Karen people of Thailand
By Catheryn Thompson
I recently interviewed Ruggit Srisarin, a masters student at Tasmania University who recently visited the Karen people, who live on the border between Thailand and Burma. In Burma the Karen are fighting for independence via the Karen Liberation Organisation, but the Karen people in Thailand are happy to be part of Thailand.
There are 600,000 hill tribes people in Thailand. The Karen group, with a population of 300,000, is the largest hill tribe in Thailand. Their lifestyle is changing as economic development encroaches on the hills. Their traditional self-sufficient system of agriculture is being transformed into cash crop production for the international market.
Ruggit visited the Huaykakaeng Wildlife Sanctuary and the Thung Yai Naresnan Wildlife Sanctuary. In December 1991 the area was declared a World Heritage Area by UNESCO. This has caused difficulty for the Karen people, because UNESCO's definition doesn't include the people who live in the area, and have done so for hundreds or thousands of years.
Traditionally the Karen collected food from the forest (bamboo shoots, mushrooms, wild vegetables, fish and small mammals). They also used the bark and bulbs of some trees as medicine. They believe that their ancestors taught them the way to live without destroying the forest ecosystem.
The ancestral law says that they must not buy or sell meat in the village; this protects the forest animals from becoming victim to market forces. The law says that they may take only palm leaves and bamboo for building their houses as these are the renewable resources. In this way the large trees remain protected.
In the past the government tried to move the Karen out of the forest area to enforce the World Heritage definition but the people have stayed on their traditional lands and protested by petitioning the government.
The people see themselves as custodians of the World Heritage Area and would like the government to recognise their traditional relationship to the land and their role in protecting it. NGOs in Thailand are currently trying to mediate between the Karen and the government to find the best solution.
The parliament is in the process of adopting a new law in regard to the people who live in the buffer zone of the World Heritage Area, declaring that the buffer zone is community forest and the Karen people have the right to manage this area.
In 1989 the government banned logging in all forests in Thailand, but the forestry business negotiated for eucalyptus plantations, which involved relocating many traditional families and leasing traditional tribal and peasant land from the government.