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Monday, August 15, 2011
Scapegoats in helicopter crashes
When three army helicopters crashed in the space of nine days, killing altogether 17 people in the heart of the Kaeng Krachan jungle along the Thai-Burmese border, a stunned country struggled to understand why.
One crash is already a big enough tragedy. But three in a row? On the same mission, in the same area?
Was it because of freak storms?
Was it a technical glitch, as in the military's explanation for the third crash?
Or was it because of a corruption-ridden army that constantly put the crews' lives at risk from rundown and poorly-equipped helicopters?
There was also speculation about the first helicopter having been shot down by some armed or drug groups along the sensitive border. But this was vehemently denied by the army.
As the country plunged into disbelief and grief, the media machine was in full swing to create heroes and villains from this tragedy. Lost for an explanation, fingers were pointed at the ethnic Karen forest dwellers in Kaeng Krachan as the culprits.
The first helicopter that crashed in the rugged mountainous terrain was part of the national park authorities' mission to evict subsistent Karen peasants who have been painted as evil forest destroyers. The next two army helicopters dispatched on a rescue mission also crashed in areas nearby.
My heart goes out to those killed and their grief-stricken families. Any pos-thumous honour cannot replace what has been lost in flesh and blood. Their lives would not have been cut short this way had it not been for the forest authorities' prejudice against forest dwellers.
Right after the crash, national park officials came out to justify their forest eviction by describing the Karen dwellers there as the "karang" hill people from Burma who were invading Thai forests with destructive slash-and-burn farming. The media bought it without question.
Fact is, they are just a small group of indigenous Karen peasants in Thai territory. Their farming method is not slash-and-burn but the ecological farm rotation system that actually assists the regeneration of forest biodiversity.
They are one of the ethnic Karen pockets that are scattered along the western Thai-Burmese mountainous border from North to South.
Fact is, the cabinet resolution of Aug 3, 2010 already recognises the cultural identity of these indigenous Karen, with clear-cut guidelines for forest authorities to respect their rights over ancestral land and traditional way of life.
Plans are also afoot to propose the Karen's farm rotation as a cultural world heritage. The cabinet ruling was an attempt to defuse fierce land rights conflicts nationwide caused by the draconian forestry laws which prohibit all human settlements, indigenous or otherwise, in national forests. Subsequently, countless forest dwellers and small farmers have been evicted and sent to jail, even though they had been living in the forests before the jungle was earmarked as national forests.
The Kaeng Krachan forest crackdown defied the cabinet ruling. Yet, no one raised an eyebrow. No official has been punished, because society has been programmed to believe that the highlanders are forest destroyers. So, the abuse continues.
To evict some 60 subsistence Karen farmers from the heart of Kaeng Krachan, the national park officials summoned full army support. The Karen shacks were set on fire. So were their rice barns. The latter desecration is taboo among ethnic Karen, who believe such a "great sin" brings violent death. True or not, with the helicopter crashes the crackdown on the Karen in Kaeng Krachan came to a stop. But forest evictions elsewhere continue unabated.
While the Kaeng Krachan tragedy clearly shows the forest authorities' ethnic prejudice against highlanders and their misconceptions about the wilderness, the concurrent massive encroachment of Wang Nam Khieo reveals their notorious negligence.
Why such a grand-scale crackdown on a group of 60 powerless peasants, while allowing investors to encroach on Wang Nam Khieo forest land in broad daylight over these so many years, to the point of no return?
Stop blaming forest dwellers, small farmers or investors. Stop finding scapegoats. Massive encroachment cannot occur without the corruption in officialdom.
Staging violent crackdowns will not help save the forests. Dealing with the forest authorities' own incompetence and mismanagement, however, will.