Thai environmentalists pay for activism with their lives
Those fighting toxic dumping and coal-fired power plants have an unfortunate tendency to turn up dead
Jintana Kaewkao, a 53-year-old activist, shop-owner and mother of three, arrived at the district government office on March 12 ready for a fight.
With local tensions rising over the planned construction of a steel manufacturing plant amid the wetlands and coconut trees of this seaside community of Bangsaphan, Thailand, more than 30 villagers had assembled in the morning heat. Most were women; some had toddlers in tow. They were ready to register their concerns over potential pollution, and a local conglomerate’s questionable land acquisitions, with the district leader.
As usual, they were waiting for Jintana, a charismatic environmental crusader from the neighboring village of Ban Krut, to lead the way.
She didn’t disappoint. Informed that the top district official had stood the villagers up, she marched up the stairs of the building and demanded a meeting with his deputy. Jintana playfully lectured the government official, explained the intricacies of land title law to the villagers, and won a promise of a new meeting later in the month.
She then climbed into a waiting police van. Inside were two cheerful plainclothes officers in black polo shirts, armed with 9 mm Glock pistols.
The cops weren’t there to arrest her. Rather, they serve as her 24-hour protection detail, tasked with making sure she stays alive.
Jintana’s success a decade ago in using community pressure and the courts to block the construction of a major coal-fired power plant in Ban Krut made her a local legend. It also made her a marked woman. In Thailand, environmental activism is exceedingly dangerous — and sometimes fatal.
In recent decades, campaigners against coal-fired power plants, garbage dumps and mining projects have faced constant threats. According to a report from Global Witness, a nonprofit based in Washington, DC, 16 Thai environmentalists were murdered between 2002 and 2013. That was 8th highest of the 35 countries the group studied, and the second highest total in Asia, after the Philippines. Other experts say the number rises to more than 30 when cases involving land rights, and broader human rights issues, are included. The perpetrators are often $500 hit men assumed to be linked to local business interests, or vaguely defined “mafia,” as people here say.
Armed assailants have taken shots at Jintana’s house four times in the last decade. While the past two years have been quiet, she’s worried that the campaign against the steel factory will spark new threats of violence.
The area “has lots of gunmen — if I wasn’t sure I was safe, I wouldn’t go there,” she says on the drive back to her house in Ban Krut, past the fishing boats and small beachside bungalows that form the economic backbone of villages here. After years of activism, she notes, “I’m lucky not to be dead.”
In December, a business owner in Chacheongsao Province, just east of Bangkok, was sentenced to death in the 2013 death of Prajob Nao-opas, an environmental activist who led a campaign against toxic dumping in that area. But many cases go unresolved, or take years to wind their way through a justice system that some say is stacked against opponents of whichever political party is in power.
“There are lots of invisible hands,” says Srisuwan Janya, a prominent Thai lawyer who has won several major environmental lawsuits against corporations and the government, including a landmark 2009 injunction halting $9 billion worth of projects in the Map Ta Phut industrial zone. “Don’t forget that in Thailand, police can be bought.”
The murky, often-violent confrontations over energy and resource projects constitute a little-told story in a country that has long had a reputation as one of Southeast Asia’s most democratic, prosperous nations, despite a military coup in 2014. With the junta busy consolidating power, and implementing new limits on civil rights, some activists fear that the climate for environmental activism will worsen.
But threats to activists predate the current military government, and they underscore what some regard as a culture of impunity for business interests, particularly in the rural villages and industrial towns located far from the bright lights of Bangkok. They also demonstrate just how successful Jintana and her fellow activists have been.
Today, a cluster of abandoned buildings just yards from the ocean is all that remains of the 1,400-megawatt Ban Krut coal-fired power plant project. The Thai government first proposed the project in the 1990s, with financing from Japanese and Hong Kong investors. A separate smaller plant was slotted for construction an hour north in Bo Nok. That project was backed by California-based Edison Mission Group, which is now part of New Jersey-based NRG Energy.
The projects were intended to help meet Thailand’s growing demand for energy, which has accompanied its emergence as a middle-income economic hub. Today, the country is the 21st largest energy consumer in the world, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It can’t produce enough natural gas to keep pace, say analysts, and successive governments have long looked to coal as a way of making up the shortfall.
