Forest dictatorship at Kaeng Krachan
Enough is enough. When the meek indigenous forest dwellers fearlessly walked out of the meeting with the forest authorities in Kaeng Krachan National Park last week, their message was clear: Enough of your lies, cheating and violence. Enough of our hunger and loss of dignity from forced resettlement. Enough of threats and intimidation. We are going home for good.
Infuriated, the Kaeng Krachan park officials filed charges against the indigenous Kaeng Krachan Karen who have returned to their ancestral land at Bang Kloi-Jai Paen Din for destroying the watershed forest. The charge carries a maximum jail term of 20 years and a maximum fine of two million baht.
The forest dwellers argue they are clearing their old farmland which will be left to regenerate during the fallow period of seven to 10 years. This is part of the traditional rotation farming system that is common in tropical forests and internationally recognised as ecologically friendly.
But the forest authorities insist this practice is illegal because the forests must be free of humans and they own all forests with total control.
The charge is the latest in the Kaeng Krachan forest saga which saw murders, deaths, abduction, arson and enforced disappearance for those who dared defy the forest authorities.
The park authorities' contempt and inhumanity for the forest poor were evident throughout their latest suppression.
After 25 years of hardship from forced resettlement, the coronavirus pandemic and shortages of food made them realise returning home was their only choice for safety and survival.
When they started clearing their old farmland at Bang Kloi, the forest authorities sent in armed men, ready for a crackdown, leading to the SaveBangkloi protest in front of Government House.
To avert political embarrassment during the censure debate, the government agreed to withdraw armed personnel and stop blocking food aid to wear down the villagers.
The agreement also covers rotation farming in Bang Kloi, farmland for those who want to remain in the resettlement village, and respecting indigenous rights as mandated by the Aug 3, 2010 cabinet resolution.
Betrayal started from day one.
When the forest dwellers returned from the protest in Bangkok, armed park officials refused to let them back in. Then, Varawut Silpa-archa, Minister of National Resources and the Environment, threatened arrests.
To drum up ethnic prejudice against the forest dwellers, the forest authorities distributed photos of cleared forests with exaggerated figures to the press. Some of them were old photos from other locations.
Helicopters were then sent to Bang Kloi to round up the forest dwellers, forcing them to sign official documents they did not understand.
That was not all. They also fabricated fake news accusing the forest dwellers of demanding 5,000 rai (800 hectares) of lush forest. A video clip shows officials talking patronisingly to a forest dweller as if he is an ignorant child, showering him with promises of fertile land and better life opportunities for their children.
New promises after 25 years of lies and hardship in the prison-like resettlement village?
What to believe when even the agreements at the highest level of the government are empty words?
Where is the credibility?
The crackdown occurred when the government-appointed fact-finding team was in the resettlement village, showing that the official agreement is just lies.
They also refused to allow food to reach the starving villagers when a group of southern fishermen sent fish and dried food to the resettlement village.
Why such heartlessness?
When the officials finally relented, the fishermen were told to stay only a few hours and leave the same day. The fact-finding team was also ordered to pack up although they had not finished their mission.
The park authorities wanted to make sure they had the upper hand at the negotiations the following day, believing that the forest dwellers could not think for themselves and their defiance was a result of outside influence.
Imagine the shock and outrage when the forest dwellers walked out of the negotiations because the authorities refused to discuss their right to return to their ancestral land.
The inhumanity, lies, and the crackdown last week were in line with the long record of state violence against the indigenous people there.
The Karen forest dwellers in Phetchaburi's Kaeng Krachan forest are probably the most primitive indigenous people in Thailand, thanks to their isolation. Their simple way of life and traditional rotation farming system have helped preserve the forest and biodiversity for ages. Yet, the government slams them as national security threats.
In 1996, the Karen were forced to resettle at Pong Luek, a village downstream. Without land to till, they returned to Bang Kloi and lived their subsistence way of life.
In 2011, the then park chief Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn accused them of being illegal immigrants, forest destroyers, drug traffickers and supporters of the Karen army across the Thai-Myanmar border. In a violent crackdown, he led a joint military operation to burn down the houses of nearly 100 families, forcing them to flee for their lives.
