Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn, former chief of Kaeng Krachan National Park, has been allowed to return to work until a court hands down a ruling over a petition he filed. It looks like a small victory for Chaiwat.
He filed the petition with the Administrative Court in Phetchaburi province against an order to dismiss him by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (MNRE). The court last week awarded him an injunction.
Mr Chaiwat disputed the legality of the MNRE's order dismissing him from state service in April last year. The order was based on the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) ruling that found he abused his power in evicting ethnic Karen villagers of Ban Bang Kloi in the heart of the Kaeng Krachan Park in Phetchaburi province more than a decade ago.
Mr Chaiwat and his team burned down the Karen villagers' huts and rice barns and forcefully moved them to a relocation site, disregarding complaints that the land was barren and offered nothing in the way for them to make a livelihood.
The commission also wanted public prosecutors to pursue a criminal charge against the former park chief. Mr Chaiwat, however, claimed the MNRE had failed to set up a probe before discharging him, something he believed was a misstep.
As the court injunction triggered concern the PACC's ruling eventually will be nullified, On Aug 9 the civic groups advocating for the rights of ethnic people urged the MNRE to appeal within the 30-day deadline. They have also countered Mr Chaiwat's claims that he has unfinished forest conservation business and that his absence would cause damage to the state.
Yet the ministry said it planned to send the case to the civil service sub-commission, a move that may hinder the appeal process.
Surapong Kongchantuk, human rights lawyer and chairman of the Cross-Cultural Foundation, insisted there is no "misstep" in the April 2 order to discharge the former park chief. In his view, the PACC's ruling is final and the MNRE's dismissal order is lawful, and the appeal to the court should be made without waiting.
It's ironic that the dispute emerges at the time when the country is joining the international community in marking Indigenous Peoples Day this month. Ethnic villagers like those in Bang Kloi villagers, who lost their hero, Porlajee ''Billy'' Rakchongcharoen, in 2014, are still deprived of their ancestral rights as state officers are blind with prejudice.
Porlajee went missing in 2014 when he tried to protect his fellow villagers' rights. It's clear he was a victim of forced disappearance but the arm of the law has never reached the culprits. Mr Chaiwat and his team were charged with Porlajee's murder but were later acquitted due to "lack of evidence". It's more than unfortunate that attempts by the Department of Special Investigation to bring justice to the activist's family proceed at a snail's pace.
With the injunction, the ball is now in the MNRE's court. There are less than three weeks to defend its decision. The agency must do the right thing and maintain its dismissal order with no delay.