After two decades of hunger and hardship -- and a life without dignity in a prison-like resettlement village -- a group of indigenous forest dwellers decided to return to their ancestral home deep in the Kaeng Krachan jungle in Phetchaburi province.
It's about time! The ethnic Karen forest dwellers made their exodus home in mid-January amid a new wave of the coronavirus pandemic. They have no choice. Given the lack of farmland, village lockdowns and a life of near-starvation, the pandemic has made it clear that going home is the only answer for their safety and survival.
Right on cue, Kaeng Krachan National Park authorities denounced them with video clips showing patches of forest which they had allegedly cleared, to drum up prejudice against the hill people as forest destroyers.
A crackdown is imminent. It would have happened already to punish the forest dwellers' defiance had it not been for the #SaveBangkloi social media campaign in support of the indigenous people's ancestral land rights.
For the forest dwellers, returning home is not only a matter of survival. It is also a last-ditch effort to restore their cultural pride, identity and dignity.
For the forest authorities, it is a matter of face and power. If they fail to keep the usually meek indigenous forest dwellers in line, what to do with the other 10 million people in land rights conflict with the government?
The stakes are high for the autocrats; so a forest crackdown against the Kaeng Krachan Karen is just a matter of when.
If the Bang Kloi forest dwellers face a crackdown, they are not the only ones who lose, but every one of us.
Why? Because the draconian forest law is part of the militarism and bureaucratic dictatorship that is oppressing the people and holding back the country.
If this dictatorial system continues to prevail, there is no hope to free the country from the deep mess we are in.
We need forests to combat global warming, now humanity's greatest crisis. There is no chance that the authoritarian, corruption-prone system can protect them and save us from an avalanche of natural disasters.
Forget clean air too. The annual toxic haze will be here to stay. The draconian forest law only applies to the poor and powerless, not the powerful agro giants with deep pockets.
This bureaucratic authoritarianism is at one with the military dictatorship. It's why the mandarins dread democracy and decentralisation and fully support the military and the status quo to maintain their own power.
We and the forest dwellers are in the same boat. The Bang Kloi indigenous people need to be saved, and so do we.
Bang Kloi is located deep in the Kaeng Krachan National Park in an area called Jai Paen Din, meaning the heart of the land. Archaeological evidence shows human habitation there since prehistoric times. It was also an ancient maritime trade route across the peninsula. Jai Paen Din has been on the military's map since 1911.
Like ethnic Karen forest dwellers in other parts of the country, the Bang Kloi Karen subsist on a form of traditional rotational farming governed by nature worship that has become a source identity and pride. Their isolation has made them one of the country's most primitive highland groups.
Yet the Department of National Park, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation (DNP) outlaws them, accusing them of being illegal immigrants. The traditional rotational farming system is vilified as a form of slash-and-burn cultivation although it has kept Kaeng Krachan forest healthy for generations.
Under the forest law written by the forest authorities, all forest land in the country is under their sole control. Insisting that the forests must be free of humans, the law outlaws millions of people who have been living in the rainforests here for generations.
They are punished by law: eviction, arrest, and imprisonment. The result is great suffering and strife nationwide.
In 1996, national park authorities started evicting the indigenous Karen forest dwellers from Bang Kloi and resettled them in a village downstream. Frightened, they complied. The officials had promised they were free to return home should they not receive enough land to till.
Hit with empty promises and deprived of dignity and traditions tied with rotational farming, they went back home. In 2011, the then park chief Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn led a team of armed soldiers and forest rangers to torch their bamboo huts and rice barns, accusing them of being drug racketeers, illegal immigrants and sympathisers of the Karen Army in Myanmar. The crackdown was publicised nationwide as an operation against national security threats.
The forest dwellers fled for their lives back to the resettlement village, living in fear, hunger, and despondency.
When the violent crackdown was exposed by forest dweller advocate Tatkamon Ob-om, he was gunned down. The then park chief was arrested but eventually freed by the court because the gun could not be found.
When Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen, a young Karen land rights activist, helped the Bang Kloi Karen to pursue a case against Mr Chaiwat, he mysteriously disappeared in 2014.
Billy was last seen with Mr Chaiwat. Two witnesses who testified that Billy had been released by Mr Chaiwat after a brief arrest confessed later that park officials told them to lie.
Five years later, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) found fragments of Billy's skull in a reservoir near the park office. But the Office of the Attorney-General refuses to process the murder charge against Mr Chaiwat and his team, citing insufficient evidence.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled the Karen forest dwellers are indigenous people and the park authorities broke the law by torching their huts and destroying their belongings.
The court also told park authorities to follow a 2010 cabinet resolution which should protect them. It prohibits forest officials from evicting the villagers until they are found guilty of land rights breaches by non-partisan committees. If they lived in the forest before the areas became national parks, their land rights must be respected. The forest authorities simply turned a deaf ear. Forest eviction went on unabated while Mr Chaiwat, at the centre of a public outcry, kept on being promoted.
That's not all. In response to the Kaeng Krachan court defeat, the DNP issued a much more violent forest law. The bill was rushed through the National Legislative Assembly in 2019 and was passed right before the military-installed assembly was dissolved. The forest mandarins knew full well such a dictatorial law would never be possible during civilian governments.
How dictatorial is this new forest bill? In a nutshell, it makes national park officials more powerful than soldiers in the restive Deep South under the emergency decree. For example, the park officials have the raw power to destroy the dwellings of people in the forest on sight without prior warnings. No need to investigate or anything else. They can also enter forest people's dwellings at all times by citing urgency.
Also, the maximum jail sentence for "forest encroachers" has been increased to 20 years and they can also face fines of up to two million baht. Outrageously enough, the new law allows each national park to keep 90% of their tourism earnings without having to send it to the national coffer. Only 10% will go to local communities.
Without transparency and accountability, and with the park chief's absolute power, we can predict what will happen with stacks of cash from the tourists. We need to save the indigenous Bang Kloi Karen in Kaeng Krachan, that is for sure, but that may not prevent future persecution, nor save the forests from greedy, cruel hands.
Research worldwide says the same thing about forest conservation: Learn from local communities because their participatory engagement and their knowledge about nature passed down through traditions will protect the forests and biodiversity more effectively than top-down state control.
The Thai forest bureaucracy won't hear any of it. For them, power and money is the name of the game, not the heath of our forests. If we want to save the forests and end the crackdowns, we need to end forest dictatorship. We need to stop bureaucrats from making self-serving and oppressive laws. And we need to end the collusion between the bureaucracy and the military to derail decentralisation and democracy.
The Bang Kloi Karen are not fighting just for a piece of forest on which to live. They are fighting for justice and dignity. We are fighting the same fight. Dictatorship is cancerous. An open, democratic system is our only cure.
Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.