The power plants never got off the ground. But the scars of the decade-long fight to block their construction — which ended in the mid-2000s after the government decided to move the projects to other provinces — remain.
“The village has been divided into two groups,” says Chainerong Noiphon, a 55-year-old fisherman who lives up the road from Jintana “Even the tiniest things can be a big fight among us.” He campaigned against the plant, and blames the power plant investors for the divisions that persist to this day. “We were lucky we had Jintana,” he adds.
Jintana, who moved to this fishing and farming community, her husband’s home, in 1982, started out as a bit player in the anti-power plant movement. But she quickly emerged as a natural leader — and a thorn in the side of Thailand’s Union Power Development Company Ltd. (UPDC), which was leading the project.
Despite assurances from UPDC that the project wouldn’t harm the nearby crops and coral reef, Jintana and others weren’t convinced, particularly amid reports that sulfur dioxide emissions from a similar plant in northern Thailand were damaging the health of local residents. (In February, Thailand’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand owed more than 100 people living near that plant a total of about $800,000 in damages.)
Jintana acknowledges that many villagers wanted the Ban Krut plant to be built. UPDC, she says, ran a sophisticated public relations campaign and promised many new jobs. Her critics said she and other advocates were ignoring Thailand’s pressing energy needs, to which she responded that what the country needed was a bigger focus on conservation and renewable energy.
In 1998, she organized a march to block traffic on a highway near the proposed plant. She also bought a 30 baht — around a dollar or so — share in UPDC in order to attend company meetings. The movements in Ban Krut and Bo Nok gained the backing of Greenpeace and other international groups, raising their profile; the U.S. Export-Import Bank even decided to withdraw planned financing for the Bo Nok plant amid the environmental concerns. At one point, villagers threatened to burn down the Bo Nok plant if it was built.
Jintana, too, did not shy away from using confrontational tactics on occasion. More than once, she ended up in prison.
In 2001, local villagers dug up a dead whale that had recently washed ashore, scooped out rancid water from the hole where it was buried and put it into plastic bags. They then barged into a UPDC corporate banquet and hurled the foul liquid at attendees. Recalls Noiphon: “It was Mother Nature helping [us].”
While Jintana says she wasn't at the event, the government accused her of organizing the protest and she was eventually convicted of trespassing. (She spent two months in prison years later, after several appeals).
As Jintana’s profile rose, so did opponents’ efforts to buy her off, or discredit her. She says she has turned down huge payoffs from corporate interests. Nevertheless, she says, “there is a rumor I have a 50 million baht ($1.5 million) house.”
Feeling that their children were no longer welcome at the local school, which received scholarship funding from the power plant company, Jintana and her husband began sending them to school in neighboring towns. And when people began shooting at her house — she awoke once at 2 a.m. to the sound of gunshots across the road — her children were sent to stay with relatives at night. Another time, she says, a gunman even took a shot when a police van was in front of the house.
The attacks on her home appeared to follow a pattern that goes back decades in Thailand: an industrial project is proposed with the blessing of the government, a local group forms to protest, tensions rise and then the group’s leader is targeted in an assassination attempt. The attacks are unusually bold, sometimes occurring in broad daylight in crowded areas.
Tyrell Haberkorn, a professor at the Australian National University in Canberra who has written extensively on violence against activists in Thailand, notes that environmentalists who fight business projects backed by the government have been facing threats since the 1970s. But “how blatant the violence has been,” she says, has varied over time.
Sometimes, prosecutors are able to establish clear linkages between the perpetrators of violence and business interests. That was the case in the death of Prajob Nao-opas, the village leader who had exposed toxic dumping by a local company. The 43-year-old knew he was at risk. According to one local media report, he had purchased two handguns to defend himself. But he was shot in broad daylight at an auto mechanic’s shop in February 2013. He died on the way to the hospital.
The man sentenced to death in the case, Phuthorn Kaweepun, was not only an official with the state Department of Industrial Works, he was also the owner of Fusion Development Company, the business that Prajob had accused of toxic dumping. After Prajob’s death, other local residents continued the campaign, took to the courts and were able to force an end to the dumping.
More often, however, activists struggle with a lack of evidence. That’s been the case for Pachern Ketkaew in Bo Nok. He was sitting in front of the small shop he runs with his wife at about 6 pm on Jan. 31, 2011, when a man with a 9 mm pistol jumped out of an approaching car and started firing at him. The bullets missed their mark, but injured two customers sitting nearby.
