Here I was with Kamattan monks, lay people, novice monks and a few others trekking though an area of
that had only been opened up approximately thirty years ago, after the Thai
insurgency had been resolved and the road built to support mining
operations in the area. It was this time that Ajan Satien – Ajan Boon Long’s
teacher – walked through the forest to provide spiritual guidance to the Karen
in the Wahuku area, close to the Burma border.
Paleolithic (2.6 million years ago to 10,000 years before present time), Mesolithic (around 10,000 to 5,000 BC) and Neolithic (5,000 to 3,000 years BCE) stone tools have been found in the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai river valleys. We know for certain that parts of the sanctuary were permanently inhabited by Neolithic man. Since at least 700 years ago, 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 yet to be systematically researched.
The Thai name "Thung Yai Naresuan" refers to the "big field" (thung yai) or savanna in the centre of the sanctuary and is a reference to King Naresuan. The Siamese ruler based his army in the area to wage war against Burma during his reign of the Ayutthaya Kingdom which lasted from 1590 until his death in 1605.
The Karen people who live in the sanctuary call the savanna pia aethala aethea which can 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 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.
Settlement of Karen people in Thung Yai took place during 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. The change of status meant little change for them during the first half of the 20th century, because 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.
Out of this greater governmental involvement grew plans to protect the forests and wildlife at the upper Khwae Yai and Khwae Noi river 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. For Thung Yai, the resistance was even stronger. However, as fate would have it, 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. This discovered abuse of privilege aroused nationwide public outrage that finally led to the fall of the Thanom-Prapas government, after the uprising of October 14, 1973. After this accident and under a new democratic government, the area finally was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1974.
After the Military had taken over power once again in October 1976, many of the activists of the Thai Democracy Movement fled into peripheral regions of the country, some of them finding refuge among the Karen people in Thung Yai.
During the 1960s, not only timber and ore but also the water of the western forests as potential 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, using the sanctuaries’ watershed. 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. There grew a public debate about the Nam Choan Dam Project that lasted for more than six years, dominating national politics 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 by not meeting the requirements for global heritage status.
After the Nam Choan Dam Project was shelved, the proposal to UNESCO was written by Sueb Nakasatien and Belinda Stewart-Cox, both who had been outspoken opponents of the Nam Choan project. As a result of their work and outrage over the death of Nakasatien, Thung Yai Naresuan and Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuarywas declared a Natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO in December 1991. 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 Thai government defines the people living in Thung Yai as threats to the sanctuary and continue to pursue their resettlement.
Karen villages in Huai Kha Khaeng were already removed when the wildlife sanctuary was established in 1972. 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 Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan. The resettlement of the remaining Karen in Thung Yai was announced in a 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.' The government has concentrated on restrictions on their traditional land use system which it hopes will eventually cause its breakdown and deprive the Karen of their subsistence.
My free ebook about this trip:
My free ebook about this trip: