Sakai Young Male (Jungle Tribes, The Negrito of Thailand) live in their hut made from wood and leaves. They hunt animals and consume vegetables and fruits. (Shutterstock/Kunanon)
The Orang Asli indigenous people have lived in seclusion in the rainforests of southern Thailand since ancient times, but more than a few of them have lately changed the way they live because forest food has gradually grown scarce.
In hopes of a more secure future, Pise, a man in his 50s, and 11 of his family members have decided to abandon their jungle lifestyle and work in a rubber plantation to earn a living.
Talking to Kyodo News through a translator, Pise said cassava, the main food of the Orang Asli people, was easily found in the past, but the forest's ecology has gradually changed after Bang Lang Dam on Pattani River was built and completed in 1981.
Orang Asli, or Asli in short, are indigenous people living deep in the Hala rainforest, situated near the Thai-Malaysian boundary in Yala Province.
They are very discrete and will instantly relocate their huts if they spot any "outsider" nearby their areas. They find it hard to trust people outside their ethnic group and still blame the angry forest spirits when bad things happen to them.
Pise used to hunt small wild animals for food with bamboo blowpipes that spit poison darts, but he no longer wanted to do this when he realized the forest food is not as abundant as it once was.
"I miss living in the deep forest, but it is not easy to find sufficient food anymore. The food is in decline while our population is growing day by day," Pise said.
The Orang Asli communities number about 300 in Yala and Narathiwat, Thailand's two southernmost provinces long known as hotbeds of insurgency.
Another 300 are scattered in the other Deep South provinces of Phatthalung, Trang and Satun, where they are known as the Mani people.
Unlike the Orang Asli, ethnic Mani people have been given Thai identity cards and Thai surnames for their civil registration.
The Orang Asli population in Thailand is forecast to rise. However, the total number is still far behind that across the border in Malaysia, which is home to more than 170,000 Orang Asli people.
Yet, working from Monday through Friday for 1,000 baht ($32) a week does not allow Pise and his family to stave off hunger.
His family and other Orang Asli people, therefore, greatly rely on the border patrol police, who care for them by delivering clothes, packages of raw rice, instant coffee, cans of fish, and other foodstuffs.
Paramin Nathornjaroensuk, a 46-year-old border patrol police officer, said the Orang Asli in the two southernmost provinces now have access to healthcare services after initially having difficulty to gain this basic right because they lacked Thai ID cards.
"We raised the issue with the state agencies to grant them the right. Now they are able to receive medical treatment when needed, free-of-charge," Paramin said.
Orang Asli people are generally healthy and rely on herbal plants to heal their ailments. Still, toothaches are a common problem for them due to poor oral hygiene, according to the border patrol police.
In exchange for clothes, food and painkillers to treat toothaches, the Orang Asli people give the border patrol police things gathered in the jungle such as honey and tongkat ali, an herb that has long been used in Southeast Asia as a general health tonic and libido booster.
"Orang Asli people never take anything from us for free. If we refuse to take their stuff, we insult them," Paramin said.
Because of their existence in well-known literature like the folktale "Sung Thong," composed by King Rama II and "Ngoh Pa", written by King Rama V, Thai people are familiar with their curly hair and dark-skinned features.
But Paramin dispelled misconceptions among most ethnic Thais that it is okay to refer to the Orang Asli people as Sakai, a label meaning "slave" that stems from past centuries when they were subjected to slave raids by Malay and Batak forces, causing many to retreat further inland and to avoid contact with outsiders.
"The term Sakai can provoke this indigenous group," Paramin explained, adding that its members consider it strongly offensive.
To Paramin, the Orang Asli people play a great role in guarding the forest as they have alerted authorities to the presence of armed poachers and illegal loggers entering the forest.
"I was scared to death when the poachers threatened to kill me if I informed an officer, but this forest is my home," an elderly Orang Asli man said.