UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee on Monday agreed to list Thailand’s Kaeng Krachan forest complex as a world natural heritage site over the objections of human rights activists who say it will endanger a Karen community that calls it home.
During its 44th session, held online July 16-31, in China’s Fuzhou, the United Nations agency finally gave the Thai government what it has wanted for a decade. The forest complex is Thailand’s third natural heritage site to be endorsed by UNESCO.
The Kaeng Krachan forest complex is Thailand’s largest national park, covering 464,000 hectares spanning Phetchaburi, Prachuap Khiri Khan and Ratchaburi provinces. The forest is rich in over 490 wildlife species, several of them rare, such as tigers, tapirs and fresh-water crocodiles.
At the 2019 world heritage meeting held in Baku, Azerbaijan, the committee deferred Thailand’s nomination for the second time due to human rights violations against the Karen indigenous people living in the forest.
The committee suggested Thailand should address the demands of the Karen forest dwellers, the human rights violation allegations and seek input from the local communities.
The Thai government responded to the “suggestion” by setting up a committee to resolve land-rights disputes with the Karen villagers and introduced several development projects to improve the livelihoods of the forest dwellers.
Community leaders have also been invited to take part in sharing their views on park management.
On Monday, members of the Karen Bang Kloy village living in the Kaeng Krachan National Park yesterday rallied outside the ministry and insisted the committee not list the forest complex because of ongoing allegations of human rights violations against villagers in the park.
“The indigenous Karen in the national park continue to be forcibly evicted and their houses burned. A key leader was killed after being detained by national park officers,” three United Nations-affiliated experts, who are special rapporteurs on various areas of human rights, said in a statement released before Monday’s vote.
The reference to the community leader in the statement was Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, a Karen Christian minority rights activist who disappeared in 2014 after being detained by park officials and was later found to have been murdered.
His remains were disposed of by being burned in an oil drum, which was sunk in a local reservoir and discovered by divers in 2019.
The murder of Porlajee has served as a lightning rod for Thai pro-democracy activists who have staged regular protests demanding that the murderers of the Karen activist be brought to justice.
To date, none of the men implicated in his disappearance and subsequent murder, including a former head of the national park, have been charged with any crimes.
This report contains reporting from UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner, and the National News Bureau of Thailand.