On 12 November 2012, two Thai women were found dead at the edge of a palm oil plantation, 800 metres from the sand-bagged security post that marks the guarded entrance to their community. Littered among their bodies were the ten bullet casings from the assault rifle that killed them.
The joint murder was a clear warning to their small village of Klong Sai Pattana in Surat Thani in southern Thailand. The victims – Montha Chukaew, 54, and Pranee Boonrat, 50 – had spent the last four years fighting the Jiew Kang Jue Pattana palm oil company in a land dispute that has engulfed this small community of 70 families.
For decades, Jiew Kang Jue Pattana Co. had illegally occupied and harvested palm oil trees on a 535-acre plot of land in Chai Buri District of the Surat Thani province. With no land title deed or legal documentation the company had gone unhindered for decades until their presence caught the interest of the Southern Peasant’s Federation of Thailand (SPFT).
With its roots in land reform movements of the early 1990s in Surat Thani Province, the SPFT was registered as an organisation in 2008 and works to recognise unused or illegally occupied state-owned land that can be used to house land-less farmers. It rose from the inability of farmers to count on the government to act independently or the companies in question to regulate themselves by following the laws.
After having collected detailed evidence of Jiew Kang Jue Pattana’s illegal occupation, the SPFT presented it to the country’s Agricultural Land Reform Office (ALRO). As a result, in 2005 ALRO sued the palm oil company for illegal trespassing and land encroachment of the plot. The court case was won by ALRO in Surat Thani’s Provincial Court in 2007, and with that decision the SPFT moved a small community of local farmers on to the land in 2008. Within a year a village of ramshackle houses had formed on the top of a hill surrounded by the company’s palm oil trees. Here the villagers tried to start a new life, eking out a living from the small plots of land to which they now had access.
While the community tried to grow crops and attempt to legally acquire a Community Land Title, the company in an alleged violent retaliation (no one has ever been found guilty in court) attempted to evict the villagers using increasingly violent tactics. This ultimately lead to the shooting and killing of their first community member, a man by the name of Somporn Pattaphum, in 2010.
Between then and 2016 a further four people have been shot dead with a fifth surviving, despite being fired upon at close range. But it was the double killing of the two women in broad daylight that sent shock waves throughout the region, not only causing fear, but also strengthening people’s determination to continue the fight, at least according to long-time resident, Janya Ruangthong.
‘I went to the crime scene and felt that it wasn’t right,’ says Ruangthong, a 36-year-old community registrar. ‘Those women were just trying to make a normal living. It’s too violent! If I don’t fight for them now, their deaths would be for nothing. So since then, I have decided to remain here in Klong Sai Pattana and continue fighting.’
The targeting of human rights defenders is an increasing trend, both in Thailand and globally. The rise of small community groups, increasingly armed with access to information and extensive knowledge as to their rights, has severely dented corporations or State ability to reap easy profits by flaunting or simply ignoring laws. As a result, some companies have taken matters in to their own hands to silence these well-organised and determined grass-roots groups often leading to deadly consequences. A report published in 2016 by Front Line Defenders details that 281 human rights defenders have been murdered in 25 countries around the world, 49 per cent of who were defending land, indigenous and environmental rights.
According to a representative of Human Rights NGO Protection International who would prefer to remain anonymous: ‘We have recorded more than 500 incidents of violence against environmental defenders during a period from 2011 to 2016 in Thailand. Out of that figure, we have found the killing of environmental and land rights activists in Thailand has reached 51 during the past two decades.’
The number of those intimidated – which often includes whole families and communities – is even larger. Paradoxically for those making the threats, it has been these attacks on the stability of the family home that has lead to women playing a much larger role in standing up for the rights of the community. In the last decade a growing number of women are taking leading roles in such protests.
In a recent report marking International Women’s Day 2017, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, revealed: ‘In Thailand, since the beginning of 2017, eight out of ten human rights defenders charged with criminal cases are women.’
Ruangthong believes the growing involvement of women in direct action, in fact, can reduce the amount of violence in such protests.
‘Our community has women as front-line leaders, presenting letters to the state or demanding changes. Having women as leaders in a protest can help prevent acts of violence,’ claims Ruangthong.
Many community rights groups in Thailand employ a similar strategy, particularly when protesting in public spaces about their grievances. Women take to the front-line, often forming the barrier between the police and army and the male protesters. Such a move immediately changes the dynamics of the confrontation and pacifies the action making security personnel much more careful about their response.
‘If you ask them [women human rights defenders] when they are fighting why men do not want to be in front, they say it’s because the men are concerned for their security. Women are used as a human wall,’ explains Angkhana Neelaphaijit, the Commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, in her office at the sprawling government complex in Northern Bangkok. Neelaphaijit is the first Muslim, and, most importantly, the first human rights defender to hold the position of Human Rights Commissioner. This gives her a particularly close connection to the members of community rights groups that her agency assists.
She’s been through it herself. In 2004 her husband Somchai was abducted from a busy road in central Bangkok and never seen again. At the time of his disappearance he was representing a group of men accusing state security forces of torture in Thailand’s troubled deep south, where a violent Muslim insurgency continues to ravage three provinces. Neelaphaijit has been fighting for answers and for justice on behalf of her husband ever since.
In the northeastern province of Loei sits the community environmental group of Khon Rak Ban Kerd (‘Villagers Who Love Their Home’). At first glance, this idyllic corner of rural Thailand looks like any other Thai village with its two-storey wooden houses and fields full of rice. But if you look closer you’ll see the large dirt cavities drilled out of the hilltops and signs in front of most houses reading ‘Close the Mine’.
This group of veteran environmental defenders, made up of representatives from six different villages, has been fighting against a gold mine operated by the Tungkum mining company since 2007. The villagers allege that the malpractice and poor safety standards of the company during its procurement of gold has poisoned their land with chemicals such as arsenic and cyanide.
