Land of their hearts: the Bang Kloi indigenous Karen community on their long road home

Story by Anna Lawattanatrakul
Cover picture by Kittiya On-in 

“We are people, living on the same land, joined together into one forest.

We are people, living on the same stream, nourishing the plants, nourishing the land.

We are people. Pha k’Nyaw means people. In our humanity, we are the same,”

sang Commoner Band singer Natthapong Phukaew at the protest in front of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) on 22 February 2021, surrounded by the lights from protesters’ mobile phones. Natthapong and the other protesters were holding a banner saying “#saveBangkloi,” while one protester held up a placard saying “we are all human.”

One protester at the BACC protest holding up a placard saying "we are all human." 

The protest was held to demand an end to human rights violations against the Bang Kloi Karen indigenous community in the Kaeng Krachan National Park, Phetchaburi Province, after it was reported earlier in the day that national park officials, police, and military officers had flown into the Kaeng Krachan forest to evacuate a group of community members who had returned to their ancestral land deep in the forest in mid-January – the third time for the community to be forced out of their homeland after the first evacuation around 25 years ago.

The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex lies in the rain forest of the Tenasserim Range on the border between Thailand and Myanmar. The vast area spans the borders of three provinces and four conservation areas, one of which is the Kaeng Krachan National Park.

With an area of 2915 square kilometres, the Kaeng Krachan National Park is Thailand’s largest national park and one of its popular tourist destinations.

Once, the forest area that is now the national park was home to an indigenous Karen community at the Bang Kloi Bon and Chai Phaen Din (meaning “heart of the land”) villages, which are located deep in the forest. The community was forcibly evacuated in 1997, and once again in 2011, when park and military officials burned down their houses and rice barns, and forced them to relocate to the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi Village.

Historical evidence, such as a map by the Royal Thai Survey Department dating to 1912 which includes the location of the Chai Phaen Din village, confirmed that the indigenous communities in the Kaeng Krachan forest predate the national park, which was declared in 1981.

The Supreme Administrative Court also ruled, after the community’s spiritual leader Ko-i Meemi and 5 other villagers filed charges against park officials for burning down the village, that the Bang Kloi-Chai Phaen Din community is a traditional local community in the area, and therefore the officials’ action was unlawful and the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment must pay compensation to the community.

Despite this, the Bang Kloi-Chai Phaen Din community continues to face unresolved community rights issues, including lack of land and loss of their traditional way of life. They are also not allowed to return to their ancestral homeland.

This land is whose land?

“Before [the forced evacuation], the villagers lived comfortably. There were no issues, no going out to demand our rights,” said Pinnapa Pruksapan, or “Minor”, wife of community rights activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, who went missing in 2014 after he was last seen in the custody of park officials.

“But after 2011, they were burning the land, burning the houses, burning the rice barns. The problems started from that moment. Everyone suffered, and we had to move to Bang Kloi Lang (Pong Luek – Bang Kloi) At first, Billy took Grandpa (Ko-i Meemi) to call for our rights, and he did it according to the procedures, but he had not yet succeeded and had not got anywhere before he went missing.”

Pinnapa currently lives in Pa Deng village, another indigenous community on the edge of the Kaeng Krachan National Park, with her mother and five children. A poster from Billy’s local election campaign still hangs from a wall in front of the raised bamboo house surrounded by a garden. Before his disappearance, Billy told his wife “The people involved in this aren't happy with me. They say that if they find me, they'll kill me. If I do disappear, don't come looking for me. Don't wonder where I've gone. They'll probably have killed me.”

Billy's local election campaign poster hanging from a wall at Pinnapa's family home. 

For the past 7 years, Pinnapa has been fighting for justice for her husband and her community, but the case of Billy’s disappearance appears to have stalled. In September 2019, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) announced that they had found charred bone fragments in an oil drum in the Kaeng Krachan Dam, DNA evidence from which matches Billy’s mother. The DSI then laid charges of premeditated murder, illegal confinement, and concealing a victim’s body against four suspects, including the then-national park chief and two other officials who took Billy into custody.

Despite this, the public prosecutor decided in January 2020 to drop all but one of the charges, that of official misconduct, against the park officials, citing lack of evidence that Billy had died. 

Meanwhile, members of the Bang Kloi community continue to face unresolved issues. When the community was relocated in 1997, the authorities promised them that each family would be allocated 7 rai of land each and that they would help the community get Thai citizenship.

However, they were not given the land they were promised, and the land they did receive was not suitable for growing crops. Many members of the community are also still in the process of getting their citizenship, causing them to miss out on land allocation and welfare.

Due to these issues, part of the community moved back to Chai Phaen Din, until in 2011 park officials once again forced them to evacuate by burning down their houses and rice storage barns, leading to the court case filed by Ko-i and five other community members against the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in 2012.

