As far as I know there is still no word on investigations into the case of Thailand’s most famous conservation forest encroacher – Prime Minister Surayud. But some of his less rich and powerful co-accused will be appearing in court in Chiang Mai next week. The Asian Human Rights Commission has issued an urgent appeal on the case of the villagers of Pang Daeng in Chiang Mai province:

The AHRC previously reported on the forced eviction and illegal arrest of 48 villagers in northern Thailand resulting in loss of livelihood and hunger in their upland community. The villagers were charged with illegal encroachment of reserved forest, where they had settled for 60 years. The case is now being heard in court in Chiang Mai, and the hearings are due to continue on June 12. We urge concerned persons to attend the trial.

As described in the first appeal, the villagers from Pang Daeng village, Chiang Dao district, Chiang Mai were arrested without warrant on 23 July 2004 and were later charged with encroachment and illegal entry to the Chiang Dao national reserve under the National Reserved Forest Act, BE 2507 (1964). One of them confessed and paid the fine, while the rest denied the charges. Prosecution witnesses gave evidence on 6 and 7 March 2007. During cross-examination, Samatchai Likitsatia, an officer from the Office of Forest Conservation who conducted the arrests, admitted that he did not know the exact boundary of the forest reserve or how long the villagers had stayed on the disputed land. However, he justified the arrest without warrant as the villagers had in his opinion committed a flagrant crime.

The court also summoned the head of the Provincial Forest Office to inquire about whether or not there is a plan to resettle the affected villagers. The court was of opinion that, given that the villagers had been arrested and fined twice over their long-term settlement in the area, its verdict alone will not solve the problem. The head of the Provincial Forest Office responded that the villagers could be permitted to inhabit the land through a land reform scheme under sections 16 and 16b of the National Reserved Forest Act; however, only the Director General of the Forest Department could make such an order.

SUGGESTED ACTION: The hearings are continuing this month and the AHRC urges all human rights defenders and concerned persons in Thailand to please attend. The details are as the follows: Next hearings: 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20 & 21 June 2007 at Chiang Mai Provincial Court, 95 Chotana Road, T. Chang Phuak, Chiang Mai.

Some interesting background on this case has been provided by a colleague and regular New Mandala reader who is familiar with the local area. While in no-way justifying the heavy-handed state action, it does highlight some of the local social complexity involved in these cases. [A Google search for “Pang Daeng” also throws up a lot of background information.]

About the Pang Daeng case: it was the third time that the villagers in this area were charged for alleged forest encroachment. In 1989, the year that the national logging ban was announced, 29 Paluang men were arrested and were detained for 3 years. In 1998, 56 villagers (Paluang, northern Thai, Lahu and Lisu) from Pang Daeng Nok (there are two Pang Daeng villages: Pang Daeng Nok and Pang Daeng Nai) were arrested in the evening for alleged national forest encroachment and forest arson. The arrest related to the forest fire situation in northern Thailand. After the villagers could prove that they did not destroy the forest, Chiangmai Court dismissed the case. The third arrest was in 2004 when 48 villagers from Pang Daeng Nok were arrested, with the same accusation. They were bailed out of jail. This was the first time that women were arrested along with the men- in 1989 and 1998 no women were arrested.

Both Pang Daeng villages were settled after this area was announced as conservation forest area. Paluang people –the majority in Pang Daeng – came to this area in the last 25 – 30 years ago and worked as employees in the tea gardens owned by northern Thai and Yunnanese farmers. In 1983 and 1984, Paluang people established their village in this area: Pang Daeng Nai. After the villagers were arrested in 1989, the village’s leader refused to permit people from outside to settle in Pang Daeng Nai. This village has good relationship with state’s officials. The villagers always co-operate with the state.

Pang Daeng Nok was settled after Pang Daeng Nai but I do not know the exact year. While there are only Paluang people in Pang Daeng Nai, there are many ethnic groups in Pang Daeng Nok (Paluang, Lisu, Lahu and Khon Muang.) Some villagers have small areas of land for agriculture but most of the villagers work as labourers in lowland agriculture. The villagers in Pang Daeng Nok seem to face more difficulties than those in Pang Daeng Nai. I heard that some Paluang people were forced to convert their Buddhism and Animism to Christianity in order to access resources and support from an influential man (a Christian Lisu) in the village.