On the night of 15 May 2014, a group of 300 masked men descended on the village to destroy roadblocks the villagers had built to stop access to the gold mine. As the villagers rushed out to confront the gang, who were armed with knives, sticks and guns, the men were beaten and tied up leaving the women to fight with the masked men, many being injured in the process. No officials nor police came to assist the community and the ordeal only stopped at around 5am the following morning once all the trucks had managed to leave the mine loaded with their gold ore.
While a physical attack on this scale has not been repeated, the company has applied pressure on the villagers through lawsuits to financially and physically exhaust the protesters. Tungkum has brought civil and criminal charges totalling millions of dollars against 33 members of the community that were involved in the protest activities.
In one instance Tungkum even attempted to bring a defamation case against a 15-year-old schoolgirl, Wanpen Khunna, for simply narrating a documentary that was broadcast on Thai television. This case was quickly thrown out of court.
More than a third of the 200-strong Khon Rak Ban Kerd group are women, but when seen protesting that number feels much higher. In late July 2016, 100 members, accompanied by other neighbouring communities, descended on the Loei City Hall. Their aim was to submit a petition to the governor of the province against the revision of the Mining Act that would essentially make it much easier for mining companies to receive licenses in environmentally sensitive areas.
Pornthip Hongchai led the gathering, personally handing over the petition to the government and reading aloud their demands. The 46-year-old has been one of the core members of Khon Rak Ban Kerd since its inception and has been repeatedly bombarded with lawsuits by Tungkum. Behind her was line after line of women community members. A dozen or so men took up the rear.
Hongchai admits that her prominent role in the group has had a great impact on her family. ‘At least five times I have faced both criminal and civil complaints including trespassing, criminal defamation and civil defamation,’ she says. These all came from the mining company.
‘My life has changed substantially because I devote my time and my mind to protesting the mine,’ she continues. ‘I have very little time left to run my own business. Our family’s economic condition has become worse, we have accumulated more debts because we have to spend time opposing the mine instead of making a living.’ But she emphasises the importance of women human rights defenders in their group by saying: ‘It is our strategic decision to keep women in the front line because it reduces tensions.’
This determination is shared throughout the group and it hasn’t gone unnoticed at a national level. In 2016, the National Human Rights of Thailand Commission awarded the Khon Rak Ban Kerd group the 2016 Women’s Human Rights Defenders Honorary Certificate.
The importance of supporting and strengthening the capacity of women human rights defenders in Thailand has even become an important part of the work of the UN Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia (OHCHR). In a speech by Katia Chirizzi, the deputy head of the regional office of OHCHR, during the Women’s Human Rights Defenders Award ceremony in 2017, she stated that: ‘Since 2014, the Office has been conducting a Human Rights Defenders School Programme to provide technical skills to Thai defenders on monitoring, investigation and advocacy. Of the 35 HRDs trained in the past two years, 20 were women defenders.’
The presence of women rights defenders may calm down a situation, but as a result of their front line positions, they are subjected to increasing amounts of gender-based discrimination by all levels of the opposition. As Hongchai recalls: ‘A government official told me directly “Don’t be overwhelmed thinking that you are smart. You are still a woman”.’
When observing the work of the many community rights groups fighting for justice is it easy to think that these courageous women lead the charge. And certainly at a community level this is true. But as Angkhana Neelaphaijit says, the community level is where it stops: ‘They are very strong, but when you have high level negotiations women are excluded. They cannot sit at the table. When they are working in the area, most are women. But when they get to the policy-making, women are excluded. I think this is part of the problem.’
While Thailand is often seen on the surface as being equal in terms of gender rights, if you look at the structure of power within the country it remains firmly in the hands of men. As the representative from Protection International explains: ‘Since 2014, 75 per cent of Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly members are over-60 and 95 per cent are male. It’s very clear. It is very difficult. We don’t have a quota or any progressive political position of women in our country.’
And this male domination trickles down to all levels. ‘Even though the village chief will be elected by the people, the chief of the sub-district, the chief of district and the Governors of the Provinces, who are mostly all men, are appointed by Ministry of Interior,’ they explain. ‘It’s a very male-dominated system.’
No one knows this better than 56-year-old Jintana Kaewkhaw, probably Thailand’s most famous environmental activist. She is the leader of the Natural Preservation Network of Bo Nok and Hin Krut, a small community-based environmental group in Prachuap Kiri Khan province in Thailand’s south. Between 1996 and 2004, it took on the Union Power Development Company which was trying to construct a coal-powered power plant on the edge of the group’s coastal community. The villagers quickly realised that the environment of this pristine fishing community could be severely affected. They mobilised and, after eight years, won a landmark case in court.
As a result the power plant was never built but Kaewkhaw’s life took a dangerous and violent path that lead to her being shot at on multiple occasions, imprisoned and having to send her three children to live with relatives as their home was deemed too dangerous.
‘When I stepped into this fight, my life changed. The police warned me not to ride a motorbike around or be present in front of my own house. Everybody knows Jintana Kaewkhaw now, but no one sees what I’ve been through. I’ve gone past being scared,’ she says while sitting in the front of her house that doubles as a small grocery shop.
‘In those years of fighting, my happiness disappeared,’ she continues. ‘I couldn’t spend time with my family. I spent all my money. The opposite side tried to kill some of us including myself, and gunmen attacked my house three times. I can’t believe that I only tried to save my village and this is the result. My life has turned into complete chaos. But it was worth it. Before, people thought having a coal factory would be a positive development for the area. After our attempt to stop it, people began to realise how bad it would have affected us. I have exchanged my entire life, my freedom and all my money for this.’
This was published in the November 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.