What happened to the 14 villagers: The Forest Reclamation case of Sapwai community, Chaiyaphum Province

Infographics by Kittiya On-in
Sources: Esaan Land Reform News, iLaw, Protection International and Prachatai

Even though the NCPO has already come to an end, the ‘Forest Reclamation’ policy under NCPO Orders No. 64/2014 and 66/2014 led to a conflict between Sapwai community villagers in Chaiyaphum Province and Sai Thong National Park. This resulted in 14 villagers facing sentences of imprisonment and fines, handed down by the Court of First Instance and Court of Appeal, after they refused to move out and were sued for trespassing into the National Park.

The communities in the decade of after the forest concession ended in 1967

Rewinding back to 1967, communities in Huai Yae Subdistrict and Wang Takhe Subdistrict, Nong Bua Rawe District, Chaiyaphum Province, were created after the logging concession of Chaiyaphum Thammai Co Ltd ended. Villagers then started to gradually move into the area until a community was born. There are 5 communities with areas in conflict with Sai Thong National Park: 1) Ban Nong Phak Waen, established in 1958; 2) Hin Ru community, established in 1969; 3) Sapwai community, established in 1972; 4) the Ban Sap Salete group, established in 1975; and 5) the Ban Sok Takhian group, established in 1976.

After the communities in the area were established, in 1979 the Nayangklak National Forest Reserve was declared, overlapping with the residential and farm lands of the villagers but no problems had yet occurred.

Sources: Esaan Land Reform News, iLaw, Protection International and Prachatai

Related:

The government pushed people out of degraded forest areas under the Land Distribution Programme for the Poor project, but had to retreat after facing strong opposition

In 1990 when the government pushed forward the Land Distribution Programme for the Poor Living in Degraded National Forest Reserve Areas project, hoping to expand forest reserve areas, the Sapwai community was one of the many communities nationwide affected.

Later, the villagers that had established communities before the announcement of the Forest Reserve and National Park were affected by being pressured and forced to migrate. Some joined a 36-forest forest-land problem network and the Isan Farmers Assembly. Eventually, the government led by Anand Panyarachun announced the cancellation of the project on 3 July 1992.

30 December 1992. Sai Thong National Park, Chaiyaphum Province, was gazetted. According to the announcement, the Park covered 199,375 rai, impacting 6 villages and 2 subdistricts, Huai Yae Subdistrict and Wang Takhe Subdistrict of Nong Bua Rawe District, Chaiyaphum Province, with the Park overlapping farm and residential land.

16 September 1997 and 20 June 1998. Cabinet Resolutions stated that the Royal Forest Department operate according to local land and forest resource management plans by surveying areas where citizens owned land and lived within national forest reserves, then registering them as owners of the forest areas to be used as a database for the state’s land management and administration.

The villagers were affected by the announcement of Sai Thong National Park since the Park wanted to take back the land. This problem is in the middle of negotiations that are still ongoing.

The NCPO coup and the Forest Reclamation policy

After the NCPO coup, NCPO Orders No. 64/2014 and 66/2014, or the “Forest Reclamation” policy, were issued on 14 June 2014. The policy aimed to take back at least 40% of forest lands or have no less than a total of 128 million rai of forest within 10 years.

The Sapwai community area was also affected by the policy. In 2015 the state sector deployed military power together with officials from the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and many other agencies. Villagers were “asked to return the land”, their rubber trees were cut down and charges were filed against them. Even though NCPO Order No. 66/2014 stated that all operations must not impact the poor, those with low income and those without working land who had lived in the area before the enforcement of the Order, a total of 14 villagers that originally lived in the areas contested with Sai Thong National Park and who were in the middle of proving their rights were put on trial facing a total of 19 charges. All the accused used the land to live on and for agriculture, i.e. planting cassava.

BBC Thai claimed that Vorapol Deeprasai, Superintendent of the Sai Thong National Park, said that the 14 villagers refused to leave the area despite having already signed their consent to return the land, and so they filed charges against all the villagers.

Provincial Committee resolution says to put off the case, but the Dept of National Parks continues the legal process

In July 2016, police started to summon Sapwai villagers in the Forest Reclamation case for the first time.

And in 2017, there was an order to establish a Provincial Committee to fix the issue. The Committee visited the area to examine the facts, categorise the people’s troubles, measure many plots of land, and made a resolution on an agreed sustainable land management plan with the community’s participation. It also proposed that the litigation be put off.

However, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation sued a total of 14 Sapwai villagers on 19 charges, beginning in the middle of 2016.

The latest verdict from the Court of Appeal

In July to September 2018, the Court of First Instance read the verdicts on the villagers.

