Activists, villagers, environmentalists and others trying to speak out are finding it harder to get their messages heard under military rule
It takes effort to tell strangers what people’s unique homes look like, and it’s a lot more difficult when they are seen as an enemy of economic growth. So villagers from Satun, the southern coastal province on the Andaman Sea, drove 14 hours to Bangkok last week to tell people about the value of their distinctive homes through seminars and a three-day photographic exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.
They were monitored and observed by police throughout their journey.
That’s because a week prior to their arrival in Bangkok, Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha gave the green light for the delayed Pak Bara Deep Sea Port mega-project in the heart of Satun’s Mu Ko Phetra National Park.
This 4,734-rai project will be a trade link between Thailand and Europe, Africa and the Middle East, he said, adding he did not want protesters, mostly Satun residents, to “raise conflict” as the government would compensate them for any adverse impacts they may suffer.
But Satun villagers are determined to send a message to the government, and their message is the project will ruin their idyllic lifestyles.
“In a normal situation, we can communicate with others [about social and environmental impacts of the project] freely within the framework of constitutional law,” said Nantapon Benden, 57, a protest leader.
“Now under [the government’s] absolute power, we have to communicate in ways to avoid conflict with the government, but still, we want to make the government realise the existence of a local voice.”
Instead of expressing fierce opposition to the Pak Bara Deep Sea Port project, the villagers told visitors to their event in Bangkok about the beauty and abundant biodiversity of Mu Ko Phetra and Tarutao National Marine Park. The latter appears on the Unesco list for Asean Heritage Parks and Reserves.
Both parks host habitats for coral and diverse species including the increasingly rare dugong and lady slipper orchid — protected species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — and the Pak Bara army crab, a species only found in Satun’s Pak Bara Bay.
The people of Satun see the two parks as one inseparable ecosystem unit, which local livelihoods are built around and which generates more than six billion baht in annual tourism income.
It is also the year-round source of fish, a substantial part of the diet in the area.
They believe the Pak Bara Deep Sea Port will damage all these things.
The seabed will be dredged to make shipping lanes, killing lots of marine animals and destroying coral reefs.
The current will change because the size of the new port will equal 250 football fields.
The expansion of the industrial area near the port will also take over community space.
“It may look like Satun people are selfish, not wanting to sacrifice their abundant natural resources for the benefit of the nation’s economy,” said Somboon Khamhang, the secretary of the Save Andaman Foundation.
“But it’s not a matter only for Satun people. This is about the natural resources that belong to everyone. The government must consider the great damage that no one will be able to compensate for.”
The Pak Bara Deep Sea Port was first proposed by a group of politicians and government officials in 2007 with the aim of creating an international, world-class logistics hub in Thailand. But it was delayed because of local protests and an economic slowdown.
Backed by the military government, the Marine Department announced recently that construction of the project will start in 2018.
Forty billion baht is the estimated investment value of the project, with a projected profit of 266 billion baht over 30 years.
A request has been made from the government’s budget for 50 million and 118 million baht to launch a Strategic Environmental Assessment and an Environmental and Health Impact Assessment.
Satun residents have always been confident their opposition to the project would succeed, backed by the surveys, data and analysis of the abundant natural resources and their value.
But since the military takeover last May, their confidence has been shaken by the government’s implementation of martial law, or the so called “special power” that allowed fast-tracking development projects to enhance the country’s economy.
Although martial law was changed to Section 44 of the interim charter — which gives Gen Prayut the power to control the executive, legislative and judicial branches for security and other reasons deemed to be in the national interest — local concerns have not disappeared.
“We have enough information to convince people that the project shouldn’t be there,” Mr Somboon said.
“But we’re afraid that Section 44 would be enforced to rush the project in some way, perhaps by fast-tracking it. If that happens, the road ahead will include new conflict.”
Several local communities across Thailand that have been involved in long-running disputes with the state or private sector over natural resources management have been left in a greater dilemma under the military regime.
Pak Bara is one such case.
Many controversial development projects have been either approved or restored by Gen Prayut’s government under its economic enhancement policy.
