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perspective

Uprooted in Isaan: A worthy law is misapplied


In the absence of an official response, two elderly farmers cut up a fallen rosewood tree and now face prosecution

The arrest last week of two elderly Maha Sarakham farmers for cutting up a Siamese rosewood tree on their own land is another regrettable example of the law being enforced needlessly and heartlessly. It is all the more riling because the farmers were performing a public service in removing the downed tree from a public pathway – after having first notified the authorities as required by law.
The tree had been uprooted in a storm months ago, at the beginning of the monsoon season, and was blocking a regularly used route in the northeastern province’s Tambon Kae Dam. The tree had grown at the edge of a rice field belonging to Thongsuk Phanchompoo, 80, who was aware that rosewood trees – protected because of their high market value – cannot be felled or rendered into lumber without official permission.
The Siamese rosewood, also known as the Tracwood and by its scientific name, Dalbergia cochinchinensis, 
produces one of the most highly prized hardwood timbers in the world. Demand has soared in recent years both domestically and overseas, encouraging illegal logging that has forced forestry officials to lean heavily on violators. So intense is the war over rosewood lumber that gun battles have broken out between smugglers and law enforcers.
Thongsuk was well aware that people get arrested for cutting down rosewood trees and initially dared not touch the specimen blocking the public path. He notified the head of the closest village, who in turn alerted the relevant officials in the area about the fallen tree and asked them to remove it. No action was taken.
When Thongsuk finished harvesting his rice this month and saw the tree still blocking people’s way, he called on a 70-year-old in-law, Dern Jantakol, to help clear it away. They decided the wood was by then so deteriorated that it wouldn’t bring a high price on the market and instead burned it as firewood. Now they’re charged with damaging national forestry resources, conviction for which can bring a five-year jail term and a fine of up to Bt50,000.
Prosecutors might yet determine there is no benefit to the public in pursuing this case and decide not to forward it to court. If they do opt to 
prosecute, the accused men could admit guilt in the interest of a lighter sentence – or perhaps a suspended sentence – based on their advanced age and their clean criminal records.
This is scant comfort, as is the fact that the two men are free on bail for now. They shouldn’t be facing legal difficulties at all. This is an obvious case of the law being applied too strictly, beyond its intent, without clear justification or rationale. It is heartless the way these two elderly gentlemen are being treated.
Had the forestry officials granted permission to cut up and remove the fallen tree when notified by the village head, there would have been no need for police to make any arrests. Had Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha understood the fundamental problem when the matter came to the news media’s attention, he wouldn’t have suggested that the solution is to better educate people about the laws 
protecting natural resources so they can avoid getting into trouble inadvertently. 
These Maha Sarakham farmers demonstrated that they are good citizens, knew the law and wished to obey it. It was officialdom that ignored this crucial fact and the authorities’ failure to grant their request for permission that got them in trouble. Rather than implying that these men might be ignorant of the law, Prime Minister Prayut should instead be telling his officials to do their job and, if necessary, punish any of them found guilty of misconduct and negligence.

Published : December 26, 2016

By : The Nation