The funeral procession of “Grandpa Ko-i Meemi”, a spiritual leader of Karen indigenous people who died in 2018

The Black Forest

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) announcement No.64/2557, better known as the "Forest Reclamation Policy,” led to regulations to stop encroachment on forest resources.

Enforcement resulted in more than 64,000 villagers around the country being arrested and sued.  Most were villagers who lived on, or had land plots that overlapped with, forest preserve areas in various ways.  As national parks adopted specific laws and imposed severe penalties, a shockingly large number of people were prosecuted, many going to jail. Many others lost their ancestral lands.  In some cases, families were left bankrupt, the assets accumulated over a lifetime exhausted. Others lost family members.

Pongsak “Bank” Tonnampetch, a community leader who fights for the land rights of Bangkloi villagers

The funeral procession of “Grandpa Ko-i Meemi”, a spiritual leader of Karen indigenous people who died in 2018

Pinnapha “Muenor” Phrueksapan, the former wife of Billy, who keeps fighting for justice for her husband

Bank in a meeting with the independent truth and resolution commission of the Karen community of Bangkloi

Pongsak “Bank” Tonnampetch, a community leader and fighter for the land rights of Bangkloi villagers

Evening view around Phetchaburi bridge, symbol of Lower Bangkloi village

From Bangkok, it me took 3 hours to reach the entrance of Kaeng Krachan National Park and nearly three more from there to arrive at my destination - Ban Bang Kloi, a village located in Kaeng Krachan.

Formally known as “Ban Bang Kloi Lang,” it is the home of ​Karen people who were relocated from Ban Jai Paen Din, a village in the middle of the Kaeng Krachan forest, in 1991.  [Such forced relocations], the dark side of forest resource conservation, began after logging concession in natural forests were cancelled, a policy known as “closing forests.” This is the 4th time for me to visit this area. Getting there is becoming more and more difficult as Bang Kloi is a now a recognised area of disputed area.

The “closed forest” policy cancelled all concessions related to cutting timber from natural forests. It was done to preserve forest resources as national treasure, a beautiful goal that raised the hopes of Thai conservationists.  The policy had a dark side, however - resources preservation undertaken without any thought of possible sociological and anthropological repercussions, without regard for fundamental human rights principles.  The result: villagers whose way of life had been tied to the forest for a long time were adversely affected. 
I came to Bang Kloi for the first time in 2017 to monitor the mysterious disappearance of “Billy” – a young Karen man who came out to demand the right to live and make a living in Jai Paen Din before the Kaeng Krachan National Park was established. Billy fought and demanded the right to live with the forest according to the traditional way of life of Karen indigenous people. They claim to have lived in the area since the time of their ancestors. He was representing the villagers in their fight. At the same time, he represented the voices of forest people who have lived for generations with harmony and respect for the nature. Tragically, one afternoon in April of 2014, Billy left his house to run errands in the district and never returned. Witnesses claimed to have seen him being held by forest rangers. The rangers explained that they detained him for smuggling wild honey and released him later the same day. But no one saw Billy again. Then, in 2019, the Department of Special Investigations announced that they had found Billy’s dead body and were opening a special investigation.  The prosecutor eventually brought charges against the then head of Kaeng Krachan National Park for murder, a case that is still being heard by the court.

Billy’s disappearance served as a wake-up call for other Bang Kloi villagers about the importance of protecting their home. This meant protecting the lives and safety of the people who live on the land as well. The result is a long conflict between government officials and villagers that continues at present.  Recently, I had a chance to talk to Pongsak "Bank" Tonnamphet - a young man from Bang Kloi, a self-described recovering alcoholic.  Nowadays, Bank is a mainstay of the Bang Kloi community.  He, himself, is still surprised how he arrived at this point. In the past, he was a small boy who didn't think much about life. Today, he is the hope of the village - a leader and interlocutor with outsiders who are interested in their struggle.  He does so out of necessity: "If I don't do it, who else will?  I am not ready but try to do what I can and keep on learning." Bank joined the People's Movement for a Just Society (P-move), which addresses the housing rights issues of indigenous groups. He was eventually accused along with 29 other area villagers of encroaching on the Kaeng Krachan National Park forest.

Chantorn "Chan" Tonnamphet, a young girl from the same village, and her mother were among the accused. Chan was also charged with violating the “Royal Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations” because she participated in a public assembly organised to reclaim ancestral land rights in traditional areas. She believes she was exercising her fundamental rights as a human being. As a result of the charges, she decided to drop out of high school in her senior year. She worries about the lawsuits against herself and her mother. As her mother cannot speak Thai, she has to accompany her mother to every case-related appointment to act as an interpreter and explain legal procedures and restrictions. Chan also has to travel back and forth from Bangkok to Bang Kloi to present in the assembly case. “It has been very expensive in terms of travel and accommodation. Although some people have helped, it doesn’t cover everything. I used all my savings. There was nothing left. So, I decided to drop out,” Chan explained.

Fishing for a living is vital for Bangkloi villagers due to the state’s insufficient land provision

Children playing in the river while waiting for their mothers to finish fishing for dinner

Chantorn “Chan” Tonnampetch, an 18 year-old woman who had to quit school after her family was charged of forest encroachment

Photo of Chan and her friends from the same village.  Chan regrets that she had to quit school a few months before graduation

Chantorn “Chan” Tonnampetch, an 18 year-old woman who had to quit school after her family was charged of forest encroachment.

