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Posts from the ‘Sakon Nakhon’ Category

GUEST NEWS CONTRIBUTION: Sakon Nakhon Court Jails Villagers For Forest Encroachment

2015 October 22
by The Isaan Record

By Anne Sadler and William Lee

courtdate - final draft

Residents of Jatrabiab village and one of their lawyers gather for an Isaan-style lunch in the shadow of the Sakon Nakhon courthouse. Relatives and friends of all ages flocked to the scene of the day’s proceedings in a show of support.

SAKON NAKHON – The ongoing clash between the government’s forest reclamation policy and community land rights in the Northeast came to a head on October 21st. Standing before the provincial court in Sakon Nakhon Province, nine villagers from Jatrabiab village — each convicted with encroaching on protected forests — listened as the judge handed down their sentences.

For six of the nine villagers, the verdict was disheartening. Each must abandon their land, pay a fine ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 baht, and submit to a form of probation for at least a year. Still, they fared much better than three of their neighbors.

Mrs. Kong Phongsakbun, Mr. Bunsom Phongsakbun, and Mrs. Surat Srisawat share 40 rai of land in an area the government has deemed “reserve forest.” For working on this land, Mrs. Kong and Mr. Bunsom received a sentence of three years in prison, while Mrs. Surat received two and a half years.

Wednesday’s sentencing is the latest chapter in a saga that began in 2012, when Thai authorities arrested 34 Jatrabiab villagers — largely rubber farmers—for trespassing in a reserve forest.

Prosecutors’ initially lacked the willpower to take substantive action against the accused. The villagers’ court cases lay dormant for some time, but were revived after the 2014 military coup thrust into power an active junta bent on pushing its “master plan,” which includes a commitment to swiftly increase Thailand’s forest cover to 40% — up from the present nationwide proportion of 33%.

A primary government strategy to reach this goal has been to reclaim illegally used forestlands, though villagers across Isaan argue that the forests are being used legally. They say the borders of reserve forests, national parks and protected areas, which the government mandates must be free of human activity — were drawn with people’s livelihood inside them.

Holding back tears, 51-year-old Mr. Phakdi Srisawat, the husband and son-in-law of the trio facing jail time, was overcome by the judge’s ruling. “It is unfair, I don’t know what to do,” he said, struggling to find words. Mr. Phakdi now faces the daunting task of collecting a total bail of more than one million baht, without a job or land to leverage, since his land was also confiscated.

While distressed about the fate of her grandparents and mother, 27-year-old Ms. Saowalak Srisawat fears most for her father. “Without my mother, my father is broken-hearted,” she said. “In this way, he suffers more than my mother.”

Mr. Thanomsak Rawatchai, one of the three lawyers representing the villagers, expressed disappointment with the verdict. “What the judge gave to the villagers, it’s too much,” he said.

Though nearly all of the villagers pled guilty to avoid harsher sentences, they maintain their arrests were unjust. By their account, they have owned the land in question for decades, and have the tax records to prove it. Mr. Phakdi asserts his wife’s parents had lived on their land for at least 34 years.

In a narrative difficult to substantiate, villagers claim that the Royal Forest Department (RFD) — a government agency responsible for managing forest resources — agreed to provide them with land titles in 2012. It turned out to be a deceptive ploy, they allege, as the RFD collected and submitted their signatures to the police. The police then arrested all those listed as “trespassers.”

RFD officials emphasize that the target of the reclamation policy are investors: wealthy landowners exploiting the forests for personal gain. Furthermore, NCPO Order 66 requires that poor or landless people living on reserve land prior to June 2014 not be adversely affected. However, evidence suggests the reality is the reverse.

Even considering Thailand’s ever-changing political system, the legal definition of an “investor” is remarkably inconsistent. In an interview earlier this month, Sakon Nakhon RFD officials stated that those with more than 50 rai of land qualify as investors. Some villagers claim it is 30 rai. On Wednesday, for the judge, it was 25 rai.

“What law does the judge use to send people to jail for 25 rai of land?” said Mr. Laothai Ninnuan, an advisor to the Isaan Farmer Association who has worked with the Jatrabiab community for over 30 years. “The law states that they can have 50 rai. The judge just made that law up,” he claimed.

Following Wednesday’s hearing, all but one of the 34 villagers involved, a juvenile at the time of his arrest, have received sentencing. Most of those facing jail-time are in varying stages of the appeals process.

