More violence ahead for forest poor
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More violence ahead for forest poor

A portrait of disappeared Karen activist Porlajee
A portrait of disappeared Karen activist Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen is displayed at an event held in April last year in Kaeng Krachan district, Phetchaburi province. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)

Now that the junta has revoked its draconian order on nationwide forest evictions, will life for the 10-million-strong people who live in national forests be more secure? The answer is no.

Why? Because the junta has already made the notorious crackdown order into law so violent forest evictions across the country can continue unabated.

It means state brutality against the forest poor can go on during the tenure of any government in the future. Unless this law goes, that is.

Billed as a new national parks law, it was rushed through the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly just before its tenure ended.

Guess who sponsored it? Who else but the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation to increase its raw power over the powerless in national forests.

That's how laws are made in Thailand. State agencies with vested interests are the ones allowed by the centralised system to write laws behind closed doors to strengthen their central power and self-serving benefits.

The outgoing national park law is already very violent. It treats all forest dwellers as illegal encroachers no matter how long they have been living in the forests and despite their customary rights. It subjects them to arrest, fines, imprisonment and eviction.

Taking effect in November, the new law is even worse. Apart from increasing maximum imprisonment to 20 years and the maximum fine to 2 million baht, the new law also arms forest officials with the military's search-and-destroy powers.

More state violence lies ahead when forest officials now have new legal powers to destroy any properties in national parks on sight and at whim, without the need to investigate or acquire court orders.

It was therefore farcical for the Thai delegation at the recent World Heritage Committee meeting in Azerbaijan to cite this violent law to rescue Thailand's nomination for the enlisting of the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex on the Unesco list of Natural World Heritage Sites.

Who was the delegation trying to fool?

Longstanding violence by national park officials against indigenous Karen forest dwellers is public knowledge. The world knows about how ethnic Karen people who practice subsistence farming have been forced to leave the deep forest to struggle in a resettlement village.

When some of them tried to escape and return to their old land, former park chief Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn led a team to burn down their bamboo huts and rice barns and forced them back to struggle with hunger and hardship again.

Mr Chaiwat accused these primitive forest dwellers of being illegal, nomadic aliens from Myanmar who peddled drugs, grew marijuana, practised slash-and-burn cultivation, and supported the Karen army in Myanmar.

By painting them as national security threats, he succeeded in recruiting military support to evict the indigenous forest dwellers in 2011. Three military helicopters crashed in Kaeng Krachan forest, killing 17 people in the crackdown operation he initiated. A national tragedy. Remember that?

When a local politician, Thatkamon Ob-om, revealed the park officials' violence to the public and sought legal support from the Lawyers Council of Thailand for the forest dwellers, he was shot dead by a group of gunmen. Mr Chaiwat was implicated and arrested. The court trial ended with his acquittal due to lack of hard evidence because the police could not locate the gun.

When a young Karen activist Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen was collecting information for a lawsuit against the national park agency for the evicted forest dwellers, Mr Chaiwat arrested him for having wild honey in his possession. That was five years ago. Billy has not been seen since.

Mr Chaiwat claimed he had already released Billy, using two student trainees as witnesses. According to Pol Col Traiwit Namthongthai, the two witnesses later retracted their testimonies, refuting Mr Chaiwat's claim.

Since Billy's body has still not been found, he remains just "missing". And since the junta refuses to pass the enforced disappearance law, the last person to be seen with the missing man remains free.

The former park chief has not only remained unscathed, but he continues to climb the ladder in the national forest agency while the Kaeng Krachan Karen wilt in the resettlement village and Billy's wife struggles to fight for justice and raise five children by herself.

All this is old news, available to the world via the internet.

Free, prior, and informed consent of the indigenous forest dwellers is mandatory for any natural sites to be nominated as natural world heritage sites. So is the participation in the nomination process from local communities, indigenous peoples, civil society and other stakeholders to ensure shared responsibility and proper, long-term maintenance of the site.

Park authorities' gross violations of indigenous people's rights and the state culture of impunity clearly breach the World Heritage Committee nomination rules. How on earth the Thai delegation could expect that mere political lobbying -- and a few lies -- could win Kaeng Krachan the coveted recognition is beyond comprehension.

According to the Foreign Ministry's press release, all stakeholders have taken part in the nomination process. This is not true.

It also says Thailand has solved the rights issue by passing new laws to ensure the rights of local communities across the country, particularly the new bills on national park management and wildlife protection. This is not true either.

The new national park bill is harsher on local communities. The new bill on wildlife protection also focuses on state regulations on commercial breeding and the commerce of birds' nests. How on earth can they solve land rights issues?

The harsher national park bill is actually linked to the Kaeng Krachan saga. After legal twists and turns for six years, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled last year that burning down the forest dwellers' properties was unlawful and ordered the national park agency to pay compensation for the damage done.

It's why the new bill makes burning or destroying the villagers' properties in national parks legal.

The court also ordered the forest agency to abide by the Aug 3, 2010 cabinet resolution which prohibits the arrests of forest dwellers in land rights disputes with the park officials and to set up a neutral committee with the locals' participation to solve the conflicts.

The national park agency challenges this court ruling by dismissing it altogether by making the June 30, 1998 cabinet resolution part of its new bill. The reason is simple. The Aug 3 executive order reduces its power while the June 30 cabinet resolution maintains its rule over forest communities.

The new park bill also does not mention traditional and indigenous communities, an apparent attempt to dismiss their customary rights and to maintain their status as illegal and subjected to central control.

In 2016, the World Heritage Committee sent the Kaeng Krachan nomination back, demanding that Thailand fix two issues. The first involved violations of the human rights of the forest dwellers. The second was a protest by Myanmar over the border's boundaries.

It's interesting that state authorities agreed to move the forest complex boundary away from the Thai-Myanmar borders to appease Myanmar although this may affect border demarcations in the future. Yet they refused to give even an inch of land to the forest natives.

This stubborn refusal to accord the forest dwellers with customary rights led to the World Heritage Committee's document during the meeting this year recommending that Thailand start the nomination process from scratch again. A total loss of face if that happened.

With Thailand's intense lobbying and support from China, the committee finally agreed to just ask Thailand to fix the rights issue and to submit a credible report to show that the reduced area of Kaeng Krachan forest complex can maintain its value as a natural world heritage site.

Brushing the setback aside, the Thai delegation formally informed the public that Thailand has resolved all major contentious issues, leaving only technical matters to attend too for the next nomination effort.

This, again, is not true.

The technical report on the new forest complex area is the easy part. The question is how the Thai delegation can convince the World Heritage Committee that Thailand has resolved the rights issues with the Kaeng Krachan forest dwellers and attained their consent in the nomination.

How can this happen when the indigenous forest dwellers still cannot return to their ancestral land? How can the World Heritage Committee be certain that the Karen forest dwellers won't face new crackdowns when the violent national park bill is not fixed? Or when the perpetrators remain unpunished?

Lobbying is of no use. Right the wrongs. Unless that happens, Thailand's wish to have the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex listed as a natural world heritage site will remain elusive.

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 human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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