'Well.'' Krathong Chokewibool stopped short, before continuing. ''It's better, I guess.''
BUILDING A NEW FUTURE: A Karen child helps build terraces for rice paddies ahead of the coming rainy season.
As head of Bang Kloy village, a new resettlement of Karen who once lived in deep forest in Kaeng Krachan National Park, the 46 year old spoke cautiously about national parks officials, particularly chief Chaiwat Limlikhitaksorn, who allegedly ordered a series of torchings of villagers' property two to three years ago.
Mr Krathong's guarded optimism about improved relations with park officials stems from the introduction of the Pid Thong Lang Phra project in Bang Kloy. Pid Thong Lang Phra is a royally sponsored initiative operating throughout the country that sees project staff and park officials working largely with ethnic and hilltribe people to help them develop sustainable livelihoods. Kaeng Krachan officials enlisted the Pid Thong Lang Phra project to assist Karen who were driven out from their distant village near the Myanmar border.
To Mr Krathong the move represents the best hope for improved relations between the group and parks officials yet.
On a dusty hill behind the village earlier this month, as part of the project, Mr Krathong and his villagers shaped rice fields with spades and hoes and a few graders lent and operated by park officials.
The terraces began to take shape. And when the rains come in the next few months, this group of Karen hope their first rice-growing season can begin, bringing with it a new lease on life.
The assistance is seen by some social advocates as a reconciliatory gesture by the park for villagers who suffered damage to their property.
HEARTS AND MINDS: Chaiwat Limlikhitaksorn briefs villagers about the progress of the Pid Thong Lang Phra project.
Kaeng Krachan National Park has been in conflict with some Karen villagers for years. Problems involving alleged forest encroachment are widespread.
The latest survey by the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department late last year found there are at least 136,400 people encroaching on 1.28 million rai of forest land.
In 1996, the national park forcibly relocated some 57 Karen families from Bang Kloy Bon (bon means upper) village. Park officials accused the Karen of damaging the park's watershed. The ethnic group normally uses several plots of mountainous land to grow rice, rotating their crop annually from one plot to another. By doing so they reason that used land has a chance to regenerate and replenish its nutrients. However, park officials see the practice as damaging to the forest. And in past years, park officials claimed to have found villagers growing marijuana, resulting in them wanting to move the group out.
Those 57 families were moved to the mountain next to Pong Luek village, naming the new village Bang Kloy Lang (lower). They were given a plot of land, but without proper irrigation systems their crops failed. Some decided to leave the village to find jobs in downtown Phetchaburi.
In ensuing years, more villagers from Bang Kloy Bon were relocated. And a few years ago the aggressive tactic of torching villagers' property was taken allegedly under a directive from new park chief Mr Chaiwat.
He claimed the homes did not belong to Karen but housed marijuana growers, many of whom had crossed the Thai-Myanmar border to hide and mix with the few villagers who were left. Mr Chaiwat said this partially explained why there were still people in the old village despite state efforts to relocate them.
Last year, at least 39 Karen from Bang Kloy Bon were relocated, leaving only a handful of original residents. Mr Chaiwat said that if more villagers were found, they would be considered illegal immigrants from Myanmar and arrested.
Mr Chaiwat has acknowledged recently that his aggressive approach has taken a psychological toll and has been trying harder to win over the hearts of the distrustful villagers.
Park officials and Pid Thong Lang Phra staff now work together with an eye on helping the villagers once again become self-sufficient.
As the villagers are not allowed to rotate their plots, they have to make the most of the 300 rai (48 hectares) of cleared forest provided. They chose to have rice terraces, which royal project staff and park officials have helped them build.
The biggest challenge is creating an effective irrigation system to water the rice and other potential crops.
Mr Chaiwat decided to lay pipes connecting to the Phetch River, although it is still unclear whether the system will work.
''There are a few things I expect to see,'' said Mr Chaiwat. ''One is that the villagers will be able to stand on their own feet. Another is that our forest will no longer be encroached on nor our wildlife poached for food.''
MOVED ON: National Park officials relocating Bang Kloy Bon villagers, a process that started in 1996.
The villages of Bang Kloy Lang and Pong Luek about 1,000 residents combined. However, a few hundred more were added to household records last year, causing a headache for Mr Chaiwat. His fear is that the new villagers of unclear origin may have sneaked in from Myanmar and are involved in drug production.
To make their new life sustainable, there should be no new drug problems, he added.
''It's not right that they keep claiming they are an ethnic group and therefore have a right to live in the forest. The fact is there are some people involved in drug production, and that raises questions about our efforts to restore their livelihood,'' said Mr Chaiwat.
Surapong Kongchantuk, deputy chair of the Human Rights Subcommittee on Ethnic Minorities, the Stateless, Migrant Workers and Displaced Persons at the Lawyers Council of Thailand, has helped some of the Karen in court cases against the national park. He said the new project has created a situation under which national park officials and villagers can coexist without clashes.
However, he questioned the project's sustainability and suitability to the Karen way of life. For instance, irrigation systems will create a new burden for the Karen that is not self-sufficient, he said.
Mr Surapong urged further studies to ascertain more efficient ways for concerned parties to introduce programmes to the villagers.
For a village head such as Mr Krathong, though, the project has provided new hope.
''I've visited other Karen nearby in Ratchaburi province and they seem willing to try something similar,'' he said. ''It should work for us too, I think.''
CONCERT PARTY: Villagers gather before heading to the hill to work on the rice terraces.
EARLY START: Children wait for their parents to go to work on the rice terraces.
About the author
- Writer: Piyaporn Wongruang