Why violence persists in our forests

Why violence persists in our forests

P-Move, a grassroots group which campaigns for land rights for the poor, submits a petition at Government House asking for the state to speed up land allocation to forest communities and give them rights and protection. Yet several forest dwellers face harsh punishment. Somchai Poomlard
P-Move, a grassroots group which campaigns for land rights for the poor, submits a petition at Government House asking for the state to speed up land allocation to forest communities and give them rights and protection. Yet several forest dwellers face harsh punishment. Somchai Poomlard

In the corridors of power, as female politicians in opposite camps were wrangling over what-you-should-wear for their first day in the parliament, some 350 kilometres from Bangkok, 61-year-old peasant Sinuan Pasang was thrown into jail for trying to protect her land.

She is not alone. Trapped on the bottom rung of society, Sinuan is among a group of poor farmers in Ban Sapwai, a forest village in Chaiyaphum province, who were arrested and taken to court by Saithong National Park authorities for forest encroachment under the junta's "forest reclaiming" campaign.

Of the 14 grassroots land rights activists at Ban Sapwai who were arrested, nine are women, all determined to fight because their land means their children's future.

In the early 70s, Ban Sapwai became a frontier settlement when loggers had left the areas after having taken most big trees that meant nothing to the government but mere timber for sale. The military also supported forest settlements during that time as part of its counter-insurgency policy. But the villagers are no longer of any use now.

In 1992, their homes and farmlands were annexed to Saithong National Park. Legitimacy is on their side, but the forest laws are not. Although they had lived there before the demarcation of the national park, the law written by forest authorities says all forests in the country are under their central control and all villagers in national forests are criminals no matter how long they have been living there.

Indigenous forest dwellers, whose ancestors were living in the jungle before this country came into being, are also considered criminals subject to imprisonment.

This is a classic case of how laws can be used to serve injustice and state oppression.

Sapwai is not the only village subject to violent forest eviction. More than 10 million people in about 2,700 forest communities are facing the same plight. More than 7,000 villagers are sent to jail each year, facing the same crime as Sinuan and other Sapwai villagers.

Notably, violent forest evictions have dramatically increased after the 2014 coup under the junta's "forest reclaiming" policy.

Also notable, as the forest poor are sent to jail in droves, the junta is busy giving away forests to industrialists in special economic zones.

Is there any hope for change? "Everything stays the same," declared the coup leader Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha a day after the junta's partisan electoral rules cemented his new rule as an outsider prime minister as planned.

He is wrong. Things won't stay the same. For millions of forest poor, the situation will be much worse. The present national park law that criminalises all forest dwellers will soon be replaced by a new version that is much more oppressive. Sending Sapwai mothers to jail is just the beginning of a new chapter of state violence against the poor.

Under the new law, forest officials have the ultimate power to summon people for questioning and enter any household anytime. They can also destroy any houses in the forest at will. In short, forest authorities can legally terrorise forest dwellers even when the junta is no longer around.

The new law also kills all agreements between previous governments and the land rights movement, especially the cabinet resolution which allows villagers to stay in their forests until land disputes are resolved by a bi-partisan committee. Past agreements on community forest and community land ownership to allow people's participation in land and forest conservation have also been discarded.

The punishments are also much harsher. The maximum jail sentence is 20 years and the maximum fine is 2 million baht. If the villagers cannot pay the fines, they will have to stay longer in prisons. Don't expect justice from the justice system. The court always insists they have go by the law, no matter how unjust it is.

When old-style politicians offer no hope, can the new-generation of politicians bring about change?

I agree with their calls for a new charter to reset Thai politics. But any charters are unlikely to create real change on the ground when the country is still under a broken system run by an out-of-touch, autocratic, centralised bureaucracy.

In 1997, we pinned high hopes on the so-called People's Charter, believing that the forest poor would have a better life because the charter recognised community rights and people's participation in natural resources management. How wrong we were.

The forest officialdom simply refused to honour the constitution and no one could do anything about it.

For the mandarins, the laws they wrote to control the use of forest resources have the last say, not the constitution. Successive governments turn a blind eye because they also benefit from the top-down exploitation of natural resources.

Still, it's crucial to keep the military in the barracks. For whenever the military seizes power, not only do environmentally destructive mega-projects to serve big business increase, the forest poor also face more state violence from forced evictions and lawsuits.

Sinuan and other Ban Sapwai villagers know it first-hand. After coup leader Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon seized power in 1991, Sapwai and other villages in the Northeast faced massive forest evictions so the areas could be given to tree farm investors. The scheme collapsed following mass street protests.

Land rights negotiations under successive civilian governments and a more open constitution provided room for bottom-up innovative policies such as community land ownership in exchange for forest conservation and sustainable farming. But the forest officialdom resisted by dragging their feet, again with impunity.

After the 2014 coup, the forest agencies stepped up violent evictions with military might, targeting, in particular, the forest communities that challenged their power.

They enjoyed immense success when Gen Prayut adopted the "forest reclaiming" policy with sweeping evictions nationwide. With military dictatorship soon out of the picture, the forest agencies then issued new laws to rule over their forest fortresses with military-like powers as if in a state of emergency.

It's why we need to reset the centralised bureaucracy, not only electoral politics. It's why we need not only to keep the military in the barracks, but we must also tackle the deep-rooted authoritarianism in our culture that sustains dictatorship in every level.

Global warming, environmental destruction and loss of biodiversity are now the most urgent problems we are facing. Forests, and only forests, will save us. Letting the centralised officialdom rule the forests like war zones won't. Allowing people in forests to have a say in protecting their sources of livelihoods will.

It has been proven around the world that forest communities are key to conservation. Here, the officialdom won't let it happen to keep their power.

Unless the new wave of politicians realise this, unless their hearts are with small people like Sinuan and the other mothers of Sapwai, they risk being sucked into the old bureaucratic maze and meaningless political theatre that will only sink us deeper into environmental and political woe.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on social issues, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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