CHAIYAPHUM – A court in Chaiyaphum handed down the longest prison sentence to date against a member of a forest community threatened by eviction in Sai Thong National Park. Nittaya Muangklang, a prominent land rights activist, was sentenced to 12 months jail time and fines totalling 140,000 baht as part of a legal campaign that may seal the fate of dozens of families in the protected forest area.

Despite the jail sentence, Nittaya Muangklang is determined to continue the fight for the land rights of her community.

On August 8, Chaiyaphum Provincial Court found Ms. Nittaya guilty on two counts of trespassing. For the first count the court sentenced her to eight months in prison and to pay damages of 100,000 baht. For the second count she received four months in prison and a fine of 40,000 baht. The court ordered her to immediately vacate the land concerned in both cases.

Ms. Nittaya is one of 14 villagers on trial for trespassing on national park territory after they disobeyed orders to abandon their farmland in 2016. The 35-year-old cassava farmer has been leading the community against the authorities’ push for eviction based on the military government’s forest reclamation policy.

The policy compelled Forestry Department officers across the country to sue forest communities for trespassing under the Forestry Act 1941, the National Forest Act 1952 and the National Parks Act 1961.

Ms. Nittaya was the first to be taken to court in the fight for her community’s land rights. She was joined in the dock by her mother, two sisters, and other neighbours. In addition to Ms. Nittaya, three other villagers have been sentenced so far this year.

Sab Wai community members gathered at Chaiyaphum Provincial Court to provide moral support to the defendants.

On May 17, Sinuan Phasang was sentenced to five months and 10 days in prison and fined 150,000 baht in damages.

On May 25, Pattama Gomed was sentenced to eight months in prison and fined 250,000 baht in damages.

On May 26, Somphit Thaennok was sentenced to ten months in prison and fined 100,000 baht in damages.

The court ordered the three villagers to vacate the land on which their homes and crops sit. Lawyers representing the three defendants secured their release on bail with aid from the Chaiyaphum Justice Fund.

Ms. Nittaya was released on bail that was also supplied by the Chaiyaphum Justice Fund. All of the defendants intend to appeal. 

Reporting by Sarayut Rittipin. Translated and edited by The Isaan Record.