He is on record as saying his government’s target is to lead the nation away from being a middle-income economy to become a high-income country.
Many of the projects were proposed by a group of politicians or non-elected government officials many years ago, but suspended because of local protests or financial problems.
The government blamed political protests and the world economic slump for Thailand’s languishing economy in the first quarter of 2014, which dragged the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth back to 0.6%.
With sluggish growth in the export market, the government vowed to boost state and private investment to increase GDP growth and boasted about its success when GDP growth rose to 2.3% in the last quarter of 2014.
Fast-tracking has been offered to the business sector as one measure to encourage investment.
According to the Ministry of Industry, 195 mine survey licences and concession patents were approved — valued at 44 billion baht — in the past six months after the introduction of a 45-day fast-track permit request process.
A total of 5,000 new factories were granted operation permits — 3,500 have already started operating — since May last year using the 30-day permit request process.
Other investment projects are also on the way, including a new round of bidding for petroleum concessions.
Gen Prayut has accelerated the development of special economic zones on the borders to enable Thailand to export more to neighbouring countries, and has also shown interest in developing a western seaboard industrial estate to link Thailand’s western region to Myanmar’s controversial Dawei Port mega-project.
Environmental activists have expressed concern over this rush for development.
If development projects go ahead quickly without true local participation, long-running disputes could last for decades.
In the case of the Pak Bara Deep Sea Port, the conflict between villagers and government officials started six years ago and continues today because the villagers feel they were not included or consulted in development decisions.
Government officials approved an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in 2009 which included controversial content such as referring to the Pak Bara Bay as “deteriorated”.
The EIA also fails to mention the fact that the source of rocks for the construction site will come from Satun’s mountains, which contain fossils dating back 500 million years.
The report does not analyse the overall impact of the project’s connection to other government-proposed developments, such as the Songkhla-Satun land bridge to transport goods and petroleum products from the Gulf of Thailand to the Andaman Sea at Pak Bara.
“Conflicts between villagers and government officials [over development projects] have long existed. The coup has allowed the bureaucracy to benefit from military power to tackle the villagers,” said Alongkorn Akkasaeng, a lecturer from Mahasarakham University’s College of Politics and Governance.
“The military sees government officials as more reliable than villagers, so it only listens to one-sided information.”
Along with the Pak Bara Deep Sea Port, a number of energy development projects are making progress in southern Thailand to support the country’s rapidly growing energy consumption — half of it consumed by the industry sector.
Despite local protests, the EIAs of an 800-megawatt coal-fired power plant and a coal-loading sea port in Krabi — sitting on Thailand’s largest sea grass area that feeds marine animals and dugongs — are under the scrutiny of the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning.
The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) held a public hearing for a 2,200-megawatt coal power plant in Songkhla’s Thepha district, and it has heavily promoted clean coal with regular television advertisements.
The Ministry of Energy has also this year launched a promotional campaign for its nuclear power plant proposal, for which there are nine potential locations including Surat Thani and Nakhon Si Thammarat.
“It’s like we’re waiting for a time bomb to explode after the military government is gone,” said Supat Hasuwannakit, an environmental activist and director of the Chaha Hospital in Songkhla.
Dr Supat was one of 11 southern activists arrested by the army on Aug 20 last year while taking part in an anti-energy protest march in Songkhla. The campaign was organised by the Partnership of Energy Reform, a network of southern people focused on energy issues, who had planned to walk from Songkhla to Bangkok to raise awareness.
The activists were released after three days of detention in a Hat Yai army camp. They were asked to halt their campaign.
That was around the same time the government announced it would go ahead with the petroleum concession bidding.
In the current political atmosphere, southern activists cannot freely or officially hold any forums to educate local people about energy issues.
A large number of southern residents are major supporters of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, which pushed for the coup during the 2014 anti-government protests.
Many are now disappointed by the government’s development policies and its suppression of free speech.
“Many had high expectations this government would thoroughly and carefully review all the controversial projects because they believed that the former government was too corrupt to be capable of doing so,” Dr Supat said.
