Court confirms jail sentence in legal battle over land rights in Sakon Nakhon

Guest contribution by Kaying Thor and Julianne Behrens

SAKON NAKHON – The legal battle over land rights between Jatrabiab village in Sakon Nakhon Province and the government entered its final chapter last month when a 64-year-old woman was jailed to serve a three-year sentence for encroaching on protected forest.

On March 14, Kong Phongsakban, a farmer from Jatrabiab village, was taken to prison by police officers when the Supreme Court of Thailand confirmed the three-year sentence. The sentence was first handed down by the provincial court in Sakon Nakhon Province in 2015.

In the hope of receiving probation rather than imprisonment, Mrs. Kong pleaded guilty in court, her lawyer Adisorn Wattanasuk told The Isaan Record.

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In total thirty-seven legal cases for trespassing were filed against residents of Jatrabiab Village in Sakon Nakhon Province. About 440 rai (about 174 acres) were seized from residents, mostly small-scale rubber and cassava farmers who do not hold official land titles.

The case is one of the last remaining court cases against several Jatrabiab villagers charged with trespassing, including five of Mrs. Kong’s family members. Her 73-year-old husband, Bunsom Phongsakban was jailed for the same offense in February.

The daughter of Mrs. Kong, who was also charged, is currently waiting for a response from the Supreme Court after submitting an appeal.

The case of Jatrabiab village is part of an ongoing clash between the government’s forest reclamation policy and community land rights in the Northeast.

Resident of Jatrabiab village are mostly small-scale rubber and cassava farmers who cultivate four to 40 rai (about 1.6 to 16 acres) of land. Most of them claim they did not encroach but had bought rights to work the land yet without receiving formal land titles, according to Mr. Adisorn.

After taking power in a coup d’état in 2014, the military government pushed to end deforestation by removing encroachers on national reserve lands. The aim of the government’s Forestry Master Plan is to increase forest cover in Thailand to 40% within ten years.

While the policy is meant to reduce global warming and ultimately benefit the environment, many long-standing forest communities are now facing charges of trespassing. Although, the government’s Order 66/2014 states that deforestation policy should not impact the poor and landless who had lived on the land before the enforcement of the new regulations.

In the conflict between communities and the government, the rigidity of the new law poses a challenge to finding a solution, says Mr. Adisorn.

“I disagree with using only the law. It’s not appropriate because of the ongoing processes,” argues Mr. Adisorn. “We should have discussions that follow legal and political principles rather than just imprisoning people.”

The many battles in court and the imprisonments have been particularly hard on the family of the accused.

Ms. Suttida Phongsakban, the granddaughter of Mrs. Kong, who has been living in Bangkok, said she will now have to move back home to take care her of her younger brother, who lived with the grandparents.

“The accusations are not fair,” Ms. Suttida says. “Everyone is family got the same charges, and now we are no longer a family. The key [family] members are in jail.”

Kaying Thor studies Social Work at Bethel University. Julianne Behrens studies Marketing at Tulane University of Louisiana. Both of them are student-journalists on the CIEE Khon Kaen study abroad program.

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