When gold-bearing copper was discovered in them there hills, Loei villagers were expected to let the company walk in and take it. And they did, until their crops failed, their water was no longer fit to drink and their neighbours began getting sick, very sick.
Thus began a David and Goliath kind of battle that was not expected to happen. A group of poor mountain villagers shouldn’t dare to take on a mining company, its wealthy parent company and a retired military leader — but they did.
In the ensuing years, intimidation by way of multibillion-baht lawsuits, savage violence in the dark of night and alleged threats to kill their leaders have not only failed to quell the protests of these hill farmers, but their voices have become progressively louder. And now the media and international human rights organisations are paying close attention.
THE SIMPLE LIFE
People in Khao Luang sub-district of Loei’s Wang Saphung used to enjoy healthy living in a beautiful mountain range ripe with an abundance of natural life: water, fish, trees and wild animals. What they didn’t know was what lay deep under the ground beneath their houses. It was a good, simple life until the mine arrived.
In 1992, people began coming to the village to buy some of the area’s agricultural land. They paid about 2,000 baht per plot, villager Ranong Klongsaeng said. “I asked them what they were going to do with the land; they said they would do some livestock-related business. Apparently not,” she said.
That year, Thung Kham Company Limited (TKL) — a subsidiary of the Tongkah Harbour Public Company Limited, which has some financial backing from Australia and Germany — received a licence from the Department of Primary Industries and Mines to survey for gold in the Khao Luang area. A few years later, licences to mine were issued.
In 1996, the residents of the small, quiet village began noticing unfamiliar faces in town.
“I had never seen white men before,” Mrs Ranong said. “They said they would come here to open a gold mine and hire the villagers to work there. No one would have to leave the village to work elsewhere.”
The men made some big promises. Besides offering new careers, they gave a verbal agreement to build a school, a hospital and some public utilities for the villagers to improve their lives. The mining operation certainly changed their lives dramatically, but in a very different way.
The villagers, used to going about their business to the burbling from the creek around their homes and birds singing during the day, were jolted by a new sound. “Boom! The loud noise of dynamite from the mine shook my whole house,” said Pornthip Hongchai.
Mrs Pornthip told Spectrum the company hired a lot of villagers as mine labourers.
“A lot of equipment and trucks came to our village. Our quiet village was now filled with strangers and a lot of noise pollution,” she said.
The villagers thought the situation would improve once the mine was fully functional in 2006; instead, there were a lot more trucks and a lot more explosions. There was also something less obvious in the beginning: environmental damage that villagers and some researchers claim was caused by run-off from chemical leaching used to extract gold from the mine’s copper ore, which was also sold for supplementary income.
Before the mine came, there were many local vegetables that people could pick to eat for free. Wild mushrooms were abundant; there were enough to eat and to sell at the market. The water was so pure there was no need to buy it.
All that changed when the mine came. The once-clear water in the stream they used to grow their crops turned a dark red-brown. The villagers told Spectrum that the Loei provincial public health office announced in 2009 that the water was toxic.
They were now afraid to fish or forage for vegetables and fruit because of worries over contamination. The free water they used to consume could no longer be used. Now they have to buy water for drinking and other uses. Their 24/7 natural supermarket has completely shut down and they can do nothing about it.
The mountain that used to stand tall is a wasteland with a strong smell of sulphur in the air.
TKL did make an effort to revegetate the area by planting bananas and vetiver grass. But with no nutrients left in the soil the plants failed to grow.
By 2008, fed up with the environmental damage and fearful that toxicity was beginning to have serious effects on their health, residents of six villages near the mine — Na Nong Bong, Phu Tab Fah, Huay Puk, Gog Sa Thon, Gang Hin and Fak Huay — formed a protest group, Khon Rak Ban Kerd (KRBK), to hold the company to account for the damage and pollution.
They claimed the company lied to get its licence to operate the business. They said the company excluded residents from the public licensing hearings. KRBK leaders said the company lied about the environment where the mine was to operate, claiming it would be located in an area where there was no natural water source and little forestation. But not only was the area rich with forest and water sources, some sections of the land were also located in preserved areas that required Sor Por Kor licences to operate — which the company received.
