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UNESCO urged to postpone Thai bid to list forest

Experts say approval could violate the rights of a Karen community who live in the national park

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Published: July 26, 2021 09:12 AM GMT

Updated: July 26, 2021 09:16 AM GMT

UNESCO urged to postpone Thai bid to list forest

An art installation featuring a man made of plaster buried upside down in a steel drum on display at a protest in Bangkok on Feb. 22 in testament to the way Christian ethnic minority activist Porlajee Rakchongcharoen’s body was disposed of by his murderers in 2014. (Photo: UCA News)

Prominent human rights experts have called on UNESCO to postpone its judgement on Thailand’s bid to have the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex listed as a World Heritage Site because a favorable decision could violate the rights of the ethnic Karen people who live in the area.

“The indigenous Karen in the national park continue to be forcibly evicted and their houses burned. A key leader was killed after being detained by national park officers,” the United Nations-affiliated experts, who are three special rapporteurs on various areas of human rights, noted in a statement.

The reference to the community leader in the statement was Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen, a Karen Christian minority rights activist who disappeared in 2014 after being detained by park officials and was later found to have been murdered.

His remains were disposed of by being burned in an oil drum, which was sunk in a local reservoir and discovered by divers in 2019.

The murder of Porlajee has served as a lightning rod for Thai pro-democracy activists who have staged regular protests demanding that the murderers of the Karen activist be brought to justice.

To date, none of the men implicated in his disappearance and subsequent murder, including a former head of the national park, have been charged with any crimes.

The Thai government needs to stop the harassment of environmental defenders and establish a genuine dialogue with the Karen

It is widely assumed that Porlajee was killed over his activism on behalf of Karen villagers, many of whom are Christians, after their homes had been burned by park officials in a move to try and force the tribespeople from local forests.

Porlajee, a devout Christian, was an outspoken defender of the right of local Karen people to remain on their ancestral land within local forests despite the area’s status as a protected nature reserve.

Park officials in turn have accused local Karen villagers of hunting game and clearing trees illegally in biodiverse forests that are home to several critically endangered animals, including Indochinese tigers, Asian elephants, Asian black bears and Asiatic wild dogs.  

Earlier this year more than 80 Karen villagers were arrested by local officials and 28 of the villagers, including seven women and one minor, were later charged with engaging in criminal encroachment.

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Thailand wants the forests where the ethnic Karen tribespeople live listed as a World Heritage Site, but the three special rapporteurs remain opposed to the listing as a heritage site so long as the harassment of local Karen people continues.

The rights experts noted that Thai authorities have so far failed to undertake good faith consultations with members of the local Karen community in order to engage them in the process of UNESCO listing.

“Should the nomination as heritage status be approved, it would perpetuate the denial of the Karen right to remain on their traditional lands and carry out their traditional livelihood activities based on rotational farming,” the UN experts said.

“The Thai government needs to stop the harassment of environmental defenders and establish a genuine dialogue with the Karen, recognize their valuable role as guardians for protecting nature, and work in partnership with the Karen rather than treating them with hostility as if they are a threat,” they added.

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