The Weekend Essay (1): A Thai community victimised by the military

Published by MAC on 2020-05-15
Source: Thai Enquirer (2020-05-12)

A Thai journalist describes how a local community is vividly attempting to safeguard its land and traditional employment, as the advent of Coronavirus has whittled space for negotiation with military forces, to virtually nothing.

The cost of opposing mines in Thailand’s rural heartland

By Jasmine Chia

Thai Enquirer

12 May 2020

The villagers stood six feet apart as they read their declarations,
holding up signs that read ‘Lockdown Mining’ and ‘Save Community
Rights.’ Some bore flags or coordinated green T-shirts with emblazoned
with the image of a tree. All wore masks as they stood in their socially
distanced protest.

On April 28, these striking images were shared on Facebook as villagers
from six communities protested continued mining activities under the
Emergency Decree. The protests, coordinated by the Network of People Who
Own Mineral Resources, were designed to highlight the hypocrisy of the
state using its powers to persecute local environmental activists while
continuing to approve mining survey and operations projects.

In the vastly imbalanced negotiation between business and activism,
Covid-19 restrictions seemed to whittle the activist space down to nothing.

Soon after the images were uploaded, policemen appeared at activist
Sunthorn Duangnarong’s house. Sunthorn is a trans activist from the Rak
Bamnejnarong Conservation Group based in Bamnejnarong District,
Chaiyaphum Province, where Potash mining is on the rise, driven by
Chinese demand.

Villagers from the Bamnejnarong community have put up fierce resistance
to these mining projects, on the basis that the mines affect their
agricultural livelihood, health and the sustainability of their
environments. They have been closely involved in the Network’s activities.

“I’m a farmer, and if the mining work continues, then we won’t be able
to do our work and the villagers will not have a place to live,” says

Potash mining has can have devastating environmental consequences. One
of the key by-products of potash mining is salt – if produced in
concentrated qualities, this can affect soil quality, turning rice
fields barren in the largely agricultural Northeast. It can also
contaminate water and cause respiratory diseases through salt dust. To
the villagers of Bamnejnarong, these are long-term risks for short-term

Environmental problems are exacerbated as Chinese companies have made an
active push to explore land for Potash mining, especially in the
Northeast. China Ming Ta Potash corporation gained permission to explore
120,000 rai of land in Sakhon Nakhon, which Sunthorn says are now facing
similar problems to her own district.

“Potash deposits in the Northeast are like precious gold, and the
government wants to exploit them for economic benefit,” mining industry
expert Bamphen Chairak told The Isaan Record in a 2019 interview.

Protests against Potash exploration in Sakhon Nakhon have drawn media
attention, but also the attention of the state. When China Ming Ta tried
to drill its fourth Potash exploration well in 2018, protestors came out
to block the test site. Two leading activists were charged with
violating the Public Gatherings Act and were eventually ordered to pay
1.5 million baht in compensation to the Chinese company. Despite the
pressure on both Chinese business and local activists, protests – and
Potash exploration – have continued on through 2019 and 2020.

The gendered landscape of environmental activism

Sunthorn was working in the fields when three police cars pulled up to
her house to take her to the police station. They didn’t have an arrest
warrant, she claims. “But they came in such numbers, as if arresting me
for murder, so I was very scared and went with them.” They confiscated
her phone, took down the information of other local protestors and
detained her at the police station for six hours before eventually
letting her go with no charges.

“It felt like an intimidation tactic, to keep me there for so long.”

Sunthorn is not the first female, LGBT or trans activist to face such
harassment for her activism.

According to Pranom “Bee” Somwong, a representative of Protection
International who works closely with the anti-mining Network, it is mostly
women who lead environmental activism in their communities.

“Women are carers and know that these mines will affect the health of
people in their family, in their communities. The people at the core of
this anti-mining campaign, the key leaders, are predominantly female
human rights defenders who bear multiple burdens.”

“They have to cook while they host their meetings, but they will make
sure that these meetings get organized.”

Sunthorn echoes this vision of family and community care. In her
capacity as a community leader, she works mostly with local youth to
raise awareness about mining legislation and the importance of
environmental activism.

At home, she’s the provider for her aging mother. When first asked about
police harassment, her immediate response was: “My mother was alone in
the house. She already has kidney disease, many other diseases – I
couldn’t leave her behind.”

Ever since the military government came to power in 2014, nearly 450
female human rights defenders have been legally harassed for their
environment-related activism.

Community input

While the Network’s current anti-mining campaign highlights the
hypocrisy of the Emergency Decree’s enforcement, it speaks to broader
issues of stakeholder management in the Thai mining industry.

“In the mining fight, one of the key problems is the unfair approval
process for exploration licenses. The approval process is meant to be
subject to a public hearing, but there is no actual community input,”
said Pranom.

She cites the 2015 Ban Haeng case in Lampang, where a mining concession
was granted to Green Yellow Co. Ltd. A similar cycle took place, of
local protest met with state intimidation met with increased tension
between business, state and community.

“Villagers are concerned, because every time they stand up to express
their voices – even with Khun Sunthorn, just reading out her statement
asking the government to rethink their approval process – state
officials will intervene.”

The military government’s strong pro-business stance on mining is also
expressed in legislation. In 2017, new mining laws cut the process of
getting a mining license back from a number of years to sixty days,
while doubling the limits on land that can be used for mining.

Pranom thinks differently – hence the subjunctive name of the Network of
People Who Own Mineral Resources. It is not that the villagers she or
Sunthorn works with have legal claim to the mineral resources procured
in their respective communities – rather, it is an expression of the
moral claim the community has to its own land.

“Minerals should be of the country, of the people, but the state thinks
it belongs to them and come up with policies and laws that demonstrate
that,” says Pranom.

“But people who live there should be able to play a part in deciding how
the land should be used.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s