Long before the formation of the Kingdom of Thailand, as long ago as 25,000 years, evidence suggests negrito tribes of hunters and gatherers lived throughout the dense jungle of the Malay Peninsula in what is today Malaysia and Thailand.
In Southern Thailand lives one such group called the Maniq and numbering no more than 350 people who are split in to around 15 groups, most of them still navigate the mountain range that overlaps the four provinces of Satun, Pattalung, Trang and Songkla. Divided in to extended family groups most continue to live a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle following food and water sources in the forest, moving on when they run dry.
But modern history hasn’t been kind to the Maniq. Living in the deep jungle and often on the move they remained relatively untouched until the 1960’s when the Thai Army fought against communists groups that had retreated in to this very mountain range. Lasting several decades and resulting the eventual surrender of the Communists, the Maniq often got caught in crossfire, some even killed by mistake.
This prolonged fighting however also protected the vast forest complex, as local Thai’s were too frightened to enter. But with the surrender of the insurgents and peace returned a new battle began for the ownership of the land surrounding the forested mountains. Local low land Thai’s moved in, formed communities and began encroaching on this intact eco-system, logging trees and poaching the wild animals. Caught up in this scramble were the Maniq who were now forced to compete with hunters with guns for food and saw the forest size reduced on all sides.
Quiet, reclusive and misunderstood they are often incorrectly called Sakai (Malay word meaning ‘slave’) or Ngo-Ba (meaning Rambutan of the forest owing to their curly hair that shows similarities to the skin of the fruit) by Thai’s. But for several years now they have been known officially as Maniq, the name by which they call themselves.
Outside these four Southern provinces they remain relatively unknown to most Thai’s. The most famous story of the Maniq tells of King Rama V adopting a young Maniq boy he called Kanang who was taken to live in the Royal Palace in Bangkok. Whilst Kanang died young, only in his twenties, stories tell of the affection the Thai King had for the boy.
Other ill truths, misunderstandings and myths exist in part due to the lack of detailed research in to the tribe by Thai researchers themselves as most detailed anthropological and ethno-linguistic study have all been performed by foreigners and written in English.
But today the Maniq sit at a crossroads. With wildlife having been severely over-hunted it is now not enough for them to sustain themselves and more frequently move towards the peripheries of the forest, closer to Thai villagers to supplement their diminishing food resources. Many see this increased accessibility to the tribe as having a negative impact on their unique way of life, indeed several groups of Maniq have decided to settle permeantly and now work odd-jobs such as on rubber plantations.
Yet stories are rife about how they have been taken advantage of, the worst being when a town official in Satun Province made a group of them sit under an imitation shelter made of sticks in a shopping center so people could take their pictures. Something the official was later forced to apologise for.
This closer contact with Thai society has also meant that questions have risen recently regarding the citizenship of the Maniq and their have been calls to give them Thai citizenship so they can access things such as health services and schools. Roughly 20% of the Maniq now have Thai citizenship, the others have refused or are unsure as to the consequences of receiving such a status and fear this would have an everlasting effect on the cultural traditions of this tiny population.
But with even the most remotest dwelling of groups now being forced to the edges of the forest, at least on occasion, it seems that the Maniq’s ability to withdraw completely from Thai society as they have done for millennia is becoming harder to do.
This work in progress looks to document the unique Maniq people as they are challenged to keep their traditions and forest homes in the modern era.