3 years under the junta: rural perspectives

Three years after it staged a coup, Thailand’s junta is subjecting rural people to harassment and prosecution, but pleasing investors, according to local NGOs. 
 
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has been repeatedly criticised for its failure to solve economic problems and for the slide back to authoritarianism. But the details of how the NCPO has damaged the lives of rural citizens are rarely voiced. 
 
To fill in the picture, a seminar “Impact on People After 3 Years” was held at Thammasat University on 22 July 2017. Various NGOs, mostly operating in the northeast (Isaan), gathered to reflect on their grievances under the junta. The event was organised by the New E-Saan Movement and the Thai Academic Network for Civil Rights.
 
 
Panel speakers discuss the impacts of junta policies

Junta-investor coalition

 
Khornchanok Saenprasert from the New E-saan Movement explained that the overall human rights situation in Isaan is only getting worse. The junta has ignored the demands of local people who want to protect their communities. Various projects that villagers have long fought against, like forest reclamation and potash mining, have been approved under the junta regime.
 
The junta has divided the northeast region into two parts and given them to foreign oil companies, the upper part to American companies and the lower part to the Chinese. These projects bypass normal procedures, making it impossible for villagers to oppose them through the legal system.    
 
“In 2006, people were unsure if they should support the military. Now I can say that more Isaan villagers hate the military than like them. ... They are pushed down to the lowest level on all issues, whether it’s the freedom to say anything, or their natural resources that are always being stolen, or the sinking economy that puts them in deep trouble,” said Khornchanok. 
 
The junta’s oppression of poor people is happening across the country from south to north. Suraphon Songrak, a member of the Southern Peasant’s Federation of Thailand (SPFT) explained that the junta has prioritised private companies over the people. 
 
Most SPFT members are landless and the junta’s policy to support them is to provide 6 rai (approximately 0.96 hectare) for each family that lives under the poverty line. The total farmland that the junta has allocated for poor people is 300,000 rai while the land allocated for Special Economic Zones is 3.7 million rai. 
 
Suraphon added most land in southern Thailand already belongs to local companies. Some concessions have already expired but the land has not been distributed to peasants in accordance with the law.     
 
The struggle for land rights is increasingly difficult as the junta usually sides with the companies whenever a dispute occurs. Suraphon recalled that in July 2014, 50 fully-armed soldiers raided Khlong Sai Patthana Community in Surat Thani Province, where four people have been assassinated over a land conflict between villagers and a local company. 
 
The soldiers asked to see land documents of 70 households although the villagers had appealed the Agricultural Land Reform Office to expel the company since 2003 and the government in 2009 already granted villagers permission to stay in the area temporarily.
 
“The soldiers went there with a group of influential people. The state cooperates closely with local capitalists who act like a dark influence. A week later, SPFT representatives were invited to a clarification with the Internal Security Operations Command. Soldiers came about 10 times to monitor the villagers’ movement. In October, the soldiers came to set up camp to keep an eye on the community for a whole month,” Suraphon explained. 
 
Landless peasants nowadays have to rely on help provided by the National Land Policy Committee (NLPC) but the policy is certainly insufficient. To be eligible for NLPC aid, people must have less than 3,000 baht income per month and all they get is five rai of farmland and 600 sq m for household buildings. 
 
In the Isaan region, Surapan Rujichaiwat from Loei Province said the junta has impeded local people’s fights to protect their own communities.  
 
The most obvious obstacle created by the junta is the indefinite postponement of local elections nationwide. Surapan argued that local elections are a platform for people to decide the future of their communities. Since the elections of Sub-district Administrative Organisation (SAOs) have been frozen, villagers have no chance to discuss local mining and other construction projects. The SAO’s job nowadays is merely to respond to orders from the junta.
 
“Whatever the central policy is, the lesser agencies, like SAOs, have no right to say anything. We’re concerned that mining projects under the new mining act are about to get approval. EIAs don’t have to be done. Public participation is severely shortened. What we have been fighting for has been entirely removed,” Surapan argued. “Before the coup, it was the companies suing villagers. But after the coup, the state sues by itself. It’s like we’ve become enemies of the state.”    
 
