Discussions Prioritize Self-determination Rights for Indigenous Data

Open and accessible data on Indigenous Peoples in Thailand are being developed. A key challenge in this undertaking, however, is that the names of different ethnic groups — specifically in Thai language — are often spelled differently by implementing agencies, and even among the Indigenous groups themselves. This is a serious gap that stakeholders and beneficiaries need to address to enable Indigenous Peoples to exercise self-determination over their identities. Proper data collection and disaggregation of these data on Indigenous Peoples has therefore been identified as an urgent priority in order to both accurately reflect the situations of Indigenous Peoples and to find solutions to tackle them.

Recognizing the importance and challenge of addressing this issue, activists commenced a discussion during the events celebrating this year’s Thailand’s Indigenous Peoples Day and the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, held in Bangkok from August 6–9, 2022.

Photo exhibition showing the indigenous cultures and knowledge that need to be preserved.

The Issue

Indigenous population data in Thailand collected by the Department of Social Development and Welfare are widely used. However, these data are not seen as being representative of the six million populations they attempt to capture. One reason for this is that, as found in both academic research on Indigenous Peoples’ languages and cultures conducted by Mahidol University and the Indigenous profiles collected by the Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (SAC), there are a variety of terms used to identify Indigenous and ethnic groups in Thailand. In addition to creating confusion in the data, these variations pose a serious challenge to Indigenous rights of self-identification, because some terms have not yet been agreed by the communities themselves.

For example, an ethnic group called “Mien” can be rendered differently by different implementers: “เมี่ยน (Mien)” or “เย้า (Yaow)” in academic research; “เย้า (เมี่ยน) (Yaow Mien)” in the governmental data; “เมี่ยน (Mien)” by the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (CIPT); and “อิ้วเมี่ยน (Eiw Mien)” in the SAC database.

The consultation meeting at the Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (SAC) on August 8, 2022.

The naming of Indigenous groups represents more than just identity. Indigenous identity is linked to the uniqueness of their valuable cultures, knowledge, and languages, which is reciprocally tied to time and space. They have been the natural stewards of many of the country’s unique and diverse regions. Protection of these lands is sacred and essential to their survival as a collectivized Indigenous Peoples.

However, legal biases and prejudices towards Indigenous Peoples in Thailand have been perpetuated over the decades. This discrimination has deprived them of basic rights — to land, territories, and other natural resources; to livelihood and food security; and to healthcare. The inability to access these rights and continued violations has led to a loss of Indigenous Peoples’ identity, culture, and traditions. Expansion of emerging infrastructure and other exploitative developments and lack of legal protection frameworks have resulted in significant degradation of their lands and the displacement of many Indigenous Peoples, and has thus heavily impacted their livelihoods and ability to maintain their identity.

Toward a Solution

To tackle this long-standing problem, a participatory approach which includes leaders and members of Indigenous Peoples’ groups is needed to ensure that the Indigenous database is reliable, acceptable by all stakeholders and beneficiaries, and ultimately supports Indigenous Peoples’ self-identification and self-determination rights.

During the Bangkok event, the SAC leadership hosted a consultation meeting on August 8 to discuss how to implement an integrated approach for developing an open Indigenous database in the country. Approximately 30 participants — including government officials, academic institutions, representatives from CIPT, and leaders of the Indigenous networks across Thailand — attended this meeting. The meeting offered a solution to allowing Indigenous Peoples to take control of their own self-determination, and involving a representative of stakeholders and beneficiaries in future meetings to making a decision of naming issues and other indigenous rights as of concern.

Ethnic youth groups participated in identifying key situations and solutions they wish to see from key decision makers and policy development leaders.

During the celebration recognizing Indigenous Peoples and ethnic groups in Thailand, communities gathered in Bangkok to push forward five pending draft bills on the promotion and protection of traditional livelihoods of ethnic groups in Thailand. These bills were first initiated in 2007 and are still under discussion in parliament. It is anticipated that if the draft bills are successfully adopted, they will transform protections of cultural and livelihood rights and support Indigenous Peoples’ rights, creating equality and equity based on respect for the dignity of ethnic minorities and Indigenous Peoples.

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