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One leader in the movement against the forest reclamation policy of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), Den Khamlae, a leading land rights activist, mysteriously disappeared 7 years ago and was later declared dead. He was last seen entering a forest to collect mushrooms and bamboo shoots in Khok Yao community in Chaiyaphum Province, where the villagers face a land dispute.

Den Khamlae speaking during a protest before his disappearance.

16 April 2023 was the 7th anniversary of the disappearance of Den Khamlae, who went missing from the Khok Yao Forestry Plantation, between Phu Sam Phaknam National Reserved Forest and Phu Khiao Wildlife Sanctuary, on the morning on 16 April 2016.

Despite many days of searching with the help of many agencies, no trace of Den was found.

On 24 March 2017, 14 pieces of material evidence, confirmed to be Den’s possessions, were found. His wife, Suphap Khamlae, informed the Central Institution of Forensic Science (CIFS) and Royal Forest Department officials, who came to investigate the scene. An unidentified skull was found on 25 March 2017, and DNA tests showed a relationship with Den’s sister. In a second investigation on 6 September 2018, another 8 bone fragments were found at the same location. The CIFS later confirmed that the bones belonged to Den, proving that Den had passed away.

However, to this day, no clear explanation has been given to the public regarding how Den went missing or how he died.

Since the NCPO seized power on 22 May 2014 and declared its forest reclamation policy, there have been controversies around the policy’s aims to stop encroachment on forest resources and to take back land. Enforcement resulted in the forced eviction of residents from forest areas. Over the past 8 years, at least 46,000 villagers, mostly poor and indigenous people, have been arrested or prosecuted for trespassing on reserved forests, and many have lost their ancestral lands.

Den was one of the victims-turned-activists seeking legal title for the lands his community occupied. Another 14 villagers in 5 communities, located in the disputed area of Sai Thong National Park in Chaiyaphum Province, face accusations of trespassing on National Park land. Some have been fined over 100,000 baht, and others have been granted bail.

Other activists have disappeared like Den. Meanwhile, the authorities forced Khok Yao residents to leave the areas they previously occupied specifically as a result of the forest reclamation policy. On 25 August 2014, the Royal Thai Army and Royal Forest Department officials posted NCPO Order 64/75 demanding that the villagers leave the area and demolish their structures within 15 days.

Khok Yao villagers submitted a letter to the relevant authorities and met with P-Move, the People’s Movement for a Just Society, and government agencies to implement the resolution, resulting in a decision to delay the eviction. However, they were still threatened by government officials. On 6 February 2015, over 100 military and forestry officials again visited the community, driving the villagers out of the disputed area without their consent.

While the villagers insist on not leaving their ancestral lands, there is no guarantee from the government to ensure their peaceful lives on their own lands. Fighting with their empty hands is the last resort.

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