After Tsunami, Fishermen Struggle Against Tide of Tourism in Thailand

By Alisa.Tang 19 December 2014

THUNG WA, Thailand — After the tsunami pounded Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast a decade ago, the ethnic Moklen fishing communities that have lived here for generations buried their dead, fought off land grabs to rebuild their homes, and—surprisingly—sighed in relief.

The tsunami had destroyed sprawling seafront luxury resorts that had blocked public access to the sea and had halted the rampant tourism that threatened to push the Moklen fishermen off their ancestral lands in Phang Nga province, north of the resort island of Phuket.

In effect, the disaster gave them unfettered access to the shore again and time to pursue their traditional way of life.

That post-tsunami reprieve has ended, the Moklens say; tourist arrivals have shot up from 11.6 million in 2005 to 13.7 million in January-November this year—not counting the end-of-year peak holiday season—while land prices have risen tenfold.

The Moklens again fear their way of life is close to extinction.

“I wish another tsunami would hit, so the villagers could have just a bit more time to live our way of life,” said Hong Klathalay, a 48-year-old community leader in the Moklen village of Thung Wa, as he walked across low sand dunes to his modest wooden boat parked in a lagoon.

At the forested edge of the lagoon stands the shell of an ornate traditional Thai ceramic-tiled building that withstood the tsunami and is now overgrown with weeds and creepers.

On the side fronting the sea, construction machinery pounds away on a plot of land with new retaining walls and the foundation of a large hotel.

“They build a wall on this side, and then the water will push in on the other side. So they’ll build another wall there and fill up the land. Once it’s all walled in, we’re finished,” Hong said angrily, pointing to the construction site.

The dark-skinned Moklens—an ethnic group linked to the Moken sea gypsies of the Andaman Islands—live and breathe the sea, with intricately knotted fishing traps and nets stowed neatly in their yards.

Phang Nga and Phuket are home to about 4,000 Moklens, who have lived in the region since long before the tourism boom, but most do not legally own the land they live on, according to Narumon Arunotai, an anthropologist specializing in the region’s sea gypsy ethnic groups.

So when the tsunami—which left 5,395 dead and 2,932 missing in Thailand, including more than 2,000 foreign tourists—swept away the Moklens’ bamboo thatch bungalows, the landowners who held the deeds tried to evict them.

However, post-tsunami news coverage and human rights research had raised awareness of their land tenure woes, and help from non-governmental organizations strengthened the Moklens’ determination to fight for their rights.

“If it weren’t for the tsunami, these people would all have been driven out by now,” said Sakda Phanrangsee, a community activist who has brought the Moklens to the capital Bangkok to voice their woes to government officials.

“The tsunami stopped real estate and tourism, but now tourism is making a comeback.”

Prime Real Estate

One of the key problems to emerge across tsunami-affected countries was residents’ rights to the land they lived on.

In Thailand, where tourism accounts for about 10 percent of the economy, the property owners listed on land deeds saw their prime shorefront real estate—including the Moklen village of Tap Tawan, north of the Khao Lak resort area and Thung Wa—cleared of residents.

Twenty people died in Tap Tawan, 79 homes were destroyed and only five remained standing. The survivors were evacuated to nearby rubber plantations on higher ground.

Within weeks of the disaster, the landowner forbade villagers from returning, but the government stepped in and allowed survivors to rebuild. A lengthy legal battle ensued.

“We had to go to court two to three times a month, and we were stressed every single time. Once or twice, we were at court until 1 am,” said soft-spoken Moklen community leader Thien Harntalay, 47.

“We were scared the investor [landowner] would come shoot us,” he said, sitting on the sandy tiled floor of his cement bungalow while his wife fried the evening’s catch.

Four years ago, they reached an out-of-court settlement with the landowner, who agreed to sign over half of his 3.84-hectare plot to 28 villagers, Thien said, clutching a thick stack of photocopies of the villagers’ new land deeds.

Now villagers worry about their access to the sea and the area where they park their fishing boats, as land prices have shot up and investors often visit to eye the shorefront properties, Thien said, concerned that new owners will be less forgiving of their trespasses.

“In the future, if they sell that land, where will we villagers park our boats?”

Sharing the Land

Local activist Maitree Jongkraijug argues the government has focused only on tourist dollars and neglected the needs of “their own people walking on the land.”

“They protect foreigners and treat them like an endangered species,” Maitree said, complaining that beaches once open to the public have been cordoned off by hotels and resorts. “They are protected for foreigners to swim, but we’re not allowed to go in.”

Tourism officials in Phang Nga declined comment on the issue.

According to anthropologist Narumon, the solution is to ensure the Moklens have a say in the area’s development, though she acknowledges this is practically unheard of.

Sakda says the Moklens do not want land deeds, but clear written agreements that no matter who buys the shorefront properties, they will be allowed to park their boats and reach the sea.

Sitting next to him, sharing a bowl of fried fish, Thien carefully put the stack of land documents back in the plastic folder and onto the shelf under the television.

“Before, if we got a threat, we would up and move, but there’s nowhere left to go,” he said, shaking his head sadly. “This is our land. This is where we were born. This is where we’re from.”