Activists demand authorities drop encroachment charge against indigenous community

Activists from the Save Bang Kloi Coalition submitted a petition on Tuesday (20 September) calling for the public prosecutor not to indict 29 members of the Bang Kloi indigenous Karen community charged with encroachment for returning to their ancestral home in the Kaeng Krachan forest in early 2021.

Pachara Khamchamnan (Second from left) submitting the petition to representatives of the independent committee. (Photo from Pachara Khamchamnan)

Representing the activist group and the community, activist Pachara Khamchamnan went to Government House to file the petition to the independent committee formed after a protest in February 2022 to solve the issues facing the Bang Kloi community, headed by Prime Minister's Office Minister Anucha Nakasai. The petition was received by Charnchao Chaiyanukit, deputy chair of the committee, and Mongkolchai Somudon, Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Office of the Prime Minister.

The petition calls on the committee to find a solution and make sure that the public prosecutor does not indict the Bang Kloi community members for encroachment, as they are an indigenous community in the area and are currently living in poverty as they do not have sufficient land to make a living. The petition argues that pressing charges against them does not lead to any benefit for the public.

The petition says that after community members were evicted from the Kaeng Krachan forest in March 2022, officials promised them that every family would have land allocated to them for farming if they left willingly, but when they arrived at the Kaeng Krachan National Park office, they were arrested and taken to court. They were then taken to prison, but were later granted bail with the condition that they are not allowed to return to Bang Koi Bon, the original location of their village. They have also not been allocated the land they were promised.

It also notes that if the public prosecutor decides to indict the community, it would increase the burden on them since they will have the added expenses of traveling to court. They may also eventually face imprisonment, which would add to their hardship.

Pachara said after he filed the petition that the reason the group came to Government House was because the activists, the community members, and their lawyers were recently informed that the public prosecutor in Phetchaburi will indict the community members on 27 September, although he noted that the community members have yet to receive any summons. If they are indicted, Pachara said, the activists and the community are prepared to stage a major protest in response.

He said that he was told by committee members that the Office of the Permanent Secretary of the Prime Minister Office in June sent a letter to the Director General for Regional Public Prosecution in Phetchaburi who is responsible for the case, informing the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the committee’s decision to provide support for the Bang Kloi community and to work with the Department of National Park, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation (DNP) to resolve community rights issues. However, the committee still leaves to the public prosecutor the decision on whether to indict the community members or not.

The committee has also sent a letter to the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice asking the Ministry to consider providing legal support for the Bang Kloi community members if they are indicted, and for the Justice Fund to provide monetary support if they are to be temporarily detained and have to post bail. It also said that it is currently working with the DNP and the Kaeng Krachan National Park to resolve community rights issues facing the Bang Kloi community.

Pachara speaking to reporters after meeting with committee members

Pachara noted during a press conference following his meeting with the committee that, if the community members still face charges, none of their problems can be solved, since the charges are related to not only the individuals but also the plots of land in the Bang Kloi Bon area. Unless the charges are dropped, the community will not be able to be allocated land, and will not be able to demand their right to a cultural area at Bang Kloi Bon.

He also said that encroachment carries a severe penalty. If found guilty, the community members could be jailed for between 4 – 10 years and fined up to 400,000 baht. If they have to go to court, the increased expenses would worsen the quality of life for the Bang Kloi community, as they are already living in poverty. Most of the community members facing charges still face health issues, and have to work away from their community to support their families.

He noted that the case of the Bang Kloi community is only one of over 30,000 cases in which people face encroachment charges for living on national park land, which have arisen since the NCPO government launched their Forest Reclamation Policy, aiming to increase forest area in the country by 40%.

The Bang Kloi indigenous Karen community now lives at the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi Village in Kaeng Krachan National Park, where they were forcibly relocated in 1997, and once again in 2011, when park and military officials raided the Bang Kloi Bon and Chai Phaen Din (meaning “heart of the land”) villages, which are located deep in the Kaeng Krachan forest, and burned down their houses and rice barns.

Throughout the past 25 years, the community has faced unresolved community rights issues. They were not allocated land for agriculture as the authorities promised, and the land they did receive was not suitable for growing crops, while they are not able to practice their traditional rotational farming method. Many members of the community are also still in the process of getting Thai citizenship, and so missed out on land allocation and welfare. The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the situation, as many of those employed outside the village began to lose income. They are also currently suffering from food scarcity and from malnutrition-related health issues, and have recently faced an epidemic of malaria and dengue fever. Visiting hospitals is also difficult due to travel costs and the difficult route from their village.

In early 2021, around 80 community members decided to return to Chai Phaen Din, sparking a 5-day occupation of the Chamai Maruchet bridge by activists and community members to demand protection for those who returned to Chai Phaen Din. Despite an MOU stating that the authorities would stop intimidating the community and allow them to be transported to Chai Phaen Din, and that the community must be allowed to return to their ancestral home, the community members who returned to Chai Phaen Din were forcibly evicted from the forest and arrested by park officials, police, and military officers in early March 2021.

Of the 87 people arrested, 36 were minors and the authorities did not press charges against them. The rest were charged with trespassing on national park land. 29 people received a fine, while 22 were temporarily detained at the Khao Kling Prison before being released after two nights. 

In July 2021, the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex, which included the Kaeng Krachan National Park, was named a natural World Heritage site despite ongoing concerns about human rights violations against indigenous communities in the forest area and objections from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, who pointed to human rights violations against indigenous Karen communities in the Kaeng Krachan forest, from forced evacuations and lack of a proper remedy, to arrest and legal prosecution, as well as the resulting food insecurity.

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