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Lowlanders threaten new raid on Hmong - Hilltribe get warning to vacate forest area

BANGKOK POST September 4, 2000

Less than two weeks after their raid on the Pa Klang lychee orchards of Hmong hilltribesmen, lowlanders have issued a warning they will stage a similar raid if the Hmong fail to vacate the forest reserve in Chiang Klang district.

Thee Rinrit, chairman of Phra That tambon council, said lowland farmers are determined to keep the Hmong out of watershed areas.

"If the Hmong do not leave, we will stage another raid," he said.

The council chairman said the previous raid was justified because the highlanders had been warned a number of times to leave Chiang Klang.

Mr Thee said one of the factors leading to the raid was the lowlanders' anger over the death of trees planted in the Pa Klang orchards by forestry officials and lowland villagers in August last year.

They accused the Hmong of cutting down the trees.

Forestry Department chief Plodprasop Suraswadi reportedly said during the reafforestation that if the Hmong failed to keep his trees well, they would lose their lychee trees in return. "It is one lychee tree for one of our trees," the forestry chief was quoted as saying.

The tambon council chairman denied allegations that lowland villagers had been coerced into participating in the raid, saying they acted of their own free will.

He also denied that lowland villagers from Chom Thong district in Chiang Mai were involved.

Chom Thong lowlanders have been embroiled in a similar dispute with a group of Hmong villagers, whom they have accused of destroying the evergreen forest, leading to drought and soil erosion, and contamination of waterways.

The Pa Klang Hmong are also accused of expanding farmland to accommodate their relatives who have migrated from other provinces.

Mr Thee, however, acknowledged that lowland villagers in two districts across provincial boundaries shared a similar goal in forest protection and helped in each other's activities.

Mr Thee said the Pa Klang Hmong were in no position to negotiate. "It's not our concern whether they will eventually have any new farmland or where they will go. Farmland has already been given to them in Tambon Pa Klang. What they have to do is to get out of this district." He said to allow the Hmong to use the watershed area was to let them stay above the law. "Any lowland villager will be arrested if he cuts down a tree in the forest. How come the Hmong enjoy the privilege to occupy forest reserves?" Mr Thee said.

He said it was up to the government whether to compensate the Pa Klang Hmong for the damage.

Meanwhile, Sopon Simalek, kamnan of Tambon Phra That in Chiang Klang, blamed the sluggishness of the state in handling the case which eventually led to confrontation between the Hmong and lowland farmers.

"A number of complaints have been filed with the authorities for nearly four years but nothing has ever been done until people clashed with each other. Had the authorities stepped in before, such an unfortunate event would not have occurred." He conceded that lowlanders' hostility is directed at the Pa Klang Hmong.

"Unlike those from Pa Klang, other ethnic groups including other Hmong, have orderliness. They manage to keep from expanding their areas," Mr Sopon said.

He did not believe the Pa Klang Hmong's willingness to adopt more environmentally sound farming methods would be acceptable to the lowlanders.

"I'm afraid it's too late now. The problem has reached a final stage," he said.

Provincial authorities have pointed out that the lowlanders' refusal to compromise has jeopardised a peaceful resolution being worked out jointly by the state and the provincial civic network.

A civic network member said the network decided to help mediate in the conflict because it believed in the concept of "the co-existence of man and forest".

Deputy governor Prateep Voranit said while the situation was difficult for every party concerned, the province would continue to try to bring both sides to the negotiating table.

"We will have separate meetings with each group, begining the middle of this month," he said.

Another senior government official agreed that the likelihood of a peaceful resolution was bleak.

"We have tried many times. The lowlanders seemed to be understanding when we talked them into a peaceful resolution, but then soon after they returned to their stiff demand," said Pinit Soralam, chief of the Nan Forestry Office.

"We are at our wits' end. While the Hmong are willing to co-operate, the lowlanders won't accept anything less than their departure." He said land zoning was being undertaken as part of efforts to bring about peace but the raid disrupted the entire process.

Mr Pinit ruled out the possibility of new farmland being provided to Hmong hilltribesmen to help them move away from Chiang Klang, saying that there was no unoccupied farmland left in the entire province.

Instead of sticking with agriculture, Mr Pinit said the Hmong should realise the limit of forest land and opt for other things unharmful to the forest reserves, like handicraft development.

But to achieve that, it needs close co-operation from government agencies.

Chronology

1968 - As the ideological struggle sweeps through the country, a faction of Hmong hilltribe people agree to the Thai authorities' proposal that they leave their mountainous area in Chiang Klang district, which is under communist influence, and resettle in Tambon Pa Klang in Pua district. Known later as Pa Klang Hmong, each family is given 10 rai of farmland close to the new settlement.

1977-82 - The remaining Hmong resistance fighters give themselves up to the Thai authorities and settle in a forest area next to the old settlement of the Pa Klang Hmong villagers.

1982 - Land shortage as a result of population growth forces the Pa Klang Hmong to return to their original settlement in Chiang Klang district and turn the farmland into lychee plantations. The land is now part of the lower Western Nan River forest reserve. However, a sizeable number of Hmong continue to maintain their presence in Pa Klang as well.

May 11, 1998 - A cabinet resolution empowers the authorities to arrest forest encroachers with the exception of Pa Klang Hmong and some other ethnic groups whose land ownership has yet to be verified.

February 1999 - The Chiang Klang district chief orders the Pa Klang Hmong villagers to vacate their village. The highlanders appeal, submitting a list of villagers to be affected by the order.

April 1999 - An assembly of highlanders in the North meet in Chiang Mai and reach a conclusion that there should be a registration of hilltribes making use of forest areas, followed by land ownership verification.

August 21, 1999 - Forestry chief Plodprasop Suraswadi leads lowlanders and government officials to plant trees as part of the department's reforestation programme in lychee orchards belonging to the Pa Klang Hmong but leaves untouched orchards belonging to other groups in adjacent areas.

May 2000 - Lowlanders in Chiang Klang issue an ultimatum, demanding the Pa Klang Hmong abandon their orchards which they say are watershed areas.

The Hmong, however, vow to stay on.

June 19, 2000 - A group of lowlanders block a road leading to the Hmong lychee orchards to protest their forest occupation.

The angry villagers also raid 12 lychee orchards, cutting down some 2,000 trees.

They also demand in a letter to the Nan governor that the May 11, 1998 cabinet resolution which exempts the Pa Klang Hmong from forest encroachment charges be revoked and that forest reserve laws be strictly enforced.

July 4, 2000 - Pa Klang Hmong villagers complain to the Nan governor about damages they have suffered from the June 19 raid.

August 15-16, 2000 - Representatives of the National Security Council visit the area and hold separate meetings with lowlanders and highlanders.

August 21, 2000 - Lowlanders stage a lightning raid on the Hmong lychee plantations again, destroying more than half of them or 1,076 of 1,818 rai.