Hmong Relocated in Northern Thailand

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In 1982, the government of Thailand proposed a new, highly structured program for hill tribe peoples to bring the hill tribes under political control. The total number of tribal people in Thailand is estimated conservatively at 500,000 (Thailand, Division of Development and Public Welfare 1982), although the press has recently quoted estimates as high as 700,000-1,000,000.

The Royal Forest Department also began to express increasing concern in 1982 over the presence of tribal peoples in protected areas, such as national parks and especially wildlife sanctuaries, and the apparent threat that their shifting cultivation poses to the watershed and forest habitat. The forest cover of Thailand has declined from over 53 percent in 1961 to no more than 24 percent today. Thailand currently has 52 national parks and 28 wildlife sanctuaries, accounting for 47,414 km², or 9 percent, of the country's total area. Hill tribes reportedly have occupied at least 11 wildlife sanctuaries in the north and northwest, as well as four national parks and one proposed park.

In Thailand all land technically belongs to the state; areas such as protected forests or wildlife sanctuaries and hill land legally cannot be owned or occupied by anyone, including tribal minorities. The Royal Forest Department's policy toward the hill tribes in protected areas is that they are "encroachers" or "illegal squatters who must be moved to other settlement areas." Because only the Regional Armies have the authority and power to move hill tribes, military collaboration must be sought for such action. In 1986 the watershed survey and planning subdivision of the Royal Forest Department released an unpublished document entitled "Target Areas for Prevention of Forest Destruction by Hill-tribes," which outlines a program of resettlement for tribal peoples. Increasingly, the army and the Royal Forest Department appear to be setting up programs for the hill tribes that formerly were the responsibility of the Department of Public Welfare.

Thailand's Resettlement Plan

Among the first tribal peoples targeted for resettlement by the Royal Forest Department were some 3,000-5,000 Hmong in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary (Tak Province) and a small number of Hmong to the east in contiguous Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary (Uthai Thani Province). These groups represent the southernmost penetration of the Hmong in western Thailand.

By February 1985 the Royal Forest Department and the Third Regional Army had begun to formulate a plan for evacuating the Hmong from nine villages in the northeastern section of Thung Yai Naresuan. (The Hmong in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary did not figure in early news releases about the proposed removal.) To speed up the evacuation plans, the Third Army began to construct a "temporary" road from Umphang southward to the northern boundary of Thung Yai Naresuan - a region formerly accessible only by foot. Approximately one year later, near the end of March 1986, the sanctuary chief ordered the residents of the one Hmong village in Huai Kha Khaeng to get out by April 15 or face arrest.

On 14 April 1986 the first confrontation took place. Third Army officers and Royal Forest Department officials arrived by helicopter at Huai Yew Yee (or Yooyi) village in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary - a village that may have been the most traditional Hmong village in the region. The 176 residents of Huai Yew Yee village, of whom 70 (40 percent) were 10 years of age or younger, were given an extension until May 15 to abandon their permanent settlement and seek temporary shelter with relatives in nearby Bao Wai Dam village in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary. (The details of this encounter are reported in Eudey [in press].)

Huai Yew Yee village had been settled 18 or 19 years earlier by people who had lived in Pa Ka in Phop-Phra subdistrict in Tak Province. At that time Phop-Phra appears to have been a Communist strong-hold, which the Huai Yew Yee settlers left at the request of the government. This was about four to five years before Huai Kha Khaeng was gazetted in 1972. The residents of Huai Yew Yee were self-sufficient farmers, growing short-grain rice, corn and a variety of vegetables and fruits. Although they did poach some wildlife, the people maintained large numbers of chickens and pigs (and some cattle) for food and had cattle for farm work. Opium poppy also was grown in the area, but the amount of land allocated to this cash crop was small in comparison to that devoted to subsistence crops. The larger households, consisting of extended families with married sons and their off-spring, had anywhere from 30 to 100 rai planted in rice and corn, but a maximum of only 4-6 rai planted in poppy (2.5 rai equal one acre). Prior to the evacuation of Huai Yew Yee village, the Thai press had published articles saying that the Hmong had encroached on Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary and were supporting themselves by growing opium and poaching wildlife.

At the same time, the Royal Forest Department was planning to resettle the several thousand inhabitants of the 10 remote Hmong villages in Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan wildlife sanctuaries in an isolated community, analogous to an "American Indian reservation," in the lowland area between kilometer 45 and 48 on the Mae Sot-Umphang road in Phop-Phra subdistrict. Denuded of water and stripped of vegetation, this area would have required the equivalent of US $600,000-$1,000,000 for feasible development. Before the Hmong were to be relocated in Phop-Phra subdistrict, they were to be kept for as long as one to two years, apparently in isolation, at a "temporary" holding site at Ka Ngae Kee village (sometimes referred to as Krakakee village), an area of degraded forest adjacent to the road leading northward to Umphang from Thung Yai Naresuan. The Provincial Forest Office in Tak may have proposed this area as a resettlement site for the sanctuary Hmong, but the decision was made in Bangkok to declare the land a protected area instead. According to "Target Areas for Prevention of Forest Destruction by Hilltribes," work with the Hmong at Ka Ngae Kee would be carried out by the sole authority in charge [apparently the Third Army and Royal Forest Department] without help or support or intention to concern from outside units, project or individual. If such are to be permitted, it could promote delay and misconception to our officially laid down policy [sic].

In April 1986, the watershed survey and planning subdivision of the Royal Forest Department indicated that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Thailand had offered to assist with the relocation of the Hmong. The US Embassy-based head of the Narcotics Assistance Unit may have encouraged the Royal Forest Department to approach USAID for assistance with the relocation. The Hmong's habit of raising opium as an easily transportable cash crop has increased their vulnerability to development schemes supported by outside agencies, even though the opium produced in Thailand has little relevance to the international market. The Royal Forest Department planned on requesting assistance only for transporting the Hmong to the relocation site and for developing an irrigation system there. Subsequent discussion between USAID Thailand and the Royal Forest Department appears to have focused instead on a feasibility study of the proposed relocation site. However, the Royal Forest Department never followed through on submitting any proposal for USAID.

Implementing the Relocation

In the 25 February 1987 Bangkok Post, the Royal Forest Department announced that the Thai government had allocated 9 million baht (approximately US $346,000) for the resettlement of the Hmong in Phop-Phra subdistrict, with an additional 180 million baht (approximately US $6,923,000) coming from the United Nations Fund for Drug Abuse Control (UNFDAC). Actual relocation appears to have begun when, according to an article in the 4 May 1987 Bangkok Post, the Third Army transported a "batch" of 270 Hmong from Phap-Hueng village in Mae Lamong subdistrict on the boundary of Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary by truck directly to Phop-Phra subdistrict. The holding phase at Ka Ngae Kee village appears to have been eliminated. A 7 July 1987 communication from the US Embassy in Bangkok confirmed that UNFDAC was providing "some development assistance" for the relocation program.

According to the US Embassy communication, "The [resettlement] land is considered the most arable in Tak Province and is located near good water sources." An earlier newspaper article suggests that the relocation site may have been extended to include the area between kilometer 39 and 54 on the Mae Sot-Umphang road (Bangkok Post 4 May 1987). This area would encompass existing Hmong settlements, some of which have irrigation systems. Highland families will receive 15 rai in the resettlement area. A statement attributed to the military director of the resettlement project describes the relocates from the Mae Lamong subdistrict as receiving assistance in growing "cash crops such as corn, groundnut and pumpkin in 10 rai and fruit trees in the remaining 5 rai" (Bangkok Post 12 November 1987). This suggests that no land has been set aside for the growing of rice - the major subsistence crop. In addition, the allocation of land by household, rather than by number of productive members of a household, tends to threaten the existence of the Hmong's extended families.

The US Embassy communication also states that "Every effort is made to resettle people on a voluntary basis, although the promise of Thai citizenship for all those who agree to be resettled is used as a persuasive measure." There is no way to know how widespread citizenship is among the Hmong in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, but figures compiled by the Department of Public Welfare suggest that the percentage may be high in provinces such as Tak, where the hill tribe population is low. At the 14 April 1986 confrontation between the Huai Yew Yee Hmong and government officials, all the assembled Hmong men raised identity cards when the ranking military officer questioned them about their loyalty to the government. Possessing an identity card is a qualification for Thai citizenship. The Thai citizenship of ethnic minorities may be subject to revocation, however, if the government discerns signs of dissidence among them.

At the end of July an official of the Royal Forest Department said that earlier that month as many as half of the Hmong had been removed from Thung Yai Naresuan and resettled in Phop-Phra subdistrict. Houses, schools, medical facilities and a water system reportedly had been built for them. An earlier newspaper article had stated that The people resettled will get housing construction materials, power and water infrastructure, crop seed and livestock, and they will have to work under a cooperative system with crop price guarantees to ensure that they earn adequate income.

More recent articles in the Thai press suggest that only Hmong living in Mae Lamong subdistrict have been moved into the resettlement area in Phop-Phra. As matters now stand, the Third Army appears to be prepared to use "force if necessary" to remove about 2,500-3,500 Hmong from Thung Yai Naresuan to Phop-Phra during January-June 1988 (Bangkok Post 13 October 1987). Highland development projects under the auspices of government agencies such as the Office of Narcotics Control Board and the Public Health Ministry are to be suspended, and all contacts with the tribals by outsiders and traders are to cease (Bangkok Post 13 October 1987). In September 1987 the Third Army forcefully and arbitrarily expelled about 1,800 Akka, Lahu and Lisu tribals from Chiang Rai Province in northern Thailand into Burma.

Meanwhile, UNFDAC announced in early October that it was no longer associated with the resettlement of the Hmong in Phop-Phra subdistrict because of the failure of the Thai government to form an independent panel under the auspices of the Human Rights Division of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) to review the relocation project.

Theoretical Issues

In considering the relocation of Hmong from Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan wildlife sanctuaries, or any other proposed resettlement, several fundamental issues must be addressed. The primary concern is the legitimacy of Thailand's goal to protect its forest and wildlife. The government has proposed to set aside a total of 15 percent of the country's area as protected forest. The major causes of forest loss appear to be the shifting cultivation practiced by both ethnic Thais and hill tribe peoples and illegal and legal logging by timber companies. The shifting cultivation of the Hmong, for example, has contributed to the deterioration of the lower montane ecosystem in northwest Thailand through the clearing of forest and the poaching of wildlife, but good forests with wildlife populations do remain in sanctuaries such as Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan. Yet, as recently as 10 years ago, statements in the social science literature implied that in the highlands "the wild animals are almost gone" and the human population pressure "has reached the point where it is no longer possible to have extensive game preserves". The slowness of social scientists to acknowledge Thailand's conservation efforts may have been to the detriment of the tribal peoples. Additionally, after unsubstantiated charges of anthropologists' complicity in military operations against the hill tribes in 1970, social scientists were conspicuously absent from development projects in the tribal areas. As a consequence, development plans often were formulated and implemented by technical experts without sociological or broad economic advice.

Protection of forest habitat and wildlife may or may not require relocation of hill tribes or ethnic Thais. At a time when growing consideration is being given to the material benefits that ethnic Thais may derive from protected areas - sometimes referred to as "social forestry" - the absolute exclusion of hill tribes from protected areas seems almost paradoxical. If relocation is deemed the most appropriate conservation strategy, however, then the people affected - ethnic Thai or tribal - should be permitted to participate in every step of the design and implementation of the relocation program. The government must be willing to enter into dialogue with those people vulnerable to relocation.

The decision to evict hill tribe or other populations should be decided on a case-by-case basis. In each instance the government should conduct a feasibility study weighing the relative costs and benefits of relocating people or offering development assistance in situ. As a case in point, the eviction of the Hmong from Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan sanctuaries ostensibly is being undertaken to protect the watershed (as well as to eradicate opium production and deal with a security problem). However, the formulation of an official Thai policy on hill tribes has not included studies on the rate of forest destruction by tribals through shifting cultivation or studies of data that challenge the opinion that highland agriculture adversely effects hydrology and promotes soil erosion. The northeast in Thailand - rather than the northwest where the tribal peoples are concentrated - appears to be the region most seriously in need of watershed management. The watershed survey and planning subdivision of the Royal Forest Department even acknowledged that forest destruction in the region of the two sanctuaries had been relatively minor. Completion of the controversial Nam Choan Dam, a hydroelectric project, might pose a more serious threat to the integrity of the two sanctuaries, including disruption of the migration routes of large mammals such as elephant between Burma and Thailand.

The construction of roads in wilderness areas of Thailand has frequently led to increased exploitation of plant and animal resources in these areas by ethnic Thais. The construction of dams, which results in more navigable rivers, has had this same effect. As an ad hoc response to the eviction of the Hmong from Huai Yew Yee village, a new ranger station was established at the former village site in anticipation of increased hunting pressure in the area. Huai Yew Yee may have acted as a deterrent against the destruction of wildlife in its vicinity by ethnic Thais and Karen hill tribe people (Eudey in press). The border town of Mae Sot in Tak Province has an apparently thriving business in the horns of protected wildlife such as gaur (Bos gaurus), a wild cattle. These trophies supposedly come from Burma, but it is more likely that they are obtained in the area south of Umphang. Such trade probably will increase due to the road to Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary constructed by the Third Army.

A recent editorial in Oryx, the publication of the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society (FFPS) in the UK, recognizes that "legislation for wildlife conservation has meant hardship for indigenous people". The editorial continues that the solution to human versus environment conflicts "should not be to force a choice between people and wildlife," especially when the people may be the most ecologically adapted to their environment. Likewise, it seems fair to say that "conservation action" should not be used to achieve political objectives. Elsewhere in Thailand Hmong have been attempting to solve the problem of land pressure by developing new cash crops or constructing terraces for the irrigated production of subsistence rice. However, the very fact that the Hmong have adapted their traditional subsistence patterns to the remoteness of the Huai Kha Khaeng that they will be denied the opportunity to affect their own adaptation to the problems of the modern world.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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