Park victory a mixed bag

Park victory a mixed bag

Smiles returned to the faces of many Thais this week. On Sunday, the whole country jumped for joy after taekwando star, Panipak "Tennis" Wongpattanakit, won gold at the Tokyo Olympics in what was a nail-biting competition. Her win has helped buoy the sagging spirits of the nation brought low by the Covid-19 pandemic.

On the following day there was more good news, despite it eliciting mixed feelings among various groups in society, with Unesco's World Heritage Committee adopting the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex in Phetchaburi province as a World Heritage Site.

The decision ended the government's quest for the World Heritage Status label for the forest. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MoNRE) spent six years trying to convince Unesco to accept its application.

The committee previously turned down the proposal three times before granting approval on Monday. This year, the Thai delegates put in an all-out effort to win approval, especially with Thailand being one of the member countries on the judging committee. The government was likewise reportedly hopeful of securing an endorsement from China, the host country.

Two weeks before the meeting, the National Human Rights Commission -- a relatively quiet state body -- made a rare public announcement urging the government to withdraw its application, hinting at human rights issues. Regrettably, the warning fell on deaf ears at MoNRE.

The national park has been marred by reports of conflicts between state park officials and ethnic Karen villagers, after officials used heavy-handed measures to evict the Karen from the forest where they'd been settled for more than a century. Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn, former head of Kaeng Krachan National Park, was recently dismissed from the civil service for his role in heavy-handed evictions a decade ago.

Getting World Heritage status is a big score for MoNRE and the Thai delegates, and at some level the public can feel a sense of pride that the country has another World Heritage site label -- perceived as a tourism magnet and a major milestone for ecological conservation.

But on a different spectrum, it's a loss in terms of the defence of human rights, especially in the eyes of some civic groups, human rights advocates or the Karen villagers. For years, they campaigned to convince the World Heritage Committee to throw out the proposal by saying officials had violated the human rights of the Karen.

World Heritage status is also a game changer in other respects. Only a day after Unesco accepted the delegates' proposal, Mr Chaiwat -- the former Kaeng Krachan park chief -- libel charges against a human rights lawyer who represented the Karen villagers and who brought a lawsuit against him years ago, resulting in his dismissal. Despite it being his lawful right to defend and clear his name, the move adds another blemish to the saga of the Kaeng Krachan World Heritage Site.

MoNRE must now prove its promise to protect both the environment and human rights by firstly ending the dispute with the Karen villagers in a peaceful manner. Apart of protecting flora and fauna, MoNRE has the challenge of providing sustainable and acceptable solutions for the villagers who were forced out of the forest several years ago.

The ministry must take it to heart. A status like Unesco's World Heritage Site comes with great responsibility.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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