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Hooh Yoh Land Theft in Violation of Thai Law
The Theft of Hooh Yoh's Land
As we drove into the hills, I could see terraced fields and a pavilion being built on top of a far away hill. (see photo 1) As I snapped pictures of Baan Huai Yuak Pa Sai Highland Agricultural Development Station in Mae Fah Luang District (referred to as Hooh Yoh Pah Soh Village in www.akha.org) I was unaware of the guard in plain clothes who had come up behind me. “No” he said as he shook his head and pointed to my camera. He was certainly from one of the hill tribes but not one of the local Akha. Speaking Thai with him, I asked if there was a law against taking pictures.
Seeing that I was not easily intimidated he turned around and started talking into his walkie talkie. I asked Matthew if we should go further up the hill as I wanted to talk to the person in charge and he calmly laughed and said “no, they will come to you.” Sure enough, five minutes later a contingent of 7 or 8 men came down on motorcycles, not one of them in uniform. The machine gun toting boys were only 17 or 18 years old. They wore black t-shirts and dirty jeans, had no helmets and offered no smiles.
If you saw them in a shopping mall you wouldn’t give them a second look but since they were carrying assault weapons, we watched their every action very carefully. Since I had disobeyed an order not to take pictures they had been called in to deal with this foreign meddler. At their command was a diminutive man vaguely resembling a bulldog. I had intended to ask him why the villagers who were working for the Development Station were getting less then the legal minimum wage of $3 a day for their work. (The woman were getting less than $2 and the men were getting $2.)
However, he was not going to let me control this conversation and immediately pointed to my camera and told me I could not take pictures. I asked him why as I had not heard of any laws in Thailand prohibiting photography. Discussing the legal aspects of taking pictures in his native Thai language threw him off his guard and he conceded that legally, yes, I could take pictures but he preferred I not do so as the Project was not yet completed. His excuse was that the administrators should be the first to see the Development Station. I told him not to worry as I was taking the pictures with the intention of sending them to the said administrators so that they could see what was happening.
Being polite as possible, I asked this man his name, his supervisor’s name and for a phone number in Bangkok so that I could find out more about the project but when he realized someone was going to check up on him, he refused to provide any information. Seeing that we could not be intimidated as easily as the hill-tribe people, especially the ones without citizenship, he backed off a bit but at the same time, no one in our group was willing to take his picture and risk a bullet in the head. The situation felt that tense. This occurred the first week of February.
Just 2 weeks prior, in the mid-January, I had gone to Baan Pang Khon Highland Agricultural Development Station, another Development Project in Chiang Rai. Although my friend and I were just out for a motorcycle ride, we had been waved down by local workers and invited to tour the Station. Everyone working there had smiles and laughed and joked with each other as they worked, the majority of whom were tribal people. The setting was idyllic as cherry blossoms were blooming and the air was crisp and clean and the views spectacular. Mushrooms had successfully been cultivated in cool rooms, coffee and cherry trees were being planted and a visitor center was 70% completed. (see photos 2 and 3) This seemed the perfect example of a successful Development Station – local participation and good relations between the tribal people and the government employees. We were encouraged to look around and to take pictures.
Therefore, the confrontation two weeks later at Baan Huai Yuak Pa Sai Highland Agricultural Development Station was a bit shocking even though I had been reading about Hooh Yoh village in Matthew’s e-mails. At the entrance to Hoh Yoh village there was a large cement arch, big enough to drive through, donated by the Rotary from Taiwan in the name of friendship. Ironically, as the villager’s land was being taken, there were few friends around to help. While driving up to the Station on the steep roads through the jungle, we passed two large military vehicles that did not budge one bit on the road and appeared to be directly challenging us. Their attitude seemed to be “get out of our way or get run down.” At the village the Canadian woman who had been detained with her Australian friend a few days earlier was playing with the village children. The younger people in the village loved the fact that someone was standing up for them and they had become heroes in the village.
But defending the villagers was not without cost. To punish the villagers and prevent them from supporting this type of rebellious activity, the villagers working on the project had their pay docked. Many volunteers beside these two women had stayed at the village had done a lot of work to document much of what had happened over the months. They were also threatened not to take pictures but since their Thai was not good enough, they were unable to press their case. One of them had found a website that explained the Development Stations, http://www.chaipat.or.th/journal/aug03/hill_e.html.
The website states that, “the stations received assistance from the Third Army Area Command in organizing an operative unit to oversee the security of the lives and property of the people, set order in the communities at the border areas, and transfer knowledge on the preliminary methods of self-defense, so that the people could become an information source for the authorities.” However it seemed as though the people in charge of this Development Station had failed to read the part about security and lives of the people. Basically they were stealing land, enforcing it at gunpoint and then paying the villagers less than the minimum wage to work for them on the same land that the villagers had farmed for years.
So the next question is what to do about this? In Thailand the Royal Family is one of the 3 pillars of Thai society. Currently the most active and widely respected of the Royal Family is Princess Sirindhorn. She loved by the Thais as she follows in her father’s footsteps working to help poor people through respect and understanding. She has become involved in issues like this in the past and I believe she is one potentially ally who might make a difference.
I encourage you to write letters to her asking for a full investigation into Baan Huai Yuak Pa Sai Highland Agricultural Development Station.
Some issues to raise are:
1. Who is in charge of the Development Station?
Her address is as follows:
Copyright 1991 The Akha Heritage Foundation