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Bangkok Post Articles on the new Military Road

2002, Feb, 15 : Forestry chief can't rush into this alone
2002, Feb, 18 : Road clearance nearly finished
2002, Mar, 24 : Military fells trees to build new helipad
Forestry chief can't rush into this alone

The rhetoric of delegates at the Unctad X conference which has been echoing around the convention hall at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre since last weekend and the noisy protests from the myriad of international and home-grown NGOs against free trade, globalisation, liberalisation, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation, you name it, seem to have drowned out the faint voice of the handful of conservationist groups protesting against the building of a road in Thung Yai Naresuan wildlife sanctuary.

It's too bad for the guardians of the sanctuary and its flora and fauna as all media attention is focussed on the conference, its sideline meetings and the unfortunate incident involving outgoing IMF chief Michel Camdessus, who was hit in the face with a cream pie by an American activist.

But there is no reason for them to feel discouraged; the fight is just starting. The public need to be told about the project and its adverse implications for the wild animals and plants in this pristine sanctuary, one of the last few remaining in the Kingdom.

To begin with, the project is shrouded in total secrecy with only a handful of people, including Forestry Department chief Plodprasop Suraswadi, privy to all the details. Even Mr Plodprasop is reluctant to offer details, claiming national security reasons. All he has said is that he would take sole responsibility and not a single tree would be felled.

Mr Plodprasop's game statement that he would shoulder any blame for any damage that might be caused to the flora and fauna is welcome. But it is beside the point.

What the forestry chief should have done is make the project transparent in line with the spirit of openness enshrined in the constitution. He owes the public a full explanation about the project and its purposes.

The information so far available is sketchy. The road will be about 20km long, stretching from Phu Jue mine to Suriya forest protection unit. According to Mr Plodprasop and senior army officers, it will be a dirt road for use by patrols in the prevention of drug trafficking and illegal immigrants.

But according to a senior officer attached to the Office of Narcotics Control Board, Thung Yai is not known as a popular trafficking route because of its rugged terrain and its inaccessibility during the rainy season, even though the sanctuary borders Tak province which has been used as one of the transit points for methamphetamines and other drugs from the northernmost provinces.

Any trafficker with a modicum of sense would prefer to risk capture by police-about a 10% chance, according to police estimates-by taking a more convenient route such as road transport rather than carry drugs by mule caravan through the jungle, which may take weeks and there is still always just as much chance of being busted. And there are many other unpatrolled border crossings that illegal immigrants from Burma can use to slip into Thailand and disappear among the hundreds of thousands of their compatriots already here.

So what is the real purpose of the road through Thung Yai? And for whose benefit is it being built?

Thung Yai Naresuan wildlife sanctuary is listed as a world heritage site. It belongs to the world and, in particular, all Thai people. It definitely does not belong exclusively to the Forestry Department or Mr Plodprasop, as he may wrongly believe.

Despite Mr Plodprasop's reputation for integrity, any decision which has repercussions on the sanctuary should never be made by a single individual or institution. The people must have the final say. The stakes involved are simply too high for us to be asked to put our trust in the simple, terse statement: "I will take sole responsibility".
Road clearance nearly finished

The clearing of an old dirt road in Thung Yai Naresuan wildlife sanctuary to be used by military and forestry patrols will be completed within the next few days.

The joint army-Forestry Department project has drawn criticism from environmentalists because the road is in a sanctuary which is also a World Heritage site.

Wildlife sanctuaries are protected forests of the highest order. No activities except those for educational or conservation purposes may take place without permission from the Wildlife Conservation Committee chaired by the agriculture minister.

The 21km winding local road runs from an intersection near Phu Jue mine on the border to the Suriya forest protection unit to the north. Clearing began about two weeks ago. Three days ago, the single small tractor broke down after completing 19km.

"Had the tractor not broken down, the job would have been completed now," said Udomporn Anatiwong, chief of the forest engineering division.

He was speaking yesterday at the 14km mark of the road. Environmentalists and the media had been air-lifted by two military helicopters to verify statements by senior forestry and army officials that no new road was being built in the ecologically sensitive forest, as some suspected, and that the clearing had caused minimal environmental impact.

The helicopter landed at Ban Ja Kae, a Karen village inside the sanctuary about 10km from the Burmese border. The road in question runs in a zigzag about 3km from the border.

It took one and a half hours to cover 14km of the road by four-wheel drive pick-up trucks through mixed deciduous and dry evergreen forests.

Signs of recent clearing were evident. Dirt was swept to the side. Clumps of bamboo, a few arm-sized trees and at least one medium-sized tree were knocked down. A number of tree trunks were nicked.

