By Chularat Saengpassa
All 14 villagers sued for allegedly encroaching on the Chaiyaphum-based Saithong National Park were found guilty by the Appeals Court despite the loud complaints and media attention to the cases.
The villagers insist they have been farming on these plots well before the area was established as a national park in 1992.
On Tuesday, the Appeals Court convicted Narissara Muangklang, Suwit Rattanachaisri, Suwalee Pho-ngarm, and Sompit Tarnnork. They were the last of the 14 defendants to be found guilty by the Appeals Court, and all, with the exception of Samorn Somjit – who was found to be very poor – have been sent to jail.
The Appeals Court upheld the sentence previously meted out to Suwalee of five months and 10 days in jail and a compensation of Bt160,000 to the Royal Forest Department. In Suwit’s case, the Appeals Court upheld the 17-month jail sentence but increased the Bt40,000 compensation to Bt110,762.
Sompit faces two instances of encroachment and his combined jail term now stands at 20 months and 20 days plus a compensation of Bt200,000.
The court also upheld the jail term of nine months and 10 days in Narissara’s case and increased the compensation she has to pay from Bt130,000 to Bt607,371.
Before walking into the courtroom on Tuesday, Narissara said she expected to be put behind bars. She told her husband not to feel sad and asked an older relative to take care of her nephew, whose mother is already in jail for encroachment.
Narissara is the fourth member of her family to be jailed. Her two older sisters, Nittaya Muangklang and Supaporn Srisuk, as well as their mother Thongpan Muangklang, were put behind bars by the Appeals Court previously.
Somnuk Tumsupap, a lawyer for the Northeast Land Reform Network, who is representing the villagers, said that though the villagers have been convicted, there are positive signs because the Supreme Court has accepted Nittaya’s petition.
“This means there is a possibility of seeking bail and fighting for acquittal,” he said.
According to him, the Supreme Court may look into the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)’s Order No 66/57, which states that forest-reclamation action must not adversely affect low-income and landless people who have been farming in forest zones before the order was issued in 2014.
“We will file a petition with the Supreme Court for all the defendants,” he said.
Maha Sarakham University lecturer Chainarong Setthachua, meanwhile, said he believes these villagers are victims of NCPO’s Forest Reclamation Policy, which aims to impose harsh punishments against forestland encroachers.
"In the past, cases like this did not go to court in such large numbers, because there was a joint committee to facilitate talks among state officials and villagers, to find common ground so people can live in harmony with the forest and make a living,” he said.
“The process of proving people’s rights to use the land as they had before the announcement of national park territory is slow, while the prosecution in encroachment cases is done swiftly. People facing these accusations aren’t investors. In the past, forest encroachment cases against villagers weren’t regarded as serious crimes,” he said.
Chainarong said a fundraising campaign has been launched to help the accused villagers’ families, as many defendants already face a lot of problems in their daily lives.
Suwalee, for instance, is a single mother, while some other defendants have to take care of a disabled relative, have huge debts or are the sole breadwinner in their family. If they go to jail, their families will be negatively affected or their families will be torn apart with children being put in the care of other relatives, he said.
He added that some defendants had sown crops with the hope of repaying their debts once the crops were harvested.