Indigenous Karen villagers arrested after returning to ancestral land

87 members of the Bang Kloi indigenous Karen community, who travelled back to the location of their former village in the Kaeng Krachan forest, have been forcibly taken out of the forest and arrested by park officials, police, and military officers.

A number of Bang Kloi community members came to try to meet with their relatives after learning that those who returned to Chai Phaen Din were arrested. (Photo from the Northern Development Foundation)

The community members were taken by helicopter flights down from Chai Phaen Din, the former location of their village from which they were forcibly evacuated in 2011, on Friday morning (5 March).

Waraporn Utairungsee, a lawyer from the Human Rights Lawyer Association (HRLA), said that of the 87 people arrested, 36 are minors, but the authorities did not press charges and have released them. 29 others were arrested and received a fine, while 22 were taken to Khao Kling Prison.

Waraporn also said that the team from HRLA asked to meet the community members at 14.00, but were prevented from seeing them for around 4 hours, until the police held a press conference at around 18.00 to say that the community members were informed of their charges and were taken into temporary detention. She said that the authorities claimed that a lawyer from the Lawyers’ Council was already present during the inquiry, but she was not sure if the community members consented to this, as community representatives have already filed a request for a lawyer with HRLA on 25 February 2021.

According to Waraporn, it was too late to request bail on Friday (5 March). Later, on Saturday morning (6 March), HRLA announced on their Facebook page that they will be requesting bail for the 22 detained community members, and that they are arranging for 8 other community members for whom the police have an arrest warrant to turn themselves in on Monday (8 March). HRLA said that they will have to request bail for a total of 30 people, requiring a security of 60,000 baht each.

 As they will need at least 1,320,000 baht in security, HRLA is requesting that any academic or university lecturer willing to use their position as bail security for the detained community members contact them. They will be requesting bail for the community members on Monday (8 March) at the Phetchaburi Provincial Court.   

Transborder News reported that remaining community members at the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi village went to the park administration office after they learned of the arrest earlier on Friday morning (5 March), but were not allowed to see their relatives.

Kriangkrai Cheechuang, co-ordinator for the Karen network for Culture and Environment in Tanao Sri (KNCE), told Transborder News that the authorities began the inquiry without waiting for the community members’ lawyer and without a representative of the community being present to act as an interpreter.

There were also reports that No-ae Meemi, son of Ko-i Meemi, the community’s late spiritual leader, has also been arrested and sent to prison, and that at least two of the women currently detained have young children.

Reports of No-ae’s arrest caused concerns among the community, as he has said on several occasions that he would commit suicide if he is forcibly evacuated from Chai Phaen Din again.

The Bang Kloi community has already been forcibly evacuated from their ancestral home twice: 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.

For the past 25 years, the community has constantly faced unresolved community rights issues. They were not allocated land for agriculture as the authorities promised them, 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 missed out on land allocation and welfare. 

Community leader and indigenous rights activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen also went missing in 2014 after he was last seen in the custody of park officials. 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. However, even though the DSI laid charges against four suspects, including the then-national park chief and two other officials who took Billy into custody, 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.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also worsened their situation, as many community members employed outside the village began to lose income. Around 70 – 80 members of the community therefore decided to leave the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi village in mid-January 2021 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 rites 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.

Since the start of February 2021, the community have faced intimidation from state officials. Park officials, police, and military officers were stationed in the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi Village and have 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. Community leaders faced pressure from the authorities, while phone signals in the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi village were periodically cut.

Despite the signing of an MOU with community representatives promising to allow the community to return to Chai Phaen Din to live according to their traditional ways and to end intimidation against the community, there were reports on 22 February 2021 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 that day, it was reported that 13 community members had been detained and taken back down to Pong Luek-Bang Kloi.

Thailand, along with 143 other countries, is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Article 10 of which states “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.” 

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