“But in fact, it seems like those projects can make even better progress now without listening to the people’s voices. Frustration is piling up because they cannot express their concerns about the projects freely.
“They are not stubborn. Neither are they against development and advancement. They want to be a part of a future where they can make choices of their own.”
THE LAW IS THE LAW
Gen Prayut had praised martial law, which was declared on May 20, last year, two days before the former army chief staged the coup, in his weekly television programme named Returning Happiness to People.
He said the law was a benefit to Thais and a success in maintaining peace and order after the coup.
This state of peace is holding in Bangkok, after six months of anti-Yingluck Shinwatra government protests punctuated with tear-gas, bullets and people being killed.
Martial law was eventually revoked on April 1 and replaced by Section 44 of the interim charter amid international concern over the military’s arbitrary power.
Several orders under Section 44 granted sweeping powers to assigned military officials to detain suspects without charge, censor the media and ban political gatherings.
Some experts have criticised the law for not specifically defining what constitutes a security matter, which could lead to another chapter of community rights violations for the benefit of the economy.
Gen Prayut said he intends deploying Section 44 to handle a wide variety of issues, including to correct problems surrounding the allocation of land and forest resources, tackle discrepancies in society, improve justice, resolve problems in the aviation industry and to deal with the scourge of human trafficking.
He insisted it would not violate human rights. But his speech did not eliminate concerns about the potential for community rights to be suppressed.
Some local communities are keenly aware of the experiences they suffered under the enforcement of martial law and believe things will drag on longer under Section 44.
“It seems to us that the situation at our home is getting dimmer,” said Porntip Hongchai, 45, an anti-gold mine protester in Wang Saphung district of Loei province.
“For almost a decade — since 2006 — we have used our fundamental rights and voices to speak out about the environmental and health problems caused by the gold mine. Now it seems like there are no such rights any more.”
Ms Porntip was forced to watch 40 of her village companions being captured and attacked by a group of 300 armed men on the night of May 16 last year. The villagers had blockaded the road in protest to prevent gold and other ore being transported from the mine.
A group from the local army base was dispatched to the Wang Saphung community right after the coup to allegedly restore peace. Villagers were ordered to stop their anti-gold mine activism.
Mining company Thung Kham has denied any involvement in the attack and has denied its mining operation has caused health problems or contaminated local water sources with heavy metals.
“Even the dispute was interfered with by the army, the legal cases [against the group who launched the attack] is going nowhere,” Ms Porntip said.
The army soon arranged negotiations between the two sides, which ended with the villagers grudgingly agreeing to stop the road blockade and allowing ore to be transported. The company meanwhile dropped eight criminal and civil lawsuits, which accused the villagers of libel and property encroachment as well as a demand for 120 million baht in compensation.
The mine operator is now in the process of requesting an expansion permit.
The Dao Din alliance — a Khon Kaen-based student activist group whose movement focuses on community rights issues — reported they had had difficulties, and still do, gaining access to villages.
They were once summoned and detained by a local officer while trying to visit villagers.
In November last year, five members of Dao Din were arrested for giving three-finger salutes, the dissent gesture adopted from the Hunger Games movies, and wearing black T-shirts with the message “No coup d’etat” while Gen Prayut was giving a speech in Khon Kaen.
Army troops immediately linked them to a group of hardcore red shirts, despite their activism never appearing to involve the radical political movement.
The anti-gold mine movement was then accused of being backed by a political movement.
“The existence of human rights has been questioned and condemned after the coup. If anyone questions the legitimacy [of state action against human rights principles], he may be slandered and named as an anti-government group like the red shirts,” said Bencharat Sae Chua from the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies of Mahidol University during a seminar called Isan Klang Krung (northeastern people in the middle) in Bangkok last month.
“Natural resources management should be bedded on democratic principles.
“If we do not cling to democracy, disputes can’t be solved.”
She criticised the military for showing its intention to protect the private sector.
Prachatai, an independent news website, reported there were at least 28 cases of human rights violations related to natural resources management which occurred under the enforcement of martial law. Half were recorded in the Northeast.
