Exactly a year ago this month, a group of indigenous Karen forest dwellers left their resettlement village in Kaeng Krachan National Park to go back to Bang Kloy Bon and Jai Paen Din, their ancestral homes deep in the jungle. They were immediately arrested and sent to jail.
For the forest authorities, the Karen forest dwellers violated the law by encroaching on forest land. For the Karen, they were returning to their motherland after officials burned down more than 100 homes to force them to live in a resettlement village.
The arrest triggered a public outcry against the state's treatment of indigenous forest peoples, leading to the SaveBangkloy protest in front of Government House last year. The government set up a committee to tackle the land rights problem, but nothing came out of it. Meanwhile, authorities continue to pursue court cases against the Bang Kloy Karen.
The plight of the Bang Kloy Karen is of great concern for other forest communities. Of the 10 million people in national forests, the indigenous Bang Kloy Karen are the most primitive based on their little contact with the outside world. Yet they suffer the most severe state violence. If the Bang Kloy Karen are not spared, they fear they won't be either. Last month, the P-Move grassroots movement organised a street protest in Bangkok to demand policy solutions for land rights conflicts with state authorities. The Bang Kloy forest dwellers joined the protest to force the government to fulfil its promise. The government agreed to set up a new committee which held its first meeting this month.
The committee primarily consists of civic leaders and academics, without forest authorities. This is a good start. After all, the state violence against the indigenous forest dwellers stems from park officials and the determination of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to protect the autocratic forest bureaucracy.
Their land rights conflict dates back to 1996 when park officials forced the Karen to leave their forest homes to live in a resettlement village called Bang Kloy Lang. This forced resettlement was unlawful. Under the new National Park Bill, the officials do not have the power to create resettlement in national parks.
The hardship in the resettlement village forced the Karen peasants to head back to their old homes, which led to the eviction in 2011 when former park chief Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn led his men to torched the forest dwellers' homes to force them back to the resettlement village. But the Supreme Administrative Court ruled in 2018 that the Bang Kloy Karen are indigenous forest people. The court also ruled that the authorities broke the law by setting fire to people's homes and must pay compensation. Mr Chaiwat later lost his job on the order of the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission for arson.
The Karen forest dwellers have the right to return to their ancestral land. They have been living in Bang Kloy Bon and the adjacent forest community called Jai Paen Din (Heart of the Forest) for centuries. Jai Paen Din has also appeared on military maps since 1912.
Under Section 64 of the new National Park Bill, the forest authorities must conduct forest surveys to recognise the forest dwellers' land and land rights. The forest officials must respect their law. Although the deadline for the land survey has now passed, the work must continue even though forest authorities could not meet the deadline they set for themselves. People in the forest should not suffer from the forest bureaucracy's failure. The deadline extension will also benefit other forest communities, not only forest dwellers in Kaeng Krachan Forest.
The authorities must also stop legal persecution of the indigenous Karen. Under the cabinet resolution of Aug 3, 2010, forest officialdom must stop arresting Karen forest dwellers while land rights conflicts have not yet been settled. The park officials must respect this cabinet resolution.
The constitution does not only enshrine the rights of local communities to protect their natural resources and culture, but it also protects the rights of ethnic groups, including forest dwellers, to safeguard their homes and way of life. The government should, therefore, speed up the legislative process to make the Protection and Promotion of the Ethnic Peoples' Way of Life bill becomes law as soon as possible. Research worldwide reconfirms that forest peoples are better forest guardians than officialdom. If Thailand wants to save the forests, we must protect the indigenous forest peoples, not the autocratic forest bureaucracy.