Karen representatives today vowed to appeal against the recent Thai court verdict that ruled the authorities did not break the law in burning their properties to forcefully evict them from Kaeng Krachan National Park. Indigenous rights groups have called for effective redress for the affected communities saying that the ruling violated international human rights law.
On Wednesday, Thailand’s Administrative Court issued a ruling that the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation was within its rights to burn Karen properties in Bang Kloi village within the National Park in 2011. The court dismissed all the demands of the Karens, who filed the case in 2014, besides compensation for the loss of their properties. The court ordered the Department to pay compensation of 10,000 THB (approx. 287 USD) each to the six Karen plaintiffs against their initial demands of 100,000 THB each. The Department has refused to pay even the meager compensation and pledged to appeal against it.
“We also cannot accept simple financial compensation, as money alone will not suffice to compensate for the loss of our ancestral lands, our homes and our way of life,” said Du-u Cheebong, one of the six Karen plaintiffs. “We will appeal against the verdict in the Supreme Court.”
In its verdict, the court stated that because the Karens had ‘encroached’ upon forestland to expand their community and farms, the Department’s decision to burn down their homes was permissible under National Park Act 1961. The court also barred the community from returning to the land, which the Karens claim belonged to their ancestors. It is undisputed that the plaintiffs, including a 105-year-old Karen spiritual leader, lived in the lands all their lives until the evictions began, generations before the National Park was established in 1981.
“The ruling that the Karens had ‘encroached’ forestland only affirms the general lack of understanding on our histories and sustainable traditional practices and livelihoods,” said Wut Boonlert of the Karen Network for Culture and Environment. “Our rights to stay in our ancestral land and continue our traditional farm rotation system are protected in the existing laws, including categorically under the 2010 Cabinet Resolution.”
“However, the court concluded that the resolution does not give rights inside National Parks. So, that means our rights are only on paper,” he added.
The court had earlier in February made a similar ruling in another case of a home of a Karen villager torched in another area within the National Park, which the villager’s lawyer had said would appeal against. However, there is a sense fear among the Karens to pursue justice further.
Local village leader Pawlajee “Billy” Rakjongcharoen, who had demanded justice for the Karen communities evicted from the National Park, has been disappeared since April 2014. He was last seen when he was apprehended him for possession of illegal honey, although Park officials claim that they released him shortly after.. The Park Chief Chaiwat Limlikhitaksorn, who was the main suspect in his disappearance, has been acquitted and even promoted within the Department. The Park Chief had already been under investigation for the killing of another Karen activist in 2011.
The verdict comes amid widespread forced evictions and criminalization of Karen people and other hill tribes in forest areas across Thailand. In July 2014, three Karen families had their lands ‘reclaimed’ by the Forest Department and in October, 37 Karens were convicted for encroachment and illegal logging for cutting trees to build their homes and served imprisonment or fines in northern Mae Hong Son province. Such cases have increased exponentially after the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) enacted Order No. 64/2014 to increase forest cover at the expense of the rights of indigenous groups living in forests.
“Many of Thailand’s indigenous peoples live in or near protected forests, so the forestry and environmental protection laws have a discriminatory effect on them,” said Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri of Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand. “This can be considered racial discrimination as the Thai government has failed to address and instead promoted such discrimination in its laws and policies. The new constitution has even weakened the community rights that were provided in the earlier ones.”
In 2012, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination had expressed its concern about the increasing level of violence against the Karen people by the Thai authorities in the National Park. The Committee had further urged Thailand to review the relevant forestry laws in order to ensure respect for ethnic groups’ way of living, livelihood and culture, and their right to free and prior informed consent in decisions affecting them, while protecting the environment.
After the verdict, regional and international indigenous rights organizations have raised their serious concern over the court’s failure to uphold human rights standards and called for effective actions from the government to address the issues. “The State of Thailand has failed to respect the rights of indigenous Karen people with the ruling in line with its national and international obligations,” said Joan Carling of Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact.
“We strongly urge the Government to provide effective redress for the affected Karen people, take credible actions into the disappearance, killing and other harassment of activists and community members and further undertake measures steps to amend the National Park Act and other national laws and policies to safeguard their rights over their lands and territories.”
With Thailand’s proposal for nomination of the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex for World Heritage listing due to be considered in October, the organizations and affected Karen people further reiterated their demands to the UNESCO and its World Heritage Committee.
“We remind the UNESCO to fully consider and address the problems of forced evictions and other rights violations in the Kaeng Krachan National Park when considering the proposal for listing it as a World Heritage site,” said Helen Tugendhat of Forest Peoples Programme.
Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri, Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand, +66 81 883 1360 (in Thailand), email@example.com [Thai, English]
Prabindra Shakya, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, +66 90 319 7751 (in Thailand), firstname.lastname@example.org [English]
Helen Tugendhat, Forest Peoples Programme, +44 1608 652893 (in England), email@example.com [English]
See AIPP’s video “When can we go back!” on the situation in Kaeng Krachan National Park, 2013 http://iphrdefenders.net/when-can-we-go-back/