By Chularat Saengpassa
TOMORROW several villagers will be reporting to Chaiyaphum Court with a firm belief that they will be thrown behind bars for something as simple as farming.
For them, their farms have been providing them with a livelihood for generations. They certainly don’t think they are encroaching on the Saithong National Park, which was only established in 1992.
Sitting in the Northeast province of Chaiyaphum, the park spans more than 199,375 rai (31,900 hectares).
Sunee Narin, 74, and Supaporn Srisuk – whose sisters and mum are also facing lawsuits – will be reporting to court tomorrow to hear their fate.
“I think we will all be sentenced to jail, because this has happened to many locals before,” Supaporn’s younger sister Narissara lamented.
She said four of her family members were facing lawsuits for alleged encroachment of the Saithong National Park, and that her older sister Nittaya Muangklang had already been convicted and is now behind bars.
“This is despite the fact that village chiefs and even public prosecutors assured us that poor people will not be prosecuted for farming on land they occupied before the national park was established,” Narissara said. “They told us that the poor can live in the forest … That there are government policies to spare us. But it’s clear these claims were untrue.”
Narissara said it would be a big blow to her family if all four were sent to prison.
“To tell the truth, I cried every time I visited my older sister in prison over the past month,” Narissara said.
Her cry against the so-called injustice was echoed by many of her neighbours.
According to Land Reform Network’s adviser Somnuek Tumsupap, 14 locals have already been put in jail and ordered to pay large amounts in compensation to relevant authorities for their so-called encroachment. Suwalee Pho-ngarm said she was recently granted bail and is appealing against the sentence.
“Every day, my six-year-old daughter asks if I will go to jail like Nittaya,” she said.
Sakon Prakij, 42, said she has received the harshest penalty among those being sued – she has been slapped with four years in jail and has to pay Bt900,000 in compensation. “I have been convicted of taking over 46 rai of forested land, when in reality I just worked on a 10-rai cassava plantation,” she said. “Also, my family has lived on the plot since 1977.”
Though the thought of being behind bars scares her, Sakon said she is most worried about her teenage daughter.
“Yes, my husband is out of jail. But he will have to work twice as hard because I won’t be around to help. The busier he is, the greater impact on our child,” the mother lamented.
Chainarong Setthachua, a lecturer at Maha Sarakham University, said that though these villagers have been trying to put up a brave front, they are all overwhelmed with suffering.
Sompoch Maneerat, spokesman for the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), however, has dismissed any suggestion that his agency is unfairly persecuting the farmers. “Let me explain that convicted defendants like Seenuan Pasang are neither poor nor landless,” he said.
According to him, Seenuan has a home outside the national park and has acquired plots under the government's agricultural-land reform scheme.
“We did not suddenly decide to take her to court. Our officials first started negotiating with them before signing agreements,” he said.
For instance, he said, Seenuan had signed a deal agreeing to vacate the land within the national park after harvesting her crops, but she did not honour the agreement.
“She was also found to have taken over more land in the park, which is why we had to take her to court,” he said.
Seenuan was sentenced to five-months-and-10-days in jail for encroaching on 6 rai of the national park and ordered to pay Bt150,000 in compensation. Sompoch went on to say that the government has never tried to add salt to the wounds of the poor.
“In 2014, the National Council for Peace and Ordered issued an order that allowed landless people to continue using the land they were on,” he said, adding that the National Parks Act of BE 2562 was another solid example. He said this new law allowed forest dwellers to co-exist with nature, adding that it also allowed locals to collect renewable forest resources.