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New Report Details Abuses against Thai Environmental Defenders

Pimuk Rakkanam, Nontarat Phaicharoen and Imran Vittachi
Bangkok
2018-10-02
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Environmental activists Ranong Kongsaen (left), and Pornthip Hongchai speak to reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, in Bangkok, Oct. 2, 2018.
Environmental activists Ranong Kongsaen (left), and Pornthip Hongchai speak to reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, in Bangkok, Oct. 2, 2018.
Nontarat Phaicharoen/BenarNews

Thai authorities and a mining firm have used intimidation and lawsuits to target environmental activists from a northeastern community who campaigned for years against a gold mine near their homes, the NGO Fortify Rights said in a new report released Tuesday.

The rights advocacy group called on Thailand’s government to investigate and prosecute people who attacked residents of six affected villages in Wang Sa Phung district, Loei province, as well as provide remedies and reparations to those whose rights were allegedly abused and violated because they opposed the mine.

“This community is facing ongoing reprisals for standing up for their environment, their rights, and their livelihoods for years,” said Amy Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a Southeast Asia-based group. “The Thai government must ensure environmental defenders can carry out their legitimate work without fear of abuse or retaliation.”

During an incident in May 2014, about 150 militiamen led by soldiers surrounded one of the villages and beat residents, the report said. In addition, the community has been badly affected by “unchecked environmental contamination” caused by pollution from the mining operation.

The NGO’s 90-page report, titled “We Fight to Protect Our Home,” was the outcome of a three-year investigation by Fortify Rights, which said it conducted 59 interviews with survivors and others who witnessed the May 2014 attack, along with government officials and other sources. The report found that rights abuses and violations occurred including judicial harassment, arbitrary detention through so-called “attitude adjustment” sessions and death threats.

The authorities and Tungkum Ltd., the firm that operated the mine until it was closed four years ago when the concession expired, have gone after environmental defenders through a series of lawsuits, Fortify alleged. The mining firm has since been taken over by another company, Tongkah Harbor.

Fortify released its report during a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, where women activists from the affected community appeared on a panel. The attack in May 2014 occurred days before the military launched a coup that toppled a civilian-led government, a witness said.

“Men came to our village, held us captive and beat us,” activist Pornthip Hongchai told the news conference.

The incident occurred about a year after villagers had erected a wall in a collective effort to stop trucks from accessing and leaving the gold mine. In May 2016, an army lieutenant colonel and a retired army lieutenant general were convicted and sentenced to prison terms of three years and two years, respectively, the report noted.

Villager Ranong Kongsaen said toxic run-off and waste from the gold mine has contaminated rice fields and poisoned shellfish in local rivers, threatening the livelihood of local residents.

“Our bodies have absorbed the pollution into our blood,” Ranong told reporters.

Smith said the case of the villages in Wang Sa Phung is not an isolated one and judicial harassment is used in Thailand as a weapon to target small communities involved in environmental disputes.

“There are many communities throughout Thailand who suffer similar problems,” Smith told the news conference in Bangkok.

The mine has been shut for four years, but the activists are pursuing lawsuits so the villagers can be compensated with damages for the environmental destruction. They also fear another company might be allowed to reopen the mine through winning a new concession, a lawyer representing the activists said.

Efforts by BenarNews to contact officials at the Thai Department of Mineral Resources for comment in response to the Fortify report were unsuccessful.

Chaiwat Jitthavornkul, an assistant company secretary with Tongkah Harbor, told BenarNews that the firm could not comment on the report.

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