Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa tries to clarify the issue amid pressure building up against him. Credit: Government House

Bangkloi problems will be solved following the law: Varawut

The Environment Minister has cited the top administrative court’s verdict against land occupation in forestland of Kaeng Krachan National Park without permission, while insisting his ministry’s directives to solve the problems, including the latest arrest of Bangkloi Karens, have followed legal procedures, suggesting it would stick to the law as a means to solve Bangkloi problems

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa gave a special press briefing yesterday amid pressure building up as Karen supporter groups including P-Move, which campaigns to help landless people, are demanding him to allow the Karens to return to their claimed ancestral land in the park.

They have vowed to camp outside Government House until their demands are met.

Mr. Varawut said today everyone has to adhere to the law or otherwise there would be no way to solve the problems. The Supreme Administrative Court in 2018 had already deliberated and ruled that occupation of the disputed plots in Jai Pandin or Bangkloi Bon (Upper Bangkloi) villages or anywhere in the park cannot be allowed without permission, so the ministry’s efforts to solve the problems have just followed the law as instructed, the minister said.

“We did not break any promises made,” said Mr. Varawut, referring to the MOU earlier signed between the Karens’ representatives and government figures including him as a guideline for tackling the problems together.

The latest arrests of some Bangkloi Karens, who had fled from their resettlement village to their claimed ancestral land of Bangkloi Bon, last Friday are seen as a broken promise as the Karens claim they had requested in the MOU that park officers earlier deployed around the village must retreat from the area and refrain from using force against them.

But Mr. Varawut insisted that the ministry had instructed the park officers to withdraw from the area already. However, they learned later about the fresh forest encroachment further above the village. This breached the law, and they had to take action as such, he said.

Mr. Varawut also dismissed an accusation that the officers had used force against the Karens during the arrests, saying they were accompanied by officials from other agencies including medical staff, and they had cameras, which recorded their operations.

If this was true, there should have been evidence circulated in the public already, he said. And if the public have learned violence against the Karens by the officers, they can submit evidence to him and he would take disciplinary action against those officers, he said.

The minister insisted that the ministry would solve the Karen problems according to the law. He said their problems are not about human rights, but quality of life problems. The ministry has been working on the land problems in their resettlement village, which are still insufficient for them to make a living. Its quality has also been improved along with water sources there, he said.

“We have been negotiating with the Karens as a means to solve the problems, and we will continue doing so without using violence,” said Mr. Varawut.

The Karens’ plights

22 Bangkloi Karens were arrested on last Friday after the park officials of Kaeng Krachan National Park had filed a complaint to the police against them and requested for arrest warrants from the court last week.

The park officials had learned that more people had travelled up from the resettlement of Bangkloi Lang (Lower Bangkloi) to camp along with their fellow Karens near Bangkloi Bon, while more plots of forestland around their makeshift campsite had been cleared.

From some 60 people when they first fled to Bangkloi Bon in mid-January, the number of the Karens occupying the area then jumped to 85 last week. Up to 30 plots of land, or around 157 rai in total, have also been cleared.

Among 85, 36 were 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 another 22 were under arrest for having encroached upon forestland as a result. (Read: 22 Bangkloi Karens temporarily released upon court’s new release-without-bail measure)

Among the offenders 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.

This group of the Karens, said to be descendants of Bangkloi Bon and Jai Pandin Karen villagers, who had been relocated to the resettlement village of Bangkloi Lang in 1996, had fled from their resettlement village in mid-January, 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. (Read: Bangkloi Saga)

The administrative court yesterday also stepped out to explained about the verdict. According to the Administrative Court’s deputy spokesperson, Dr. Saitip Sukatipan, the unlawful occupation of the Karens in Jai Pandin and Bangkloi Bon is part of the facts established in court following the Court’s deliberations over the dispute brought to it, which was about the park officials’ liability against the six Karens, including Grand Pa Ko-I.

There was no argument to try to prove their original communal rights during the court case, she said. If it is about the dispute on such rights, the court deliberations would be conducted differently (to prove the point), the deputy spokesperson told Bangkok Tribune.

However, Dr. Saitip said fighting over the rights through legal proceedings or in court could be tough as at the end the court would strictly follow legal wording, which is not compromising.

There are other approaches, either via policies or lawmaking, which are more flexible to help resolve such the dispute, she said.