An indigenous Karen community in Thailand has returned to their land in a national park years after being forcibly evicted and seeing their homes burned by authorities. The move has prompted heightened tensions in the saga of Kaeng Krachan National Park as the Thai government threatens to remove the villagers once again and prosecute them.
In central Thailand’s Phetchaburi province, a group of indigenous Karen villagers have returned to their former homes in Kaeng Krachan National Park a decade or more after they were forcibly relocated from their homes.
In mid-January, over 70 residents returned to their homes in Bang Kloi and Jai Paen Din villages inside the national park, reclaiming their land. The Thai government and park officials say they have returned illegally and have threatened legal action or forced removal. A military unit was reportedly preparing to forcibly expel the returned community from their land.
“Living here they would starve to death,” local village head Niran Pongthep told Prachatai. “During the second outbreak of COVID, a lot of young people have returned because they lost their jobs in the city. If they just wait around, they will starve to death, while the original villagers didn’t know what to do because they had hardly any land to farm.”
Some of the Bang Kloi villagers were originally relocated in 1996 as authorities claimed they had no right to live inside the park, which was established in 1981. Thai army documents show the villagers were living in Bang Kloi as far back as 1912, if not much earlier. According to some sources, the villagers were evicted because of national security concerns or because they were allegedly concealing drugs or destroying natural resources—claims often used by the Thai state to justify policies towards ethnic minority communities.
During the initial relocation, government officials told residents that they would be given seven rai of land (2.7 acres) as well as Thai citizenship if they relocated, according to Kriangkrai Cheechuang, coordinator of the Karen Network for Culture and Environment in Tanao Sri (KNCE). Many indigenous communities in Thailand have historically been denied citizenship, leaving them without the legal documents required to access many services and legal rights. According to civil society groups, only three families from the village were given land and few were given citizenship.
The head of Kaeng Krachan National Park and other officials have told the Bang Kloi residents they must leave or they will be prosecuted.
Thailand’s broader protest movement has also shown support for the Bang Kloi community. In a public statement, the Bang Kloi community, the KNCE and the People’s Movement for Just Society (P-Move) called for officials to allow the residents to return and conduct traditional farming on their ancestral land, to allocate land to the landless villagers and to grant the villagers Thai citizenship.
The case of the Karen communities in Kaeng Krachan has drawn the attention of both the UN, over possible violations of the UN Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission.
The Bang Kloi community’s return is the latest step in a protracted struggle
In 2011, when some residents attempted to return to their land, authorities burned down the village, including 90 homes and rice barns, and forcibly evicted all villagers in the area as part of the Tenasserim Operation. The community filed suit over the burning of their village but officials were later acquitted.
The case was thrown into the spotlight in 2014 when activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen disappeared after national park officials detained him, allegedly for taking wild honey out of the forest. Billy, the grandson of a Bang Kloi village elder, was carrying documents that the community hoped to use in their suit against park officials and those responsible for burning down their village.
In April 2019, five years after Billy went missing, authorities found an oil drum in the national park’s reservoir that contained charred fragments of bone. DNA testing showed the remains belonged to Billy.
Thailand’s youth activists join villagers in push for land rights
Before deciding to return to their homes this month, the villagers formally requested that park authorities grant them the right to return but were denied. The Bang Kloi residents, as well as KNCE and P-Move, also submitted numerous letters to natural resources and environmental officials requesting they address the ongoing land rights and legal issues.
Activists around the country, including student groups, have now called on authorities to stop all violence against the Bang Kloi community but also broadened their demands to call for legal protection for indigenous communities, rather than persecution, and for aid to villages around the country struggling to access food and livelihoods during the pandemic.
On January 22, activists hung banners at Bangkok’s Victory Monument that read “#saveBangKloi” and “Ethnic groups are people too”. The two activists who hung the signs were arrested and fined 1,000 baht (US$33.50), drawing a small crowd which police reacted to with violent force. Activists hung similar banners of support for Bang Kloi in Chiang Mai and Roi Et.
The Kaeng Krachan villagers have seen some nominal success in Thai courts. In 2012, they filed a suit for compensation and to attempt to reclaim their right to land. The court ordered the government to pay each of the claimants 10,000 baht (US$302) but did not move to grant them any land. In 2018, the Supreme Administrative Court sided with the villagers again, this time ordering 50,000 baht in compensation, but again denying their claim to land.
UNESCO bid prompts controversy
Bang Kloi residents have also voiced concerns about the Thai government’s efforts to secure UNESCO World Heritage status for the national park. Last November, government and World Heritage Committee representatives visited the area but reportedly did not give local residents a chance to voice their opinions.
The residents then filed a petition with UNESCO raising their concerns about their rights to land and to maintain their traditional agriculture practices. The Bang Kloi villagers say they have no problem with the park being registered as a World Heritage site, but that the government must first address the existing land issues.
For its part, UNESCO has expressed concern about the controversies in the park. In 2016, the UN asked the Thai government to act on “rights and livelihood concerns” in the park and to ensure that the World Heritage bid has the support of the indigenous communities in the area.
“A lot of problems are swept under the rug. So from the world heritage perspective, there’s still a lot of unresolved problems,” Kittisak told the Phnom Penh-based platform. “If we get the World Heritage [status], will it even be something that is celebratory?”