Cases involved land rights, community rights violations and the suppression of freedom of speech including the forced cancellation of environmental campaign activities and the prohibition of wearing campaign T-shirts.
Pakorn Srakaewtum, 59, is bitter at the memory of murmured chanting mixed with wailing cries in heat of Namun village in Khon Kaen’s Kranuan district.
A new anti-oil drilling protest leader, Mr Pakorn recalled his villagers knelt down on the ground and prostrated themselves near an official’s feet, begging for sympathy.
On Feb 16, the villagers had gathered on a local road. They wanted to suspend Apico (Khorat) Limited’s transportation of gas survey drilling equipment to a concession plot two kilometres to the east, just over the boundary with Kalasin province.
Their gathering was dispersed after about 200 state officials — security officers, police and volunteer defence corps — appeared, linking arms in rows to guard the company’s vehicles loaded with equipment.
The company had been granted legal concession rights in 2003 and received legal permission for the transport operation.
The Department of Mineral Fuels backed the company, saying a public hearing had been arranged and that notification was given prior the launch of both the gas survey and the transport operation.
It said that gas extraction was not associated with hazardous chemical use.
“But we didn’t actually receive enough information about the gas survey. We’re afraid that the future gas extraction would cause impacts to our livelihoods,” Mr Pakorn said. During the dramatic protest, some of the villagers claimed they were verbally abused and threatened with the enforcement of martial law.
The conflict has already caused distrust between the local community and state officials, regardless of whether the gas extraction will have a detrimental environmental impact.
Similarly, in Buri Ram, the conflict between a local community and state officials was amplified by the confrontation between an anti-oil drilling protester and state officers under martial law.
“When my interviews with journalists appear on media outlets, officers would approach me at my house,” said Thavatchai Surat, 36, a Buri Ram-based anti-oil drilling campaigner.
“Whenever I visited a local community [which protested against oil drilling], some officer would keep me under surveillance. It’s intimidating.”
On Feb 25, Mr Thavatchai was detained for five hours after he gave an interview to a television journalist about local concerns over the environmental impacts of a seismic survey by Chinese oil exploration firm Shaanxi Yanchang Petroleum Group Company. Shaanxi Yanchang’s operation has received approval from the Ministry of Energy’s Department of Mineral Fuels.
Mr Thavatchai was questioned about his activism.
Details of his conversation with the journalist was the most pressing matter for the officers. He was asked to give officers early notification before his next talk with journalists.
Unlike past coups, social media and new technology has pervaded rural areas where local people, even the elderly, use smartphones to capture pictures and video clips of community rights violations. These are then spread then on Facebook, where some journalists source their stories.
This relatively new form of free speech bought different groups affected by various projects together, and in the northeast the “New Isan” group was formed. Southern activists and local residents joined a group called Partnership of Energy Reform, while local communities and peasants in the north grouped together to campaign for land rights.
“I believe the shift to Section 44 would not make any difference when it came to natural resources management issues,” said Eco-culture Study Group coordinator Lertsak Kamkongsak, who runs environmental and community rights campaigns.
“With this development rush — which more likely benefits the private sector — any environmental movement is made to look like an enemy of the state, disrupting the country’s progress, economy, and going against security orders.”
With a recent rise in intense local movements, Mr Lertsak believes the prime minister will be under heavy pressure because of his absolute power, which may result in stronger environmental and human rights movements and eventually cross the political colour conflicts.
When the draft constitution was finally completed last month — a sign of the country getting closer to the next election — expectations rose.
The draft has been criticised for opening loopholes that could give unlimited powers to the executive branches, while the bureaucracy and military will still maintain their power bases in the Senate.
The special laws that have been brought in since the coup may all be revoked when a newly elected government takes over.
The draft is being scrutinised by political stakeholders and is due to be promulgated in early September. As this happens, the frustrations of old and new disputes over natural resources management grows, and these will remain after the military regime steps down.
The question is how the new government will curb them — with respect or, again, with enforcement.
NEWSPAPER SECTION: SPECTRUM | WRITER: PARITTA WANGKIAT