Concern rises after Karen indigenous community returns to ancestral land

Concern continues to rise among civil society for the safety of members of the Bang Kloi Karen indigenous community who returned to their ancestral land at Chai Phaen Din in the Kaeng Krachan forest, after reports of a possible military operation to evacuate them from the forest.  

Representatives from the KNCE and P-Move submitting their petition, which was received by Move Forward party MP Manop Keereepuwadol

On 14 January, there were reports that a group of villagers from the Pong Luek Bang Kloi village, a indigenous Karen community in Phetchaburi Province, had travelled into the Kaeng Krachan forest to return to their former villages at Bang Kloi Bon and Chai Phaen Din, from where they were forcibly evacuated in 1996 and 2011.

Kaeng Krachan National Park officials said that the group was made up of around 20 – 30 people. However, the Karen Network for Culture and Environment (KNCE), western region, said that they received reports from the remaining community members that more than 50 people returned to Chai Phaen Din, many of whom are women and children, including one pregnant woman.

Transborder News also reported that, last Wednesday (20 January), 17 other people from the community travelled to Chai Phaen Din, bringing the total number to around 74 people.

There were also reports that a military unit based in Suan Phueng District, Ratchaburi Province, was preparing for an operation to remove the villagers from the national park area, causing concerns, especially among civil society, that the operation could be violent, causing loss of life, property, and the community’s dignity, as it would be a severe violation of human rights. There are also concerns that government agencies would press charges against the villagers, or that community leaders would be harassed. 

KNCE coordinator Kriangkrai Cheechuang said that the motivation for the move is likely to be unresolved community rights issues. He said tha, during the evacuation in 1996, government officials negotiated with the villagers and told them that, if they agreed to move to the Pong Luek village, each family would be given 7 rai (around 2.7 acres) of land and that citizenship issues would be solved.

However, even though park officials have said that land rights issues in the area have been solved, the community was not given the land they were promised, and the land that they were given was rocky and therefore not suitable for growing crops. Some members of the community who were undergoing the process of proving their citizenship also did not have land allocated to them.

Because of the problems they face following the 1996 evacuation, part of the community returned to Chai Phaen Din. They were then forcibly evacuated again in 2011, when military officers and park officials burned down their village.

Karen community rights activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen 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 Investigation (DSI) found charred bone fragments in an oil drum in the Kaeng Krachan Reservoir, which were confirmed to be Porlajee’s by DNA testing.

Last Wednesday (20 January), representatives of the KNCE and the People’s Movement for a Just Society (P-Move) went to parliament to submit a petition to the Standing Committee on children, young people, women, the elderly, persons with disabilities, and ethnic groups to raise concerns about the Bang Kloi community members who had moved back to Chai Phaen Din.

The KNCE asked that no charges be pressed against the community, since it is their right to return to the orginal location of their village, and that state agencies must not use violence against the community, as they have done in the past, or subject community leaders to harassment. A working group should also be formed to find a peaceful solution to the issues, which must also include civil society organisations such as P-Move.

Kriangkrai said that there have been reports of a possible military operation, and called for the public to pay attention to the issues facing the community, as the state may use violence against the community if the public does not keep an eye on them.

“What I would just like to ask is, in a situation like this, how do we see these people? Do we see the humanity of this ethnic group? Do we see that their status as Thai people? Because if we don’t, whether they are cursed by myths, contempt, insults, or making up stories that they have encroached into the forest or broken the law, it will really lead to actions by the officials that will give rise to violence. I want you to see the Bang Kloi Karen people as human beings who want a life and security in their lives,” Kriangkrai said.

Activists call for the public to #saveBangkloi

A banner saying "ethnic groups are people too" hanging from the railing around the Victory Monument

On 22 January 2021, two banners saying “#saveBangkloi” and “Ethnic groups are people too” were seen hanging from the railings around the Victory Monument.

Activist Thatchapong Kaedam, one of the two people who placed the banners, said he wanted to draw attention to the unresolved community rights issues faced by the Bang Kloi Karen community and raise concerns about possible forced evacuation.

After they hung the banners, Thatchapong and one other activist were arrested and taken to Phaya Thai Police Station. They received a fine of 1000 baht each for violating the cleanliness act and were released.

By 20.20, around 60 – 70 people gathered in front of the Phaya Thai Police Station to show their support for the activists and clashed with police officers who were blocking them from going inside the station. At least 2 people were injured, one reportedly hit on the head and in the eye while another fell and hit their head. They were taken to a hospital.

More “#saveBangkloi” and “Ethnic groups are people too” signs were seen over the weekend: at the Three Kings Monument and in front of the Wattanothaipayap School in Chiang Mai, hanging from an overpass in front of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) building in Bangkok, at Bueng Phlan Chai park in Roi Et, and carried by a group of activists in Loei.

Activists in Chiang Mai carrying a banner saying "Ethnic groups are people too" and "#saveBangkloi" in front of the Three Kings Monument

On Sunday (24 January), The Reporters reported that park officials said they found 10 locations within the Bang Kloi Bon area which had been cleared after park officials, military, and police officers flew over to inspect the Kaeng Krachan forest, which they claimed was a routine flight and not intended to investigate the indigenous community who moved back into the forest. Park officials also claimed that they have to keep the law, but will try to find a way to negotiate with the villagers first.

The Thai government is planning to once again nominate the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex as a world heritage site at the World Heritage Commission session in July, after their previous three nominations have been deferred on the ground that the Commission would like the Thai government to resolve community rights issues and issues of human rights violations against Kaeng Krachan’s indigenous communities. This caused concerns among civil society and the communities, as they fear that if the forest becomes a world heritage site, it will worsen their situation.

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