The Thai Administrative Court has ruled that national park officers did not break the law in burning the houses of members of the Karen ethnic minority in Kaeng Krachan National Park.
On 7 September 2016, the Administrative Court read the verdict on the case that Ko-i Meemi, a 105-year-old spiritual leader of the Karen community, and six other Karen tribesmen filed against the Department of National Parks and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, BBC Thai reported.
The Karen accused the two public agencies of malfeasance after officers of Kaeng Krachan National Park in May 2011 forcibly evicted and burned about 100 houses and rice barns of Karen villagers in Pong Luk Bang Kloy in Phetchaburi.
The court ruled in favour of the park officers, reasoning that the Karen villagers illegally encroached into protected areas. Therefore, the park officers had the right to enact measures to take down structures in the park under Article 22 of the 1961 National Park Act.
Despite a cabinet resolution in 2010 stipulating that Karen villagers can stay in National Park areas, the resolution does not give rights to Karen villagers to settle on virgin territory inside National Parks, the Administrative Court judges concluded.
The court, however, ordered the public agencies to pay each Karen villager whose house was burned down 10,000 baht in compensation for the loss of their property. Initially, the affected Karen tribesmen had demanded 100,000 baht compensation each from the authorities.
According to Ko-i Meemi, armed park officials and Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, the former superintendent of Kaeng Krachan National Park, came to his village in May 2011 to evict Karen villagers from the park area before setting their houses on fire.
He added that the park officers ordered him to leave his house immediately during the eviction. When he said that he could not do so because he is blind and has nowhere to go, the armed park officers forcibly detained him and put him in a helicopter.
Surapong Kongchantuk, the director of the Karen Cultural and Development Centre, told BBC Thai that prior to 1985 the Karen community in Pong Luk Bang Kloy did not settle in the national park, but were asked by the park officials to move to their current location.
He added that this is the first case in which authorities burned houses of Karen ethnic minorities whose settlements overlapped with national park areas.
As the court ruled in favour of the park authorities, the verdict might give the park officers impunity in enacting such measures again in the future, Surapong warned.
Ko-i Meemi, a 105-year-old spiritual leader of a Karen community in Pong Luk Bang Kloy of Phetchaburi Province at the Administrative Court on 7 September 2016 (Photo from: the BBC Thai)