(New York) – The Thai military junta should cease forced evictions, arbitrary arrests and detention, and intimidation of residents in six forest villages in Buriram province, Human Rights Watch said today. Villagers have been relocated to two sites that are unsuitable for habitation.
On June 28, 2014, Thai soldiers, joined by police and forestry officials, ordered more than 1,000 residents in central Buriram province to leave their villages or face forcible relocation and the destruction of their homes. Houses were spray-painted with early July departure deadlines. The villagers – from Kao Bart, Saeng Sawan, Talat Khwai, Pa Mamuang, Klong Hin Mai, and Sam Salueng villages in Non Ding Daeng district – have had a longstanding conflict with the Thai authorities over land ownership and their right to live in officially designated forest areas.
“The Thai military is using threats and arbitrary arrests to forcibly evict villagers from forest areas in Buriram province,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Instead of resolving a land issue through legal means, the military is using its wide-reaching martial law powers to bludgeon human rights protections.”
A series of human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests and detention of community leaders, followed the eviction orders. On June 28 and 29, soldiers from the 2nd Army Region arrested 10 leaders from Seang Sawan, including the former village headman, Kampong Pipuannok, and held them incommunicado without charge for seven days at a military camp in Buriram province. On July 4, soldiers arrested Sornram Masuntei, from the village of Lam Nang Rong, and detained him for about 10 hours at the same military camp after he requested information from local military commanders about whether the eviction orders would affect residents who were poor and landless.
A resident of Kao Bart described his encounter with soldiers on July 12:
I was stopped at a military checkpoint while traveling to Seang Sawan village. Soldiers told me everyone in my community must be evicted without exception. Soldiers said they have photographs of everyone. If we refused to leave, they would come to our village with court orders and arrest everyone on sight. They told me, “I let you go back to your village today so that you could tell others to pack up and leave this forest.”
The military authorities have also sought to intimidate local activists seeking to stop the forced evictions. On July 12, soldiers briefly detained a local activist, Paiboon Soisot, and ordered him to leave the disputed areas or face legal action. On July 17, soldiers also arrested Prom Jarana, a member of the Assembly of the Poor network, which works on land rights, at his home in Phakam district in Buriram province. They took Prom to Somdet Chaophraya Mahakasatsuk military camp and held him for more than 10 hours, then released him without charge.
Prom was part of an Assembly of the Poor delegation that joined a protest in front of the army headquarters in Bangkok on July 15 to demand that the military end the forced evictions from the six villages. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that police crowd-control units were deployed to remove protesters and that police dragged away villagers and detained them in police trucks.
After villagers agreed to move away from the headquarters gate, they were allowed to file their complaints with representatives of the military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). After the meeting, the military forced all the protesters to return to Buriram province.
“The military is not only threatening villagers, but they’re harassing the activists trying to assist them,” Adams said. “The military junta is expanding the circle of Thais at risk of arbitrary detention.”
The 2nd Army Region commander sought to justify the military’s actions against the six villages by citing NCPO order 64/2557, issued on June 14, instructing government agencies to put an end to deforestation and encroachment on forest reserves nationwide. The military junta issued a subsequent order, 66/2557, on June 17, which stated that operations carried out on the basis of order 64/2557 must not impact the poor, people with low incomes, and the landless who have lived on the land prior to the order. However, the military units in Non Din Daeng district have carried out the forced evictions without apparent regard for Thai law or order 66/2557.
The permanent or temporary removal of individuals, families, or communities against their will from the homes or land they occupy without providing access to appropriate legal or other protection is considered a forced eviction under international law. Evictions should be carried out only in accordance with national law and international human rights standards.
By July 12, residents of two villages, Talat Khwai and Pa Mamuang, had already vacated their houses. Forced eviction efforts have been under way in the four other villages. The military authorities did not provide compensation or financial assistance to villagers who vacated their houses or to those whose houses were dismantled by soldiers.
The two relocation sites set up by military authorities are wholly inadequate for human habitation because they lack adequate temporary shelters and have no access to water. More than 50 households in Saeng Sawan and Kao Bart have refused to leave their homes. The military has cordoned off those areas with security checkpoints, raising serious concerns about further rights violations should the military forcibly evict them.
Toon, another resident from Kao Bart, told Human Rights Watch that the situation on the ground did not improve after villagers went to protest in Bangkok on July 15:
The NCPO promised to facilitate a meeting for us with local commanders. But there is no dialogue. Soldiers from the 2nd Army Region continue to tell us to shut up. Soldiers said we must not defy [the orders] or they would arrest us and demolish our homes. No one would be spared.
“Local conflicts over land won’t be solved through forced evictions and relocations to uninhabitable sites,” Adams said. “Restoring democratic rule should also mean restoring transparent and participatory processes to find negotiated and fair solutions to these problems.”