BURIRAM – Non Dindaeng district police investigators filed trespassing and destruction of government property charges against three village leaders yesterday for their village’s continued settlement on disputed land in the Dongyai Forest Preserve. The charges stem from an ongoing land dispute between the members of the Kao Baat forest village, the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Royal Forestry Department (RFD), and the Thai military.

Kao Baat villagers pose in front of the eucalyptus trees of the Dongyai forest preserve.

Kao Baat villagers pose in front of the eucalyptus trees of the Dongyai forest preserve.

Local administrators are claiming that Kao Baat villagers have illegally settled on RFD-protected land and that the recent escalation of the Thai-Cambodian border conflict has put the village in danger. Villagers, however, fear that the charges are just the first step in the government’s long-standing threat to forcibly remove the entire community from their ancestral land.

“They say it’s a matter of national security,” former village leader Suwan Mingthano said of the village’s looming eviction. “But I don’t know what they’re talking about. The villagers aren’t in any danger.”

Though Kao Baat is just under 10 kilometers from the Cambodian border and around 70 from the most recent round of Thai-Cambodian border clashes in neighboring Surin province, villagers have not been impacted by the sporadic, often deadly skirmishes. As a result, they suspect that there are commercial interests at work.

These suspicions have been shaped by Kao Baat’s 30-year history with commercial eucalyptus, teak, and rubber tree plantations.  Throughout the 1970s, the Communist Party of Thailand’s paramilitaries frequently fought with government forces in the area surrounding Kao Baat. By 1977, violence had escalated and the military began accusing villagers of supporting CPT militants. In order to provide villagers with a safe haven, the government offered families 15-rai plots of land outside of the forest along the newly constructed Route 348. While 15 rai was a mere fraction of the 100 rai many lived on in the forest, the arrangement was said to be temporary and families were told they could return once the insurgency was under control. However, just a year later, in 1978, as the communist threat disintegrated, the RFD instead began granting land concessions to the Suan Pa Kitti Corporation and its subsidiaries to start commercial plantations. Subsequently, villagers were forbidden from resettling in the forest.

For 30 years, villagers waited for a total of seven land concessions to expire and in 2009 the villagers finally returned. Now, in 2011, with three of their residents facing trial, one of the accused has an alternative explanation to their impending removal.

“I’m one million percent sure that [Suan Pa Kitti] is involved,” Paitun Sawkhasod told reporters. “If the company comes back, then the government makes money,” he explained, “but if the villagers stay, then they get nothing.”

Still, Non Dindaeng’s Deputy District Chief denies any corporate influence. “We are not continuing the concession in any way…,” he told reporters. “The reason [these villagers] wanted to move in is just to get the land so that they can sell it. But they can make enough money without that land.”

According to villagers, however, their land in the forest is the main source of their livelihood. Indeed, Mr. Paitun says the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s are a testament to that fact. Despite RFD prohibitions and due to the impacts of their reduced cropland, villagers continued to hunt, raise cattle, and collect vegetables inside the preserve in order to support their growing families. “Working outside by selling our labor is not sustainable,” he insisted.

This continued relationship with the Dongyai forest land meant that resettlement was always in the back of villagers’ minds. As the land concessions’ expiration date neared in mid-2009, village leader Muan Phianpimai contacted a nationwide NGO called the Land Reform Network of Thailand and together they began planning the villagers’ return. Just four days after the concessions expired, on May 19 of that year, the villagers of Kao Baat moved back home.

“This land is very valuable,” Mr. Muan said of the land his ancestors had first settled in the 1950s. “There’s a connection that has been formed… a spiritual connection.”

This connection may soon be severed once again. The community members fear that the trespassing charges are just the first step and many expect that the entire community will be evicted before June 1.