National Park Where Activist Disappeared Left Off UNESCO List

Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen poses with his wife and child. Photo: Courtesy of his family
Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen poses with his wife and child. Photo: Courtesy of his family

BANGKOK — Unresolved questions about rights violations and border demarcation prevented the United Nations from recognizing a national park as a world heritage site, government officials said Sunday.

The bid to give Kaeng Krachan National Park UNESCO world heritage status failed because legal measures to protect ethnic communities living in the forest came into effect after a deadline mandated by the organization, the Thai delegates said.

“All information had to be submitted to the assembly by Feb. 1, 2019,” delegate chief Sihasak Phuangketkeow said. “But our solutions, including legal amendments to allow people to live side by side with the forest, were enacted in March.”

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Sihasak said the Thai government will submit the proposal again when applications open next year.

Some civic groups had criticized the push to give the 2,915 square km national park in Phetchaburi province UNESCO status due to the history of human rights violations in the area.

The forest is home to Karen communities who settled on the land before national park laws were enacted, though that did not stop Thai authorities from declaring their abodes illegal and launching several efforts to evict them.

A file photo of Kaeng Krachan National Park

In 2012, wildlife officials torched over 90 homes of Karen villagers in Kaeng Krachan to drive them from the forest. The evicted residents won compensation six years later after judges ruled the operation was a serious violation of their constitutional rights.

Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, a campaigner for community rights, also disappeared in the national park in 2014 and has not been seen since. His friends and family fear the 30-year-old activist was abducted and murdered for his opposition to the government’s eviction efforts.

Sihasak said representatives from six countries chaired a UNESCO committee that deliberated on Kaeng Krachan’s status: Australia, Norway, Indonesia, Cuba, Tunisia and Kuwait.

A former ambassador to France advised the committee raised three concerns over the application. They were a border demarcation dispute between Thailand and Myanmar, the shrinking size of the forest in the national park, and the civil rights of communities that settled in Kaeng Krachan.

Wildlife officials burn homes of Karen residents in Kaeng Krachan National Park.

According to Sihasak, both the Thai and Myanmar governments have already agreed on the border, while the two other points will be clarified in next year’s bid.

“Thailand still has a good chance of proposing Kaeng Krachan forest as a world heritage site in next year’s bid,” Sihasak said.

UNESCO is currently in session in Azerbaijan to select candidates for world heritage status. Sites recognized by the agency last week include India’s Jaipur, Myanmar’s Bagan landscape, China’s archaeological ruins of Liangzhu City, and the Plain of Jars located in Laos.

There was brief confusion over Kaeng Krachan’s fate when a Facebook page operated by the ruling junta erroneously reported on Saturday that UNESCO had recognized the national park. The Facebook page later amended the text to say there was no such decision.

The UNESCO session runs through Wednesday.