By Saksith Saiyasombut 

A long dispute between Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and Kaeng Krachan National Park over the forced eviction of ethnic Karen people has escalated into a lèse majesté complaint filed by the park’s head Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn against NHRC commissioner Niran Phithakwatchara and NHRC subcommittee members.

Prachatai reports the complaint was filed on Friday at the local police station:

Niran and the NHRC subcommittee, in response to a complaint filed by local residents, had intervened in projects, implemented by the National Park, to cut down forest vines and grow plants to feed wild elephants and other wildlife in honour of the King.

The subcommittee had resolved to order the National Park to cancel the projects and review its plan to expand the park in preparation for declaring it a world heritage site and to allow the participation of local and indigenous people for the protection of their rights.

Chaiwat accused the NHRC members of, among others, supporting the destruction of forest reserves in the National Park and lèse majesté by ordering the project to be cancelled, thereby not respecting the King’s and Queen’s addresses to government officials to protect watershed areas and to prevent illegal logging in the province.

He claimed that over 400 rai of the forest area along the border in the National Park had already been destroyed, with damage worth over 400 million baht.

Lèse majesté complaint lodged against NHRC members“, Prachatai, May 13, 2012

This is just the latest in a series of incidents in Kaeng Krachan National Park, located in Petchaburi province near the Burma border, involving Karen people, an ethnic minority group who are not regarded as Thai citizens though some of them live in the park area. The park’s head Chaiwat says they are illegal immigrants who encroach on the forest ground to grow marijuana. They have also been accused of links with the drug trade and the Karen National Liberation Army amid reports of repeated harassment by park officials, border police and military forces:

According to sources that have visited Kaeng Krachan National Park and collected information, the harassment of Karen villagers has been going on for some time and became severe in May, June and July 2011, when many of the villagers’ houses and rice stores were burned and money, jewellery, fishing and agricultural tools were stolen by a group comprising National Park wardens and military forces. As a result, some of these villagers moved away and are now staying with relatives elsewhere and a number of them (allegedly around 70 people) are hiding in the forest in fear of meeting government officers, and are without sufficient food and shelter.

Karen People forcibly expelled from the Kaeng Krachan National Park in Thailand“, Forest Peoples Programme, January 31, 2012

Karen representatives have called upon the NHRC to investigate the raids against them, bringing their case to wider public attention. They are also being supported by the Lawyers Council of Thailand, who were helping to launch a civic lawsuit and demand compensation for the damages done to the villagers. More about the plight of the Karen in Kaeng Krachang can be read here and here.

The park head Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn is no stranger to controversy. When pro-Karen activist and former Pheu Thai Party candidate Thatkamon Ob-om was assassinated in September 2011, Chaiwat was implicated to be the one behind it. As of today, after he turned himself to the police, he is out on bail. Nevertheless, despite the revelation of the raids against the Karens, he was able to win back public approval by spearheading the rescue operations after the three military helicopters crashed in the area.

As you can see, this lèse majesté complaint is just the tip of the ice berg in a case of continuous harassment against the ethnic Karen tribe, who are still regarded with suspicion and distrust and are being treated accordingly by the Thai authorities. On the surface, it appears to be the rights of the Karen people against the conservation of wild animals, in particular elephants. But the real reason for Chaiwat lodging a lèse majesté charge against the National Human Rights Commission (the irony in itself is overbearing) is to invoke his public loyalty to the monarchy to publicly defame those who are actually trying to find a lasting solution to the problem.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and on Facebook here.