Kao Baat headman and community leaders , three men charged with trespassing, display the Kao Baat village flag they carried to Bangkok to protest for land reform.
Vilaiwaan Phatbrasat, 37, looks up from the hospital bed to which she has been confined. After being thrown to the ground by her hair and knocked unconscious, she is only now regaining the ability to move her head, neck, and arms. Vilaiwaan is a victim of the violence that erupted on May 13 2011 near her home in the village of Kao Baat, located in the Dongyai forest preserve in Buri Ram province. This act of intimidation is only the latest indicator that the Thai government is threatening to evict the Kao Baat community with military force.
In 1977 the government relocated Kao Baat villagers out of the forest because of conflicts with the Communist Party. According to residents of Kao Baat, the government said villagers could return to the land after the conflict subsided.
Hostilities with the Communist Party ended in 1982, but instead of fulfilling their promise to return Kao Baat’s land, the government leased it to the Siam Forestry Company, a subsidiary of Siam Cement Group Paper Company (SCG Paper).
When the lease between the government and Siam Forestry ended in 2009, Kao Baat villagers decided to reclaim the forest on which they once lived and relied.
“We came back because we never lost our connection to this land. People still came back to find mushrooms and bring the cows here,” community leader Phaitoon Soisod says. “The government promised to give back this land.”
However, a government official in Non Dindaeng District in Buri Ram Province, who wishes to remain anonymous, has a different perspective. Although he would not confirm that the military has orders to evict Kao Baat, he states the government’s position clearly. “Kao Baat villagers are there illegally, they need to leave.”
On May 13, nearly 7,000 people from provinces throughout Isaan came to the Dongyai forest under the pretense of planting trees. Kao Baat villagers believe this operation was organized by Internal Security Operations Command, a unit of the military devoted to national security issues.
Ten Kao Baat villagers met these unannounced guests at the entrance of a neighboring village. “We just wanted to talk to them and know where they were going and what kind of trees they were planting,” explains Nobnam Soodmee.
Although none of the outside villagers were uniformed, Nobnom explains, “There were three people clearly from the military.” Phaitoon adds, “One of the military men had an M16 rifle.”
Violence quickly erupted between the two groups. “Because their trucks started driving and there was pushing from the villagers behind us, Viliawaan ended up on the hood of one of the trucks,” Nobnom says, “then one of the military men pulled her by the hair onto the ground and told the truck to drive over her.” Fortunately, Nobnom was able to pull Viliawaan out of the way and rush her to the hospital.
After using force to push through Kao Baat villagers, this group of outsiders moved into a neighboring village where they captured nine monks and burned down the local temple.
The use of such force in a land tenure case is unique, though many other communities in Thailand are facing similar lands right issues.
The Ministry of Interior states that 4.2 million land ownership disputes have been registered throughout Thailand. The Thai Land Reform Network (TLRN), an organization advocating for villagers’ right to land, believes these disputes stem from unequal land distribution.
The Thai government’s efforts at land conservation are a large cause of this disparity. Although the government says it evicts people to preserve nature, the land is often used to plant cash crops like eucalyptus trees.
“The government gave land to the company because the company said they would fix the dilapidated forest by growing eucalyptus trees,” the Non Dindaeng official says.
In response to this idea, Kao Baat headman Muan Tainpimai describes his community’s efforts to sustainably manage the forest, “The villagers are already replanting the forest and don’t need the government’s help. We have planted many native trees that are successfully growing.”
Eucalyptus trees do not contribute to villagers’ survival. Instead, Siam Forestry uses the eucalyptus trees in Kao Baat to make paper. In 2010 alone, SCG Paper, of which Siam Forestry is a subsidiary, made over 3 billion baht from this industry.
An article published by the United Nations Development Program explains that the Thai government benefits from the eucalyptus industry as well. The government owns reserve forests on which eucalyptus is grown, and therefore they profit by charging another party, like Siam Forestry, for the permission to use this land.
“The company does not want to let go of the land and will do anything to hold onto it. If the company comes then the government makes money. If the villagers stay, then the government gets nothing,” Phaitoon explains.
The government has employed many tactics to keep this land out of the villagers hands, including lawsuits against village leaders for trespassing and destruction of government property. According to Pramote Ponpinyo, a NGO with the TLRN, there are at least 111 people in Isaan facing such charges, including Phaitoon, his father Loon Soisod, and Muan, three community leaders from Kao Baat.
In most other communities struggling with the government over land tenure, the government’s tactics to evict villagers end with these court cases, but in the Dongyai forest the government has escalated their attempts by involving the military.
According to former member of the National Human Rights Commission Wassan Panich,“The violence in Kao Baat was an attempt to continue the eviction process.” Wassan explains, “The military insists on using violence and won’t talk at all. There is no chance at negotiating when the military knows they have this power.”
Kao Baat villagers are certain May 13 was not the last time they would see violent military efforts in their community. “I am afraid. It’s hard to sleep at night. There is a feeling that keeps me awake,” Nobnom admits.
Although the future of Kao Baat remains uncertain, villagers are committed to asserting the right to their land. Less than 24 hours after the incident, Kao Baat villagers organized meetings with nearby communities and national organizations like the People’s Movement for a Just Society. Phaitoon says, “If the military comes back, we will be calm rather than violent and sit in the sala. They can do what they want, but we will not leave.”