The impact on the natural surrounding appeared to be minimal. But forestry chief Plodprasop Suraswadi was proved inaccurate in his earlier pledge that "not a single tree will be felled".

Surapon Duangkhae, acting secretary-general of Wildlife Fund Thailand, expressed satisfaction with the apparent care workers had shown when clearing the way.

"From my observation, there is nothing to worry about. There has been a conscious attempt to avoid damaging trees, except for some clumps of bamboos which could not be avoided," Mr Surapon told officials accompanying the visitors.

The officials included Col Pichet Asadanuwat, chief-of-staff of the 9th Infantry Regiment, and regiment commander Col Nimit Maliyam.

Mr Surapon suggested Mr Plodprasop inform the Wildlife Conservation Committee about the project. Mr Surapon said he would report it to the World Heritage committee when it next meets.

Mr Plodprasop and First Army officers have argued border security and forestry protection requires the road be cleared, so it can be patrolled. Security was the reason it had been kept under wraps until until it was exposed in the press.

Col Nimit said a battalion of the Burmese army, or about 200 troops, had set up camp next to the border.

"In the past, Burmese troops would drive away Karen soldiers near the border and then leave. "But in 1997 the Burmese attacked the Karen and occupied the area. This has caused some concern and the need for the road to supply logistical support to our patrols," he said.
Military fells trees to build new helipad

Large trees have been felled in the Thung Yai Naresuan wildlife sanctuary by the 9th Infantry Regiment, which is building a helipad inside the World Heritage site.

The activity was discovered by a group of environmental activists, accompanied by a Bangkok Post reporter, during a trip last week to investigate damage caused by the construction of a road through the wilderness.

Members of the Kanchanaburi Conservation Group, Sueb Nakasathien Foundation and Wildlife Fund Thailand (WFT) found five large trees neatly cut and partly sawn into planks.

Each tree was about 70cm in diameter. They were left lying about 50m from a military camp near the Suriya river at the northern border of the sanctuary.

Phinan Chotirotseranee of the Kanchanaburi Conservation Group said he would launch legal action if this is proved to be a violation of the law protecting wildlife sanctuaries.

Article 38 of the 1992 Wildlife Conservation Act allows only activities relating to education, research or conservation within a wildlife sanctuary. Any human activity must have the approval of the Wildlife Conservation Committee chaired by the agriculture minister.

Col Pichet Asadanuwat, chief of staff of the 9th Infantry Regiment, said the trees were cut to clear a safety area around the helipad.

Construction of the landing zone began in December last year.

The new helipad is adjacent to an earlier helipad built in 1998.

They are meant for military helicopters supporting border patrols, the army officer said.

Col Pichet said the wooden planks were used to build cabins inside the camp and no logs would be removed from the site.

The military had notified the Forest Department, and the work was all done under forestry supervision, he said.

Forestry Department chief Plodprasop Suraswadi said he had no knowledge of the construction work, but it would not bother him if it was for national security.

"If they really need the helipad for patrolling, I would demolish my house so we remain a nation," he said.

The landing pad was small compared to the expansion of the forest path through the wildlife sanctuary into a 24km single-lane dirt road for use by border troops.

Environmentalists warn the road will leave the pristine forest open to illegal logging, poaching and mining.

Mr Plodprasop declined to go into the jungle to verify the construction report, but did admit he did not know why the army would build a new helipad at this time.

"Put it this way, six out of eight army officers who came to talk to us about the road expansion died in the (recent) helicopter crash. "Their lives are worth more than a few trees in the jungle. They give their all to protect the country." The patrol road runs from a local road near Phu Jue Mine to Suriya forest protection unit across from the military camp and helipads.

It ends at a rocky cliff leading to the camp.

The activists argue the road could later be extended to the camp and all the way up to a Karen village which has a paved road into Tak province.

A forestry source warned that the rocky cliff could be blasted after media attention on the subject fades.

However, Col Pichet insisted there would be no more clearing beyond the rocky cliff and the military would not build a new road from Suriya military camp to Perng Klerng village, which has an asphalt road heading to Umphang and Mae Sot districts.

That route could link Thung Yai to areas being illegally logged near the Burma border in Tak province.

The main concern is that trees in Thung Yai Naresuan could be cut down and declared as Burmese logs, which could easily be done by loggers with fake documents, said a forestry source.

The fake papers could be used over and over with new lots of logs.

"This is how illegal loggers make a profit. They get a concession for importing timber from Burma but illegally cut trees in Thailand, as was the case in the Salween forest," said the source.

Boonsong Chansongrassamee of the Kanchanaburi Conservation Group said: "There has been almost no illegal logging in Thung Yai because there were no roads to facilitate transport.