Mr. Thanomsak stressed that judges have the wrong attitude about the relationship between villagers and forestland. While judges think of villagers as catalysts of environmental destruction, Mr. Thanomsak explained that, in reality, their communities have been able to sustain themselves and the land for decades.

Throughout the day, dozens of Jatrabiab villagers sat in an outdoor structure adjacent to the courthouse, gathered in solidarity for the nine awaiting their sentences. When asked about the large turnout of supporters, Mr. Phakdi choked out just one word —“happy”— before succumbing to silence.

For now, the trio remains behind bars, awaiting bail. “We will continue to fight; we will find a way to get them out,” said Ms. Saowalak. “But today, I don’t know what to do.”

The State Prosecutor’s Office was not available for comment, citing official business.

Anne Sadler studies English Literature at Davidson College (North Carolina) and William Lee majors in Environmental Science at Tulane University of Louisiana.

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Northeasterners Mark 50th Anniversary of the Communist Armed Struggle

2015 August 13
by The Isaan Record

NAKHON PHANOM – Fifty years ago, Comrade Tang fought for communism in the first violent clash between communist fighters and Thai security forces. Last week, at 88 years old, he marked the anniversary with a call for democracy.

"Nabua - A historical village“ reads the sign at the village entrance.

“Nabua – A historical village“ reads the sign at the village entrance.

In the early morning on August 7, villagers and local politicians flocked through the gate of Nabua’s village temple to commemorate the incident that came to be known as the “Day the First Gunshot Rang Out.” Against the military’s demands, the crowd of 250 not only celebrated the former communists, but also rallied for freedom from the current military rule in Thailand.

On August 7, 1965 Nabua, an ethnic Phu Thai village, made headlines all across Indochina when Thailand’s first-ever physical confrontation between communist fighters and Thai security forces occurred. According to eyewitnesses, eight communist villagers were involved, one of whom was shot dead during the incident after the town was surrounded by state forces.

Nabua villagers give alms in the local temple to mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the "Day the First Gunshot Rang out".

Nabua villagers give alms in the local temple to mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the “Day the First Gunshot Rang Out”.

Comrade Tang, one of these eight villagers, sits on the tiled floor of the temple’s sala and greets every newcomer with an excited glance.

“This is the second year we were not allowed to have a big celebration and our funding was cut,” he said in an interview, dressed in a pearly-white uniform and sporting black-rimmed glasses. “In the past, the military would join in to celebrate our shared political history, but now they are coming in to control us.” Before he could begin the ceremony, he rose from his seat to greet two military officers who came to observe the event.

Villagers have been commemorating the incident for the last fourteen years with large events featuring political debates, lectures, and cultural performances. But, for the second year in a row, military officials asked them to keep the event small and banned any political conversation. In addition, the event’s funding from the local government was cut by half this year, from 20,000 to 10,000 baht, according to village leaders.

Comrade Tang greets two military officers who came two observe the event and took photos of the audience.

Comrade Tang greets two military officers who came two observe the event and took photos of the audience.

Among the event’s guests were 150 students from Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University. Their lecturer, Wichan Sittitham, had organized a lecture the day before the ceremony to encourage his students to learn about their region’s political history.

“The power of the older generation here is giving me goosebumps,” said Rotchana Ngaolakon, a third-year student in the university’s Public Administration program. “Like Comrade Tang, he is only a farmer, but he followed a strong ideology against oppression. Even up to today, he is still demanding to return democracy to the people.”

Comrade Tang, whose full name is Chom Saenmit, delivered a speech to the students at the event at the university’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. He is determined to help teach students and others in his region about the often-ignored realities of the communist movement’s history in Isaan.

Comrade Tang speaks to an audience of villagers, students and local politicians. Behind him is a portrait of the communist villager who was shot dead in the clashes on August 7, 1965.

Comrade Tang speaks to an audience of villagers, students and local politicians. Behind him is a portrait of the communist villager who was shot dead in the clashes on August 7, 1965.

“It was good to have the event at Rajabhat University yesterday to talk about the political meaning of [August 7],” he says. “But, the problem is that these kind of events at universities are not easily accessible for other villagers.”

Despite the military’s order to avoid political topics, speakers at the anniversary event stressed the need for a return to a democratic system in Thailand.

Former MP and Pheu Thai politician Paichit Sriwarakham, dressed in traditional Isaan garb, praised the people of Nabua for setting an example in opposing dictatorship 50 years ago. “People should stay united in demanding democracy,” he told a cheering audience.

