“Development” and its discontents in Thailand
An opinion piece by Kingsley Abbott, ICJ Senior International Legal Adviser for Southeast Asia and Sutharee Wannasiri, a Thailand Human Rights Specialist with Fortify Rights.
Late in the evening of 15 May 2014, more than 100 men, most of them armed and wearing black masks, stormed a small village in Loei Province, northeast Thailand and assaulted more than a dozen men and women who oppose a local copper-gold mine.
After testing in 2007 showed contamination of the local water supplies, villagers in six communities surrounding the mine in Loei Province formed a network—Khon Rak Ban Kerd Group (KRBKG)—to advocate for the mine’s closure and rehabilitation of the local environment.
The communities went so far as to barricade the road to the mine in 2014. That’s when the armed men arrived, unlawfully detaining scores of villagers and injuring at least a dozen in a fit of violence that lasted six hours.
Despite the villagers’ calls for help, no police intervened.
Only two of more than 100 assailants were brought up on criminal charges for the attack: a retired Royal Thai Army officer and his son, who is still serving in the Army.
On 31 May 2016, the Loei Provincial Court convicted the two military personnel on criminal charges including causing bodily harm, deprivation of liberty, and the unnecessary use of firearms in public.
They were sentenced to just under two years and three years’ imprisonment, respectively, and ordered to pay nine villagers more than 160,000 Thai Baht (US$4,475) in compensation. The two men have been released on bail.
The company operating the gold mine—Tungkum Ltd.—has vehemently denied wrongdoing and has brought at least 19 criminal and civil complaints against villagers protesting the mine, including most recently a criminal defamation complaint against a 15-year-old girl who narrated a Thai PBS broadcast that touched on the question of the gold mine and the environment.
Sadly, this has been the pattern of “development” in Thailand. Throughout the country, communities face threats, violence, and judicial harassment.
Consider the situation in Surat Thani Province. In the early afternoon of 8 April 2016, an unidentified gunman opened fire on land-rights activist Supoj Kansong as he returned home in his vehicle in Chaiburi District.
He sustained serious injuries in the attack and was fortunate to survive.
But other land-rights activists have not been as fortunate.
Supoj Kansong is the fifth member of the Southern Peasant Federation of Thailand (SPFT)—a group advocating for the land rights of farmers who are in a dispute with the Government and a palm oil company operated by Thai-owned Jiew Kang Jue Pattana Co., Ltd–to have been attacked since 2010.
Four members were shot and killed. To date, only one man faced trial for one of the four killings. He was acquitted.
More recently, in March 2016, Akara Resources Public Company Limited, a Thai gold mining subsidiary of the Australian firm Kingsgate Consolidated Limited, filed complaints of criminal defamation against two human rights defenders who opposed the company’s mining operations in Pichit Province and allegedly posted negative comments about the company on Facebook.
On Thailand’s western border in Tak Province, on 15 May 2015, Thai authorities ordered members of the Mae Sot Rak Thin Group—a network of villagers in Mae Sot District—to vacate their land to make room for the Government’s plan to develop a Special Economic Zone.
Villagers told us that state security forces blocked them from submitting complaints about the eviction to the authorities on multiple occasions.
In all these cases, human rights defenders demanding justice are being sidelined and silenced.
But Thailand has a legal obligation to protect all human rights defenders from retaliation for exercising their rights.
On 17 December 2015, Thailand joined 127 other states at the UN General Assembly in adopting a UN Resolution on human rights defenders.
The Resolution calls upon states to refrain from intimidation or reprisals against human rights defenders and to allow for the peaceful and free expression of dissent.
It calls upon businesses to respect the rights of human rights defenders and to identify and address any adverse human rights impacts related to their activities through meaningful consultation with potentially affected groups and other relevant stakeholders.
In addition, in May 2016, Thailand accepted recommendations from six UN member states related to protecting human rights defenders during its Second Universal Periodical Review at the UN.
Thailand agreed to promptly and thoroughly investigate reports of intimidation, harassment, and attacks against human rights defenders and to hold perpetrators accountable.
Thailand’s support for these principles on the world stage is heartening, but it means little without concrete action at home.
Thailand has a long way to go to ensure its international obligations are met and human rights defenders are protected.
As a start, Thailand should guarantee access to effective remedies and reparations for individuals and communities whose rights have been violated.
The Government should ensure that meaningful legal frameworks are available and effectively implemented to facilitate the Free, Prior, and Informed consent of local communities with regard to development projects, and it should ensure companies are held accountable for any environmental damage and human rights abuses.