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Bkk post-An unholy alliance lays si

Subject: Bkk post-An unholy alliance lays siege to Karens

Bangkok Post May 13, 1999.

by Sanitsuda Ekachai


An unholy alliance lays siege to Karens

Gun-toting rangers-at the invitation of forest authorities-are on the loose
in Tung Yai-Naresuan wildlife sanctuary to expel subsistent Karen peasants
from their ancestral homes.

Without prior warning, these rangers and forestry teams have been
threatening pockets of Karen forest dwellers to leave their homes and

Unorganised and fearful of state power, the Tung Yai Karens areshocked and
in disarray. Shaken, the villagers from Ko Sadoeng said the soldiers ordered
them to remove five houses within one month "or else we'll tear or burn them
down for you". Villagers from Kong Mongta, Tiraipah, Salawa and Jakae
similarly have reported military orders for them to stop growing rice for
next year "or you go to jail".

Before pressing on with their ethnic persecution, both the forestry and
military authorities must answer these questions:

Is the crackdown a violation of the constitution, which honours the right of
indigenous people to live on their traditional lands and co-manage local
natural resources?

And speaking of constitutional rights, is it true that on April 13 a group
of high-ranking forestry officials forced a group of Karen ascetics to stop
their New Year religious ceremony in Tung Yai at gunpoint? Is it true that
they destroyed the Karens' religious memorial? And that some officials
threatened to cut the hermits' topknots in an effort to humiliate them?

Let's get one fact straight. These indigenous Karens have lived in Tung Yai
for centuries; they are not illegal immigrants from Burma as alleged by the
authorities. The state cannot violate their customary land rights. Nor their
religious freedom.

Moreover, their conservation record as forest custodians is undisputed. The
wildlife sanctuary, thanks to the Karens' ecology-friendly culture and
rotation farming, is largely intact. So much so that Tung Yai has been
declared a World Heritage Site.

On bioversity, Wildlife Fund Thailand has found that that the species and
number of mammals, insects and local plants in the Tung Yai Karen villages
is no different than in deeper forests.

Alongkot Chukaew, the chief of WFT's Western Forest Complex Programme, said
the villagers can specify more than 600 plant species and their uses. This
untapped treasure trove for future research will be destroyed if the Karens
are evicted and younger generations are cut off from their cultural roots,
he warned.

He also dismissed the Forestry Department's charge that the Karens clear
vast tracts of new farmland each year as "a total nonsense".

The Karens have several plots offarmland for use in a cycle which lets old
plots regenerate naturally. When they return to clear old plots, outsiders
mistakenly attack them for destroying the forest.

More revealing facts: Of the 2 million rai of forest land in Tung Yai, the
Karen communities take up only 0.3 percent, said Mr Alongkot. Besides, they
are in forest fringe areas-unlike the powerful lead mines which occupy the
heart of the wildlife sanctuary.

In what is ugly discrimination, forestry officials allow mine owners to cut
roads through pristine forests and to poison the waterways with toxic lead.

Health officials have shown that the Karens at Lower Klity, particularly the
children, are subject to lead poisoning that could be fatal. But who cares?
The forest authorities even plan to allow miners to expand their operations.

If the Tung Yai Karens fall, others belonging to the 1.2 million forest
families might be next. The last time the military and forest authorities
joined forces, it sparked widespread rural unrest. It looks like something
similar is brewing hot.

*Sanitsuda Ekachai is AssistantEditor, Bangkok