(New York) – Thai authorities should urgently investigate the violent attacks and forced evictions against indigenous Chao Lay, known as sea gypsies, in Phuket province and bring those responsible to justice, Human Rights Watch said today. The Thai government is obligated under international law to protect the rights of all people within the country.

More than 30 indigenous Chao Lay were injured in the violent attack and forced eviction of their community in Thailand's Phuket province on January 27, 2016. 

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on the morning of January 27, 2016, at least 100 men attacked a group of Chao Lay in a dispute over a 33-rai (5 hectares) stretch of land on Rawai Beach on Phuket. The land is owned by Baron World Trade Ltd. and allegedly overlaps with the Chao Lay community’s ancestral land. Video footage shows the assailants beating with wooden sticks, punching, and kicking the Chao Lay. The assailants then dumped large rocks from trucks next to Chao Lay sitting together as a human barrier to protect their land. At least 30 Chao Lay were injured in the altercations. The attackers also destroyed Chao Lay fishing equipment.

“Chao Lay have been facing eviction from their ancestral land on Rawai Beach with no protection from the government," said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Thai authorities should immediately step in to stop the abuses, prosecute lawbreakers, and resolve this land dispute in a rights-respecting manner.”

According to a company letter dated December 30, 2015, Chatri Madsatun, a representative of Baron World Trade Ltd., reported to military and civilian authorities that the company has legally obtained title to the land to develop a luxury villa project on Rawai Beach but construction work has been obstructed by Chao Lay who refused to leave the disputed land.

Under international standards, notably the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies have a responsibility to ensure that their operations do not contribute to human rights abuses and to remedy harms that may have occurred. Representatives of Baron World Trade Ltd. in Phuket province did not respond to multiple telephone inquiries by Human Rights Watch for their comments on the incident and to describe what steps they may have taken to prevent or address the violence.

According to media reports, on January 28, Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan ordered state agencies to resolve this dispute and announced that there must not be any more violence. “The wrongdoers must be arrested,” he said. On the same day, the Phuket provincial governor, Chamroen Tipayapongtada, ordered Baron World Trade Ltd. to halt its construction project and remove the rocks blocking the passage in and out of the Chao Lay community. But to date, the local police have made no apparent progress in their investigation of the violence. The Chao Lay filed a complaint with the Justice Ministry on February 11 asking their cases to be handed over to the Department of Special Investigation to ensure impartiality and efficiency.

In the report “Stateless At Sea,” Human Rights Watch identified forced evictions as a serious threat facing Chao Lay (“people of the sea”) – specifically, the Moken and Urak Lawoi clans – in the Rawai Beach community. Chao Lay – who have suffered from decades of poverty, marginalization, and discrimination – generally do not try to assert land ownership rights because most believe that land and water should not be owned or controlled by one person, but rather shared by many. And under Thai law, without citizenship and residency registration, Chao Lay cannot own land, even if their families have lived in Thailand for many generations.

Article 10 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People states that “[i]ndigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories.” Article 26 provides that governments shall give legal recognition and protection to the lands and resources that they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used.

An inquiry by the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation in 2014 found that DNA from bones in the area demonstrated that Chao Lay have been on the disputed land for over 60 years. Successive governments have promised to review the land ownership issue. But there has been no progress to date. For years, Chao Lay have sought in vain for Thai authorities to protect them from eviction. According to media reports, in June 2015, a group of men threatened to shoot Chao Lay if they moved concrete blocks that had been placed on the public road to their village, which overlaps with Baron World Trade Ltd.’s land.

Bulai, a Chao Lay woman from the Rawai Beach community, told Human Rights Watch about the eviction threats:

There are 14 of us in this house, from age 60 to a 1-year-old. We were all born here in this village. But the document [official land deed] said the land where we have lived for generations belongs to someone else. It said a Thai businessman owns the land. Now he wants to kick us out and sell it. Where are we going to live now? I do not know. One by one, families have been taken to court and told to leave this village because they do not have ownership of the land. We are trying to prove that we came here first and should have the right to stay. We have showed government officials that our ancestors are buried here in this house. Their bones are old and that should be good evidence to back us up.

Nim, a Chao Lay man from the same village, said:

The landowner wants this land. But we get in his way. So, he filed lawsuits to evict us. The court only looks at documents. The court said, “No document, you will have to leave no matter how long you have lived here.”

“The Thai government needs to recognize and respect the rights of Chao Lay to live as they always have,” Adams said. “Protecting them from abuses, ensuring a path to citizenship and land ownership, and providing access to basic services is the best way forward for these vulnerable indigenous people.”