"But there is a road now," he said ominously.
Marching into the thick of things

The clearing of an old dirt road and construction of a helipad in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary might not seem such a big deal, as some environmental and grass-roots activists are making it out to be.

After all, only a few trees were felled. But it did send out a message, rightly or wrongly, that militant boots are marching back into the forest and the army is willing to break forest protection laws in the name of national security.

Lt-Gen Thaweep Suwannasingha, commander of the First Army Region, stated that martial law has been imposed in areas along the Thai-Burmese border. "In order to protect the nation, we may have to make a little change in the forests within three kilometres from the border," he said.

The army cited the successful drive by the Burmese army against ethnic minority groups along the border in 1997 as a justification for using "some areas" of Thung Yai for national security purposes.

These ethnic groups once served as a "buffer" for Thailand against the Burmese armed forces.

In late January 1998, the Agriculture Ministry issued an order appointing soldiers operating within the western forests as "forest officials" with all the authority the position implies.

This could be misconstrued as giving army officers complete freedom to launch any project deemed necessary in the protected forest.

In early February this year, the Forestry Department and the 9th Infantry Division cleared a dirt road through evergreen and mixed deciduous forests to construct a 25km patrol road in the wildlife sanctuary.

A month later, two helipads were discovered near Suriya River in the north of Thung Yai, only 100m from the Thai-Burmese border. The division later admitted it felled about seven trees to enhance safety for helicopter landings.

On the surface, the small number of trees and clumps of bamboos felled in the World Heritage site may seem like a small price to pay for national security.

But this should not be allowed to mask the fact that the army and the Forestry Department have broken the 1992 Wildlife Conservation Act by failing to obtain permission from the Wildlife Conservation Committee as required.

Despite this fact, only the sanctuary chief was transferred. No other forestry officials or army officers involved in the two projects have been reprimanded. And the episode will likely be forgotten in a short time.

To many people, particularly the activists, what this incident shows is that national security in military terms continues to take precedence over security in natural resources and may be used to justify legal violations.

The activists have alleged that more roads would be cut in forest areas along the western border in the name of national security.

The 25km patrol road and the helipads in Thung Yai are but the first step which would link the wildlife sanctuary with Mae Sot in Tak province through a paved road from Perng Kerng, a Karen village at the provincial border.

Boonsong Chansongrassamee of Kanchanaburi Conservation Group stressed that the lack of road access was a major reason why illegal logging and poaching was not widespread in Thung Yai. He is afraid the new road may provide a vital link for loggers, poachers and drug traffickers.

Before this, there had been an attempt to build 48 roads in protected forests throughout the country for national security reasons.

But "the 48 roads for national security", the brainchild of Gen Prem Tinasulanonda, was scrapped after protests by environmentalists in 1991.

Now, the army is focusing its policy in the western forest on strengthening its forces along the western front, in the face of the Burmese military presence right on the border since it quashed the resistance of ethnic minorities.

Recently, the Thai military reportedly expressed dissatisfaction and doubts over the Burmese government's sincerity in controlling narcotics production along the border, and that could increase tension.

But judging from the past record of Thung Yai Naresuan, not all justifications to use the wildlife sanctuary have proven their well-meaning intentions.

For three decades, Thung Yai Naresuan has been subjected to environmental abuse and attempts to use this valuable forest for various purposes.

In the 1970s, the anti-communism policy led to the opening of forests, including Thung Yai Naresuan, for military deployment, road construction and settlement of villages along newly constructed roads.

But in 1973, a helicopter crash in the western forest revealed corpses of wild animals.

Army officers apparently were not just fighting communists in Thung Yai but were also using it for hunting game and as a retreat with entertainment provided by female film stars.

The helicopter accident sparked an investigation by student activists. Subsequently, it fuelled a student uprising in 1973 which toppled the military dictatorship.

Thung Yai became the focus of controversy again in 1982, when the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand announced its plan to build a hydro-electric dam across Huay Nam Choan.

The Nam Choan Dam project led to one of the most powerful campaigns against dam projects in Thailand.

An alliance of academics, non-governmental organisations, students, and local civic groups-supported by former forestry chief Pairoj Suwannakorn, who at the time was chief of the National Parks Division-launched one of the most co-ordinated protests against state projects, lasting six years.

It has so far been the only successful campaign, forcing the government to scrap the project in 1989.

In addition to the military, the Department of Mineral Resources has granted concessions for mining in and around the wildlife sanctuary, leading to the contamination of waterways, jeopardising humans and animals alike.

The construction of the patrol road and the helipads demonstrates that since the crash of the helicopter loaded with dead wildlife in 1973, and the Nam Choan Dam project, things have not changed much.

State agencies, especially the Forestry Department and the military, still maintain that forests are state property, and that they are entitled to use the forests as they see fit.