UNESCO ignores Karen pleas to name Kaeng Krachan National Park a world heritage site

Photo: Kaeng Krachan National Park
Photo: Kaeng Krachan National Park

After years of punting on a final decision, the United Nation’s cultural agency made the controversial decision to designate Thailand’s Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex as a world heritage site. 

The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex was listed Monday by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee as a world natural heritage site, hours after protesters asked the agency to deny the designation over the longstanding persecution of ethnic Karen who’ve dwelled within for over a century.

“The problem is the work of the government that allows one-sided data, binding other groups who cannot access to study the area,” Miss Universe Thailand contestant Chayathanus “Cheraim” Saradatta tweeted. “The objection of today is not just about the community and the forest. It is about stealing the geographic area and information from the independent perception of the people.”

Others were less constrained in their anger over the news about the 3,000-square kilometer park located mostly in the western province of Phetchaburi.

“It’s world famous for killing, forcing disappearance, burning homes, forcing people to leave their homes, arresting and prosecuting them. Why are you proud?” Shineru_msu tweeted.

Despite its nomination coming up three times since in 2015, a decision had been stalled over the Thai state’s treatment of the Karen, including the 2014 abduction and murder of a Karen activist there.

In 2019, the UNESCO committee deferred discussion of Kaeng Krachan after Australia, Norway and a conservationist group objected. Indonesia and China endorsed Thailand’s application.

The minister tasked with the environmental portfolio hailed the U.N. decision.

“Throughout these 16 years, we have pushed for Kaeng Krachan to be listed four times, and today we achieved that,” Varawut Silpa-archa, minister of natural resources and environment, said on Monday. “Receiving such a global recognition will help increase public awareness in nature conservation as well as increase ecotourism revenue from both domestic and overseas tourists.”

Varawut made no mention of the Karen; neither does UNESCO in its entry, which notes its endangered plant and animal species. Most local coverage Monday applauded the UNESCO decision.

The Karen, many of whom are stateless, had previously petitioned for UNESCO to deny recognition until the Thai government addressed their status and concerns. 

In 2014, Karen activist, Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, was abducted and murdered while on his way to meet Karen whose homes had allegedly been burned down by park officials in the park. The park chief at the time remains the top suspect; he has avoided prosecution.

Karen Activist ‘Billy’ was burned and stuffed in oil drum: DSI

The Karen of Bang Kloy village, located in Phetchaburi’s Kaeng Krachan district, last week again submitted a letter to the U.N. World Heritage Committee urging it not to take up Kaeng Krachan. 

They were joined Friday by United Nation’s own human rights experts, who urged the committee to defer a decision on Thailand’s bid due to ongoing violation of indigenous Karen rights. 

“This is an important precedent-setting case, and may influence policies on how indigenous peoples’ rights are respected in protected areas across Asia,” the experts said.

The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex is located inside Thailand’s largest national park of the same name, covering 464,000 hectares and spanning the provinces of Phetchaburi, Prachuap Khiri Khan and Ratchaburi. It became the third natural heritage site endorsed by the committee after the Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries and the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex.


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