Pinnapa said that the lack of agricultural land forced people to leave the community to find work elsewhere, or take on weaving projects at the local craft centre, while the community’s issues remained unresolved almost 25 years after the first evacuation.

The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the issues, as many of those employed outside the village began to lose income. In mid-January 2021, it was reported that around 70 members of the Bang Kloi community decided to leave the village and returned to Chai Phaen Din to live according to their traditional way of life.

The community would also like to perform the final funeral rite for Ko-i, who passed away in 2018 at the age of 107. The ceremony requires his descendants to grow rice on the land at Chai Phaen Din and use the rice to feed people who participated in the ceremony.

Pinnapa Pruksapan

Pinnapa said that she felt that the authorities are not making serious efforts to solve their problems, and that they do not care to listen to what the community has to say. She once organised a meeting between the community and park officials, but the national park chief did not stay for very long.

“For what I feel, it’s like he didn’t take the villagers seriously. He came to talk for a bit, and then he left the room. He said he has urgent things to do somewhere else, so he left. There were many villagers who wanted to ask him about problems with the land. Some people got to ask their questions, some didn’t, but he already left,” Pinnapa said.

The Bang Kloi community is not alone in their problems, however, as other indigenous communities in the Kaeng Krachan forest also face a similar situation, especially when it comes to lack of agricultural land and legal prosecution when the land on which they have been making a living becomes part of the national park.

Wansao Phungam, 50, lives in Tha Salao village in the Nong Ya Plong District – another indigenous community on the edge of the Kaeng Krachan National Park. Wansao works on a piece of land she inherited from her parents, but when the government launched the One Map Project in 2016, the borders of the Kaeng Krachan National Park were redrawn and Wansao’s land was included inside the national park.

Wansao Phungam

In 2018, Wansao was arrested for encroaching on national park land. The Court of First Instance sentenced her to 3 years and 8 months in prison and a fine of over 2 million baht. Although the Appeal Court later dismissed her case, for the past three years as she has been fighting her case, Wansao has not been able to live on her land and had to leave her home behind.

“The court asked since what year I’ve been living here. I said I can’t remember, because when I was born, we already had this land. I came to work on it with my mother,” Wansao said. She insisted she has never encroached into the national park area, and has always believed her land to be outside the national park.

“This is the only property my parents left me, for me to make a living. If they seize this land, then what am I going to do? This is all I have,” Wansao said.

Thailand’s unrecognised indigenous people

The communities in the Tenasserim Mountain area are part of the indigenous Karen population scattered through 15 provinces across the country. With a population of around 400,000 – 500,000, the Karen people are the largest of Thailand’s 39 groups of indigenous peoples, none of whom are recognised as indigenous by the Thai state. While the current Constitution mentions the right of “ethnic groups” to live according to their cultural traditions peacefully and without interference, no legislation uses the term “indigenous people”.

And despite the fact that Thailand, along with 143 other countries, is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the government’s policies and legislation still do not take into consideration indigenous ways of life, and as a result, indigenous communities like the Kaeng Krachan Karen communities continue to face human rights issues from the lack of agricultural land to legal prosecution, lack of citizenship, and loss of cultural identity.

Members of the communities holding a traditional ceremony to inform the spirits that the event is being held before a discussion on community rights issues on 16 December 2020. 

Apinan Thammasena, a researcher from the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (SAC), said that Thai society often views indigenous peoples in a negative light, a result of the Cold War situation that pressured the Thai state to aim for assimilation. Indigenous groups like the Karen or other groups in the north who practice rotation farming are often viewed as destructive to the forest, or are believed to be drug traffickers. They are viewed as the Other, which means that those who try to get Thai citizenship must go through a lengthy, complicated process. Not having Thai citizenship also means that they often have a hard time accessing basic welfare.

Apinan also said that many indigenous communities are often excluded from making use of resources on the land where they live, especially in conservation areas which are viewed by the state as national property that can only be cared for by the government. State conservation policy also often focuses on preserving forest areas without allowing people to make use of it, while the idea that only state agencies can care for conservation areas means that communities are not able to participate in decision-making processes, therefore neglecting the communities’ body of knowledge that can be used in conservation efforts.

According to Apinan, these problems put the communities at risk of losing their cultural identity, and with it the communities’ body of knowledge and what he refers to as “cultural capital” which the communities can use to manage themselves.

For the Karen communities at Bang Kloi, Pa Deng, and Tha Salao, the lack of land means that it has become impossible for them to use their traditional rotational farming method, which requires a larger amount of land than what they are limited to by various laws and regulations in order to switch to a different plot of land to allow the forest to recover. Many communities now have to turn to chemical fertilizers, as farming the same land over and over means the soil loses its nutrients, while community members must seek work elsewhere to supplement the income from farming, which is no longer enough to make a living.