“We have been fighting for democracy for a long time and it’s time to deliver it to the people,” said Comrade Tang in his speech. “In the past, the state killed many people in our village, in their homes, and in their fields.” As he began recounting the anti-communist suppression in the 1960s and 70s, however, the moderator quickly interrupted him and announced the next program item, an ethnic Phu Thai dance performance.

For Comrade Tang, the annual celebration is the only opportunity to get public recognition of what he views as a decades-long struggle against dictatorship. After the collapse of the Communist Party of Thailand in the early 1980s, Comrade Tang had returned to a life as a rice farmer in his village. “We realized that without these commemorative events, the history of our political struggle would be lost,” he said in an interview.

Students from Rajabhat Sakon Nakhon University listen Comrade Tang talking about the political history of Nabua.

Students from Rajabhat Sakon Nakhon University listen Comrade Tang talk about the political history of Nabua.

On the temple’s lush grounds, small groups of students congregated to speak with former communist fighters. Ms. Rotchana, one such student, felt aggrieved by the absence of the communist movement in her history classes.

“The Nabua incident is not often talked about in our society, but it is an important slice of history for the Phu Thai and people in Isaan. And for us students, we get to learn about something that is not covered in our university books,” she said, adding that her parents did not want her to attend the event.

Former village teacher Santayakon Jitmat and students from Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University perform revolutionary songs on a small stage on the temple ground.

Former village teacher Santayakon Jitmat and students from Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University perform revolutionary songs on a small stage on the temple ground.

Thailand’s education system is known for its elite-focused, narrow treatments of the country’s political history. Public Administration student Anuwat Saelim said that this breeds political apathy among students. “The ones who are interested in politics and people’s movements, like Dao Din, are seen as radicals, as society’s black sheep,” he said, referring to the Northeast student group that has recently organized protests against the military government.

“In the past, young people grabbed a gun and fought [for their beliefs],” said Mr. Anuwat.

“Today, the few students who dared to write protest signs are hunted down by the state. The ruling class must be really afraid of us.”

Isaan Poor Targeted by Junta’s Forest Policies

2014 October 19
by Evan Gershkovich

Guest contributor, Evan Gershkovich, reports on how the government’s new forest policy impacts the poor far more than the rich landowners and resort operators the government claims to be targeting.

SAKON NAKHON-On October 1, 37 villagers of Jatrabiap village were arrested and held on bail for charges of illegally reclaiming and occupying a section of Phu Phan Reserve Forest. This past June a task force of park officials, soldiers, and police cut down 18 families’ rubber tree farms totaling 383 rai (151.4 acres), in Non Jaroen village in the same reserve. According to a local activist, officials plan to clear-cut a total of 10,000 rai of rubber trees in the area by the end of the year, a move that could deprive 700 households of income.

These actions are in line with a policy of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) which came to power through a coup in late May. According to Laothai Ninuan, an advisor to the Assembly of the Poor and to the Northeastern Network for Development of the Poor on Land-Forest Issues based in the area, state authorities are in the process of evicting more than 50 Northeastern communities from forest areas.

The increasingly aggressive attitude on the part of state authorities is part of a trend that has either removed or aims to evict more than 50 Northeastern communities from forest areas and threatens the livelihoods of what one forestry official has estimated to be as many as two million people throughout the country.

A Jatrabiap villager surveys the remaining and destroyed rubber trees; authorities plan to cut down the rest by the end of the year.

A Jatrabiap villager surveys the remaining and destroyed rubber trees; authorities plan to cut down the rest by the end of the year.

In June, the NCPO issued Order 64, which calls for an end to deforestation and forest encroachment. The order aims to regulate corrupt and large-scale commercial operations in reserve forests. Order 66, issued three days later, requires that the poor or landless people living on reserve land prior to Order 64 not be adversely affected.

The attorney representing Jatrabiap villagers, Tanom Sakrawaschai, does not believe that Order 66 has actually functioned as an effective check on Order 64.

“In practice, Order 64 has mostly been enforced against common villagers rather than large-scale investors,” says Mr. Tanom.

Villagers have little way to respond to evictions. With the help of Mr. Laothai, Non Jaroen villagers sent a petition to the Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) demanding the NCPO call off plans to destroy the remaining rubber trees. The NHRC has received over a dozen of such petitions.

A meeting in Bangkok with the NCPO and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment on August 10 where the NCPO was urged to change its policy regarding forest encroachment.

Apparently unsuccessful, four days after the Bangkok meeting, Mr. Palinchai Sonsoe, the head of Phu Phan District, issued an order for Jatrabiap villagers to vacate the land they used to grow rubber trees. When they refused, Mr. Palinchai issued a warrant for their arrest.

