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On a hillside in Petchaburi, a group of ethnic Karen are struggling to eke out a living. Resettled away from the protected forest, the ground they have been allocated is stony and covered with brush. Growing anything is made harder by the many large, unmovable rocks and the steep terrain.
“I came down here with my parents in 1996 when I was 20 years old and there still has not been any improvements to the land that we received, said Apisit Charoensuk, a member of the ethnic Karen community that was forcibly removed from their ancestral homes in the nearby forest.
Amid other problems facing the government, the issue of ethnic minority rights is moving up the agenda, in particular the plight of Karen villagers from Kaeng Krachan National Park in Bang Kloi.
The villagers say they have been living in Bang Kloi Bon or Jai Paen Din (ใจแพนดิน) for centuries. But for the past 25 years the government has been trying to relocate them, citing encroachment on the protected area of the park, as well as some security concerns.
The move and subsequent conflicts have raised complex questions for the nation over indigenous rights and state repression. In 2011 forest officials burned homes to drive out Karen who refused to leave the area. Karen activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen was disappeared in 2014. And several groups of relocated villagers have tried to move back to the forest, against resistance from officials.
On March 10, the Parliamentary Committee of Land and Environment visited Bang Kloi following complaints from resettled villagers that their allocated plots were unusable, and that they wanted to return home.
“Some people have land that they can use, but it does not reflect how we live because we use rotational farming techniques”, Apisit told the Thai Enquirer.
Four days earlier, a group of 22 Karen villagers had walked back up to Jai Paen Din. But they were forcibly returned by forestry department officials, and some jailed for encroaching on the national park.
The officials were rough with them, according villagers who spoke with press accompanying the committee. The forestry department denied using any force.
The Karen villagers of Bang Kloi were first told to leave the conservation area of the park after the Forestry Department went to investigate alleged encroachment in 1990, and was met with gunfire, prompting the Border Police to get involved amid reported additional security concerns.
In 1992 they were promised land for cultivation in Pong Luek Bang Kloi or Bang Kloi Lang, two days’ walk downhill to the south-east, with plots allocated by lottery.
The government and the Forestry Department have done their best to improve the lives of those who accepted, by providing schools, sanitation, and even, recently, solar panels, said Nijitnapong Bunditsamit, acting administrative head of the National Park.
But the lottery system for plots left many with infertile soil and poor access to water, according to the resettled villagers.
“Even those with land they can use need a lot of money,” Apisit said. “There is the need to use fertilizers and pesticide which we are not familiar with, which means some people are unable to grow anything.”
“I want to go back to my ancestors’ land,” said Nor Aee, a spiritual leader of the community. “The land in Jai Paen Din belongs to our ancestors and our place is there.”
The state views any attempt to return to their former village as encroaching on the national park and violating the Forest Park Act, said
Move Forward Party’s Nataphon Seupsakwong, Thailand’s first MP from the Hmong ethnic group, and a member of the observation committee.
But the real underlying question is, “why do they want to go back?” he told Thai Enquirer. “Why can’t they stay in the new land allocated to them 20 years ago? This is a failure to take care of these people.”
Ideally, he said, the government should reconsider the laws that uprooted these people in the first place. “When we apply these laws, which are decided in the capital, to these people living their traditional lives, we need to ask ourselves whether we are violating their rights.”
It is important to consider how the constitution can best protect the rights of ethnic groups as thoroughly as any other citizens, he said.
“It comes down to the law,” he said. “The forestry department have laws on their side, but there are none that protect the way of life of the ethnic groups.”
“Now we are drafting an Act to protect ethnic groups. I believe that if this law is passed it will outline how they look after the forests, and protect their rights too.”
Nataphon also pointed out that the law not only backs forestry department officials, it actually compels them to act when they see any encroachment of the park or else face prosecution. This makes it all the more important to introduce laws that also protect the rights of ethnic groups, he said.
However, some voices do not want to return to Jai Paen Din.
Pakor Chaiva now lives in Bang Kloi Lang and works as a labourer. He told Thai Enquirer that he would prefer to stay despite the conditions because he has to look after his father and in-laws.
“The land that my parents received is very hard to dig and has so many rocks. The usable space is so small it is not worth growing anything. But I want the government to come and help allocate land that I can cultivate.”
Another committee has been approved by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha to look into the problem, according to Thammanat Prompaow, the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives.
The new committee is to be set up within 30 days, and include representatives of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the Peoples Movement for a Fair Society (known as P-Move) and the Bang Kloi community, he said.
Thammanat also asked the police to delay prosecution of the Karen people that returned to Jai Paen Din to let the committee conclude its findings.
In the meantime, Nijitnanpong told the Thai Enquirer that “with the current dispute going on between the villagers and the forestry department, at the end of the day we will still have to live with each other here.”