The negotiation between the two sides in the forest failed to reach fruitful results. Credit: DNP/ KKNP

Bangkloi forestland conflict escalates into legal disputes

Park officials have filed a complaint to the police against “encroachers” found encroaching upon the forest around Bangkloi Bon village in Kaeng Krachan National Park, as the negotiation attempts have failed

The week sees Bangkloi forestland conflict has gone into further complication as negotiations between park officials and Bangkloi Karens, who had fled from their resettlement village downhill of Bangkloi Lang (Lower Bangkloi) to their ancestral land uphill in Bangkloi Bon (Upper Bangkloi) since mid-last month have failed, while park officials have opted for a legal action against who they called “encroachers” after their forest encroachment “crackdown” operation in the area failed.

Park officials from Kaeng Krachan National Park went to see Kaeng Krachan police yesterday to file a complaint against “encroachers” after they had inspected the forest area around Bangkloi Bon (Upper Bangkloi) during the 3-day Petchaburi Watershed Protection Operation to suppress encroachment activities in the area since Monday, and learned that up to 18 plots of forestland sized around 154 rai in total were cleared or burnt.

The officials said they have examined the plots with satellite images back up to 1953, and found there were no traces of cleared forest on the plots seized, meaning they were pristine forest and never utilised.

Images from the Sentinel-2 satellite also shows that the fresh cleared forest had started since January 14 this year, and continued until February 13.

The activities found in the area, they said, have violated Article 19 of the newly amended National Parks Act, which prohibits forest encroachment and clearing. Penalties 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.

So, they decided to go to the police to file a complaint so “encroachers” would be located and brought to legal processes.

Petchaburi Watershed Protection Operation

The park officials from Kaeng Krachan National Park on Monday joined force with officials from other agencies to suppress forest encroachment activities under a directive of the National Resources and Environment Ministry.

Under the directive, supervised by the Environment Minister’s advisor, Dr. Yutthaphon Ankinandana, the officials were instructed to hold back from using force against “encroachers” found in the area, but rather adopt a soft approach and legal procedures.

They met with the Karens who had fled from Bangkloi Lang to Bangkloi Bon village since mid-last month.

The officials had negotiated with them, 34 in total, on the first day of the operation, and 13 agreed to return to the village downhill, leaving 21 people for further negotiation. But on the second day, 38 more Karens from the village downhill had travelled uphill by foot to join their neighbours at the temporary campsite, prompting the officials to negotiate with more people, 59 in total.

According to clips recording their conversations through translators, sizes of plots that could be allowed for use were negotiated, up to 15 rai for each family. That prompted further controversy as the supporters of each side took turn slamming the negotiation as misleading. Karen supporters claimed each family would use only around 3 to 5 rai a year.

At the end of the day, they could not reach the terms, prompting the next attempt to be shifted to high-ranking officials downhill.

Mr. Jongklai talked with the Karens on Thursday.
Credit: DNP

On Thursday, representatives of the Karens uphill travelled down to negotiate with the officials at Bangkloi Lang. They proposed that Bangkloi Karens be allowed to return to their ancestral and live there. But for those wanting to live downhill, the state should allocate plots of land where they can make a living, they said. They also claimed that the operation caused damage to the villagers’ properties such as solar cells and it must be stopped. The officials and some media outlets should also stop accusing them.

Last but not least, they demanded land rights examination be conducted and they preferred to wait for the outcomes from the joint panel appointed to find solutions, which had also been working in Bangkloi almost the same time as the operation was taken.

Jongklai Worapongsathorn, the ministry’s inspector and former deputy chief of the DNP, who also sits on the panel and takes care of the issue, said the ministry learned that original Bangkloi Bon families have expanded after their first relocation from Bangkloi Bon to Bangkloi Lang, from 57 to 116. Some are still not subject to land allocation, while others have the problem with poor quality of land and cannot make a living.

Mr. Jongklai cited the land problem and water shortage in the area as the prime issues and the ministry would try to solve them first. It was reported by some Karen supporting groups, which had observed the talks, that the real issue of possible returns to the Karens’ ancestral land was not on the table, prompting the Karens’ representatives to walk out later.

The talks ended without any conclusion.

The Karens, on the other hand, have filed a complaint to human rights advocates to help investigate the operation, claiming it was violent.

The Karen protesters at Government House before they signed an MOU with government figures, which was allegedly breached by later actions of both sides. Credit: NDF

Background: Bangkloi’s flight

In mid-last month, a group of Bangkloi Bon (Upper Bangkloi) and Jai Pandin descendants, said to be between 40-60 persons, had fled from the resettlement villages of Bangkloi Lang and Pong Luek dowhill to their ancestral land uphill, claiming they had faced hardship caused by the lack of farmland and Covid-19.

As the news broke, sympathies and campaigns to save Bang Kloi (villagers) then flooded into the communities before spreading out in the society, prompting heated debates and reigniting the long-time occupational land rights conflict in the area as their ancestral land was judged by the top administrative court in 2018 as being unlawfully valid for occupation.

Their representatives and Karen networks, forming into a new group of Save Bangkloi, decided to submit a letter to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment on February 5 whereas P-Move was trying to strike a deal with the ministry.

Scuffles broke between the protesters and the police, prompting ten protest leaders to be summoned for illegal gathering in public area.

At the villages, checkpoints were set up, and more stringent checks on passengers travelling in and out were undertaken along with some patrolling. Interceptions against food supplies sent to the villagers uphill were also reported.

These incidents heightened dissatisfaction among the villagers, prompting them and their networks to call for a new round of protest at Government House on January 15 before a deal (MOU) was reached (Read: Bangkloi protesters head back home)

The ministry then assigned a newly appointed panel comprising representatives of all concerned parties to resolve the issue to travel to Bangkloi to jumpstart its work on last weekend, almost the same time as the latest forest suppression operation.

Upon learning about the launch of operation and the releases of the fresh evidence by park officials, the Karen supporter groups then issued a statement slamming the acts as distorting facts about the Karens and substantiating the operation.

The groups, led by Save Bangkloi, claimed that the cleared and burnt forest seen in the photos and video clips were old rotational farming plots left behind after the villagers there were located ten and twenty years ago.

The youngsters who went uphill confirmed the groups that they had cleared the plots before the protest by Government House, not freshly clearing them as accused. The burning of the plots was also needed to help clear the residues and this followed their traditional practices, they claimed.

Bangkloi Saga

Former chief of the park, Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn, meanwhile, has reportedly been officially accused of violating Article 157 under the Criminal Code, which regulates civil officials’ practices, for an unlawful act regarding his enforcement of Article 22 under the National Parks Act against some properties claimed to be of the Karens in the Tenasserim Operation he led 10 years ago.

Article 22 authorises park chiefs to issue orders to remove properties found encroaching upon forestland, but following the top administrative court’s verdict in 2018, this could not be applied at discretion. His action, although it had met the law’s intention to protect protected areas, was ruled as unlawful and subject to liability for skipping some formal prior notification procedures partly due to tough locations. (Read: Bangkloi Saga)

Disciplinarily, the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) board would recommend his supervisor, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to dismiss him along with some concerned authorities. It would also forward its decision to public prosecutors for further criminal court procedures following the law.

Mr. Chaiwat, who is now a director of the Protected Area Regional Office 9, said after hearing the news reports that the PACC did not rule his case based on thorough investigations as they had never travelled to investigate the case on site and collect enough evidence. He simply said he would fight against the ruling, but did not elaborate further detail.

The PACC, meanwhile, has not yet held a press conference to clarify the issue.