UNESCO Adds Thai Park to World Heritage List, Amid Karen Rights Concerns

Nontarat Phaicharoen and Busaba Sivasomboon
UNESCO Adds Thai Park to World Heritage List, Amid Karen Rights Concerns A freshwater Siamese crocodile, a critically endangered species native to Southeast Asia, is seen at Thailand’s Kaeng Krachan National Park in this undated photo.
AFP/Kaeng Krachan National Park

Updated at 5:35 p.m. ET on 2021-07-27

UNESCO added a Thai national park to its World Heritage List although United Nations human rights experts urged the agency to hold off on the designation, citing concerns about indigenous Karen people being subjected to alleged rights violations and killings.

On Monday, the World Heritage Committee voted 12-9 to approve the listing of Thailand’s Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex during the 44th Meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The vote took place three days after experts from a different United Nations agency, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged UNESCO to defer on making a decision.

“There has not been good faith consultations with the community allowing them to participate in the UNESCO nomination process. Should the nomination as heritage status be approved it would perpetuate the denial of the Karen’s right to remain on their traditional lands and carry out their traditional livelihood activities based on rotational farming,” the U.N. human rights agency (OHCHR) said in a statement released Friday. “It would also undermine their important role in safeguarding biodiversity in the forest.”

“The Thai government needs to stop the harassment of environmental defenders and establish a genuine dialogue with the Karen, recognize their valuable role as guardians for protecting nature, and work in partnership with the Karen rather than treating them with hostility as if they are a threat,” OHCHR said.

“This is an important precedent-setting case, and may influence policies on how indigenous peoples’ rights are respected in protected areas across Asia,” the U.N. human rights experts added, saying they had been raising their concerns about the park’s potential designation with the World Heritage Committee since 2019.

“The indigenous Karen in the national park continue to be forcibly evicted and their houses burnt. A key leader was killed after being detained by national park officers.”

A UNESCO spokesman, meanwhile, said the committee made the decision to include Kaeng Krachan on the World Heritage List.

“These concerns were indeed addressed and shared with the members of the World Heritage Committee and were an integral part of UNESCO's recommendation for deferral – i.e. to not inscribe the site this year, as clearly stated in the draft decision," the spokesman said. “The World Heritage Committee is a sovereign body and took a different approach."

On Tuesday, Thai government officials cheered the committee’s decision.

“From now on, the government will ... restore the forest together and promote the livelihood development and human rights of locals,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha said in a Facebook post. “Everyone will be part of co-management so they will feel a sense of ownership.”

Varawut Silpa-archa, Thailand’s minister of natural resources and the environment, described the World Heritage Site designation for the park as “a big gift.”

UNESCO said Kaeng Krachan was so designated for its natural attributes, and noted that the park is home to endangered plants and animals, including the critically endangered Siamese crocodile.

“Located at the cross-roads between the Himalayan, Indochina, and Sumatran faunal and floral realms, the property is home to rich biodiversity. It is dominated by semi-evergreen/dry evergreen and moist evergreen forest with some mixed deciduous forest, montane forest, and deciduous dipterocarp forest,” the U.N. agency said.

Thailand previously tried to include the park on the World Heritage list in 2015, 2016 and 2019.

“And the fourth time we have succeeded,” the minister said in the press release.

Meanwhile, OHCHR said that harassment of Karen had escalated in 2021.

“[O]ver 80 community members were arrested and 28 of them, including seven women and one child, were criminally charged for ‘encroachment’ on their traditional lands in the national park,” OHCHR said in its statement.


Karen activist killed

Tensions between park officers and villagers rose after Karen rights activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen went missing in 2014.

Billy disappeared a day before he was to testify in a court case filed by his fellow Karen farmers against Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn, the chief officer at Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province at the time, and others.

The farmers alleged that Chaiwat and the others ransacked and burned their homes and properties in Pongluek-Bangkloy, a village near the national park, in 2011.

The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation offered plots of farm land in exchange for relocating outside a reserved forest – but the villagers refused to move from their ancestral land.

About 600 Bangkloy villagers whose families lived within the reserved forest for generations were forced to move, leading to prosecutions against dozens who refused to leave. In 2016, a court ruled that officers did not break the law even as it ordered the government to compensate those who lost their homes.

After Billy disappeared, Chaiwat was acquitted over insufficient evidence later that year. Five years later, divers recovered a portion of Billy’s burned skull from a reservoir near his home.

Billy’s family sued Chaiwat over his disappearance, but the case was dismissed after a judge ruled that there was not enough evidence to proceed.

‘A rubber stamp’

While Minister Varawut praised UNESCO’s announcement, villagers and Thai human rights activists criticized the World Heritage Committee for lacking understanding of the Karen’s concerns.

Panompon Vanasirikhun, one of Bangkloy villagers who were prosecuted for encroachment of the national park said the UNESCO decision was bad news for villagers.

“I am concerned that the situation will get much worst under the Thai authorities’ management after Kaeng Krachan is listed. They made the decision without giving us a chance to talk about the real situation,” Panompon told BenarNews.

Phatchara Kamchamnarn of Save Bangkloy Network, a rights advocacy group working with villagers affected by government policy, said the decision was the result of international political lobbying.

The World Heritage Committee has become a rubber stamp, bowed to the powerful countries that are backing the decision. They ignored the rights of indigenous people stated in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” he told BenarNews.

The Bwa G’Naw people, otherwise known as Karen, Kariang or Yang, are members of a hill tribe scattered across Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. The Australian Karen Foundation estimates there are more than 10 million Karen with most of them concentrated in Myanmar. About 1 million are in Thailand.


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