Bang Kloi indigenous community asks to return to ancestral land

Three years after a group of villagers from the Bang Kloi indigenous Karen community were prosecuted for returning to their ancestral land in the Kaeng Krachan forest, the community is calling on the new government to help them return to the original location of their village at Chai Phaen Din, from which they were evicted over 20 years ago.

Representatives of the Bang Kloi community reading their statement during the 22 August event.

Bang Kloi Khuen Thin (“Bangkok Returns Home”), a group of community members campaigning for their right to return to their traditional way of life, issued a statement on 22 August calling for the new government to allow them to return to Chai Phaen Din as soon as possible. They noted that the independent committee formed to investigate and solve the community rights issues they face agreed that they should be allowed to do so, and called for encroachment charges brought against community members who decided to return to Chai Phaen Din in 2021 to be dropped.

The group is demanding a public apology from the new government for the violence and discrimination committed against indigenous communities by the authorities.  They also ask that those responsible for the abduction and murder of Bang Kloi Community rights activist Porlajee Rakchongcharoen to be prosecuted. To open the door to solving community rights issues, they further propose that the new government acknowledge to the United Nations that the country has indigenous communities.

The group asks that the new government amend outdated conservation laws, including the National Park Act of 2019, so that the rights of indigenous communities are not infringed upon.  They also call for the passage of a law protecting the indigenous way of life as well as legislations on land rights and other laws on behalf of these communities and other marginalised groups.

The Bang Kloi indigenous Karen community was forcibly evicted from Chai Phaen Din, their ancestral homeland in the Kaeng Krachan forest, in 1996, and again, for a second time in 2011, when park officials burned down their houses and rice storage barns. They were then relocated to the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi Village, where they now live. The authorities promised each family 7 rai of land. However, the community was not allocated the promised amount of land and the land they were given were not suitable for agriculture.

The lack of farmland has resulted in malnutrition, food insecurity, and economic issues. The community also faces epidemics of seasonal diseases like Dengue Fever and Malaria.  Access to a hospital is difficult due to the condition of the road to and from Pong Luek-Bang Kloi Village. Earlier this May, activist Gift Tonnamphet died from Dengue Fever. Her family and other activists have said that her death is the result of medical negligence and racial discrimination by a local hospital which delayed her treatment, resulting in complications.

Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, a community rights activist and Bang Kloi community leader, also disappeared in April 2014, after being taken into custody by Kaeng Krachan National Park officials. Prior to his disappearance, Porlajee was working with other villagers and activists in the Kaeng Krachan area to challenge the human rights violations against his community and to seek redress for the forced evacuation and destruction of their village.

In September 2019, the Department of Special Investigations (DSI) found charred bone fragments which were confirmed to be Porlajees by DNA testing in an oil drum in the Kaeng Krachan Reservoir. The trial against former superintendent of Kaeng Krachan National Park Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn and four other officials charged with Porlajee’s murder began this April, 9 years after his disappearance.

In late January 2021, 87 members of the community decided to return to Chai Phaen Din, after the Covid-19 pandemic caused many community members who left the village to work to lose their income. On 5 March 2021, they were forcibly removed from the forest and taken into detention. 29 people were then charged with encroaching on national park land.

The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex, which includes the Kaeng Krachan National Park and three other conservation areas, was named a natural World Heritage site in July 2021, despite ongoing concerns about human rights violations against indigenous communities in the area.

Where to go next?

The panelists, from right: Apinan Thammasena, Sor Rattanamanee Polkla, Pachara Khamchamnan, and Pongsak Tonnamphet

At the 22 August panel discussion, held by the activist group Save Bang Kloi Coalition at the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (SAC), Bang Kloi community rights activist Pongsak Tonnamphet said that the community decided to return to Chai Phaen Din in 2021 because they are not able to live at Pong Luek-Bang Kloi.  

He added that the root of the issues they face is a bias against indigenous peoples. He asked why they are not allowed to return to their ancestral land when they were told during the forced evacuation that they could return to Chai Phaen Din if they were unable to live at Pong Luek-Bang Kloi.

He also noted that the Administrative Court ruled in a lawsuit filed by the community’s late spiritual leader Ko-i Meemi that there had been a settlement at Chai Phaen Din and that park officials were at fault for forcibly evacuating them.

Pongsak said that the community hopes that the next generation are able to be proud of who they are.  He believes their traditional way of life better fits their needs.

As for the charges against community members, lawyer Sor Rattanamanee Polkla, coordinator for the Community Resource Centre Foundation (CRC), said that they are facing 10 charges each under conservations laws such as the National Park Act and the National Forest Act for traveling back to Chai Phaen Din. She noted that legal proceedings when they were arrested were problematic, since the police were not able to provide them with a capable interpreter or find them a lawyer while they waited for their own lawyer to arrive.

Sor said that it was understandable for the community to decide to return to Chai Phaen Din, since they are unable to farm on the land at Pong Luek-Bang Kloi and were facing the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sor said that an option from the authorities in a case where the legal proceedings have not been fair would be to defer prosecution for the benefit of the community. She noted that the community may never be able to return to their land if a verdict is reached.

Meanwhile, Apinan Thammasena, a member of the independent committee on Bang Kloi community rights issues, said that the committee has proposed a trial period where the community would be allowed to live in the Kaeng Krachan forest to see if they could live in the national park. Conservation in Thailand is based on a supposition that no one should live in a national park. He said that the committee is working based on the principle that the community has the choice of where they want to live, noting that around 150 people want to return to Chai Phaen Din.

Apinan said that civil society has been very active in campaigning for Bang Kloi, and that society has become much more aware of indigenous rights issues. If the new government is not open for negotiation, it will damage the rights of not only the Bang Kloi community but also other communities across the country.

Save Bang Kloi Coalition activist Pachara Khamchamnan said that, although the community’s demand to return to their own land are very basic, it has been very difficult, and that the past three years have shown the bias of the Thai government towards the country’s indigenous peoples.

The Coalition also feels that Varawut Silpa-archa should not be appointed as Minister of Natural Resources and Environment in the new cabinet. Pachara said that they recently filed a petition with the Ministry, but Varawut said that the Bang Kloi case was over, demonstrating his unwillingness to work with the community and the activists in solving the issues.

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