BANGKOK — Park officials have agreed to provide housing and land to some of the villagers recently evicted from a Wildlife Sanctuary in Buriram province.
The agreement was reached after residents from Kao Bart village brought the case to members of Thailand's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), who listened to testimony from representatives of both sides and brokered the compromise.
Over the past month, soldiers and park officials have evicted hundreds of villagers they say have been living illegally in Dong Yai Wildlife Sanctuary. As of yesterday, the entire community had left — out of fear, villagers said — except for a group of 30 villagers from Kao Bart.
After hours of heated debate before the NHRC, the villagers agreed to leave the area if the state provides them with new housing and plots of agricultural land. They also requested permission to harvest crops that have already been planted inside the park.
Park officials and representatives from Buriram's provincial government accepted the villagers' demands, though they did not give details about where, how, and when the new housing and land will be provided. The officials said that only villagers "in need" will receive new land and housing, without elaborating on the qualifications.
"We understand that the current situation of the country and lack of land [for farmers] is very important," said National Human Rights Comissioner Niran Pitakwatchara, who chaired the meeting. "We want to let the NCPO know that it is the root of inequality," he said, referring to the military junta's National Council for Peace and Order.
The long-running dispute between park officials and the villagers came to a head in June after the NCPO called upon state agencies to put an end to "encroachment" of protected forests across the country.
On 28 June, park officials and armed soldiers entered Kao Bart, Saeng Sawan, Talat Kwai, and Lam Nangrong villages and ordered residents to dismantle their homes and leave the area by 8 July, or else face a forceful eviction by security officers.
Reporters have been barred from entering the disputed area, but villagers say they have been subject to harassment and intimidation by soldiers and park officials. Villagers have also accused security officers of framing them by planting drugs in the community and creating false evidence of illegal logging.
Last week, the New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned the the military's efforts to "forcibly evict" the villagers.
“The Thai military is using threats and arbitrary arrests to forcibly evict villagers from forest areas in Buriram province,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Instead of resolving a land issue through legal means, the military is using its wide-reaching martial law powers to bludgeon human rights protections.”
At yesterday’s hearing, officials denied any use of force against the villagers.
“We have not used force at all," said Chalermpol Palawan, Deputy Governor of Buriram, as representatives from Kao Bart village shook their heads. "We’ve created understanding with the people by being friendly.”
The 2nd Region Army, which villagers say is responsible for the alleged abuse, was invited to yesterday's hearing but declined to send any representatives. Junta officials told the NHRC that they were not aware of the use of force against villagers, and promised to discuss the matter with the 2nd Region Army.
Baramee Chairat, a leader of the Thai NGO the Assembly of the Poor, helped represent the evicted villagers at yesterday’s hearing. He said he was disappointed that the final settlement did not address the abuse villagers have suffered at the hands of park officials and soldiers.
"I am not really satisfied," Mr. Baramee said, "But it's a good compromise if villagers are really given new land to work on."
(Reporting by Sally Mairs and Teeranai Charuvastra)
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