A violent raid on the Hmong's lychee orchards by lowland farmers in Nan has come as a shock to both the highlanders and outsiders. It raises the question whether environmental protection efforts can be achieved at the expense of human rights and justice. Ploenpote Atthakor reports.
A Hmong hilltribesman in Tambon Pa Klang says sadly, "If I could choose, I would not have been born a Hmong." His lychee plantation was among those destroyed in a violent raid carried out by angry lowland farmers in Chiang Klang district two weeks earlier.
The Hmong villagers have not yet recovered from shock. Grief and desperation has shrouded the entire community.
"This is all I have," said Jao Sung, another elderly villager.
He lost all his lychee trees. His farm house was set ablaze. Three of his five pigs were killed in the melee while the remaining two were knifed and had to be killed later. A mother hen was found dead with a broken neck.
Mr Jao said he and his wife could do nothing but cry. "I wanted to die," he said.
The 116 Pa Klang Hmong families planted lychee on 1,818 rai, said Noppadon Saengsongsiri, village headman. Of that number, 1,076 rai was destroyed in the violent raid which was witnessed by state officials including the district chief and the head of the Nan Forestry Office. The authorities said they could do nothing to stop the terror.
No state agency has said what they intend to do about the incident or how to restore trust and faith in the rule of law among the attacked ethnic people.
"Right after the incident, the district chief asked what we planned to do next. I told him this was not a question for us. It was for him and the government. We would like to know what they will do to solve the problem for us," Mr Noppadon said.
"Most of us tend to believe the state was behind this incident," he added.
One of the immediate issues for orchard owners are debts, totalling some 20 million baht, which were borrowed mostly from district agriculture co-operatives and the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Co-operatives.
The Hmong villagers said they would not be able to repay their loans for years to come. Damage to their plantations of mostly lychee trees was estimated at more than 140 million baht.
No one has mentioned compensation. Villagers are afraid to file complaints with police because they have been warned they face forest encroachment charges if they did, since their orchards were located in a national forest reserve.
Only plantations belonging to the Pa Klang Hmong were destroyed, even though other ethnic groups as well as Hmong in other villages also lived and farmed in the area.
Authorities have estimated that these other ethnic groups, including Lua and Hmong, have lychee plantations covering about 30,000 rai of forest land. The provincial forestry office said the actual number was still not known but land inspection was under way.
Lowland villagers have stated they would allow other ethnic groups _ but not Pa Klang Hmong - to continue to work on their plantations.
"If having a plantation in the forest reserve violates the law, why can other groups continue to keep their land? Our plantations, totalling 1,818 rai, take up only 10%-12% of the entire area. This is discrimination against Pa Klang people," Mr Noppadon said.
According to him, the Pa Klang Hmong had long settled in Chiang Klang, where they have their plantations, before they were relocated to Tambon Pa Klang in Pua district in 1968, at the height of the anti-communist suppression drive.
"Each of our families was given 10 rai of farmland in the new settlement. The land was not fertile, while our population grew. We had to return to our old land in Chiang Klang during 1977-82 to farm while maintaining our homes in Pua."
He said Pa Klang Hmong were prepared to adopt new farming methods if they are allowed to restore their plantations, but no one has given them this assurance.
Lowland villagers have accused the Pa Klang Hmong of damaging the evergreen forest and contaminating water sources with chemicals used in their plantations.
Mr Noppadon said the Hmong farmers need technical assistance "so we can maintain our plantations as well as the forest". The headman said he still hoped the state would do justice to the affected villagers.
Meanwhile, Samrit Tao, chairman of the Forest and Land Committee Network in the North, a non-government organisation, said compensation should be fairly paid to each family if they are not allowed to go back to their land.
He said Pa Klang villagers planned to petition the Nan governor today, to resolve the conflict.
"We may call for negotiations to look into the issue of compensation if villagers are forced to leave their land. The compensation should be based on the number of years the lychee plantations were maintained."
A district agricultural co-operatives office, an agency that gives loans to the villagers, said the government should step in to help the villagers.