Karen community in Kaengkrachan is reclaiming their ancestral territory – Land of Heart.

Following their prior forced relocation by forestry officials without fair compensation or allocation of land, fifty Karen of all have fled back to their prior homes in the Kaeng Krajan Forest, to their homeland, their “Land of Our Heart” or “Jai Paen Din”. Four units of officials together with armed forces have followed, causing anxiety about possible arrest and legal procedures.

News on the 14th of January 2021 reported the Karen of Lower Bang Kloi Village fleeing and reaching the larger forest area on foot – the land of their heart, their birthplace – an arduous trek of two days. The cause? The failure of the government to allocate sufficient farmlands and a distinct lack of appropriate measures to ensure their welfare.

Land of Our Heart (Jai Paen Din) is a Karen community of old established in the forest headwaters of Kaeng Krajan District of Petchburi Province, bordering on Myanmar and recorded in official Thai Army Department documents since 1912. In 1981 some of the villagers possessed official house registration and Thai citizenship ID cards. Nevertheless, Thai authorities were still likely to brand them as a threat to national security and forest resources, and listed them as armed forces concealing illicit drugs and destroying natural resources.

This led to expulsion from their former village and relocation to Lower Bang Kloi Village, beginning about 1996, claiming national security – since they were located on the Thai-Myanmar border. However, the Thai government did not allocate sufficient agricultural land in line with Karen lifestyle and farming practice – rotational agriculture. Thus, many families were forced to request additional farmland from the resident Pong Luek villagers.

“We used to have houses of our own. We didn’t want to take away land from others. We weren’t happy doing this.” These are the words of Ko-ee Mimi, a Karen elder and spiritual leader, in an interview with the media before his death.

Due to the lack of suitable land in their forced new home away from home, the villagers decided to return to their homeland before they were again relocated under the Tanesserim Operation of 2006–2011 which resulted in the inhuman burning of houses and rice barns. Since that incident, six village representatives presented their case in the Administrative Court to request compensation from the Department of National Parks. The highest Administrative Court ruled in the villagers’ favor, citing the long term traditional Karen villages of Jai Paen Din (Land of Our Heart) and Upper Bang Kloi. However, the villagers have never been allowed to return to their former homes.

The abuse of Karen community rights in the Kaeng Krajan Forest has raised discussions among human rights organizations throughout the world. This is due to the Thai government has push for recognition of the Kaeng Krajan area to be selected as a Natural World Heritage site. In light of this, the UN Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has requested that the government explain this situation on several occasions. In addition, four UN Special Rapporteurs have together called for the Thai government to take urgent action to rectify this problem of human rights abuse of the traditional Karen in the Kaeng Krajan area.

Such forced relocation of Karen communities in the Kaeng Krajan area has occurred many times before. For example, in Pa Mak Village, Sala Lai Sub-district, Sam Roi Yawt District, Prachuap Kirikhan Province in Kuiburi National Park bordering on the Kaeng Krajan National Park – another community experiencing a land problem, a fate very similar to the Jai Paen Din community.

The sorrow of the displaced persons and their resulting misery since 1996 due to military actions like the “Cobra Operation” forcing the relocation of the Karen of Suan Durian Village on the Thai-Myanmar border to resettle in Pa Mak Village and take part of the Pa Mak lands is a prime example. The result: these new farmlands consisted of a mere 0.8 hectare, and in some cases 0.4, was in stark contrast to their previous lifestyle of rotational farming. Some families without Thai ID cards received no assistance and had to scatter and live elsewhere, often with relatives in surrounding communities, e.g. Praek Takraw, Pa La-oo. And some had to wander off in search of day labor work in the city, with many still lacking any farmland at all.

As for the actions of Kaeng Krajan National Park officials, Mr. Mana Permpoon, Chief of the Park, noted in a media interview, that he had formed four units of park rangers to follow-up on the return of the relocated villagers. The last news on 18 January 2021 reported that soldiers were preparing to arrest villagers headed home, with possible legal actions taken.
How can this situation be resolved given the current policies and laws governing the management of forest resources? The Bang Kloi villagers who have lived on the lands farmed by their ancestors for hundreds of years are without any means, without rights. They have fully expressed their status and their grief and called for their right to practice their traditional lifestyle. Their voices hopefully will reach out to persons in authority, recommending review and revisions in forestry laws and directions for appropriate forestry management. This is a call, a request for genuine participation and community rights regarding natural resources and their beneficial use for all. However, without responsible action by the government, community-government conflicts will continue . . . on and on.