SAKON NAKHON – The ongoing clash between the government’s forest reclamation policy and community land rights in the Northeast came to a head on October 21st. Standing before the provincial court in Sakon Nakhon Province, nine villagers from Jatrabiab village — each convicted with encroaching on protected forests — listened as the judge handed down their sentences.
For six of the nine villagers, the verdict was disheartening. Each must abandon their land, pay a fine ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 baht, and submit to a form of probation for at least a year. Still, they fared much better than three of their neighbors.
Mrs. Kong Phongsakbun, Mr. Bunsom Phongsakbun, and Mrs. Surat Srisawat share 40 rai of land in an area the government has deemed “reserve forest.” For working on this land, Mrs. Kong and Mr. Bunsom received a sentence of three years in prison, while Mrs. Surat received two and a half years.
Wednesday’s sentencing is the latest chapter in a saga that began in 2012, when Thai authorities arrested 34 Jatrabiab villagers — largely rubber farmers—for trespassing in a reserve forest.
Prosecutors’ initially lacked the willpower to take substantive action against the accused. The villagers’ court cases lay dormant for some time, but were revived after the 2014 military coup thrust into power an active junta bent on pushing its “master plan,” which includes a commitment to swiftly increase Thailand’s forest cover to 40% — up from the present nationwide proportion of 33%.
A primary government strategy to reach this goal has been to reclaim illegally used forestlands, though villagers across Isaan argue that the forests are being used legally. They say the borders of reserve forests, national parks and protected areas, which the government mandates must be free of human activity — were drawn with people’s livelihood inside them.
Holding back tears, 51-year-old Mr. Phakdi Srisawat, the husband and son-in-law of the trio facing jail time, was overcome by the judge’s ruling. “It is unfair, I don’t know what to do,” he said, struggling to find words. Mr. Phakdi now faces the daunting task of collecting a total bail of more than one million baht, without a job or land to leverage, since his land was also confiscated.
While distressed about the fate of her grandparents and mother, 27-year-old Ms. Saowalak Srisawat fears most for her father. “Without my mother, my father is broken-hearted,” she said. “In this way, he suffers more than my mother.”
Mr. Thanomsak Rawatchai, one of the three lawyers representing the villagers, expressed disappointment with the verdict. “What the judge gave to the villagers, it’s too much,” he said.
Though nearly all of the villagers pled guilty to avoid harsher sentences, they maintain their arrests were unjust. By their account, they have owned the land in question for decades, and have the tax records to prove it. Mr. Phakdi asserts his wife’s parents had lived on their land for at least 34 years.
In a narrative difficult to substantiate, villagers claim that the Royal Forest Department (RFD) — a government agency responsible for managing forest resources — agreed to provide them with land titles in 2012. It turned out to be a deceptive ploy, they allege, as the RFD collected and submitted their signatures to the police. The police then arrested all those listed as “trespassers.”
RFD officials emphasize that the target of the reclamation policy are investors: wealthy landowners exploiting the forests for personal gain. Furthermore, NCPO Order 66 requires that poor or landless people living on reserve land prior to June 2014 not be adversely affected. However, evidence suggests the reality is the reverse.
Even considering Thailand’s ever-changing political system, the legal definition of an “investor” is remarkably inconsistent. In an interview earlier this month, Sakon Nakhon RFD officials stated that those with more than 50 rai of land qualify as investors. Some villagers claim it is 30 rai. On Wednesday, for the judge, it was 25 rai.
“What law does the judge use to send people to jail for 25 rai of land?” said Mr. Laothai Ninnuan, an advisor to the Isaan Farmer Association who has worked with the Jatrabiab community for over 30 years. “The law states that they can have 50 rai. The judge just made that law up,” he claimed.
Following Wednesday’s hearing, all but one of the 34 villagers involved, a juvenile at the time of his arrest, have received sentencing. Most of those facing jail-time are in varying stages of the appeals process.
Mr. Thanomsak stressed that judges have the wrong attitude about the relationship between villagers and forestland. While judges think of villagers as catalysts of environmental destruction, Mr. Thanomsak explained that, in reality, their communities have been able to sustain themselves and the land for decades.
Throughout the day, dozens of Jatrabiab villagers sat in an outdoor structure adjacent to the courthouse, gathered in solidarity for the nine awaiting their sentences. When asked about the large turnout of supporters, Mr. Phakdi choked out just one word —“happy”— before succumbing to silence.
For now, the trio remains behind bars, awaiting bail. “We will continue to fight; we will find a way to get them out,” said Ms. Saowalak. “But today, I don’t know what to do.”
The State Prosecutor’s Office was not available for comment, citing official business.