Bangkok, Thailand - On 10 July 2019, Manushya Foundation along with 13 other organisations and institutions including the Center for Promotion of Gender Equality and Social Equity, College of Social Innovation, Rangsit University; Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University; Isaan Land Reform Network (ILRN); Focus in the Global South (FOCUS); iLaw; the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR); P-Move; We Move; NGO-COD; EnLaw Foundation; Protection International; Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), co-organised a roundtable meeting to discuss the impact of the forest reclamation policy on the impoverished communities in Thailand. This was specifically organised following appeal court judgments at the Chaiyaphum Provincial Court that criminalised the actions of 14 villagers from Sab Wai village in the province of Chaiyaphum under the forest reclamation policy including NCPO Orders 64/2014 and 66/2014, for cultivating land they had lived on for generations. Taking place at Rangsit University, this event was attended by individuals from all over Thailand who are affected negatively by this same policy, civil society organisations working with them, academics, media persons, diplomats, representatives from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and representatives from the Supreme Court.
In opening remarks, it was explained that the forest reclamation policy and related laws are negatively affecting a large number of people all over Thailand, with 4,000 people having more than 20,000 cases filed again them. Further providing an understanding on the overall context, the keynote speech pointed out that it is not just about people losing their land and being driven to poverty following eviction and facing court cases, but for poor people who are mostly farmers losing their land means not having a sufficient standard of living, loss of food and housing. Their other rights like their freedom to express the problems they face, and their right to assembly and association is seen as a threat, and the fight for land related rights has led to targeted killing and enforced disappearances in Thailand.
Towards a better understanding of the different perspectives of the forest reclamation policy, the roundtable meeting included contributions from experts in different fields. To see how the violation of rights affects individual cases, the discussion began with a background of the Sai Thong National Park case and the steps taken by the villagers to solve the problems they were facing. It was explained that many generations of families lived in Sai Thong, but they were forced to move to pre-owned land, by authorities who first declared it as a National Reserved Forest. When they tried to return, the authorities declared it as a National Park filing criminal charges against these people. The authorities proved who owned land by using a Cabinet Resolution from 30 June 1998, which they used to survey land and created a list of people allowed to stay on the land which included many people who did not own land there before. A lot of land remained un-surveyed due to insufficient budgets, so the villagers tried to resolve this by coming up with recommendations to jointly manage the land and increase forest cover. This plan has been ignored by the Forest Department and other government authorities. They also tried to work with government authorities through a provincial working group, but they only approved a proposal on 19 June 2018, when the case already reached the appeal court. Therefore, experts concluded that the delay in decision-making and people not being included in decisions that affect them shows how unfair the forest reclamation policy is to the poor and landless.
To illustrate the impact of the forest reclamation policy in the rest of Thailand, two similar cases and court decisions that affected farmers in Saphanburi province and Omkoi village were explained. It was highlighted that often national park authorities do not follow the law, proper procedures and calculations as they rely on wrong data and facts or do not consider the law as a whole, which was concluded by the courts in these two cases. Often such positive decisions by the Court are not followed by authorities at all. Therefore, it was recommended that it is important to change mindsets in order to understand that people do not destroy forests, to consider the well-being of people, to have judicial procedures lead to justice, and to compensate people affected by these laws.
It was also suggested that the criminal procedure and judicial system be reformed, for transparency and accountability in the work of government authorities, as there are several gaps in the judicial process in Thailand and proper procedure was not followed in the issuing of search warrant, filing charges, and in the facts the Court of First Instance reviewed in the case of the 14 Sab Wai villagers. Additionally, the experts proposed the organisation of a dialogue and discussion between the State and the people to reach an agreement. As a first step, the proposal by the villagers from Sai Thong National Park could be discussed and compensation could be provided for the rights they were denied.
Finally, experts at the roundtable asked people to be careful not just of the short term, direct impact of the forest reclamation policy but also of the overall strategy behind it, as it is a way for military interference in civic affairs and to maintain economic as well as political power. Further, even though NCPO Orders 64/2014 and 66/2014 were withdrawn on 9 July 2019, it was revealed that their content had already been placed in different laws and so would continue to affect people. Therefore, civil society was urged by experts to work together to show that the reason of climate change and protection of the environment being used in the forest reclamation policy to remove people from their land, was not justified.
Following these fruitful discussions on the forest reclamation policy, the roundtable meeting ended with the submission and reading of a statement to government authorities, by affected communities and civil society organisations working with them. This statement called on government authorities to take steps on law and policy, the judicial process, and on remedies by:
Stopping the use of the forest reclamation policy, reviewing and amending the Cabinet Resolution dated 26 November 2018, the Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act of 2019, and the new National Parks Act of 2019;
Letting those affected access the judicial process up till the Supreme Court to ensure justice is restored; by bringing measures to remedy the effects of litigation and the consequences of the litigation in the case of the 14 Sab Wai villagers; and
By accelerating land and sustainable resource management plans so that communities can sustain their livelihoods and to resolve the case of the villagers in Sai Thong National Park
From left to right:
Phairot Wong-ngan, an affected farmer working in Sai Thong National Park and a representative of the villagers
“Local communities need to have the right to participate in the decision-making process on the forest reclamation policy, as their only aim is to protect the forest and the environment, not to destroy it.”
Pramote Pholpinyo from Isaan Land Reform Network (ILRN)
“The way the government works with the forest reclamation policy shows that they are against local communities. Would it be possible for the government not to criminalise communities and instead use mediation to find solutions?”
Amara Pongsapich, the Chair of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights (AICHR)
“We still need to give local communities the right to participation. We need to engage all stakeholders to be open and to fix the mistakes that were made in the past, for a better future. We need to come up with appropriate compensation for affected villagers.”
Sunee Chaiyarose, Director of the Center for Promotion of Gender Equality and Social Equity, College of Social Innovation, Rangsit University
“The Sai Thong National Park case has given us a picture of the serious situation local communities are facing in Thailand. We hope that this event will show the importance for communities and civil society organisations, to join forces and fight together for the right cause.”
Kanit Nanathorn, Former Attorney and current Professor of Law
“Responsibility of authorities in Thailand must include accountability and transparency, that must be provided by checks and balances in the judicial system.”
Anusorn Unno, Dean of the Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology at Thammasat University
“Even though NCPO Orders 64/2014 and 66/2014 used in the Sai Thong National Park case will be revoked, their content is embedded in other laws and policies. My fear is that authorities will continue to violate the rights of human rights defenders.”
Surapong Kongchantuk, the Director of the Karen Studies and Development Centre
“We still think of communities as people destroying the forest, which leads to so many forced land evictions, but this is wrong. The goal is to stop evicting communities from land and forests they actually protect.”
We would like to thank all community members, similarly affected by the forest reclamation policy for the time they took and the long distances they travelled from all parts of Thailand, to attend this roundtable meeting. We would also like to thank all the co-organisers for their dedication in bringing focus to the important issues discussed. We will continue to stand with the 14 Sab Wai villagers, their families, and all communities in the country affected by the forest reclamation policy to support them in their effort to end the criminalisation and the continued violation of their land rights.
Access pictures of the event here.
All you need to know about the Sai Thong National Park case, from charges, convictions, trial monitoring to national & international advocacy efforts, is available on our dedicated webpage: