CHIANGRAI TIMES – People kept staring at No-ae Mimee when he turned up at the Civil Court on Tuesday. And you cannot really blame them. No-ae’s long hair was tied in a bun covered by a red turban. His lips were reddened and teeth blackened from betel nut chewing. His cotton shirt looked commonplace, but definitely not the bright blue loincloth he wore when he was walking barefoot toward the court building.
Plucked from his mountainous home deep in the Kaeng Krachan forest where Karen natives are still living in isolation, cut off from the modern world, the ethnic minority man seemed to have travelled across time to arrive in Bangkok’s concrete jungle.
The 51-year-old forest dweller had a special mission to seek justice. Not only for his family, but also for other Karen forest dwellers.
His was among some 100 bamboo huts and rice barns torched and destroyed by a team of forest officials under a crackdown led by Kaeng Krachan National Park chief Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn.
The park chief insisted the Karen were slash-and-burn migrants from Myanmar who grew marijuana and supported ethnic Karen rebels across the border.
In short, they were a national security threat. Despite the grave accusations and full-blown eviction operations that involved military support, No-ae was the only Kaeng Krachan Karen arrested and sent to court.
He was found guilty of possessing some simple guns, but the court let him go free on the ground that those guns were necessary for a forest dweller’s way of life.
When investigated by the National Human Rights Commission, the park chief initially denied the torching. But his testimony was betrayed by the raid photos taken by his own team.
The Lawyers Council of Thailand is helping No-ae file a lawsuit after finding the Kaeng Krachan Karen are Thai nationals, that their farm-rotation system and subsistent living are not harmful to forest health and that the allegations about marijuana plantations and links to the rebel army are empty.
“The forest officials also have no legal authority to torch people’s houses and those allegations fan prejudice against indigenous peoples,” said rights lawyer Surasit Lueng-arannapa.
Why then is No-ae alone in taking the forest authorities to court?
“Others are afraid,” he said through an interpreter.
They should be afraid. The Karen rights advocate Tatkamol Ob-om was shot dead after threatening to expose abuse of power in Kaeng Krachan.
The police arrested the park chief and the murder case is now in court.
An official in a murder case is normally transferred. But not this park chief. Not even after the police raided his mansion built with rare teak logs and found more than 100 rounds of M16 rifle ammunition.
Mr Chaiwat reportedly denied the house was his but said the ammunition was for forest protection work.
Nothing happened either when his team took the liberty of destroying the carcasses of two murdered wild elephants to take their tusks.
For the Karen, life after forced relocation is full of hardship. “At the new place, no land to till. No rice to eat,” he said. They are relying on donated rice from their Karen brothers and sisters in the North.
As his lawyer read to him a list of belongings which were destroyed in the fire, No-ae mumbled to himself: “Beads. Bracelets.” Of little value to outsiders, perhaps, but they were his priceless ancestral heirlooms.
The civil lawsuit asks for 2.6-million-baht compensation for physical and psychological damages.
A reader commented in one online board discussion: “So this guy wants to get rich suddenly?” The sarcasm reflects widespread ethnic prejudice that supports state abuse.
“All I want is to return to our home and to live our old way of life,” said No-ae, almost pleading. “Look at me. Do you really think I’m a threat?”