Park chief flees from intimidation

A Phuket national park chief has claimed an unrelenting campaign of threats and attempted bribes waged against him by “influential” land owners forced his decision to request a transfer out of the post.

Cheewapap Cheewatham, who was appointed chief of the Sirinart Marine National Park in 2012, will take up a new role at the Royal Forestry Department after being granted a transfer last week.

“I have to step back now for my safety,” he said.

Mr Cheewapap has been a key figure in Phuket’s fight against rampant forest encroachment since Damrong Pidech, the then director-general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), launched a series of high-profile land usage investigations on the island two years ago.

The outgoing Sirinart park chief has since overseen probes of about 1,500 land plots, some of which are occupied by luxury hotels, and many of which have been found with illegally-issued title deeds.

But Mr Cheewapap said Mr Damrong’s retirement as DNP chief at the end of 2012 opened the door to a wave of pressure from powerful figures on the island.

“It was OK when I had a support team from Mr Damrong,” he said. “But after he retired, I had to start working alone. As a national park chief, it was up to me to decide which plot was illegal, making me a lone target.”

He said his work investigating forest encroachment had affected a large number of businesses which claim ownership of the land plots, some of which are worth billions of baht.

“There are many groups of businesspeople that stood to lose a great deal from my work,” Mr Cheewapap said, adding that he soon became the target of a huge number of attempted bribes.

“Just last week, I received a bag containing 300,000 baht cash at my office, and I had to send it back.”

When the land owners realised their “soft” methods of bribery weren’t working, Mr Cheewapap said they turned to more intimidating tactics.

“Many times, groups of businessman came to my office with a big crew including their lawyer to press me to get off their land,” he said.

“There were phone calls at my office warning me to buy a bulletproof vest, and I often received big bags full of money, sometimes as much as 30 million baht.”

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