Some other Karens follow up the situation at the park office today to check on their fellows' plight. Credit: Transborder News

Arrests made against Bangkloi Karens accused of encroaching upon Kaeng Krachan National Park

The Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation (DNP) claims it has found more people occupying the deep jungle of the park and more plots of freshly cleared forestland around the Karens’ makeshift campsite, prompting it to enforce the law against them. Karen supporters, meanwhile, take turn denouncing the department’s action as being too harsh against the Karens

DNP’s deputy director-general Prakit Vongsrivattanakul along with some police officers from Kaeng Krachan Police Station in Petchaburi province’s Kaeng Krachan district has just held a press conference this evening to update about the fresh arrests of some Bangkloi Karens today.

Some 60 Karens have reportedly fled from their resettlement village of Bangkloi Lang (Lower Bangkloi) in the park to their ancestral land of Bangkloi Bon (Upper Bangkloi) since mid-January.

Mr. Prakit said the park officials have learned over the week that more people have travelled up to camp along with their fellow Karens, while more plots of forestland around their makeshift campsite have been cleared.

From some 60 people when they were first reported to have fled Bangkloi Lang to Bangkloi Bon, the number of the Karens occupying the area last week was down to 21 following the negotiations to convince them to return to the resettlement village before jumping up to 59 as more people travelled up to join the rest. And this has increased to 85 this week.

Up to 30 plots of land, around 157 rai in total, have also been cleared, having increased from some ten plots when first surveyed in late January.

“If we have done nothing (arrests), there would be more forest encroachment as a result,” said Mr. Prakit, who insisted that the park officials strictly adhered to legal procedures and did not use force during the arrests in the morning. They were also accompanied by officials from other agencies, he added.

Among 85, 36 are children, who were accompanied and sent back to their resettlement village by the park officials. 27 adults faced minor fines for failing to follow park officials’ instructions (not to enter the park without permission), while 20 more were under arrest for having encroached upon forestland.

Another two adult Karens with the same charge were intercepted outside the camp, bringing the total number of the Karens who have been under arrest to 22.

Among the accused is Nhor-ae Meemi, a son of late Grandpa Ko-I Meemi, who had fought for his occupational land rights over the plot of land in the forest until his case becomes one of the country’s high-profile court cases concerning a fight over occupational land rights and community rights. (Read:Bangkloi Saga)

The Kaeng Krachan police officer said they were then sent to Khao Kling Prison Camp nearby for their first round of detention upon a request to the court made by the police.

If found guilty against Article 19 of the newly amended National Parks Act, which prohibits forest encroachment and clearing,  penalties imposed would range from a jail term up to four to 20 years and/or a fine up to Bt 400,000 to two million baht. And if they are in watershed areas, a jail term of no more than five years and or a fine upto 500,000 baht could be added.

The bail imposed is reportedly to be around Bt 200,000 each. So far, there is no confirmation who would place bail for them.

The Karens and park officials at the campsite before the arrests are made.
Credit: DNP
A helicopter lift during the transfers out of the deep jungle.
Credit: DNP

Community rights and human rights advocates, meanwhile, have denounced the department’s action as being too harsh against the Karens.

A number of FB posts by those advocates have thrown sympathies to the Karens while denouncing the department’s action as being too harsh against these people, who they claim they have only wanted to return home.

The conflict between Bangkloi Karens and park officials has exploded since mid-January as some 60 Karens from Bangkloi Lang fled to Bangkloi Bon, claiming they had faced hardship in lives due to lack of plots of land to make a living and Covid-19. They have been camping up there since, in spite of the officials’ attempts to bring them back to the resettlement village during the so-called Petchaburi Watershed Operation last week.

From negotiations, the attempts have turned into legal disputes and eventually the arrests as the officials decided late last week to file a complaint against them after failing to convince them to return to the resettlement village during their consecutive talks. (Read: Bangkloi forestland conflict escalates into legal disputes)

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa said after the press conference, insisting that the officials have strictly adhered to legal procedures and refrained from violence during the operation as instructed by him.

He also rejected the notion that Bangkloi Karens’ plight was about community rights violation, saying it’s the quality-of-life problems that his ministry will try to resolve them by the end of this year.

The advocates, however, see the other way around, and so far, both sides do not see eye to eye over the issue.