Fishermen struggle against tide of tourism in Thailand

Fishermen struggle against tide of tourism in Thailand
A tourist in Khao Lak, Phang Nga province.

THUNG WA, Thailand - A fter 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 21.9 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 specialising 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 organisations 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."

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