them as national security threats, criminalising them as illegal aliens who encroach on national forests and seas.

As a result, they face eviction, arrest and imprisonment for living on their ancestral lands.

Apart from lacking land rights and a say in managing lands and natural resources of their ancestral homes, their communities also suffer low quality of life due to a lack of public infrastructure, health care services and educational support.

The crux of the problem is state nationalism which indoctrinates the populace to believe that the Thai race owns this country, dismissing historical facts that old Siam consists of various ethnicities who intermingled, so there is no such thing as a pure Thai race.

In 2010, following decades of campaigns, the indigenous people finally won a cabinet resolution to restore their cultures and livelihoods. However, forest authorities dismissed the cabinet’s order to stop forest eviction and to return the lands in dispute if the indigenous people had lived there before the setting up of national parks. So, state violence continues.

But the 2017 constitution renewed their hope. Since the charter requires the government to protect and support the indigenous people’s way of life, the network of indigenous people has sponsored a bill to affirm their legal rights.

If passed into law, it will not only prohibit discrimination and hate speech against the indigenous people but also give them land security and the right to preserve their way of life.

In addition, they can form a national council of indigenous people to voice their needs and monitor state policies. However, there is no sign yet when parliament will deliberate this draft law.

Theirs is not the only bill in the legislative pipeline to support indigenous rights. There are five of them, but they are all stuck in the bureaucratic maze.

The Move Forward Party and the House of Representatives Committee on Children, Youth, Women, the Elderly, Persons with Disabilities, Ethnic Groups, and LGBTs have also sponsored bills to honour indigenous people’s constitutional rights.

Parliament President and House Speaker Chuan Leekpai forwarded them to the cabinet for approval. The cabinet plays silent, so these two bills cannot get a place on the agenda for parliamentary debates.

Meanwhile, another bill by P-Move, a grassroots land rights movement, is stuck in the House, pending a decision if it, too, needs cabinet approval.

The most important bill on indigenous rights is by the government, drafted by the Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre.

The question is why the cabinet has not yet approved the government-sponsored bill so it can go to parliament.

In short, all five bills to protect and promote indigenous rights are frozen in the legislative labyrinth.

Is it a matter of procedural routines or a delaying tactic to please forest officialdom at the cost of 6 million indigenous people? Are the high-minded words about indigenous rights in the constitution only for show?

Time is running out. Parliamentary sessions will be soon over and there are a number of draft laws waiting for MPs and senators to deliberate.

To prove its sincerity about improving the livelihoods of indigenous people, the government must speed up the legislative process to deliberate the bills to end discrimination against indigenous people and promote their legal rights enshrined in the constitution.

The new general election is looming. Six million votes from indigenous people count. If the government plays delaying tactics and refuses to honour the indigenous people’s constitutional rights, it may suffer when the next general election comes around.