There is question as to who benefits from the rubber trees. Local authorities claim that investors hire the farmers to tap the rubber. Mr. Palinchai does not believe that the villagers can afford to grow rubber trees on their own.

“Growing rubber trees is not done by the poor,” he said. “It is done by investors who hire the villagers to work for them.”

When asked for evidence that investors had hired the villagers to work for them, Mr. Palinchai could not produce any.

Local villagers used to grow cassava and sugar cane. In 2001, local authorities introduced rubber saplings into the area as part of the agricultural policy of the first Thaksin Shinawatra administration.

Contrary to government claims, villagers say they own the trees and now the income of many families depends solely on rubber.

Ms. Sunan Singwong, a 28-year-old farmer in Jatrabiap village, says that families started with one rai and then gradually added one rai at a time. Ms. Sunan claims that relatives working in other provinces provide money to help grow more rubber trees.

According to Mr. Laothai, an average family in Jatrabiap village has a modest holding of about 15 rai. Each month, a family typically makes about 1,000 baht per rai from the harvest of rubber. With two people working the average of 15 rai of trees, they can expect to earn less than 300 baht a day.

While not the poorest of the poor, these families are not getting rich either. It is for this reason that Mr. Laothai argues that villagers are by no means the wealthy landholders that NCPO Order 64 aims to target and ought to be protected by Order 66.

Although the Non Jaroen and Jatrabiap villagers claim to have been living on their land for generations, the area was named Phu Phan National Park in 1972. After negotiations with villagers and NGOs in 1993, cabinet ministers issued a resolution allowing the Agriculture Land Reform Office to allocate land to villagers.

But now the government seems to be revoking that resolution. Mr. Palinchai insists that he will follow the NCPO’s order. “I have to seize all reserve forest area,” he says. “The rubber trees must be cut and destroyed.”

The NCPO policy, though, has made land tenure uncertain and threatens the livelihoods of two million people throughout the country. Ms. Sunan has little doubt about the resolve of the government. “I think the government will cut down more of our trees and seize our land,” she says. “But we are poor. From what I’ve heard about [the NCPO] order, they say that if we are poor we should be able to keep our land.”

Dr. Komsan Rueangritsakul of the Royal Forest Department’s Bureau of Community Forestry Management acknowledged the problems with the NCPO order in a previous interview.

“This problem is an old, old problem, but our first priority is to ensure that no more forest land is converted for commercial use,” he told Khao Sod English. “There are two million people in protected forested areas in Thailand, and they are not criminals, they are farmers.”

Mr. Laothai fears that the criminalization of villagers in the Northeast will continue. He also worries that he himself might be arrested.

“It’s not that I’m scared for myself,” says Mr. Laothai. “I’ve been fighting dictatorship for a long time. We’ve had a lot of coups in Thailand. But if I go to those areas, the villagers will be in even more trouble than they already are; the military will think that I’m trying to spark a political movement in the area.”

His fear is not uncommon in the climate of martial law. The ban on discussion of politics in groups of five or more and the frequent “summons” of other AOP leaders has given many like Mr. Laothai pause.

“I just need to be careful,” he says.

Dr. Sataporn Roengtam, a professor of Public Administration at Khon Kaen University, believes that the targeting of villagers by district officers will continue unless the government’s policy is clarified and protects the rights of the poor.

“In Isaan, there are a lot of poor farmers who only plant a few rai of rubber trees, but the local authorities don’t make a distinction between the poor and the large-scale businesses run by corrupt people who are taking land from the state – that’s who the policy was meant for,” he said in an interview.

Like villagers, Dr. Sataporn feels there is a disconnect between policy makers and people on the ground. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people about this, and I really do think that higher government officials really mean this policy for large commercial operations; it’s the lower level government officials who are using this policy to take advantage of poor people. And this is a big problem in Thailand right now.”

The first court hearing in the case against Jatrabiap villagers is scheduled for November 21. The attorney, Mr. Tanom, is uncertain about the outcome of the case; Ban Jatrabiap is located in Phu Phan National Park, he notes, and the 1993 Cabinet resolution does not allow the growing of rubber trees.

Mr. Tanom worries that the court may decide to issue severe penalties, which could include up to fifteen years in prison, confiscation of land, and fines of up to 150,000 baht per rai in violation.

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Phinitnan Chanasabaeng contributed reporting.

Evan Gershkovich is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. Follow Evan on Twitter @EvanGershkovich