With support from human rights lawyers, their spiritual leader Ko-ee Mimee filed charges with the Administrative Court and the Office of Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission against Mr Chaiwat for the arson.
During their fight for justice, two of Grandpa Ko-ee's advocates were murdered. First Tatkamol Ob-om, a community leader, was shot dead. Mr Chaiwat was arrested but not convicted because the police could not locate the gun.
The next victim was the elder's nephew, Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen. He disappeared mysteriously in 2014 while collecting evidence for the court case after being arrested by Mr Chaiwat.
Police investigation showed Billy had not been released as Mr Chaiwat had claimed. Two witnesses later confessed they lied about the release because park officials told them to.
Five years later, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) found fragments of Billy's skull in the reservoir near a national park office. The DSI charged Mr Chaiwat and his team with premeditated murder, but the public attorneys dismissed the case. The DSI appealed and the case is now with the Office of the Attorney General.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the Kaeng Krachan forest dwellers are indigenous people, dismissing Mr Chaiwat's allegations. The court also ruled the arson illegal and ordered state compensation.
"We don't want money. All we want is to return home," said Grandpa Ko-ee. He passed away at the age of 107 in 2018 before realising his dream.
The Supreme Administrative Court also ordered the forest authorities to honour the 3 Aug 2010 cabinet resolution on indigenous rights which prohibits arrests and mandates the setting up of a non-partisan committee to resolve conflicts. Under the law, indigenous people have the legal right to stay.
Following the legal defeat, the forest agencies amended the law to give themselves full power to arrest the forest dwellers on sight and to destroy their houses without investigation.
In other words, the new forest law has put all protected forests under a state of emergency, giving the forest officials even more power than the military in the restive deep South.
Despite the scandals and court verdicts, Mr Chaiwat continues to rise up the forest bureaucracy ladder.
The ongoing state violence against the forest people raises many questions.
Why wage a war against the forest poor while kowtowing to agro giants and their corn plantations which denude mountains and choke the whole country with toxic haze?
Last week, the Office of Public Sector Anti-Corruption ruled that Mr Chaiwat should be fired for torching the indigenous people's homes. Mr Chaiwat will also be tried in the Criminal Court. Will Mr Chaiwat still enjoy protection from his forest bosses?
On Monday, helicopters with armed personnel headed to Bang Kloi for another crackdown. Have they learned from past mistakes?
The forest agencies' refusal to recognise indigenous people's rights and their fierce protection of Mr Chaiwat point to bureaucratic dictatorship to rule protected forests with an iron fist.
Treating protected forests like colonies to exploit local resources, the new forest law allows national parks to keep tourism money for themselves. Abuse is inevitable while old problems such as illegal logging, poaching, and corruption in reforestation programmes remain unresolved.
Such huge benefits explain the forest agencies' hardline policy.
But the Thung Yai-Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, already a World Heritage Site, allows indigenous Karen forest dwellers to live on their ancestral land. Why does the Kaeng Krachan National Park, which also aspires to be listed as a World Heritage Site, want to evict the forest dwellers from Bang Kloi?
Is there anything to keep from the public eye?
For the Karen, the forest is their sacred home, not a treasure trove to fatten bank accounts.
"I'm so happy to be back home," said No-ae, son of the late spiritual leader Ko-ee Mimee. Weak and crippled, he was carried back to Bang Kloi.
With the ongoing crackdown, the lives of Bang Kloi Karens are now in danger. If forced to leave, "I would hang myself," No-ae declared, echoing other forest dwellers' determination to live on their ancestral lands.
No more injustice. No more loss of dignity from life in confinement, they said. For No-ae, he is realising his father's dream of returning home. He will now live as a free man and won't let anyone stop him now.
He'd rather die than leave, said the soft-spoken forest dweller. "Shoot me," he said. "I won't blame you for doing that. But I am not leaving my home."
Former editorial pages editor
Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on social issues, gender, and Thai Buddhism.