Adilan Ali-ishak, a Palang Pracharath Party MP for Yala, is playing a key role in pushing for the Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary in the deep South to become Thailand's Asean Heritage Park.
Mr Adilan said he is working closely with Yala Rajabhat University in pushing this issue after learning this wildlife sanctuary has lost much of its forest area since 2004. Many people have been arrested for illegally cutting trees in the forest despite the fact residents living around it have helped to protect it.
At the same time, Malaysia has attempted to push its adjoining forest, the Royal Belum State Park in Perak that adjoins the Thai forest, to become an Asean Heritage Park, he said. The two parks are separated by the Thai-Malaysian border but are part of the same broad forest area.
He had raised the issue with some experts from the southern university's Local Area Development and Promotion Centre who agreed to help draft an action plan for protected area management of the forest and people's participation in preserving the forest and pushing it to become the Asean Heritage Park.
Mr Adilan said he has proposed the matter to the House and asked for support from Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa, who ordered the ministry to set up a committee to assess the proposal.
He has also reported the matter to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who oversees national security policy and also asked to support the initiative.
At the end of the month, he said Yala Rajabhat University will host a forum to collect information on the forest and host an exhibition to educate people. The university will come up with an action plan to push the idea.
Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary was established in 1996. It covers about 391,689 rai including San Kala Khiri Mountain. Hala forest and Bala forest, which comprise it, are tropical rainforests.
Hala Forest is in Betong district of Yala and Chanae district of Narathiwat. Bala forest is in Waeng and Sukhirin districts of Narathiwat.
"My next plan is to seek cooperation from all stakeholders: the state, the private sector, civil society and the people's sector to make them understand the issue so everyone can walk the same path. Especially local people residing around the forest. I will try to raise their awareness about forest protection and importance of this forest area,'' he said.
Asked how residents and the region will benefit if the rainforests are listed as an Asean Heritage Park, Mr Adilan said forest protection and conservation will be carried out under regulations set by international organisations. More importantly, local people will have more participation in helping protect and conserve the forest or it could be delisted from the Asean Heritage Parks list.
Asean Heritage Parks (AHP) is a programme under the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to conserve areas of particular biodiversity importance or uniqueness by member states of Asean.
Asean environmental ministers signed the Asean Declaration on Heritage Parks in 2003. Asean member countries agreed that "common cooperation is necessary to conserve and manage AHP for the development and implementation of regional conservation and management action plans as well as regional mechanisms complementary to national efforts to implement conservation measures."
The Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) serves as the secretariat of the Asean Heritage Parks Programme. Its vision is "an Asean region whose biodiversity is conserved, sustainably managed and used, and equitably shared for the well-being of its peoples".
Mr Adilan said there is yet another reason to propose listing Bala Hala as an Asean Heritage Parks. Many people in Than To district of Yala whose ancestors in 1953 were asked by the then government to move out of the rainforests because they wanted to suppress members of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) who had fled there, had asked him to help bring them back to live in the rainforests.
These people said the then government promised their ancestors that one day they would allow them to return.
But after their ancestors had left the forest for two years, the government declared Bala Hala was a protected forest, which meant their their ancestors could not return.
Since then, the descendants of these people have spread out in Than To district but they still want to return. Mr Adilan said if Hala Bala is really declared an Asean Heritage Park, local people and the Orang Asli indigenous people who have lived in seclusion in the rainforests of southern Thailand since ancient times do not need to move out of the rainforest.
There are around 500 Orang Asli indigenious people, he said.
Orang Asli, or Asli in short, are indigenous people living deep in the Hala rainforest near the Thai-Malaysian boundary in Yala. Mr Adilan said he and his team are ready to educate stakeholders especially locals in the deep South about the importance of making Hala Bala an Asean Heritage Park.
He is ambitious to push for Hala Bala to be listed as a World Heritage site under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco).
"Some local people mistakenly believe that if Hala Bala is listed, they will not have rights over the forest," he said.
In fact they and state agencies involved will work closely together to protect the forest from being encroached and destroyed.
"More money and forest management and conservation resources will be allocated to state agencies concerned," he said.
Mr Adilan said that as a Asean Heritage Park, the forest will become a magnet drawing many tourists, which could generate income and jobs for the area.
Mr Adilan, 54, a former lawyer, is a first-time MP in Yala.
He graduated in law from Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok.
During 2004-2018 he was a member of the Nakhon Yala municipality council before entering national politics in 2019 and winning an MP seat. He now sits on two House committees.