Recently our article “Northern Thailand’s Specter of Eviction” was published by Critical Asian Studies (40:3, 373-398). In that piece we discussed the evidence of village evictions in northern Thailand. This is, as we point out, an enduring theme in academic and activist writings across the region. However we found that the strong emphasis on evictions is not supported by the evidence.
In the Critical Asian Studies article we outline the available evidence for recent evictions in northern Thailand. Here is a brief extract:
Our search of primary and secondary sources uncovers only a very small number of cases of eviction in the uplands of northern Thailand over the past twenty years:
Akha and Lahu villages in Chiang Rai Province: A number of Akha and Lahu villages in Chiang Rai Province were burned and their inhabitants deported to Burma, according to press reports. Some of these incidents appear to have been linked to a major watershed rehabilitation and rural development project closely associated with the Thai queen. Later expansion of the project led to the seizure of land from three Akha villages in the same area. …
Doi Luang in Lampang Province: Another famous, and much discussed, case took place in 1994 when four upland villages in Lampang Province were moved out of the newly declared Doi Luang National Park, despite claims that they had lived there for forty years prior to the declaration. … National park officials started putting pressure on them to move from about 1990. Development and welfare budgets to the village were cut; new house construction was forbidden; agricultural expansion was curtailed; farmers leaving the village to sell produce were harassed and maintenance work on the road to the village was halted. Considerable funds were spent on establishing a relocation site but farmers found that the agricultural land was poor quality and incapable of supporting their expectations of a reasonable livelihood. …
Tungpaka village: In 1999, journalist Julian Gearing wrote about the destruction of the Lahu village of Tungpaka in Chiang Mai Province by forestry department officials. In this “unreported raid” on a small Lahu village “thirteen houses, as well as crops were destroyed…leaving 60 people homeless.” Gearing quotes one Tungpaka resident as saying that the village was evicted so that the area could be cleared and a resort built. Gearing goes on to state that the villagers “live in fear they may now be ousted from their refuge at the foot of the hills, an hour-and-a-half’s walk from the remains of their 60-year-old village.” Plodprasop Suraswadi of the RFD (mentioned above) publicly denied that forestry officials had played any part in the destruction of Tungpaka.
Hmong villages in Nan: Some of the most potent symbols for the vulnerability of upland residents have come from incidents in Pua district in Nan Province. In mid 2000 lowland villagers complaining about downstream water contamination, destroyed the orchards, field huts, and sprinkler systems of Hmong farmers who were accused of having established their orchards within the boundary of a national park. Forestry officials reportedly played a part in the raids: “Witnesses reported that the demonstrators were also guarded by over 200 border patrol policeman, who were fully armed with machine guns. All of the demonstrators were provided with machine saws, fuel and food.”
Lahu in Lampang Province: In 2003, three hundred Lahu were forcibly evicted from four villages in Pha Thai Cave National Park in Lampang Province. Local authorities justified the eviction on the basis the villages had served as staging points for drug smugglers.
Harassment and arrest: There have also been reports of the arrest and legal harassment of villagers farming in conservation forest zones. Pinkaew quotes a Northern Development Foundation statistic that “in the year 1998 alone, there were more than 20 cases of people being charged as ‘illegal encroachers’ by forestry officials in Chiang Mai.” The village of Pang Daeng in Chiang Mai Province is a prominent case of legal harassment. Pang Daeng residents have been arrested and charged with conservation forest encroachment on a number of occasions since the late 1980s. According to one account, up to twenty villagers were detained for three years in the early 1990s. A later case brought in 1998 was dismissed when the villagers satisfied the court that they had not destroyed the forest. In 2004 almost fifty villagers were arrested and faced similar forest destruction charges. There are similar cases of Lawa arrested, reportedly for taking firewood from the forest.
Overall our conclusion is that upland residents in northern Thailand currently face a very low risk of actual eviction. The cases we summarize above probably account for fewer than five thousand people over a twenty-year period (or about 0.5 percent of the estimated upland population living in forest reserve areas).
We acknowledge that this list may be incomplete. To continue the conversation about this issue we would like to ask New Mandala readers if they have evidence of other village evictions from northern Thailand (upper and lower north). We are hoping to put together a consolidated list of cases where villages in the north have been forced to relocate. We recognise that this is also an issue in other parts of the country and if our current data collection proves productive we will be expanding our efforts to other regions. In order to keep the task manageable we are interested, at this stage, in cases from 1980 onwards.
If you want to contribute some data it would be good to include information on the following:
- Province, district and village (where known);
- Date or dates of eviction;
- Number of people, or number of households, evicted;
- Reason for the eviction;
- Government (or non-government) agency or agencies involved;
- Background to the case; and
- Any sources (online or otherwise) that provide further details.