The move came amid the ongoing controversy surrounding the disappearance of Karen rights activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen.
Park chief Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, who is being investigated in connection with Mr Porlajee’s disappearance, led the operation, with some 80 forest officials patrolling deep into the pristine forest which Karen groups traditionally clear to plant crops such as rice, chilli and sometimes marijuana.
Reporters accompanying the officials saw large trees, estimated to be around 100 years old, felled to clear space for a rice plantation. The site was deserted except for temporary shelters and animal carcasses.
Mr Chaiwat insisted the operation was not an act of revenge in response to claims by Karen groups that he was involved in the disappearance of Mr Porlajee.
He said it was a routine forest-surveying operation that had been planned in advance to protect the forest from encroachment.
“We can’t accept any kind of wrongdoing,” Mr Chaiwat said. “We can’t accept the argument that this is the way of hill tribe traditions. If you cut down the trees outside the permitted zone, you will be arrested.”
He added that a request to expand the planting zone used by Karen people cannot be granted without cabinet approval.
In 1996, state agencies asked Karen groups living along the Thai-Myanmar border to move onto designated plots. Some 2,000 rai of forest was allocated to the roughly 1,000 Karen who cooperated.
Around 500 of them settled at Pong Luke-Bang Kloy village, located inside the national park. However, due to a population increase, the group has been seeking more land.
Mr Porlajee has been a key activist fighting for the right to keep alive the tradition of slash-and-burn cultivation, which the department considers destructive.
The Karen activist argued that his people actually help revitalise the forest with their traditional practice, as they use no chemicals and the forest will regrow over their plantations when they move on to farm in another area.
Mr Porlajee disappeared after being detained by Mr Chaiwat on a charge of possessing forestry products. After being released last week he disappeared without a trace.
Karen groups urged the department to set up a fact-finding committee to probe whether Mr Chaiwat was involved in the disappearance. The department complied and the probe panel is to due to finish its work within 30 days.
Mr Chaiwat said the conflict is getting worse because there were “outsiders” giving distorted information that the government had allowed the Karen, under a cabinet resolution in 2000, to preserve the slash-and-burn tradition.
“They came here to give the wrong information and made relations between authorities and the Karen people worse,” he said. “They don’t like our efforts to protect the forest. They want to kick me out of here by trying to link me to Billy’s disappearance.”
Mr Chaiwat has also filed a criminal charge against Wut Boonlert, a Karen leader in Ratchaburi’s Suan Phueng, who came to the Karen village inside the park in February and encouraged residents to continue slash-and-burn cultivation.
Chatupot Piyamputra, coordinator of the Pong Luke-Bang Kloy royal project, was concerned that interference from outside groups might put a dent in efforts to limit forest encroachment by the minority group.
His project, introduced to the village in 2012, is aimed at educating Karen people on how to survive in the forest without encroachment and wildlife poaching. They are taught how to improve rice yields, how to plant vegetables and fruits, and how to raise pigs and fish.
Kaeng Krachan National Park is the largest national park in the country, covering an area of 1.8 million rai. It also shares a border with Myanmar, which has a sizeable Karen population. Identifying Karen born in Thailand from those born in Myanmar remains a significant challenge for state agencies. Most claim to have been born in Thailand but lack official documents.
Meanwhile, the National Human Rights Commission subcommittee on Civil and Political Rights yesterday pressured state agencies to actively search for Mr Porlajee and guarantee safety for his supporters.
The subcommittee will observe and inspect the state’s investigation process and progress since this is clearly a human rights issue, the commission's chairman Niran Pitakwatchara said.
It also called for Mr Chaiwat to be rotated from his post temporarily to ease the conflict and assist the police investigation.
The panel also asked Kaeng Krachan police to speed up the investigation.