As some of the Bangkloi villagers are Christian, gatherings are held every Sunday morning at the church which also serves as a shelter for underprivileged kids from Bangkloi and nearby communities.

A map indicating the residence zone and division of property made by the villagers and the commission established by the state

The land area that the state provided is disproportionate to the size of the population and their needs.   Many of them want to return home.

From Bangkloi, I continued my trip to Sub Wai Village in Nong Bua Ra Wae District of Chaiyaphum Province to meet Nittaya Muangklang and Sompit Taennok. They both were accused of encroaching on forest land in Sai Thong National Park. Some 14 lawsuits have been filed against villagers in the area. In 3 cases, the Supreme Court issued a guilty verdict and ordered imprisonment without parole. What is right and wrong under the law is sometimes difficult for human beings to understand.

In the eyes of Sub Wai villagers, Nittaya Munagklang is a leader in the fight. She is also a refuge for them in both the real world and the world of judicial procedure.  Nittaya acts as a lawyer, providing legal advice to local villagers, friends with the same fate - defendants and victims of an injustice perpetrated by their own government.

Nittaya Muangklang, community leader and land rights defender of Subwai community, Chaiyaphum province, resting in her home after work

Nittaya Muangklang and Sompit Tannok, two accused of forest encroachment, help each other harvest their sticky rice 

Nittaya, community leader and land rights defenders of Subwai community, Chaiyaphum province.

The boundary line of Saitong National Park.  Situated next to the villagers’ land, overlapping land issues between the villagers and the park are still problematic today

Sompit and Nittaya searching for farm work, their main employment after their case ended

“Seriously, I really want to study law. I don't want to be an attorney or a lawyer or anything. I just want to have knowledge with me in case it can be used to help the community. I have survived to this day thanks to the help of lawyers. It makes us see the importance of this very much.” During her trial, Nittaya was sent to prison for 77 days before being released on bail to fight the legal process.  The Supreme Court ultimately suspended her sentence.

Viewed strictly from the standpoint of conservation, the number of prosecutions might represent an increase in forest coverage area - an overall improvement in both the quality of the environment and the quality of people’s lives across the country. The achievement has also wounded and traumatised many people, especially the lesser folks,  the socially marginalised, who face difficulties in resisting the power of a state that doesn't listen to their voices.  Instead, it only takes pride in expanding green spaces that please the middle classes, allowing the government to remain in power for as long as possible.

The case of Poh Sompit Thaennok of Ban Sab Wai is another brutal example of the misguided application of forest reclamation policy. The Supreme Court sentenced him to prison for 1 year and 10 months without parole. Two months into his sentence, Sompit's wife, who was ill with terminal-stage cancer, passed away. Nittaya and some kind-hearted villagers took care of Sompit's wife in her last moments.  Sompit and his wife never got to say goodbye to each other. “When I knew that she died, I was very sad. My heart was broken. We had lived together for more than thirty years and we almost never quarrelled, never once spoke rudely to each other,” said Poh Sompit while looking at array of photographs on the wall. Most are framed photos of him and his wife. The glass has been wiped clean so that the photos inside can be clearly seen. The same is true of a picture of his daughter on a key chain that Poh Sompit always hangs at his waist, never far from him.

Poh Sompit’s case reminds me of the story of Poh Den and Mae Supap Khamlae – a husband and wife from Kok Yao village, Khon San District, Chaiyaphum Province. Poh Den was a village mainstay who had been pushing for a community land titles.  Villagers had been in conflict with the rangers of Phu Sam Pak Nam forest from the beginning of the forest reclamation policy, when Kok Yao villagers were forcibly relocated out of the area.  One day, Poh Den disappeared.  His body was found in the forest not far from home a year later. Although the reasons for his disappearance and death were never clearly identified, villagers and people close to him believe that it was related to the land rights fight.  After the death of the villagers’ long-standing leader, Den Khamlae, the Supreme Court continued the case against his wife Mae Supap, finally sentencing her to 6 months in prison without parole. 

I had a chance to visit Mae Supap at a memorial service for Pho Den.  It was in 2017, just before she had to go to the Supreme Court to hear the court’s judgment. Though my memory of the conversation has faded over time, I recall the sad look in her eyes, even when she was smiling. It always comes back to me when I think about their story. After being released from prison in 2018, Mae Supap joined the P-move group and their movement for the right to livelihoods. Not long after, Mae Supap died of cancer in 2021 at the age of 67.

It is no exaggeration to say that this is a country has produced a record number of social activists and human rights defenders.  And just like overseas, we also have individuals working to conserve natural resources. But the path of conservation in Thailand has again and again led to tears, injury and death for marginalised people.  The need for conservation should be reassessed if the price to be paid is something priceless - human freedoms and human livelihoods.

Sompit’s home that he sold to pay for his legal fees

Sompit wife’s photos.  She died during his detention. They were married for more than 30 years. 

Every evening Sompit comes out to sit on the ladder of his home to relax, listen to music, and smoke

Certificate of Innocence is a document that the Department of Correction issues for a convicted who has served a sentence and been released

Sompit Tannok, accused of forest encroachment and convicted by the supreme court, received a sentence of 1 year 10 months without parole

Den Kamlae’s identity card, one of the things he left behind after his disappearance in Suan Pa Kok Yao

Village lands situated next to the area of Phu Sam Phak Nam National Reserved Forest and Phu Khiao Wildlife Sanctuary, known as the boundary dispute area of Den Kamlae case

Suphap Kamlae, died not long after release from prison for forest encroachment

This special report is supported by Internews' Earth Journalism Network.

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