For years, state authorities have claimed that the Karen issue in the Kaeng Krachan National Park has been settled -- that the indigenous forest dwellers who were evicted from their ancestral land in Bang Kloy village to a resettlement site down the hill have accepted their new life and are happy, while the registration of the forest complex as a Unesco World Heritage Site is well underway.
But last week's move by several dozen Bang Kloy villagers, who quietly abandoned the resettlement village to go back to their old land deep in the forest, invalidates those claims. It's reported that some families left no one behind.
Their message is strong: Not all is well unlike the picture painted by the state. This is not the first time resettled ethnic Karen have decided to return to their ancestral land, which was designated as Kaeng Krachan National Park in 1981. Life in their new location is simply too hard.
Village head Niran Pongtep told Transborder News that the Karen could not live in the resettlement village out of fear they would starve to death. This statement speaks volumes about how badly the villagers have been treated.
There are many other tragic stories from the park, the birthplace of Karen spiritual leader Ko-ee Mimee, grandfather of activist "Billy" Porlajee.
Park officials began evicting the Karen from Bang Kloy or Jai Paen Din village in 1996, but poor management allowed them to sneak back to their land. Then came the major eviction operation in 2011, codenamed "Tanao Sri", led by then-park chief Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn, which came as the state submitted the application for a world heritage site listing. Houses and rice barns were torched, and the Karen spiritual leader whisked away to the new location by helicopter.
The Karen took the case to the Administrative Court. During the court procedures, Ko-ee lost his only grandson forever, as he went missing in the infamous murder/abduction case. The investigation dragged on for many years until the Department of special Investigation (DSI) stepped in and eventually implicated Mr Chaiwat. But the former park chief remains free and was even able to get a promotion after the Office of the Attorney-General dropped the charges against him. Billy's family is appealing the decision.
How can the Thai state continue to violate ethnic minorities' rights again and again? In 2018, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that as the Karen are indigenous to the land, forest authorities must respect the cabinet resolution of Aug 3, 2010 which prohibits the eviction of indigenous communities from ancestral land until all land rights conflicts are resolved.
This historic verdict was supposed to be a victory for the Karen, but because of Thai bureaucracy, justice has not been served. Worse still, as the park learned of its defeat, the agency rolled out even more oppressive park laws, which allowed forest officials to evict and set fire to villagers' homes. The laws were approved by the military-sponsored National Legislative Assembly.
The park office may find the villagers' return to their ancestral land a challenge to its authority. But evicting them won't end the problem. The court has given its guidelines, now it's the park's duty to make them a reality.