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Commentary: Why the racial violence now?

Manoon Khirisantikul is still in shock. His lychee orchard was his only hope of providing a future for his four children. Now his dream has gone up in smoke.

On Monday, his orchard and those of some 180 other Thai-Hmongs in Nan's Chiang Klang district were destroyed by angry lowland farmers. Like dominoes, the lychee trees many over 15 years old collapsed one by one against a backdrop of smoke and fire rising above the homes put to the torch.

All farm equipment was destroyed. Chickens and pigs were killed. Cooked rice and other food was thrown about.

Witnesses said the authorities, both policemen and forestry officials, were present during the blitz. But nothing was done to stop the terror. Or arrest the attackers. Instead, the Hmongs were barred from entering their property on grounds that this would be forest encroachment and the raid was a lesson for foreign elements.

"We've nothing left," Mr Manoon told his small son, sobbing. "Nothing but debt."More than 50,000 lychee trees were destroyed. But what was also lost was the Hmongs' hope of peaceful dialogue with and trust in officialdom as conflicts over natural resources worsen and degenerate into racism.

The Hmongs' orchards are said to be causing droughts in low-lying areas and contaminating waterways. The people are also accused of being invaders since they live in Pa Klang district some distance away.

The Pa Klang Hmongs, for their part, have a bitter story to tell of life as a tribal minority who are victim to the whim of state control.

Up until three decades ago, their farmland was actually in Chiang Klang and their villages were higher up the mountain. During the communist insurgency, the military moved them down from their ancestral homes to Pa Klang and used them as informants and soldiers to fight the guerrillas.

But the newly settled land proved inadequate and the soil of poor quality. So they went back to their old farms in Chiang Klang. That was about 20 years ago. It was like going home. A life in peace at last.

The Hmongs are puzzled by the lowlanders' actions. Some of the orchards are over 15 years old. Why attack them now?The authorities promote ecology friendly forms of farming in the highlands. The Hmongs follow that state line. So why destroy the orchards?Lowland villagers and other hill peoples have lychee orchards in the same area. Why target just the Pa Klang Hmongs?The raid was not the first. In June, villagers destroyed part of the Hmongs' lychee orchards. The Hmongs called for a joint committee to settle the conflict peacefully, but nothing happened. Then came Monday's blitz.

"They see us as no better than animals," said community leader Samrit Sae Tao bitterly. "In time of war, they used us to fight. Now we're of no use, they feel it's okay to destroy us."Mountainous Nan province is home to several tribes who have always co-existed peacefully. Why the outburst of racial hatred now?The Hmong leaders and environmentalists are blaming the Forestry Department for fanning ethnic acrimony as part of its scheme to evict hill peoples from forests without getting its own hands dirty.

It happened before in Chom Thong, Chiang Mai between lowland farmers and highlanders. Now in Nan. More than 500,000 hill people live in the forests. Where will be the next scene of ethnic violence?The smoke up on the Nan mountain could be symbolic. Unless the authorities refrain from stirring up racism under the guise of conserving the environment, our country might soon be ablaze.

Sanitsuda Ekachai