And most recently from May to 3 July 2019, the Chaiyaphum Provincial Court read the verdicts of the Court of Appeal for all 14 villagers. Thirteen of them were sentenced to imprisonment, with 1 person given a suspended sentence. They were fined from between100 thousand baht to 1.5 million baht. The status of all defendants’ cases as of 3 July 2019 is as follows:

1. On 15 May 19, the Court of Appeal sentenced Nittaya Muangklang to 4 months’ imprisonment and a fine of 40,000 baht (case 1).

2. On 4 June 19, the Court of Appeal sentenced Sinuan Phasang to 5 months 10 days’ imprisonment and a fine of 150,000 baht.

3. On 5 June 19, the Court of Appeal sentenced Nittaya Muangklang to 8 months’ imprisonment and a fine of 150,000 baht (case 2).   

4.On 12 June 19, the Court of Appeal summoned 3 defendants to hear their verdicts, as follows:

4.1) Suni Narin was sentenced to 5 months 10 days’ imprisonment and a fine of 439,027 baht.

4.2) Suphaphon Sisuk was sentenced to 5 months 10 days’ imprisonment and a fine of 380,000 baht.

4.3) Patthama Komet was sentenced to 8 months’ imprisonment and a fine of 200,000 baht.

5. On 18 June, the Court of Appeal sentenced Sakon Prakit to 4 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 1,587,211 baht.

6. On 25 June, the Court of Appeal summoned 3 defendants to hear their verdicts, as follows:

6.1) The Court of Appeal sentenced Thongpan Muangklang to 8 months’ imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 baht.

6.2) The Court of Appeal sentenced Wanchai Aphonkaeo to 6 months’ imprisonment and a fine of 860,395 baht.

6.3) The Court of Appeal sentenced Samon Somchit to 1 year’s imprisonment, suspended, a fine of 366,663 baht and 1 year of community service.

7. On 2 July 19, the Court of Appeal summoned 2 defendants to hear their verdicts, as follows:

7.1) The Court upheld the sentence of the Court of First Instance on Somphit Thaennok of 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 baht.

7.2) The Court upheld the sentence of the Court of First Instance on Phut Sukbongkot of 6 months 20 days’ imprisonment and a fine of 370,000 baht.

8. On 3 July 19, the Court of Appeal summoned defendants in 4 cases to hear their verdicts, as follows:

8.1) The Court upheld the sentence of the Court of First Instance on Suwit Rattanachaiyasi of 7 months’ imprisonment and increased the fine from 40,000 baht To 110,762 baht.

8.2) The Court upheld the sentence of the Court of First Instance on Narisara Muangklang of 9 months 10 days’ imprisonment and increased the fine from 130,000 baht to 607,161 baht.

8.3) The Court upheld the sentence of the Court of First Instance on Suwali Phongam of 5 months’ 10 days’ imprisonment and a fine of 160,000 baht.

8.4)  the Court upheld the sentence of the Court of First Instance’s on Somphit Thaennok of 10 months 20 days’ imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 baht (case 2).

226 civil society and human rights organisations worldwide demanded that the Thai government cancel all charges against human rights defenders and the 14 villagers from Sapwai community, Chaiyaphum Province, who were sentenced to imprisonment not proportionate to their offences and were fined as much as a million baht. The Sapwai community is one of the many villages in the country that was affected by the NCPO’s Forest Reclamation policy which was aimed at increasing the forest area from 31% to 40% by taking land that is being used. But it was found that only 2% of lawsuits have been filed against capitalists, while those that were mainly affected are small scale farmers.

In addition, 83 organisations from a civil society sector network held a press conference after the Court of Appeal returned verdicts of imprisonment and fines on the 14 Sapwai villagers in the Forest Reclamation case. They demanded that the Forest Reclamation policy be cancelled, approval for the land management plan for Sai Thong National Park be considered quickly, reparations given to defendants and also opportunities provided for the villagers to take the case to the Supreme Court (see related news).

In July, 7 out of the 13 villagers were granted bail to fight their case in the Supreme Court. Srinuan Ngamsang, Pattama Komet, Supaporn Srisuk, and Sakon Prakij were released on 19 July, while Sunee Narin and Phut Sukbongkot were released on bail on 25 July, and Nittaya Muangklang on 31 July.

On 13 August, iLaw reported that three more villagers were granted bail: Suwalee Phongam, Narisara Muangklang, and Thongpan Muangklang.

The remaining 3 villargers are still imprisoned: Suwit Rattanachaisri, Sompit Tarnnork, and Wanchai Arpornkaew. Their lawyer said that their request for appeal is currently being considered by the court.