The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information from the Udon Thani Environmental Conservation Group about the intensification of ongoing threats and surveillance of human rights defenders who are members of the group. They have been engaged in a long-standing struggle for community participation in decisions about potash mining in Udon Thani province. Similar to the situation of other communities since the 22 May 2014 coup by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), members of the Conservation Group and groups who support them have faced increased threats because state authorities are failing to protect them as they oppose private corporations which would like to profit from resource extraction. The AHRC is gravely concerned about the safety of the members of the Udon Thani Environmental Conservational Group and the E-san Human Rights and Peace Information Center, and is further concerned that the state’s failure to protect them will also serve to make other human rights defenders feel unsafe.
Surveys for potash were first carried out in Udon Thani province in 1993 and the Thai Agrigo Potash Company (TAPC), which later became the Asia Pacific Potash Corporation, or APCC) began to acquire land and begin to work towards acquiring a mining concession. Soon thereafter, community members and human rights defenders began raising questions about the environmental and health impacts of any potential mining project, and often engaged in extended protests to ensure that their voices and demands for participation were heard in public. In the latest period of struggle, in April 2012, a joint committee was set-up between the Department of Primary Industry and Mining (DPIM) and the Conservation Group in order to investigate the social and environmental effects of the potash mining project; in 2012, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) called on the Ministry of Industry to suspend the issuance of a mining license to the APCC pending the joint committee’s findings. Mrs. Manee Bunrood, a leader of the Conservation Group and a woman human rights defender, represents the community on the joint committee. Up until the present, the joint committee has not issued a public report on its findings.
On 29 January 2015, the DPIM issued an order to halt the joint committee's work with Udon Thani Environmental Conservation Group. This decision removes the community’s ability to participate in decisions that will affect their environment, health, and livelihood. Upon hearing this news, members of the Conservation Group went to meet with the deputy government of Udon Thani, Mr. Chaicharn Eamjaroen. At his office, they also met with officials from the DPIM, the police, the 24th Military Division and the Nongprajak sub-district head of Nongprajak sub-district.
The Conservation Group requested a copy of the DPIM’s letter halting the joint committee’s work and further asked for clarification on upcoming planned public hearings the authorities plan to organize. The Conservation Group maintained the importance of ensuring that the public hearings are held in a transparent and fully open manner. Over the long period of struggle by members of the communities, the state authorities have failed to demonstrate and give credence to the concerns of the community about potash mining. On the same day that the DPIM halted the joint committee’s work, a soldier from the 24th Military Division visited a temple Ban Nonsomboon village, one of the affected communities, during a religious ceremony. When questioned by the villagers, the soldier said that he was there to monitor the ceremony as it was a public gathering, which is restricted under martial law, which has been in force since 20 May 2014, two days prior to the coup. On the evening of 25 February 2015, the village committee also announced that the Army would continue to visit the village to for monitoring purposes. Sources close to the Asian Human Rights Commission have also indicated that key members of the Conservation Group and the E-san Human Rights and Peace Information Center have their electronic communication monitored by the military authorities. The proximity of the increased military presence in the community and ongoing surveillance following the termination of the work of the joint committee, and the Conservation Group’s concerns over this, is a clear instance of intimidation that seems designed to ensure that members of the Group do not protest the termination.
The Asian Human Rights Commission has two related concerns about the recent events in Udon Thani. First, by halting the work of the joint committee, the Thai state authorities have eliminated the official channel for members of the Conservation Group to provide input on potash mining. Given that public protest has been criminalized under martial law following the May 2014 coup, members of the community are therefore also unable to use demonstrations to communicate their concerns to the state authorities and raise awareness in their community and to Thai society as a whole. Second, the increased intimidation and surveillance of members of the Conservation Group coincident with the elimination of pathways of participation into decision-making about potash mining in Udon Thani raises concern about the overall safety of the human rights defenders who are members of the group. This concern is further underlined by the summoning shortly after the May 2014 coup of sixteen community leaders and activists in the areas affected by potash mining and a history of threats against human rights defenders working on this issue; on 24 March 2012, the APPC sent surveyors to inspect land defended by the Conservation Group. The surveyors called for police assistance to disperse villagers blocking entry onto the land. Following this incident, five leaders of the Conservation Group received death threats from representatives of the APPC.
The Asian Human Rights Commission condemns the 22 May 2014 coup in the strongest terms possible and views the events in Udon Thani as another example of how human rights suffer under military rule. The AHRC calls on the Thai state authorities to ensure the safety of members of the Udon Thani Environmental Conservation Group and the Conservation group and member of the E-san Human Rights and Peace Information Center. The Army should cease visiting the affected communities and cease their monitoring of the communications of human rights defenders. The work of the joint committee should be resumed and the Thai state authorities should take active steps to listen and respond to the concerns of affected communities about the potential environment, health, and livelihood effects of potash mining.