After years of battle over land rights, the embattled indigenous seafarer community in Phuket have won a lawsuit filed against them by a land developer company.
On 31 January 2017, the Provincial Court of Phuket read the verdict on the dispute over the 33 rai land on Rawai Beach of Phuket between the indigenous seafarer community and Baron World Trade Co, a real estate development company.
The company accused the indigenous seafarer community of about 2,000 people, which includes three sea nomad groups, the Moken, Moklen and Orang Laut, of trespassing into their land.
Despite the fact that the company possessed the title deed over the disputed land, the court, however, dismissed the lawsuit against the seafarers, reasoning that their settlement predates the time when Land Department issued the title deed to the company in 1965.
The court cited the video footage of the late King Bhumibol’s visit to the seafarer community on Rawai Beach in 1959 as prime evidence on the case.
The Phuket Court judges added that the student record of a local school in the area documents that there were about 30 pupils from Rawai seafarer community enrolling in the school before 1955.
The battle between the seafarer community and Baron over the plot of land on Rawai Beach made headlines on 27 January 2016 after a violent confrontation broke out between a group of 70 seafarers and a group of men reportedly hired by the company.
The skirmishes began as the Rawai Beach seafarer community representatives were on their way to Phuket Provincial Hall to submit a petition to the Damrongtham Centre, one of the centres established to accept public complaints, to urge the authorities to protect their community and livelihood. The men allegedly working for the investors used an excavator to lift big rocks to seal off the entrance to the community while the military and police officers reportedly just looked on.
On 11 February 2016, representatives of the seafarer community travelled to the Ministry of Justice to submit a petition to Minister Gen Paiboon Koomchaya, to urge the authorities to investigate the land dispute between their community and Baron.
The seafarers claim that their ancestors settled in the disputed area over 300 years ago.