CHAIYAPHUM – Eleven men and women from Khon San district were placed under arrest this past Friday morning for trespassing on disputed land in the Khon San Forest Preserve. At dawn on July 1, over 100 black-uniformed and heavily armed officers from the Royal Forestry Department (RFD), the Forest Industry Organization (FIO), and the local police force entered Khok Yao village and herded community members into the back of police vans.
The arrests come almost four months after the Abhisit administration’s March 9 decision to suspend judicial action against villagers living on disputed land.
“I thought they were going to survey the forest as usual,” said arrested Khok Yao villager Den Kamlae of the authorities’ early morning caravan. “They surrounded us and asked us to leave. I wondered, ‘Why? Why do we have to leave our land?’ I showed them the negotiation documents [from March 9] and the officers said, ‘Those are useless.’”
When asked to comment, Prathip Silpathet, Chief Officer of Khon San dictrict’s Sheriff’s Office and the official who ordered the arrests, said that he knew nothing about the March 9 agreement.
Friday’s confrontation stems from a decades-old land dispute between villagers who claim an ancestral right to the property and the state-run FIO, which currently operates a eucalyptus plantation on the land.
It was in 1986 that the military anachronistically designated the land surrounding Khok Yao a “pink zone” – an area under imminent threat of a communist insurgency – and ordered all of its inhabitants to leave. Within a year, however, when the FIO started planting eucalyptus trees in Khok Yao’s cornfields and the communist threat never materialized, the villagers felt that they had been swindled. None of them were ever compensated for the land that they had lost.
Though the late 1990s saw the Khok Yao diaspora try and fail to get their land back through a direct petition of the provincial government, it was not until 2005 that their most recent attempt started to gain some traction. It was then that newly-elected community leader Sawai Chulalani got in touch with the Isaan Land Reform Network, a regional branch of the nationwide Land Reform Network of Thailand. With the Isaan Land Reform Network’s support, the villagers of Khok Yao began to navigate Bangkok’s often opaque land tenure policies and slowly started to move back onto their land.
Then, on November 30, 2010, after years of campaigning by the Land Reform Network, 35 villages throughout the country got permission from the Prime Minister’s Office to move back onto their ancestral land. Though Khok Yao was not among this group of villages (nearby Baw Kaew, however, was), its leadership saw this decision as a liberalization of the central government’s land policies. After the March 9 agreement, Khok Yao filed for a land deed and villagers began to move back in earnest.
Whereas the suspension of judicial proceedings against villagers living on disputed land marked one small step forward for the Land Reform Network, Friday’s arrests are most certainly two steps back.
“I’m quite worried about [the arrests],” Mr. Sawai said not twelve hours after his neighbors had been released on bail. “If the problem can’t be solved soon, I think there could be serious clashes between villagers and the authorities.”
But further conflict may still be avoided. On June 24, the Land Reform Network met with numerous national political parties to explain the problems facing the hundreds of thousands of people affected by land rights issues. Eleven parties, including Sunday’s election winner Pheu Thai, signed an agreement to help solve their problems. “If they don’t follow their promise,” said Mr. Mote, a Secretary of the Isaan Land Reform Network, “then we’ll start our next campaign.”