Suraphan Rujichaiwat told Spectrum the villagers had allowed the company to degrade the environment and take advantage of the locals for too long. “No matter what we told them, they wouldn’t stop to help us. So we had no choice but to take action to stop them,” he said.
The villagers built a cement wall that blocked the only access in and out from the mine’s gold-extraction plant to the main road. Its purpose was to prevent the mine from transporting toxic chemicals through their villages. The villagers named the wall “Kam Pang Jai” (wall of heart). For a while, it was an effective tactic; no more trucks or people came through.
Villagers told Spectrum that in October, 2012, the edge of the mine’s giant dump site (that locals called a “cyanide reservoir”) collapsed during heavy rain.
In Tongkah Harbour’s 2009 annual general report, then board chairman Pricha Attavipach wrote: “Canals and sumps are lined with high-density plastic encircling the site to contain and reuse rain and surface waters effectively.”
Loei provincial industry officials inspected the site and found that while the walls were indeed lined with protective sheeting, the bottoms had not been lined and chemicals could leach into nearby soil and water. The mine was ordered to close down until the problems could be fully investigated and rectified.
Despite the shutdown, the company proceeded with plans to obtain permission to expand the operation. A public hearing for the expansion was held in September, 2013, but locals say they were blocked from entering the hearing venue by about 700 police officers.
The battle has escalated from there.
The company has filed seven criminal and civil lawsuits against 33 villagers. The civil actions include demands for compensation of 50 to 70 million baht from each villager. The criminal charges include trespassing and loss of property, with claims that one act of trespass occurred on Oct 11 last year.
On the night of Oct 12, a box with a clock on top of it appeared in front of Mr Suraphan’s house and another had been placed by the wall. The villagers immediately contacted the police.
“Tick-tock, tick-tock. I still remember that sound. The village is quiet enough that the sound of that clock carried. I was scared since I thought for sure it would explode,” Mrs Pornthip said.
When police checked the first box in front of Mr Suraphan’s house, they found it was filled with nothing but rocks. Then, when they checked the box by the wall, they found it sealed tightly. Suspecting there could be a real explosive device hidden inside, they used a high-pressure water hose to destroy the box. Once it was opened, they found nothing but rubbish.
Since that night, the villagers have set up three checkpoints to monitor the situation around the clock, with women taking the day shift from 6am until 6pm and men taking the night watch.
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) says Thanawat Timsuwan, the president of the Loei Provincial Administrative Organisation (PAO), appointed himself as a broker to buy the mine’s remaining copper ore from TKL. AHRC says there are “close links” between the military, local authorities and private capital figures involved in mining in Loei.
“Currently, both Mr Thanawat Timsuwan and [provincial police commander] Maj Gen Sakda Wongsiriyanon act as consultants to the Sermthappaisan Companies Group. Lt Gen Poramet Promnak [a retired military officer] has also claimed that he has close ties with the Timsuwan family [which] has strong influence over the mines in the province …” the AHRC report claims.
The report claims that Mr Thanawat offered to give 5% of the profits from the copper deal to the local community in exchange for access to transport the ore from the mine over public roads. According to AHRC, this would involve the destruction of the barricade and rebuilding it after the transportation is completed.
The AHRC says a representative acting on behalf of the villagers set a number of conditions. “The representative sought guarantees from TKL that it will not transport any copper prior to the negotiations,” the AHRC report says. They asked that anyone coming to remove copper prove they had permission to do so and were abiding by ore transportation laws.
Mr Thanawat, who has held his position as a Loei PAO representative for 12 years, denies any involvement in the purchase or movement of the copper ore.
He told Spectrum he has never met Lt Gen Poramet and does not know who he is.
He said he had been consulted by someone involved with the purchase of the copper before the first reported visit of Lt Gen Poramet to the village. An executive of TKL had contacted former Loei provincial governor Pornsak Giaranai to seek advice on how to deal with the unhappy villagers around the mine.
“I don’t know exactly what his full name is, but he identified himself as Ao. He came to see me because Mr Pornsak suggested he talk to me. I simply told him to go and talk with the villagers and ask them what they wanted to make things better,” Mr Thanawat said.
He said that Mr Ao came to see him twice, before the reported attacks on the villagers occurred.
The villagers said they were contacted on April 20 by an unidentified person who wanted them to allow a TKL customer to transport copper from the mine to another area, via the local village road where the controversial wall was built.
In return, he offered to withdraw lawsuits still pending in court. However, the villagers declined the offer, saying they want to uphold legal restrictions limiting vehicle weights for safety reasons.
“We saw four empty 18-wheel lorries heading to the mine area. Each would be well over the weight limit when loaded with copper,” Mr Suraphan said.
FACE TO FACE
The following day, a man who claimed to be a military officer arrived in the village. He introduced himself as Lt Gen Poramet Promnak, one of the villagers told Spectrum. He wore a black jacket adorned with a symbol that no one recognised.
KRBK representatives told Spectrum that the man came to the village with 15 bodyguards in a truck and a van. All of them were wearing black jackets; on the back was a horse with a red arrow in its mouth and the words “Lt Gen Poramet Promnak’s team”.
He first stopped at Mr Suraphan’s house and yelled loudly: “I want to talk to Mr Suraphan.” Meanwhile, the bodyguards walked into the house to look for him.
Because the villagers were operating three checkpoints, they were aware of the goings-on. They radioed each other to go to Mr Suraphan’s house. “What do you want?” Mrs Ranong asked. As soon as all of the villagers gathered, 10 bodyguards went back in the truck. They left Lt Gen Poramet to negotiate.
The villagers said Lt Gen Poramet yelled that he had come to take copper that had been “purchased from Tongkah Harbour by Thanawat Timsuwan”, and that he wanted to ask Mr Suraphan why he was blocked from transporting it.
Mr Thanawat strongly denied any involvement and said his name had been used without his permission.
“I’m not the one who bought the copper from the company,” said Mr Thanawat. “I’ve never even visited this village before. I don’t even know where the entrance to the mine is,” he added.
“Lt Gen Poramet claimed that he came to take the copper from the mine because I ordered him to do so. I am not out of my mind. Why would I trade my name and position with this kind of dirty business? I won’t shoot myself in the foot,” Mr Thanawat told Spectrum.
Mr Suraphan finally returned home and spoke with Lt Gen Poramet. He told him that he should deal with the company directly, not the villagers.
Spectrum was told that Lt Gen Poramet said, in a threatening manner: “I don’t care. I want the copper. You’d better watch your back. I know a lot of people.” The villagers chased him out of town.
ATTACKED IN THE NIGHT
On May 15, the situation escalated far beyond anyone’s expectations. At 10.30pm, one villager heard a loud bang at Kam Pang Jai.
Those who were manning a nearby checkpoint saw that a large truck had crashed into the wall and destroyed it, village representatives told Spectrum.
They said more trucks then arrived, and at least five men wearing masks and black clothing leapt from the trucks and seized the security guards who were in charge of the checkpoint that night. The guards said they were held at gunpoint. The villagers from the other two checkpoints reported the same things — that there were many men in black who tied them up and told them to lie face down while guns were trained on them.
“I tried to run to Kam Pang Jai to see what happened but I was stopped by my neighbour at the checkpoint first,” Mrs Ranong said. “I couldn’t believe what I saw. A 61-year-old had been kicked in the head and other men were beaten up.”
She said the men in black blocked the road to prevent anyone from leaving or entering the village. They fired shots in the air and said: “If anyone wants to die, just try to stop us.” After that, a member of the KRBK said, about 200-300 more men arrived, carrying clubs which they used to beat the villagers taken hostage.
Mrs Pornthip called the Loei governor at 1am to ask for help. She says he told her he would come, but never showed up. The villagers also contacted the district chief, the Wang Saphung police superintendent and others but no one offered help to the villagers. They say they were held by the gunmen until almost morning, while other teams drove many 18-wheel trucks out of the mine with many bags the villagers suspect held copper. As soon as the last truck left, the men in black let the villagers go. More than 40 villagers were reportedly treated for injuries.
