Thailand’s Indigenous Peoples fight for ‘land of our heart’ (commentary)

On Sept. 3, 2019, the remains of Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, a Karen environmental and community rights defender who was disappeared in 2014, were found in an oil drum submerged under the Kaeng Krachan dam suspension bridge in Phetchaburi, Thailand. Billy was last seen by his community while being arrested by Kaeng Krachan National Park superintendent Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn and his officers for allegedly collecting wild honey illegally.

Three years before Billy’s disappearance, under the same superintendent’s watch, 98 houses and rice barns were burned in the village of Baan Jai Phaen Din, also in Kaeng Krachan National Park. Charges filed by the community against the former superintendent and the officers were controversially dropped in early 2020. In the meantime, Thai authorities continue to claim the settlement is illegal.

Established in 1981, Kaeng Krachan National Park sits on Thailand’s central border with Myanmar. Before being evicted by the military in 1996, the Karen Indigenous Peoples lived sustainably for centuries inside the park in their original village of Baan Jai Paen Din, meaning “land of our heart.” Ever since the eviction, they have been systematically resettled into the lowlands.

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Pirawan Wongnithisathaporn, Thomas Worsdell