On 28 September, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold an Appeal Court verdict and sentenced a villager in Lampang to 1 year in prison, suspended for 2 years, and a fine of 400,000 baht, for encroaching on national forest land, and evicted her from her land.
Wannueng Yawichaipong, formerly named Saengduean Tinyot.
Wannueng Yawichaipong, 55, formerly named Saengduean Tinyot, a villager from Mae Kwak Village, Ban On Subdistrict, Ngao District, Lampang was twice ordered by Tham Pha Thai National Park to cut down her rubber trees, in 2013 and 2015. After it was proven that the plot in question was not part of the land that was to be declared a national park area, Wannueng demanded compensation, but was then sued by Mae Pong National Forest Area officials in December 2018, despite evidence that the plot in question has been occupied since 1954.
In December 2019, the Lampang Provincial Court dismissed the case and acquitted Wannueng of all charges after Cheewapap Cheewatham, Director of the Forest Protection and Fire Control Bureau, Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, testified that she had not violated national park boundaries as aerial photographs taken in 1954 showed that the land in question had been previously cleared and occupied.
Wisarut Srichan, an activist from the community rights group P-Move, also testified that Mae Kwak village land has been included in the Community Title Deed project, a campaign launched by the NCPO government to allocate land to villagers.
In September 2020, the Appeal Court overturned the Lampang Provincial Court’s verdict and sentenced her to 1 year in prison and a fine of 400,000 baht plus 7.5% in interest after it found her guilty of encroaching on national forest land and unlawful possession of a firearm. She was also ordered to remove her belongings from the land.
Wannueng then filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, which ruled today (28 September) to uphold the Appeal Court’s verdict. She was sentenced to 1 year in prison and must pay a fine of 400,000 baht plus 5% in interest in the civil case and 50,000 baht in the criminal case. The Court suspended her prison sentence for 2 years, but evicted her from her land.
Lawyer Sumitchai Hatthasan, who represented Wannueng, said that the Supreme Court ruled that Wannueng’s land is part of the Mae Pong National Forest Area, and that because the community did not oppose the area being declared a national forest within 120 days before the declaration was made as allowed by the 1964 National Forest Act, she is guilty of encroachment even though the land has been passed down in her family.
Sumitchai noted that, although Wannueng was not immediately imprisoned, the verdict is not in favour of community rights. He said that the ruling set a precedent that anyone charged with encroaching on forest land will be found guilty if their community has never opposed the area being declared a reserve, causing concern that no policy or administrative power will be able to protect the people.
“The policymakers are not clear on this. What do the villagers who live there have to do? It means that, from now on, officials will be able to arrest any villager, just as before,” he said.
Sumitchai said that although the court does not give them hope, the people should not lose hope and should continue to fight for policies about community rights, such as a bill pardoning everyone prosecuted as a result of government policy, since the situation would get worse without legislation protecting them.
Move Forward Party MP Manop Kiriphuwadol, a member of the House Committee on Land, Natural Resources and Environment, said that he will support a bill pardoning people prosecuted by a government policy if such a bill is proposed. He also said that it is parliament’s job to solve the issue, since communities facing encroachment charges pre-date conservation areas.
“The villagers were there first. Their community is recognized by the Ministry of the Interior because they have a village chief, by the Ministry of Public Health because they have a health centre, and by the Ministry of Education because they have a school, so why is it wrong for the Ministry of Natural Resources? This is a problem, so it is up to members of parliament to fix it,” he said.
Somchat Raksongplu from the Northern Peasant Federation (NPF), who was among the crowd waiting for Wannueng in front of the Lampang Provincial Court, gave a speech after Wannueng left the court, saying that Wannueng has had to suffer for the past 8 years after she was made to cut down her own rubber trees, charged with encroachment, and was not granted justice even though there is evidence that she is innocent. He also noted that she has not been compensated for the loss of her ancestral land, the debt accumulated while she fought the charges against her, her mental health issues, and the effect on her family, including her child’s loss of access to education.
Somchat said that the NPF will continue to fight for community rights to manage resources, and called on the authorities to drop charges against community members prosecuted for encroachment and allow them to return to their land to make a living.
The NPF will also campaign to repeal current forest conservation laws and for new laws to be made by civil society to govern community resource management, as well as for an end to policies made by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment which are using climate change as as a pretext for seizing land from communities reportedly to plant forests.