Pol Col Somchai Srikamdaeng, the Wang Saphung police superintendent, told Spectrum he had not ignored the case. The police have issued arrest warrants for two men. He has also sent police to patrol the area.
The Internal Security Operations Command in Loei told a mediation hearing last week that action would be taken against Lt Gen Poramet if a police investigation proves he was involved.
Tongkah Harbour did grant permission for ore to be transported from midnight to a storage location, the mediation hearing was told. However, the company denies it or any buyers had any involvement in the attack.
Managing director and executive board chairman Wijit Jiemwitkul told Spectrum he had specifically warned the ore buyer not to cause trouble when removing the copper. “No matter what you do, don’t hurt the villagers,” Mr Wijit said he told the man.
PLEA FOR PROTECTION
Last week, the villagers turned to the National Council for Peace and Order for protection, claiming their leaders are being targeted by gunmen. The appeal was made by the KRBK in an open letter addressed to NCPO chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha. “On the afternoon of May 30, the Kon Ran Ban Kerd group received information from a source that gunmen had been hired to assassinate the group’s leaders who protested against Thung Kham Company’s gold mine,” the villagers said in the letter which was also addressed to the national police chief, the Loei governor, and the provincial and Wang Saphung police commanders.
“The source said the gunmen were in Na Nong Bong Kum Yai and Na Nong Bong Kum Noi villages [in Wan Saphung district] on May 28 and 29,” the villagers said. They said a bounty of 300,000 baht each had been placed on the heads of eight KRBK leaders. Armed men have been reported roaming the villages in a black pickup truck and, last Sunday night, two gunshots were heard in one of the villages.
Mr Wijit told Spectrum a fortnight ago that TKL had previously invited the villagers to settle the dispute directly and through the human rights commission, but no one had accepted the invitation.
“I’m happy to talk with the villagers anywhere, and at any time, as long as there are mediators with no hidden agenda. But no one has ever came to talk with us,” Mr Wijit said.
He had his chance to talk last week.
The villagers appeared before Loei provincial court on Tuesday to mediate with TKL on lawsuits filed by the firm against them. The hearing was attended by more than 50 villagers and Niran Phitakwatchara from the Thai National Human Rights Commission.
It was the final mediation before the case is sent for final review next month to determine if it will be accepted by the court. However, some people directly involved with the dispute did not show up — including the Loei governor, Lt Gen Poramet and TKL management. Mr Wijit attended, as did a TLK lawyer, Wang Sa Pung police, the Loei provincial police commander, a Loei Provincial Industry Office representative and a representative from the Loei Provincial Office of Primary Industries and Mines.
After the meeting, KRBK’s Mrs Pornthip said the police still seemed to be blaming the dispute on the villagers for not allowing the company to remove its mining equipment. “We went there only because we want to know who will take responsibility for the night of May 15 when the villagers were attacked by 300 mysterious men,” she told Spectrum. “As expected, no one was man enough.”
After discussion with other village representatives, Mrs Pornthip agreed to tell TKL that all the protesters want is for the company to permanently close the mine, move everything out and let nature heal itself. “Mr Wijit told us during the mediation that whatever we want, we can ask for. If he thinks it’s not too much, he’ll be more than happy to give it to us,” she said.
Mr Wijit offered to close the mine, but the villagers suggested the company show its sincerity by dismissing all cases against them before they come to take their equipment and copper away. But he told the villagers that that request was too much. TKL’s lawyer told the hearing the company just wanted to remove its equipment and the remaining copper. As soon as that happens, the company will be ready to dismiss all of the cases.
“We lost all our faith in the company,” Mrs Pornthip said. “This would be much easier to mediate if the incident on the night of May 15 hadn’t happened.”
Mrs Pornthip explained that if the buyer had behaved civilly and followed the law, the villagers would have not stopped them from taking everything out. She said the villagers would not do anything to put their lives in danger. “All we have is our mouths to complain and nag. We have no weapons like them,” she said.
