Violence hampers Unesco park quest

Violence hampers Unesco park quest

Young Karen rights activist Pongsak Tonnampetch joined the SaveBangkloi protest in front of the Government House to demand indigenous land rights for Bang Kloi forest dwellers. (Photo: Sanitsuda Ekachai)
Young Karen rights activist Pongsak Tonnampetch joined the SaveBangkloi protest in front of the Government House to demand indigenous land rights for Bang Kloi forest dwellers. (Photo: Sanitsuda Ekachai)

Thailand's effort to turn the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex into a Unesco World Heritage Site has been made in vain for the past six years. Will it have succeeded by the time the annual World Heritage Convention convenes in July?

There is no chance of that happening if the state's violence against the indigenous forest dwellers continues unabated.

Violence and ethnic persecution are the main reasons why the Convention keeps rejecting Kaeng Krachan's nomination. Nothing has changed on the persecution front. So why does the government believe it has the best bet this year?

Firstly, because Thailand has become one of the 21 representatives in the Unesco World Heritage Committee after an election in 2019. Secondly, the host country this year is China -- which has strong political ties with the military-led government.

An authoritarian government deep in a culture of nepotism naturally believes in the power of backdoor lobbying. But Thailand is making a big mistake to think it can hide the state's atrocities against the indigenous people from the world.

In the renewed nomination for Kaeng Krachan, Thailand insists that the land rights problems have been resolved while the indigenous Karen forest dwellers are now enjoying a secure livelihood.

The opposite is true.

With no land to till and more hardships from the pandemic, some 80 forest dwellers -- who had been left near starvation in a resettlement village after they had been evicted from the national park by the government over a decade ago -- decided to launch a campaign earlier this year to return to their ancestral home in Bang Kloi within the national park.

The Kaeng Krachan National Park authorities immediately launched a crackdown. Photos of denuded mountains elsewhere were distributed to the media to demonise the Karen forest dwellers as forest destroyers.

During the raid, the park officials forced DNA tests on the villagers who struggled in vain when taken by force away from their land. Babies screamed when separated from their tearful mothers who, along with others, were arrested and sent to jail.

During the detention, they were denied the right to see their lawyers, relatives, and interpreters they could trust. They also complained of threats and intimidation to make them plead guilty to forest encroachment.

State atrocities against the forest poor in Thailand is not uncommon. But the plights of the Bang Kloi Karen epitomises the state's abuse at its worse.

The subsistent Bang Kloi people are the most isolated and primitive highlanders in the country. Their rainforests remain pristine through traditional rotational farming, now internationally recognised as a sustainable farming system on the highlands.

They have been living in the jungle called Jai Paen Din, meaning the heart of the land, for generations. There is so much to learn from their indigenous knowledge on how to preserve the rainforests. Yet the forest authorities slammed them as national security threats, drug traffickers, alien immigrants, and their farming methods as slash-and-burn.

In 2011, the then park chief, Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn, led a combined force of park officials and soldiers to torch the huts and rice barns of the Bang Kloi forest dwellers. The heavy-handed forced eviction lead to protests in which two advocates of the ethnic villagers -- Tadkamol Obe-orm, a local teacher, and Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen, a Karen ethnic conservationist -- were subsequently killed.

The violence failed to end their quest for justice. Through assistance from human rights groups, the Bang Kloi spiritual leader Ko-ee Mimee sued the Department of National Parks and Mr Chaiwat for arson and demanded the community's right to return home.

The Supreme Administrative Court ruled the Bang Kloi people are indigenous people, the arson was illegal, and Mr Chaiwat's arson order was an overreach of power.

That was not the national park agency's only legal defeat. The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) later charged Mr Chaiwat and his team with the premeditated murder of Porlajee, a young Karen activist fighting for Bang Kloi land rights. The case is now being scrutinised by the Office of the Attorney General.

That's not all. The Office of Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission finally ruled Mr Chaiwat's arson order as a serious breach of discipline -- meaning an end to his career.

The park agency fully backs Mr Chaiwat because losing the court case on ancestral land rights would empower millions of people in Thai forests and erode its central control.

After the Bang Kloi defeat, the forest authorities amended the law to give themselves full legal power to arrest forest dwellers and to destroy their properties on sight.

Such a draconian law would have never seen the light of day if civilians had a say. Yet, it sailed through the junta-installed Parliament in 2019.

Under this new law, the Bang Kloi forest dwellers are subjected to a jail sentence of four to 20 years and/or a fine of 400,000 to two million baht.

The blatant injustice prompted a SaveBangkloi protesting campaign by ethnic villagers and activists. The SaveBangkloi campaign yielded fruit at some levels as it led to the government's agreement to set up a fact-finding committee and delay the court case while waiting for the committee's conclusion.

But the park authorities could not care less. They filed more charges against the Bang Kloi Karen with detention threats. It took another street protest in Bangkok to remind the government of its promise. The next police summon is in July, the same month as the World Heritage Convention.

Distraught, the Bang Kloi folks have recently petitioned the Unesco World Heritage Centre. Their demands: Don't consider the Kaeng Krachan nomination until the park authorities stop persecuting indigenous people, withdraw the arrest warrants, and allow them to return to their ancestral land to pursue their traditional way of life.

The constant excuse from forest authorities is that the law does not allow people to stay in national parks. This is a lame excuse.

The Thung Yai-Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, a World Heritage Site, is a much more sensitive area ecologically than the Kaeng Krachan forests. Yet the Karen forest dwellers there are allowed to live their traditional way of life in peace.

The Bang Kloi Karen's way of life is even simpler than their peers in Thung Yai. Yet they are subjected to evictions, uprootedness, and loss of human dignity.

The constitution protects indigenous rights. The forest law that violates the constitution must then be cancelled.

The cabinet resolution on Aug 3, 2010 prohibits arrests and evictions in the disputed forest areas. It also reaffirms the forest people's land rights if they have lived there before the demarcation of protected forest areas. The Supreme Administrative Court also ruled that the forest authorities should observe this cabinet resolution.

The state's violence against the Bang Kloi forest dwellers must stop. They have full legal rights to return to their ancestral home. So long as their rights continue to be violated, the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex cannot be called a World Heritage Site -- and it is the national park authorities we have to blame for this.

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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