Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary - History

History

Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic stone tools have been found in the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai river valleys and parts of the sanctuary were inhabited by Neolithic man. Since at least 700 years, the Dawna-Tenasserim region has been home to Mon and Karen people, but burial grounds in Thung Yai and Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary have not been systematically researched yet.

The Thai name "Thung Yai Naresuan", on the one hand, refers to the "big field" (thung yai) or savanna in the centre of the sanctuary, on the other hand to King Naresuan, a famous Siamese ruler who supposedly based his army in the area to wage war against Burma sometime during his reign of the Ayutthaya Kingdom from 1590 until his death in 1605.

The Karen people who live in the sanctuary call the savanna pia aethala aethea which may be translated as "place of the knowing sage". It refers to the area as a place where ascetic hermits called aethea have lived and meditated and may do so even today. The Karen in Thung Yai regard them as holy men important for their history and identity in Thung Yai and revere them in a specific cult.

Historical sources as well as local oral traditions suggest that settlement of Karen people in Thung Yai - on a bigger scale - did not occur before the second half of the 18th century. At that time, due to political and religious persecution in Burma, predominantly Pwo-Karen from the hinterlands of Moulmein and Tavoy migrated into the area northeast of the Three Pagodas Pass, where they received formal settlement rights from the Siamese Governor of Kanchanaburi. Sometime between 1827 and 1839 the Siamese King Rama III established this area as a principality (mueang) and the Karen-leader who was governing the principality received the Siamese title of nobility Phra Si Suwannakhiri. During the second half of the 19th century, this Karen-principality at the Burmese border became particularly important for the Siamese King Rama V (Chulalongkorn) in his negotiations with the British colonial power in Burma regarding the demarcation of their western border with Siam.

In the beginning of the 20th century, when the modern Thai nation state was established, the Karen in Thung Yai lost their former status and importance. During the first half of the 20th century, external political influences were minimal in Thung Yai and the Karen communities were highly autonomous regarding their internal affairs. This changed in the second half of the 20th century, when the Thai nation state extended its institutions into the peripheral areas and the Karen re-appeared as chao khao or "hill tribes" on the national political agenda, as forest destroyers and illegal immigrants.

Plans to protect the forests and wildlife at the upper Khwae Yai and Khwae Noi river grew in the mid-1960s. Due to strong logging and mining interests in the area, it was not before 1972 that the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary could be established, and regarding Thung Yai resistance was even stronger. However, in April 1973 a military helicopter crashed near Thung Yai and revealed an illegal hunting party of senior military officers with family members, businessmen, and a film star, arousing nationwide public outrage which finally led to the fall of the Thanom-Prapas Regime after the uprising of October 14, 1973. After this accident and under a new democratic government, the area finally could be declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1974. After the Military had taken over power once again in October 1976, many of the activists of the democracy movement fled into peripheral regions of the country and some of them found refuge among the Karen people living in Thung Yai.

During the 1960s, not only timber and ore but also the water of the western forests as hydroelectric power resources became of interest for commercial profit and national development. A system of several big dams was planned to produce electricity for the growing urban centres. On the Khwae Yai River, the Si Nakharin Dam was finished in 1980 and the Tha Thung Na Dam in 1981, while the Khao Laem Dam (renamed Vajiralongkorn Dam) on the Khwae Noi river south of Thung Yai was completed in 1984. The Nam Choan Dam, the last of the projected dams, was supposed to flood a forest area of about 223 km² within the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary. The public dispute about the Nam Choan Dam Project lasted for more than six years, dominating national politics and public debate in early 1988 before it was shelved in April that year. Pointing to the high value of Thung Yai for nature conservation and biodiversity, the opponents on the national and international level had raised the possibility of declaring the area a World Heritage Site. This prestigious option would have been lost with a huge dam and reservoir in the middle of the two wildlife sanctuaries most promising to meet the requirements for a global heritage.

After the dam project was shelved, the proposal to UNESCO was written by two persons who had been outspoken opponents in the Nam Choan Controversy and, in December 1991, Thung Yai Naresuan together with the adjoining Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary was declared a Natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In the nomination, the "outstanding universal value" of the two Wildlife Sanctuaries is, in first place, justified with their extraordinary high biodiversity due to their unique position at the junction of four biogeographic zones, as well as with its size and "the undisturbed nature of its habitats".

Even though the UNESCO nomination explicitly emphasizes the "undisturbed nature" of the area, and notwithstanding scientific studies supporting traditional settlement and use rights of the Karen people in Thung Yai as well as the sustainability of their traditional land use system and their strong intention to remain in their homeland and to protect it, the governmental authorities define the people living in Thung Yai as a threat to the sanctuary and pursue their resettlement.

Karen villages in Huai Kha Khaeng have already been removed when the Wildlife Sanctuary was established in 1972, and in the late 1970s the remaining communities in Huai Kha Khaeng had to leave when the Si Nakharin Dam flooded their settlement areas. During the 1980s and early 1990s, villages of the Hmong ethnic minority group were removed from the Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuaries. The resettlement of the remaining Karen in Thung Yai was announced in the management plan for the sanctuary, drafted in the late 1980s, as well as in the proposal for the World Heritage Site. But, when the Thai Royal Forest Department tried to remove them in the early 1990s, it had to reverse the resettlement scheme due to strong public criticism. Since then, the authorities have used repression, intimidation and terror to convince the Karen to leave their homeland 'voluntarily', and concentrated on restrictions on their traditional land use system which will inevitably cause its breakdown and deprive the Karen of their subsistence.

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