Loei governor Viroj Jiwarangsan told the media after the meeting that the problem is beyond the means of government to solve, since the two sides in the conflict can’t settle the dispute between themselves. He has now ordered Loei Provincial Industry Office to withdraw permission for TKL to take copper from the mine, and he declined to extend the company’s mining concession until the case is settled by the court.
TOXIC TEST RESULTS
Early in 2009, Thai government officials warned residents near Loei’s TKL-owned mine not to use, drink or cook with the local water due to elevated levels of cyanide, arsenic, cadmium and manganese.
Reports noted that blood tests of locals showed excessive levels of heavy metals, and water, soil and farmland were found to have been contaminated with heavy metals.
Somporn Pengkham, director of the Health Impact Assessment Coordinating Unit of the National Health Commission Office of Thailand and a Chulalongkorn University academic, told Spectrum the results of blood tests taken at Wang Saphung Hospital were shocking. Everyone who lives in these villages has some dangerous toxic chemicals — cyanide, mercury or lead — in their bodies.
“Some people have one type of chemical, while some have all three in their blood,” Ms Somporn said.
“The hospital did not find anyone who has none in their blood at all,” she added.
Ms Somporn said some people have tried to argue that the chemicals could come from anything. Mercury can also be found in cosmetic products, and cyanide can be found in some uncooked vegetables and nuts.
But Ms Somporn was not impressed by mining company claims that, by law, any villager who lives outside a 5km radius from the mine processing plant should not suffer any impact on their health or the environment.
“This is absurd. You can’t measure the environmental impact by using regular maps. You have to use ecological maps for this,” she said.
Ms Somporn said ecological maps placed Ban Khum Noi and Ban Fak Huay closest to the water supply near the mine processing plant. She said villagers there started to display symptoms such as unexplained tiredness and weak arms and legs soon after the first ore processor was up and running in 2002.
A 61-year-old Huay Lek farmer, Suwat Jutano, told Spectrum he used to grow rice using water from the stream. After a while, his muscles began to feel weak. Now he is paralysed below the waist and unable to walk. A blood test confirmed above-average levels of cyanide in his system.
But no one has been able to confirm exactly how the toxins are getting into their bodies. “It is only an academic hypothesis that the deadly chemical came from the gold mine,” Ms Somporn said.
She said TKL confirmed that the only chemical used to process the mine ore was cyanide.
Even though cyanide can get into the body, it can be filtered out quickly. But the danger occurs when it is inside.
“Many pregnant woman in these villages have lost their babies or gave birth to underweight infants,” said Ms Somporn, adding that she could not categorically link this with the chemicals found in the blood samples.
Although doctors confirmed that some people such as Mr Suwat had high levels of cyanide in their blood, no one can confirm exactly of how it gets to their bodies, she said.
Ms Somporn said toxic chemicals found in the water can be treated scientifically. “Even though it is quite costly to treat the water, the villagers should be able to use the water again. They are not living here temporarily; many more generations will be living here for a long time,” she said.
And she said there would not be a small-scale impact; the mountain where TKL built its chemical dump site is located where the region’s natural water source begins. From there, it flows down to Huay Leek stream, continues to Huay-Huay which connects to the Loei River, and eventually it will come out at the Mae Khong River, she told Spectrum.
Ms Somporn suggested that the best way to solve the problem is to permanently shut down the mine and let nature heal itself.
We did nothing wrong, says Tongkah boss
In its 2009 annual general report, Tongkah Harbour Public Company Limited described itself as having “written a new page in Thai mining history as the nation’s first, and only, producer of gold-bearing copper concentrates”.
Then-chairman Pricha Attavipach wrote: “Tongkah Harbour is fully aware and committed to keeping the mine surroundings environmentally safe as seen in applying ‘zero discharge’ processing operations wherein the aim is to fully control and recycle all the waste produced within the property.
“Canals and sumps are lined with high-density plastic encircling the site to contain and reuse rain and surface waters effectively. Monitoring stations for surface water and groundwater qualities, ground vibration, noise and fine dust quality, have also been set up following international standard practices.”
He also emphasised the value of “working and living in harmony with local communities”.
