Bang Kloi community continue to face rights issues despite MOU

Members of the Bang Kloi indigenous Karen community went to Government House on Tuesday (14 December) to file a petition demanding that Varawut Silpa-archa, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, be removed from the government committee working on issues facing the community, while the community’s land rights and food security issues remained unsolved.

Community members and other activists marching to Government House

Varawut was appointed chair of the committee on solving land rights issues for the Bang Kloi community on 3 December 2021. The petition says that the community cannot accept this appointment, as his attitude towards the community is discriminatory and shows a lack of understanding, as well as a denial of cultural diversity and the existence of indigenous communities in Thailand. He is also considered one of the parties in conflict with the community and it would not be fair to have him head the committee.

The community therefore demanded that a new committee be formed, the members of which must be independent and not related to agencies which can obstruct the process of solving the issues.

Pongsak Tonnamphet, a community representative, said that he is concerned that Varavut’s appointment would further delay the process of resolving the community’s land rights issues. He said that although Varavut visited the community, he has never spoken to community members, but told the public that the community faces no issues and is living a good life, which is not true.

Pongsak handing the community's petition to Prime Minister's Office Minister Anucha Nakasai

The Bang Kloi indigenous Karen community now lives at the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi Village in Kaeng Krachan National Park, where they were forcibly relocated in 1997, and once again in 2011, when park and military officials raided the Bang Kloi Bon and Chai Phaen Din (meaning “heart of the land”) villages, which are located deep in the Kaeng Krachan forest, and burned down their houses and rice barns.

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. 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 their relocated village and returned to Chai Phaen Din to live according to their traditional way of life. Community members and activists occupied the Chamai Maruchet Bridge, opposite Government House, for five days in early February 2021 to demand protection for the community members who returned to Chai Phaen Din.

An MOU stating that the authorities would stop intimidating the community and allow them to be transported to Chai Phaen Din, and that the community must be allowed to return to their ancestral home, was signed by then-Agriculture and Cooperatives Deputy Minister Thammanat Prompao, Varavut, and the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment.

Nevertheless, the community members who returned to Chai Phaen Din were forcibly taken out of the forest and arrested by park officials, police, and military officers in early March 2021. of the 87 people arrested, 36 were minors and the authorities did not press charges against them. The rest were charged with trespassing on national park land. 29 people received a fine, while 22 were temporarily detained at the Khao Kling Prison before being released after two nights. 

Chan Tonnamphet

Almost a year later, the community still faces various issues. Chan Tonnamphet, another community representative who came to file the petition, said that the community is currently suffering from food scarcity and has to rely on donations, while those who are able to farm can only grow bananas and the money they earn from selling their produce is barely enough to cover food costs. She said that one disabled community member died from malnutrition while the community representatives were traveling to Bangkok.

“Why are they stopping us from farming, from going back to where we used to live, until people in the village have to suffer malnutrition? This situation made me very sad,” Chan said.

Chan also said that the community is currently facing an epidemic of malaria and dengue fever. However, visiting a hospital is difficult for many community members. Chan said that they can visit a hospital in the Kaeng Krachan district, but many cannot afford the travel cost, while the route from their village is difficult and takes a long time. If a relative is admitted to hospital, there are additional costs. For these reasons, many community members chose to stay home unless their illness is severe.  

On 26 July 2021, the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex was named a natural World Heritage site despite ongoing concerns about human rights violations against indigenous communities in the forest area and recommendations from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, who pointed to human rights violations against indigenous Karen communities in the Kaeng Krachan forest, from forced evacuations and lack of proper remedy, to arrest and legal prosecution, as well as the resulting food insecurity.

Chan said that her community’s situation has not improved, and instead worsened after the forest became a World Heritage site. She said that while they were told that the forest’s World Heritage status would mean that the outside world would be aware of their issues, members of the press are not allowed to visit the village. Meanwhile, a team of volunteer doctors who has been traveling to the Bang Kloi village to provide medical treatment for the community, must request permission from park authorities to visit the village and, in most cases, are not allowed to stay overnight.

“They said that if [the Kaeng Krachan forest] got the World Heritage status, the outside world will know about our problems. Everyone around the world will know about them, but in fact, once [the Kaeng Krachan forest] became a World Heritage site, things got even worse. The media were not even allowed to visit. Medical teams who come to treat the sick villagers can’t visit, so what does it mean when they said that the world will know?” Chan asked.

The performers' network RasaDrums leading the march to Government House

The community members travelled to Bangkok on Monday (13 December) to support the protestors from Chana District, Songkhla, who were occupying Chamai Maruchet bridge next to Government House to protest against the Chana industrial zone project. On Tuesday (14 December), the Bang Kloi community members and the activist network Save Bang Kloi Coalition marched from Chamai Maruchet bridge to Government House to submit their petition, which was received by Anucha Nakasai, Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Pongsak said that the community members came to Bangkok not only to submit their petition but also to show support for the Chana community, whose livelihood is also affected by government policy and whose issues are not being solved.

“I want to say that our brothers and sisters from Chana, I believe that they wouldn’t come here if it was not really unbearable, but from what I’ve heard them say, it is too much, and it is where they were born. It is their home. It is where they live, and if there is any project or industry, it would definitely affect the Chana community,” Pongsak said.

“Those of us from Bang Kloi, other networks, and the public are ready to fight alongside the Chana community. Don’t worry that you will be alone. You will not be alone. We will fight with you.”

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