It’s somewhere deep in the jungle of Kaeng Krachan National Park where a group of the young generation of Jai Pandin and Bangkloi Bon Karens are still roaming around with hopes of returning to their ancestral land.
While some members of the group have decided to return to their resettlement villages downhill following negotiations with park authorities, the persistent spirits still insist on their claimed original communal rights to live in their ancestral land in Jai Pandin and Bangkloi Bon villages deep in the forest after having fled the resettlement villages downhill about a month ago due to hardship in lives.
“Actually, we had intended to return to our ancestral land for a while and we discussed this several times. We would have starved to death if we still lived down there because we don’t have our own land, on which we can farm to support our lives,” one Karen among the group told Transborder News exclusively early this week.
As soon as the news about their flight from the villages broke around mid-last month, sympathies and campaigns to save Bang Kloi (villagers) flooded into the communities before spreading like wildfires in the society.
The move made by these Bangkloi Karen descendants has reignited the highly controversial issue concerning the relocation of indigenous Karens out of the forest and the resettlement attempt that followed, both have been seen as unfinished since they were first relocated over 20 years ago. Indeed, it has also whipped straight to the same old wound of conflict over rights to live in forestland, which is still hard to come to terms with among concerned parties and has been simmering in the society up until today.
The plight of this Karen group, which is challenging Thai society at the moment, could be traced back over 20 years ago, when they were first relocated from Bangkloi Bon (Upper Bangkloi) and Jai Pandin near the Thai-Myanmar border due to conservation and security reasons to Bangkloi Lang (Lower Bangkloi) and Pong Luek downhill, all located in protected forest of Kaeng Krachan National Park.
Some 57 families of them were promised with new plots of land to live there, but as time went by, they felt they could not continue their living downhill as it was not in harmony with their way of life, under which rotational farming played a key part.
Some had decided to return to their old communities and continued utilising the land up there.
It was not until 2010 when a new park chief of Kaeng Krachan assumed his new office. Park chief Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn then led a Tenasserim Operation, under which forces from various agencies were pooled to push back who they claimed to be forest encroachers from a “minority group”.
The operation in May 2011, prompted them to demolish properties found standing in encroached plots of land in the park, but it turned out that among those belonged to the residents of Bangkloi community, including Ko-I Meemi, the most senior community member.
Grand Pa Ko-I decided to file a complaint to the Administrative Court against the authorities for violating their rights.
The story and the saga of Bangkloi community since have been revealed to the public.
Based on testimonies, court deliberations, as well as examinations of documents and related materials by the first court and the Supreme Administrative Court, two main parts of the facts were established.
First, these Karens were indigenous people who did live in Jai Pandin and Bangkloi Bon before being relocated to the villages downhill. However, they had no land rights or permit documents to show their lawful occupation of the land. So, the court stated that their occupation of the land violated the National Parks Act’s Section 16, which concerns prohibiting forest clearance and encroachment. And because of these instances, they were no longer allowed to return to the plots of land and live there like used to be. (Read: Bangkloi Saga)
Second, the park authorities had demolished and burnt properties of the six too, enforcing Section 22 without officially informing them and in writing. The park authorities’ action amounted to an excessive exercise of power. They also failed to follow proper procedures as required and the 2010 Cabinet resolution on the part, which requires cessation of actions against Karens and provision of protection, the court stated.
Their action had seriously affected the plaintiffs’ rights to make a living and possession of properties and such, the court said. The court thus ruled that the action by the park authorities was unlawful, caused damage, and must be subject to liability.
While the story should have ended here as the new standard to deal with the issue has been set as a guideline to follow, but it’s not. The court ruling is still subject to interpretations in favor of each side’s campaigns.
For instance, there is a claim that the Karen villagers can still go back to their places as the court rather ruled that the defendants must follow the 2010 Cabinet Resolution, which requires protection both immediate and long terms, including securing their occupational land rights.
Such different interpretations based on one’s own favourism cannot help resolve the situation, but escalate conflict with false solutions and hopes.
The facts about this issue need to get straight, and concerned parties need to deal with it straightforwardly, starting with reviewing, based on the court ruling, which legal rights constitute the Karens’ occupational land rights and community rights.
After all, the issue is actually about the same old classic contest between conservation and utilization of forest resources anywhere, which concerned parties should help one another strike a balance and overcome any limits imposed, including those from the state’s restricted views and perspectives.
What has been missing from the whole picture is ecological assessment for any human activities in highly sensitive territory like forestland, and it’s time to take it into account for the sake of other living things in the same territory as well.
Sympathies can heal the hearts, but are never enough to heal the whole society. Only facts and impartiality do.