Tsunami Survivors Fight for Land Rights

Thailand’s Andaman coast was flattened by the tsunami that ravaged much of Southeast Asia in 2004. In the fishing village of Baan Nam Khen alone, some 2,200 of the village´s 4,000 inhabitants died when the village was washed away.

The shocked survivors spent several weeks in inland resettlement camps, waiting to return to the places where their people had lived for generations.

When they finally returned to the places where their homes had been, however, they were in for a surprise. It wasn’t the utter destruction of their villages-they had expected that-but the chain-link fences around their land.

In Baan Nam Khen, returning villagers were greeted with a sign that read "No Entrance-No Fishing-Do Not Take Coconuts." Armed guards stood nearby, ready to enforce these edicts. The villagers, who were still trying to deal with the loss of their homes, families, and friends, were now being forced off their land as well.

NGO representatives on the scene advised them to seek legal aid, but the villagers mostly saw the attorneys as the same type of urban, educated people who were trying to take their land. So at first they squatted on the land in direct defiance of the guards, fences, and signs.

For members of Thailand´s indigenous coastal communities, the tsunami accelerated a process of displacement that had begun more than two decades before, as longtime residents were pushed aside to make way for the development of international resorts and the infrastructure that supports them.

Despite generations of residency, the villagers lacked the legal knowledge to officially claim their land. But following the tsunami, the villagers were ready to make a stand. With the help of NGOs that assisted them with legal issues, they won back much of their land and gained legal rights to it for the first time in history.

Before the tsunami: A history of discrimination

Decades of discrimination had left these villagers with little faith in the legal system. Descended from indigenous groups who settled along the beaches of the Andaman Coast, they continued to build semi-permanent wooden homes on stilts during the monsoon season in order to be close to their boats, the sea, and the fish. They lived day to day, following the fish and catching only what they needed. They spoke their own languages and followed their own traditions.

While they are made up of several distinct groups, urban Thai people tended to refer to all of them as Sea Gypsies, or "Chaolay" in the Thai language. The Chaolay have never been fully recognized as Thai citizens. They did not possess Thai national ID cards or house registration books, and in many cases did not speak Thai. The discrimination they faced in schools and companies led most of them to remain in their traditional ways of life.

But that way of life was threatened when wealthy Thai developers arrived who wanted to transform the Andaman beaches into luxurious resorts. The Chaolay did not understand how newcomers with documents in their hands had the right to ask them to leave the land where they had lived for generations. In most instances, the Chaolay simply ignored the official landowners. In some areas they were eventually pushed aside to make room for airports, piers, and highways, while tensions escalated in others. In many places, an uneasy stalemate emerged, with both sides waiting for the other one to blink.

Then came the tsunami, which answered developers’ dreams by sweeping the Chaolay villages off the beach. The developers took advantage of the sudden vacancy by building fences, hiring security, and starting construction. They hoped the Chaolay were gone for good.

Standing Up for the Land

Over 30 coastal communities faced eviction from their ancestral homelands, but many Chaolay were literally ready to die to defend them. In Baan Nam Khem, for instance, villagers hesitant to work with lawyers became squatters, a strategy that exposed them to violence, as well as to counter lawsuits.

Returning survivors took a different tactic in the nearby village of Baan Tap Tawan, where villagers-many of them Chaolay- had lived on a little more than ten acres of coastal land for over 100 years. Just as in Baan Nam Khem, they returned after the tsunami to find it locked up with fences and gates. The villagers did not possess a legal title deed, and they couldn’t get legal building permits to rebuild their homes without one. Many NGOs weren’t willing to help with rebuilding on property whose ownership was under dispute.

It became clear that to protect their homes and their way of life, the Chaolay needed something they never had before: legal ownership of their land. Advocates at the Bangkok-based Lawyers Association of Thailand assembled a coalition of lawyers from Bangkok and the Andaman region to form the Andaman Legal Aid Center, which worked in conjunction with NGOs such as Action Aid, Save Andaman, and the Asia Foundation. These groups trained local paralegals to advise local villagers of their rights, and the Andaman Legal Aid Center provided lawyers to dispute the new owners land claims.

Sootipong Laithep, the coordinator who worked in Baan Ta Tawan, faced a difficult task in organizing the local villagers, but he had years of experience working as a volunteer community lawyer for the impoverished and homeless throughout Thailand. His experiences as the head of the Subcommittee for Land for the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand would enable him to convince the locals they had a chance. He told the people of Baan Tap Tawan that if they could prove they had lived in the village for more than ten years, they could apply for a property title.

He filed a total of 36 cases against the company claiming to be the new owner. The company offered a settlement under which each villager would receive a small home plot with a tiny yard in the back. The settlement would have ceded just one quarter of the land that originally made up the village, and the villagers refused it. When the community returned to court, villagers from many surrounding communities came to stand by their side.

Community organizing

The training provided by the local lawyers and NGOs gave the villagers legal knowledge and confidence, yet many remained hesitant to testify in court or accept help from outsiders. Concerned about maintaining a united front, community leaders emerged who struggled to keep everyone organized and focused. In many villages, the success or failure of the movement came down to their hard work and persistence.

In Baan Tap Tawan, it was the women of the Chaolay community who led their people in protest and helped organize the legal actions. Orawan Hantalay, a 22-year-old Chaolay woman who had struggled through a life of discrimination in Thai schools, became the secretary for the Andaman Legal Aid Center in Baan Tap Tawan. She organized paperwork and kept the records that the court decisions depended on. Lab Hantalay, (no relation to Orawan) a gray-haired Chaolay woman whose small frame seemed barely able to contain her abundant energy, served as an informal communications director and kept the villagers up-to-date about the court proceedings.

She also made sure that everyone involved pulled their share. In a community meeting in late 2005 attended by lawyers from the Andaman Legal Aid Center, she pointed out the poor performance of the male village elders in organizing the protest efforts. She understood that success would require the entire community working together. If the villagers fought as individuals, they were sure to fail.

Squatting on the raised wooden floor of the community center, she told those gathered that she was currently employed as a gardener at a local resort, but that she was impatient to return to traditional life. "I want my land back so I can go back to live by the sea as I always have," she said.

In March, 2009, after four and a half years of battle, the courts finally ruled that the villagers of Baan Tap Tawan could retain nearly three-quarters of their original land. While some villagers wanted to press on to win back the rest, most were happy with the result, and the company that claimed ownership of the land clearly saw it as a defeat.

Some villages accepted relocation, and others fought with varying outcomes. Resort development continues to displace more traditional communities, and developers usually have money and legal savvy on their side. But in Baan Tap Tawan, villagers proved that they have the power to resist the seemingly inevitable wave of development-to choose their own future.

Robert Reynolds wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Robert is director of the Sriphong Phukaoluan Foundation, which supports tsunami survivors in Thailand´s Krabi province, and a staff writer for the Phuket Gazette.