The company continues to assert that it did maintain environmentally safe practices at the disputed mine site.
Wijit Jiemwitkul, the company’s managing director and executive board chairman talked to Spectrum recently about the ongoing dispute with the Loei villagers.
Asked about the environmental impact complaint made by villagers, Mr Wijit responded that it would be impossible to run the business and harm the environment.
“The government would have ordered us to shut down long ago if that accusation was true,” he said.
Mr Wijit challenged the villagers to come to inspect the mine with a representative from the Thung Kham company (TKL).
“I offered to hire the villagers to bring water and soil samples from where they thought it had been contaminated by the mine to inspect with our representative, but they declined the invitation,” he said.
He told Spectrum that no matter what he offered, the villagers have turned him down. “So what is it that you want from me?” he asked them.
Mr Wijit said TKL representatives attended a meeting on Aug 29 last year at Loei provincial hall with the governor, local administration organisation and environmental control office regarding the toxicity level at the mine. “The result came out that there is no environmental impact around the mine as claimed by the villagers,” he said.
He told us he did not believe claims that Huay Lek villager Suwat Jutano had become paralysed as a result of exposure to water near the mine. He said if that was true, there should be more people affected by it.
Mr Wijit claimed that researchers from Chulalongkorn University found that the water became contaminated only during the rainy season.
“If it really came from the mine, the toxicity level should be found all year round, not just one season,” he said. He also claimed the researcher told him that cyanide and arsenic in the water came from fertilisers used by the local farmers.
TKL checked the toxicity level in the blood of villagers before the mine had even begun operating. “So far, it has not been increased.”
“The bottom line is the toxic chemicals in the village did not come from the company,” Mr Wijit said.
Mr Wijit did not provide any evidence for those claims.
He strongly denied the company had any involvement in any attacks or threats against the villagers.
The 300 mysterious men in black, accused of holding villagers hostage, were not people from TKL, he said. Mr Wijit said he sold the last of the copper ore leftover from the mine to one company. They wanted to remove it from the mine to sell it on, but were unable to because of the barricade constructed by villagers.
“No matter what you do, don’t hurt the villagers,” he told the man who tried to bring out the copper that they bought from the company. “Our company is listed on the stock market; we can’t do this kind of thing since it will give our company a negative image,” Mr Wijit told the man.
Mr Wijit told Spectrum he believed the gunshots heard during the May 15 assault came from a villager’s gun. He did not accept that the attackers were armed with guns.
“If those men really did have guns, why do you think the villagers only had bruises on their bodies and faces?” he asked. “The clubs that the men had were only used as shields to prevent the villagers from pushing them.”
Mr Wijit said the blockade of the road for more than a year had caused a lot of problems.
“The governor and local administration ordered the villagers to open it up, but they still did not do it. They wanted the mine closed, so we did that for them,” Mr Wijit said.
“All we want now is to bring out our expensive equipment from the mine but they won’t let us pass along the road,” he added.
Mr Wijit said he has tried unsuccessfully to get together with the leaders of the Khon Rak Ban Kerd protest group to discuss the complaints. “If you have a clear intention to settle this dispute, there is nothing to be afraid of. Come and talk to me directly,” he said.
“Mob rule seems to be what people use now when they are not happy about anything,” Mr Wijit told Spectrum. In this case, the villagers have joined forces to protest against what they don’t like without discussions with people they are protesting against, he said.
Mr Wijit said that he has been “bullied for more than a year” but no one seemed to care how much the company has suffered in the dispute. He said he has made complaints to the media but no one ever paid any attention to the company.
“Where is the justice in this society?” Mr Wijit asked.
“I’ve been giving interviews to many media outlets and most of them use the information I give them badly. One TV station interviewed me, I gave them all the information, but they chose to present only a little bit of it that makes me look bad,” he said.
“Any information that gives the villagers a negative image, they cut it all off and make me look like the bad guy. I’m fed up with the media taking sides.
“If you don’t intend to present the facts from both sides, I think there’s no point talking to me,” Mr Wijit said.
Bangkok post 8 June 2014