The ethnic Karen forest dwellers finally had a reason to feel hopeful in their fight for ancestral rights to live in Kaeng Krachan National Park this week. But it is unlikely to last.
The National Human Rights Commission has ruled that the park officials’ forest eviction operation of burning the forest dwellers’ homes and forcibly moving them to live elsewhere violated both the law and human rights. The commission urged the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) to investigate their officials over abuse of power, to stop future eviction efforts, to pay compensation, and to allow the Karen forest dwellers to return to their homes.
Since many Karen there have not received Thai citizenship because officials claim they cannot reach them due to rugged terrain, the Interior Ministry should grant them Thai nationality so they can have legal rights and welfare benefits, the commission urged. The Ministry of Culture should also step in to help them restore their indigenous Karen way of life as mandated by the 2010 cabinet resolution, said the commission. The question now is whether or not the DNP will accept their officials’ mistakes and follow the NHRC’s recommendations. After all, the NHRC’s recommendations do not carry legal power.
The subsistence forest dwellers are living deep in the Kaeng Krachan jungle in areas called Ban Bangkloy Bon and Ban Jai Paendin. Their rotating swiddens — proven to be ecological in many studies — are viewed with hostility by officials as a destructive method of slash-and-burn cultivation that must stop. The forced eviction made headlines in 2010 after three military helicopters crashed during the operation. The military joined the eviction operation because the dwellers are labelled as forest encroachers and a threat to national security. Park chief Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, who led the officials in the operation to burn down Karen homes and rice barns, insisted they were new migrants from Myanmar involved with rebel groups. He also accused them of growing marijuana.
According to the NHRC investigation, the evicted Karen are Thai nationals who have been living in Kaeng Krachan before the area was demarcated as a national park. According to the law, they have the right to continue living there. The investigation also found no evidence to support the park chief’s other allegations.
A group of 28 Karen forest dwellers took their case to the Administrative Court. During the court case, the Karen rights defender Tatkamol Ob-om was shot dead. Park chief Chaiwat was charged with his murder and is currently waiting the court’s verdict. About five months ago, a Karen activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen went missing after being arrested by the park chief.
The forest eviction at Kaeng Krachan is not an isolated case. It underscores the forest officials’ abuse of power against local villagers by branding them “forest encroachers”.
It also reflects the DNP’s zealous protection of their officials. An official facing a murder charge is usually relieved from duty. Yet park chief Chaiwat remains in charge despite concerns that he has the power to threaten witnesses and tamper with evidence.
The DNP is stepping up forest eviction to show the junta it is protecting the forests. More than 10 million people are under threat, which could trigger grassroots uprisings. Like at Kaeng Krachan, many villagers lived in the areas before they were turned into national forests by law. The NHRC’s Kaeng Krachan ruling is an attempt to bring forest dwellers justice.
But as long as society still views the hill peoples as forest encroachers and a national security threat, such ethnic prejudice will continue to support forest officials’ abuse of power and violations of people’s rights.