The indigenous peoples of Thailand are commonly referred to as “hill tribes,” and sometimes as “ethnic minorities.” The ten officially recognized groups are usually called “chao khao” (meaning hill/mountain people or highlanders). These and other indigenous peoples live in the north and northwestern parts of the country, a few other groups live in the northeast, while indigenous fisher communities and a small population of hunter-gatherers inhabit southern Thailand. According to the Department of Social Development and Welfare (2002), the total of the officially recognized “hill-tribe” population is 925,82521 and they are distributed across twenty provinces in the north and west of the country. There are still no figures available for the indigenous groups in the south and northeast.
The indigenous peoples of Thailand belong to five linguistic families: Tai-Kadai (e.g., the various Tai groups in the North, the Saek, or Shan, also called Thai Yai,), Tibeto-Burman (e.g., the Akha, Karen, Lahu, Lisu), Mon-Khmer (e.g., Lua, Khmu, Kui, Mlabri), Hmong-Mien(Hmong, Mien), and Malayo- Polynesian (Moken).
The ten ethnic groups that are officially recognized as “hill people” living in the north and west of the country are: the Akha, Hmong, H’tin, Karen, Khmu, Lahu, Lisu, Lua, Mien and Mlabri. There are however several other small groups that reside in the North: several so-called local Tai groups (Tai Lue, Tai Khuen, Tai Yong), Kachin and Shan.
With the drawing of national boundaries in Southeast Asia during the colonial era and in the wake of decolonization, many indigenous peoples living in remote highlands and forests were divided. On the Korat plateau of the northeast and especially along the border with Laos and Cambodia live various ethnic groups that bear characteristics common with others that are considered indigenous peoples in Thailand. They consist of several Tai speaking groups (Saek, Phuan, Phuthai and Tai song Dam), the Mon-Khmer speaking Kui (also called Kuoy or Suoi) and the So. Larger populations of these peoples live in the respective countries across the border. In Chaiyaphum province lives a group known as Nyahkur, Niakkuoll, Niakuolor or Chao Bon and are considered to speak the old Mon language.
In Trat Province and Chanthaburi Province of eastern Thailand (as well as the adjacent areas in Cambodia) live the Chong. They also call themselves Chong-Samré in the Trat Province, or Chong la and Chong heap in the Chanthaburi Province.
The Sa’och of Trat province and neighboring Cambodia speak the same language as the Chong but are physically very different (negroid features). Both groups used to live mainly from swidden farming, hunting and gathering.
In south Thailand, along the Thai-Malaysian border, live people who across the border in Malaysia are classified as belonging to the negrito group of the Orang Asli. They are sometimes called Ngo, Ngko, Ngok Pa or Sakai in Thailand. Sakai has a negative connotation in Malaysia, but not so in Thailand. In some records they are also called Manni, a generic term for the negrito groups of the Orang Asli in Malaysia.
Along the coast and the islands of the Andaman Sea, from Malaysia through Thailand and into the Mergui archipelago of Burma live the so-called “sea gypsies” or, in Thai, chao le (meaning sea people). In the southern part, between Puket island and the Malaysian border live the Urak Lawoi; in northern Puket and into the Mergui Archipelago of Burma live the Moklen and Moken.
Stereotyping and Discrimination
The official term chao khao has been used since the late 1950s, earlier called chao pa (forest people), to refer to non-Thai minority groups.
For the Thais, pa – meaning “forest” – has the connotation of “wild,” which is generally conceived as opposite to “civilized.” The adoption of the term chao khao was part of a nation-building process in which national identity and definition of “Thai-ness” was linked to cultural traits, particularly Buddhism, Thai language and the monarchy. With the negative stereotyping of the hill tribes as forest destroyers, opium cultivators and communist sympathizers, the social category of the chao khao came to be defined as being “non-Thai ,” underdeveloped and environmentally destructive. Other terms applied in Thailand are more or less equivalent to terms commonly used in English like klum chat tiphan (ethnic groups) or chon klum noy (ethnic minorities). The (former) hunter-gatherer groups in the South are still often referred to by the derogatory term sakai (literally meaning slave).
These stereotyping and discrimination have been reinforced directly and indirectly in the national education curriculum from primary to university levels.
In opposition to these negative connotations of the official designation chao khao or other commonly used derogatory terms, indigenous organizations and indigenous peoples’ rights advocacy groups began to promote over ten years ago the term chon phao phuen mueang (ชนเผ่าพื้นเมือง) as the translation of “indigenous peoples.”
The government of Thailand has rejected the use of the term “indigenous peoples,” and stated that these groups are as much Thais as the other Thai citizens, able to enjoy the fundamental rights, and are protected by the laws of the Kingdom. However, until today the indigenous peoples of Thailand continue to suffer from the same historical stereotyping and discrimination like other indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world.
Underlying many current laws, policies and programs targeting indigenous peoples are the same prejudices and widespread misconceptions of indigenous peoples that have been prevalent over the past decades: indigenous peoples being drug producers and posing a threat to national security and to the environment. Although there have been some positive developments away from this approach in recent years, discriminatory attitudes and actions are still prevalent among government officials.