Updated: March 12, 2021 04:04 AM GMT
Musicians play at a commemorative event in Bangkok in 2019 for Porlajee 'Billy' Rakchongcharoen, a young Karen activist who was murdered in 2014. (Photo: UCA News)
Thailand’s government has agreed to allow United Nations inspectors to visit an ethnic Karen Christian village inside Kaeng Krachan National Park following years-long allegations that the indigenous tribespeople have been repeatedly harassed by park officials who want them gone from local forests.
In 2011, the small Karen Christian community were evicted from their village, Bang Kloy, which is inside a protected forest complex, and resettled to a low-lying area.
The villagers reported that officials had burned down their homes and moved them away from their ancestral land by force.
Officials justified their actions by saying that the forest dwellers had encroached on protected forest land and hunted endangered wildlife illegally in a biodiverse forest complex that is in the process of being granted UNESCO World Heritage status.
Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, a young Karen who had been campaigning for his people’s right to stay in the forest, disappeared in 2014 after being detained by park officials. He was later found to have been murdered.
To date, no park officials have been charged with the murder of Porlajee, whose remains were found in an oil drum sunk into the water of a reservoir near a senior park official’s office.
The plight of the villagers has received widespread attention in Thailand where many Thais see it as a clear example of rights violations and official impunity.
Large groups of young Thai pro-democracy activists have staged regular protests in Bangkok in support of the Karen villagers while demanding justice for Porlajee, whose alleged murderers, including a former head of the national park, remain free.
The UN’s fact-finding mission will likely bring renewed attention to this high-profile case in what observers see as a welcome development.
“How can the Thai state continue to violate ethnic minorities' rights again and again? In 2018, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that as the Karen are indigenous to the land, forest authorities must respect the cabinet resolution of Aug. 3, 2010, which prohibits the eviction of indigenous communities from ancestral land until all land rights conflicts are resolved,” the Bangkok Post newspaper explained in an editorial earlier this year.
“This historic verdict was supposed to be a victory for the Karen, but because of Thai bureaucracy, justice has not been served. Worse still, as the park learned of its defeat, the agency rolled out even more oppressive park laws, which allowed forest officials to evict and set fire to villagers' homes.”
Thailand’s Natural Resources and Environment Minister Woravuth Silpa-archa has called for an amicable resolution to the issue of the villagers and said he welcomed UN officials visiting the village of the Karen people in Kaeng Krachan.
Woravuth stressed, however, that actions had been taken against the villagers because they had broken the law by encroaching on a protected forest.
“If new encroachers are allowed into the [protected nature] park and more forests are cleared to make room for farmland … who will be held accountable?” the minister asked.
He has also promised to look into allegations of human rights violations.