In Thailand, tribal community struggles to preserve traditional identity as modernity encroaches

Forced to adapt, many Mani people have accepted new ways, starting with government ID cards.
Yostorn Triyos
Satun, Thailand

A Mani man stands in front of a pair of traditional “thap” shelters in Satun, Thailand, March 28, 2024. [Yostorn Triyos/BenarNews]


Mani women gather wild banana leaves to use as roofs on their “thap” dwellings in Satun, Thailand, March 28, 2024. [Yostorn Triyos/BenarNews]


A man checks the fire inside his family’s “thap,” a Mani traditional shelter containing only essentials including a hearth for cooking and to repel insects, March 28, 2024. [Yostorn Triyos/BenarNews]


A Mani man uses a dart gun to hunt for food, March 28, 2024. [Yostorn Triyos/BenarNews]


A Mani woman carries herbs she collected in the forest near her home in Satun, Thailand, March 28, 2024. [Yostorn Triyos/BenarNews]


Family members sell herbs and wild taro, a root vegetable, at a roadside stall in Palian district, Trang province, Thailand, March 28, 2024. [Yostorn Triyos/BenarNews]


A Mani family lives in a less primitive home in Thung Wa district of Satun, Thailand, March 28, 2024. [Yostorn Triyos/BenarNews]


Some Mani men from Ban Huai Nan who work as laborers in a nearby city have taken to wearing pants, including blue jeans, and T-shirts, March 28, 2024. [Yostorn Triyos/BenarNews]


Mani people visit a grocery store in a nearby city where they purchase rice and condiments for their meals, March 28, 2024. [Yostorn Triyos/BenarNews]


The shell of a donated toy truck is seen near a family’s shelter in Satun, Thailand, March 28, 2024. [Yostorn Triyos/BenarNews]


A Mani girl at Ban Khiri Wong in Satun wears a shirt donated by an activist group whose message reads “every man has equal rights,” March 28, 2024. [Yostorn Triyos/BenarNews]

In the lush forests of southern Thailand along the Malay Peninsula, the Mani people have lived in harmony with nature for generations. 

But as the modern world encroaches upon their traditional lands, members of this indigenous community find themselves grappling with the inevitable consequences of change. About 1,000 Mani people live in Thailand, where most have valid national identity cards.

“When the forest areas where we lived were declared protected, the essential factors for our livelihood became forbidden. We were forced to adapt to the modern world, starting with obtaining an ID card, which is the foundation of various rights that we should receive as Thai citizens,” said Maew, a young Mani man.

Historically, the Mani were a reclusive community, living in the depths of the forest and rarely interacting with the outside world. But as the concept of nation-states emerged, demanding the identification of every citizen, the Mani found themselves becoming outsiders among their own people.

The nearly 100 Mani who inhabit Khiri Wong, a village in Satun province, say they have seen their ability to travel to purchase food and other necessities reduced or restricted even, as their traditional way of life has disappeared in some areas.

While some Mani have adapted to the changing times – such as through obtaining Thai citizenship and getting educated – others have ventured out of the forest to seek employment and trade forest products. The once-temporary “thap” shelters, made from branches and leaves, are gradually being replaced by more permanent dwellings.

Volunteers from both public and private groups have come forward to assist Mani people in applying for government documentation, but they have hit a roadblock: Most Mani cannot communicate in Thai and use their own dialect.

In addition, some Mani groups are not interested in applying for the ID cards because unscrupulous people have taken advantage of them.


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