This also causes concerns that traditional crops will one day go extinct. Wansao said that local rice varieties are becoming lost, as they must be grown using the rotational farming method, as well as a particular variety of chilli known as the ‘Karen chilli’.

Traditional beliefs and ceremonies are also at risk of disappearing. Rung Sanetibang, a member of the Karen community at Huai Kra Su, Phetchaburi, spoke of a tradition where, once a child is born, the child’s umbilical cord is put into a bamboo container and tied to a tree to ask the spirits of the tree to care for the child. However, as the current generation of children are born in hospitals, this ceremony is no longer performed. For Rung, this is the same as severing his people’s ties with the forest.

Meanwhile, Pinnapa said that her community used to hold an annual ceremony where they used newly harvested rice to worship Mae Phosop, the rice goddess, but because they are no longer able to grow rice due to lack of land, the ceremony no longer takes place.

“We don’t have the land. We don’t get to grow rice. Our children will not get to see these traditions. They’re disappearing day by day,” said Pinnapa.

Leave no one behind: from cabinet resolution to an indigenous rights bill

Signs at the discussion on 16 December 2020, one of which says "indigenous communities have been here before the national park. Arresting people is not the solution to the problem," which another says "Respect indigenous community rights according to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples." 

There have, however, been previous attempts by the government at creating a policy guideline to resolve issues facing indigenous communities in Thailand. In 2010, the cabinet of the day issued two cabinet resolutions, one on the recovery of the Karen people’s way of life and one on the sea nomad communities.

Both cabinet resolutions contain guidelines for short- and long-term measures for solving the issues faced by each community, such as the lack of citizenship, land rights, the lack of resources, and how to support their traditional ways of life. The cabinet resolution on the recovery of the Karen people’s way of life also states that conservation zones which overlap with the locations of Karen communities that lived in that area before it became a conservation zone should be revoked.

However, there have been problems with putting both cabinet resolutions into practice. Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri, the current chairperson of the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand, an indigenous rights NGO based in Chiang Mai, said that local officials often do not acknowledge the cabinet resolutions and argue that the Forest Act is a higher-ranking law and therefore they do not have to follow the resolutions. It has, therefore, become necessary for the country to have a law protecting indigenous rights.

Several bills are now in the process of being drafted and proposed, one of which is the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand bill, which was drafted by the Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (NIPT) and proposes to set up a formal indigenous peoples’ council to give Thailand’s indigenous population the opportunity to resolve community rights issues in ways that are suitable to their way of life.

Kittisak said that the Council of Indigenous Peoples bill will allow for the protection of indigenous rights in every aspect, from economic rights to cultural. He said that these rights are not new, but are what the indigenous communities once had and would like to have enshrined in law.

“We would like there to be policies and exclusive plans that are suitable for addressing our issues, because from what we have seen from the lessons in the past, most policies issued by the government sector are very centrist and very grey, and when they are applied in practice, they don’t really solve people’s issues. Even for the Council of Indigenous Peoples itself, we would like an exclusive plan that actually fits with our needs, and we would like to live according to the traditional way that we want to live. It’s like being able to determine the fate of our own lives,” said Kittisak.

The NIPT is now inviting members of the public to back the bill in order to propose it to parliament. Thai citizens over 18 years old who would like to back the bill can still do so by sending the necessary documents along with a copy of their ID card to the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (CIPT) in San Sai District, Chiang Mai, before 15 March 2021.

Meanwhile, the SAC is in the process of drafting another bill, called the Protection and Strengthening of Ethnic Way of Life bill, which will protect indigenous people’s right to choose to live according to their traditional way of life and their access to fundamental rights as Thai citizens.

Apinan said that the bill is intended to uphold equality and cultural diversity, and to put an end to discrimination. It will also include measures protecting indigenous ways of life, including the declaration of a “cultural protection area” in order to create a mechanism to allow indigenous communities to participate in decision-making processes about conservation and to allow for self-management.

If passed, the bill would also become a central mechanism for government agencies to use to resolve indigenous rights issues. Apinan said that this bill is not about granting privileges to indigenous peoples, but is about protecting the rights which were previously violated. 

But new legislation may not be enough if existing laws are not changed. Sunee Chaiyaros, former human rights commissioner and lecturer at the College of Social Innovation at Rangsit University, said in a panel discussion organised by the SAC on 21 January 2021 that Thailand’s conservation forest laws, which are outdated and go against human rights principles, must also be revised.

Sunee also said that amending national park laws would be beneficial not only to the Bang Kloi community, but also to other communities still living in contested forest land. She said that the Constitution has already recognized community rights, which is also protected by international agreements, but the Thai state has never put this into practice. If new legislation is to be drafted, Sunee said, it must not only protect but also empower the communities and give them the power to determine their own lives.