Pachern recalls sprinting into the woods behind the shop with the gunman in pursuit. Another man, brandishing an M-16, sprayed the store with bullets. The gunmen then quickly turned and fled the scene. Pachern called another activist, Korn-um Pongroi, who hurried to the shop and took him to Jintana’s house, where he stayed for two months.
In Pachern’s mind, there was little question why he had been targeted: He had formed an organization to fight plans to build a trash-burning power plant nearby, and he had also lodged complaints against toxic dumping in the area. “I didn’t want this town to be dirty with garbage,” he says. “I never thought the investors would try to kill me.”
Pachern says the police identified a suspect but never arrested him. The activist says he thinks he knows the identity of the gunmen — he just can’t prove it. Pachern is reluctant to criticize the authorities’ handling of his case, and says the police blame him for putting himself in this position. It's a common complaint in Thailand: that law enforcement authorities are often complacent at best, and complicit at worst.
When Korn-um Pongroi and her husband, Charoen Wat-Aksorn, joined the movement against the Bo Nok power plant in the late 1990s, they made a difficult choice. “Charoen always said that to fight like this, there are only two ways for us: death or jail,” Korn-um recalls. “So our plan was not to have children.”
Their decision turned out to be tragically prescient. Today, Charoen’s coffin sits in an airy Buddhist temple just off the main highway, surrounded by photos of the activist as a young man. He was shot to death 11 years ago as he exited a bus in Prachuap Khirikhan, just after testifying before a Thai Senate committee.
Korn-um decided not to cremate his body, as is the local custom, until justice was served. She says she’s still waiting.
Soon after Charoen’s death, two alleged hit men were arrested. They pointed the finger at a local lawyer, Thanu Hinkaew, as the mastermind. Thanu was convicted and sentenced to death. But the court eventually overturned his conviction in 2013, a few years after the two gunmen died awaiting trial — deaths that occurred under suspicious circumstances, according to Korn-um and her allies.
She says the overturned conviction is an example of how “the justice system in this country isn’t fair for [environmental activists] … The government thinks if they have a higher GDP they are doing a good job for the country. GDP is an illusion. Investors never see the real life of the local people.”
Many activists here profess no fear of jail, injury or death. Some international organizations view that kind of courage — or bravado — as a liability. They sometimes try to persuade activists that their deaths will likely mean the end of their campaigns, and that precautions are necessary. Activists are encouraged to remove batteries from their cell phones so the army and police can’t use GPS to track their meetings, and to arrange armed guards.
The knowledge that outsiders are watching can be a form of protection in itself. Organizations including Human Rights Watch, Protection International and the United Nations have been trying to draw attention to the safety issues that environmental and community activists face.
Given Jintana’s high public profile (she was even awarded an honorary degree by Thailand’s princess) the national government’s anti-corruption commission is footing the bill for the two policemen who guard her 24 hours a day. Before that, villagers would take turns guarding her house, and rush to her aid whenever the word spread of an attempted attack.
Jintana tries not to dwell on the impact of her advocacy on her personal life. But when pressed, she says it’s been difficult. Her business has suffered. She was forced to sell her car after getting out of prison in order to pay for new shop supplies. Her children’s education was disrupted and she doesn’t travel much because of security risks. “This is what I lost when I fought against the [power plant]," she says.
These days, Jintana says she gets frequent and sometimes disquieting calls from army officials asking to set up meetings, or chiding her for “not wanting to be their friend.”
Leading members of the military junta that came to power last May have been linked to controversial mining projects, including a gold mine in Loei province where armed men attacked a group of protestors last year. Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand, says that the Thai military has generally been suspicious of human rights groups and the new government could bring added obstacles for environmental activists. “High-ranking officials have vested interests in some of these companies,” he says.
And regardless of the government, Jintana and her followers are watchful of any effort to re-introduce a power plant in Ban Krut. The U.S. Energy Information Administration in a November analysis that “despite environmental concerns or issues caused by coal-fired power, the [Thai energy authority] is considering increasing coal-fired generation as a means to reduce dependency on natural gas imports for electricity generation.”
In the meantime, she says, they need to stop that steel plant. As the police van drove through the rich coastal flora and fauna of the wetlands, Jintana looked around: “If the factory comes, it won’t be like this. I want to be a part of protecting it.”