Indigenous woman sentenced to jail for encroachment

The Supreme Court has sentenced an indigenous Karen woman to 2 years and 8 months in prison for encroaching on National Park land despite pleas that the piece of land was passed down through her family.

Wansao Phungam

Wansao Phungam is an indigenous Karen woman who lives in Tha Salao village in Nong Ya Plong District, Phetchaburi Province – one of the indigenous Karen communities on the edge of the Kaeng Krachan National Park. She has been living and working on a piece of land she inherited from her parents, and insisted that she has never encroached on the National Park. But when the government launched the One Map Project in 2016, the borders of Kaeng Krachan National Park were redrawn and Wansao’s land was included inside the Park.

Kaeng Krachan National Park is Thailand’s largest national park. Along with Kui Buri National Park, the Chaloem Prakiat Thai Prachan National Park, and the Maenam Phachi Wildlife Sanctuary, it makes up the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex, which covers 482,225 hectares of forest in three provinces.

The forest complex includes several indigenous Karen communities containing over 5000 households, both in the conservation zone and in nearby areas. Tha Salao village is one of these communities. Many of its community members have faced and are still facing legal prosecution as the authorities claim they have encroached on forest land.

In July 2021, the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex was named a World Heritage site despite ongoing concerns about human rights violations against these indigenous communities.

Wansao said that other plots of land around hers have a Certificate of Utilization, but her parents had never obtained the document as they have 7 children and her father was sick, so her mother was not able to travel into town to get the certificate. She noted that no one else who lives on land around hers is being prosecuted.

In August 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 while she has been fighting her case, Wansao has not been able to live on her land and had to leave her home behind.

The public prosecutor then appealed to the Supreme Court. Today (27 July), the Supreme Court overturned the Appeal Court’s dismissal of Wansao’s case and sentenced her to 2 years and 8 months in prison. She must pay a fine of 3.1 million baht and leave her land. Her house and all other buildings on the land must also be demolished.

Community members attending Wansao's hearing and were seen holding signs protesting the forest reclamation policy in front of the court after the verdict was heard.

Transborder News reported that other community members attended the hearing, and found the ruling unexpected as the Appeal Court had already dismissed the charges against Wansao.

Wansao is one of thousands of people affected by the National Council for Peace and Order’s forest reclamation policy. According to the activist network People’s Movement for a Just Society (P-Move), there are at least 34,692 cases in which an individual has been sued for encroaching on National Parks and protected forests and evicted from their land.

Following Wansao’s imprisonment, P-Move issued a statement condemning the government for the forest reclamation policy, which aims for 40% of the country to be forested areas, and called on the authorities to repeal all laws, orders, and policies which are part of the forest reclamation policy to allow the public to participate in the creation of a new land rights law.

P-Move also called on parliament to launch an investigation into the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE)’s budget and 2023 annual plan, as it appeared that they are still following a forest conservation model from 2014, and that its budget for crackdown on encroachment is 8 times the budget allocated to solving land rights issues. A new law must be drafted to pardon everyone unfairly prosecuted due to government policy.

 

Wansao was the subject of "Kaeng Krachan Mapped," a 2021 short documentary about land rights in the Kaeng Krachan area produced by Prachatai with support from the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI). 

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