The Kaeng Krachan Dam, where the oil drum containing bone fragments likely to be Billy's was found

Raising awareness among the public about the protection of indigenous culture is also important. Kittisak said that the public still has a bias against indigenous peoples, and that time and serious campaigning efforts will be needed to undo them.

“It’s like arranging flowers in a vase. If there are a hundred kinds of flowers, then it’s beautiful, but if there is only one kind, it would be a bit plain. If we are to make them see the dimension of beauty, the dimension of benefits, values, I think that the educational system is important. Campaigning is important,” said Kittisak.

Meanwhile, Apinan said that trying to get the state to change its approach to conservation might be difficult without undoing negative stereotypes of indigenous peoples. It is therefore important to work on reducing cultural bias and communicating with the public to create a society that accepts indigenous ways of life before creating legislation, which he said is only a mechanism for solving the issues but may not lead to understanding.

There seems to be, however, a glimmer of hope. For Apinan, the Doi Chang Pa Pae Karen community in Lamphun is a success story and proof that it is possible for the community to participate in conservation efforts. The community is part of the SAC’s special cultural area pilot project, which designated certain communities as places in which people can choose to live according to their traditional way of life and take part in resource management, and their work on preventing forest fires has proved that they are capable of caring for all 27,000 rai of forest while making use of only 270 rai each year.

The Doi Chang Pa Pae community has also become a case study for government agencies to use as a policy guideline, which Apinan sees as the beginning of a change in how government agencies view indigenous people.

Although there is work still to be done, especially in raising public awareness, Apinan said that there are signs of success. He observed that indigenous communities are now able to raise their voice and speak for themselves and are empowered to use their traditional knowledge to solve various issues.

“I think that, after 10 years of cabinet resolutions, at the very least there is some kind of signs which show that it could lead to success, not that there is no sign at all,” Apinan said.

Heart of the land, land of their hearts

One of the representatives from CSO networks who came to submit a petition to the OHCHR to call for an end to human rights violations against the Bang Kloi community holding a portrait of Ko-i Meemi, the community's spiritual leader 

Back at Bang Kloi, however, the situation has not got any better. Members of the community have faced intimidation from state officials. During the first weeks of February 2021, park officials, police, and military officers were stationed in the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi village and had been patrolling the area every day, while food donations are blocked at park checkpoints and prevented from being delivered to the community members who returned to Chai Phaen Din.

Phone signals in the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi village were also periodically cut, while officials were asking for the names and whereabouts of community leaders. There is also a concern that the authorities would forcibly evacuate those who returned to Chai Phaen Din the way they did in 2011.

After a three-day protest in front of Government House to demand an end to intimidation by state officials, four government officials signed an MOU with members of the community promising to allow the community to return to Chai Phaen Din to live according to their traditional ways, to protect their righs to do so and to follow the policy guidelines stated in the 2010 cabinet resolution.

The MOU states that, for community members who wish to stay at Pong Luek-Bang Kloi village, the authorities must allocate enough land to live and farm so that they can live securely. The authorities must also order officers stationed at the village to stop patrolling and setting up checkpoints, which is intimidating to community members, and must ensure community members’ safety.

The community members who came to the protest at the Government House on 15 February 2021

Despite this, on 22 February 2021, there were reports of helicopter flights taking military units up into the Kaeng Krachan Forest, as well as reports that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment had ordered all community members to be forced out of Chai Phaen Din by 18.00 of that day. By the end of the day, it was reported that 13 community members were detained and taken back down to Pong Luek-Bang Kloi.

Around 60 people remained at Chai Phaen Din on the night of 22 February 2021, one of whom is Ko-I’s son No-ae Meemi, who cannot walk and asked to be carried by his grandchildren up to Chai Phaen Din during the night of 21 February 2021.

No-ae has said on several occasions that he would like to return to his community’s homeland, and that he would rather die than be forcibly evacuated again.

One of the representatives from CSO networks who came to submit a petition to the OHCHR to call for an end to human rights violations against the Bang Kloi community holding a banner saying "no rights, no world heritage site." 

The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex is on the way to becoming a world heritage site. After having their previous three nominations referred by the World Heritage Committee, who asked the Thai government to first resolve the issues of human rights violations against indigenous communities in the area before applying again, the Thai government will file a nomination for the fourth time at this year’s committee session, which is to take place in June – July 2021 in Fuzhou, China. This has raised concerns among the indigenous communities, who fear that their rights will continue to be violated, should the forest become a world heritage site before these issues are resolved.

And even though the government may be able to pay compensation to the community, or provide other remedies, for the violence the community has been facing, the time they have been forced to spend far away from their ancestral land, while they faced persistent issues, while priceless traditions and body of knowledge become lost to time – how will the Thai state be held responsible? 

This report was made with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network.

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