Guest contribution by the Isaan Land Reform Network

BANGKOK – A group of villagers from Phetchabun province are seeking help from the Minister of Justice after losing a court case brought against them by the Department of National Parks. They were trialed for trespassing on a wildlife sanctuary that straddles the border of Phetchabun and Chaiyaphum provinces.

The court ordered them to pay 377,000 baht (about $11,950 US) in damages plus 7.5 percent interest per year, to be calculated from the date of their offence, 1 May 2005.

Last month, the villagers appealed to Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin to have their poverty and hardship taken into consideration. In response, the minister ordered the local Legal Execution Department in Phetchabun province to find a solution.

On February 2, a group of villagers from Phetchabun province appealed to Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin for help after a court found them guilty of trespassing on the Phu Phadaeng Wildlife Sanctuary.

On May 3, 2005, 13 villagers, including two minors and one person with disabilities, travelled to Ban Huai Kontha, in Lomsak district of Phetchabun, to harvest corn as day laborers. Officers arrested them for trespassing on the Phu Phadaeng Wildlife Sanctuary.

“We were wondering what was going on, since we were just there to do our job of harvesting the corn,” said Khwanla Saikhamtang, one of the 13 defendants. “We weren’t doing anything in the forest, but they wouldn’t let us go. The police then took us to Bang Klang police station in Lomsak, and were formally charged at around 9 pm. We all denied the charges.”

Somnuk Tumsuphap, a lawyer and human rights activist, explained that the authorities sued them in two separate cases. The two minors were sent to have their cases heard in the Lomsak juvenile and family court. Although the supreme court acquitted them of criminal charges, they were still ordered to pay damages by the civil court. The eleven adults were initially acquitted by the Lomsak court. But their acquittal was overturned in the court of appeals, and the supreme court upheld the guilty verdict.

Notices of forfeiture were then affixed to their homes by the Lomsak Legal Execution Office. The notices said that two tracts of land plus the structures on them were to be auctioned to the public. They remain unsold after two auctions, and will be auctioned again on April 1, 2020.

Duanphen Phromsawat, another defendant, said that even though they were acquitted of the criminal charges against them, the Department of National Parks sued them separately in the civil court and won. On November 3, 2005, the court ordered them to pay 377,068 baht including 7.5 percent interest per annum from the day of the offence.

But the villagers lodged an appeal, and entered into a formal arbitration process sanctioned by the court. The end result was a reduction in the fine.

“On October 7, 2017, the court ordered us to pay 182,300 baht, plus 7.5 percent interest per year starting from November 3, 2005,” Dueanphen said. “We don’t have the money, and the land was inherited by us from my father. I could barely eat or sleep after I was hit with that court case. My physical and mental health have suffered. I’m asking for the auctioning of our land to be stopped.”

According to the Department of National Parks, Phu Phadaeng was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1999. The designated area is mostly on the eastern side of the Pa Sak river basin, which lies in Tha It, Huai Rai, Ban Tio, Pak Chong, Ban Klang, and Chang Talut subdistricts of Lomsak district, Phetchabun province. Some of the area also encompasses parts of Chaiyaphum province. There are no markers or signs designating the area to the public, leading to some locals unwittingly using land there for agricultural purposes.

This story was first published in Thai on 12 March 2020. Translated and edited by The Isaan Record. The author is a participant of the Isaan Journalism Network Project.