Neither can northern villagers escape junta harassment. Direk Kongngern, head of the Northern Peasants Federation of Thailand, said that the junta’s “return the forest” policy from unlicensed owners has largely affected local people. 
 
Though the policy is aimed at reclaiming forests from rich and influential local owners and clearly states that poor people living in the forests before the policy was implemented are exempted, over 200,000 rai of forests that the junta has confiscated so far previously belonged to poor people. People who actually get exemptions are the rich.
 

Isaan villagers protest against the junta’s ‘return the forest’ policy (Photo from TCIJ)

Climate of intimidation threatens NGO work

 
In order to secure what it calls “peace and order”, the junta has created various legal mechanisms to suppress its opponents. These mechanisms have also been used against local people, even though their demands have nothing to do with the junta. 
 
Anon Chawalawan of iLaw’s Office of Freedom of Expression Documentation Centre said that political movements in Isaan can be categorised into two groups: national movements and local movements. Both movements have increasingly faced intimidation under the junta regime.
 
Activities by national movements that oppose the junta have been consistently suppressed. In Ubon Ratchathani Province, community radio stations were forced to shut down. Local leaders were invited to talk with the authorities and to undergo so-called ‘reconciliation activities’. Soldiers have become a middleman in settling disputes between the private sector and local communities. A number of individuals who expressed criticism on political and public issues have been prosecuted.
 
Security officers have made many efforts to prevent local people from talking about national issues. One example is the “Talk for Freedom” event at Khon Kaen University hosted by the student activist group Dao Din. 
 
There were numerous attempts at various levels to silence the event. The university rejected the event organisers’ request to use it as a venue. Local police tried to cancel the activity and threatened to prosecute the activists under the Public Assembly Act, despite the fact that the law cannot be applied inside universities. 
 
Eventually, 10 people were prosecuted after the event, including Jatuphat ‘Pai Dao Din’ Boonpattararaksa, who is currently detained for lèse majesté, and two staff of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights who merely observed the event. 
 
During the period before the referendum on the 2016 draft constitution, a number of individuals were prosecuted for joining a referendum watchdog campaign organized by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, also known as the red-shirt movement. However, most chose to plead guilty to end the prosecution as soon as possible mainly because they do not have money to fight the case. 
 
Even simple actions by local movements, like submitting petitions, can land villagers with defamation charges. The junta’s Public Assembly Act has also led to prosecutions of various people campaigning for their rights. Anon added that civil society should call for the termination of the Public Assembly Act, otherwise it will obstruct local movements in the future, even under civilian governments. 
 
“Movements have very high costs. We’ve seen that there are a lot of problems in various regions. Is it possible to have talks among the many sections of civil society especially on the Public Assembly Act? If the NCPO Head Order No. 3/2015 is abolished in the future, and there is an elected government, the act will still be an important mechanism for suppressing movements,” Anon argued.
 
In some cases, “local movements” cannot be dissociated from “national movements”. Rabiang Khaengkhan, an environmentalist from Khon Kaen, said that her community was polluted by factories making various products like sugar, paper, liquor and electronics. But the villagers, with a help of the student activist group Dao Din, appealed to the Administrative Court to shut down one factory and won the case. 
 
When Jatupat ‘Pai Dao Din’ was prosecuted for lèse majesté, the villagers wanted to campaign for him but could not since the authorities have closely monitored them. 
 
“We want to move to help Pai and protest against many kinds of injustice but we can’t gather. As soon as we do, police come and tell us to stop and threaten to prosecute us. They keep an eye on every issue, even the 30 baht healthcare where we wanted to petition the Prime Minister when he visited Khon Kaen. But we couldn’t go. The villagers are afraid of being prosecuted,” said Rabiang. 
 

Dao Din activists block police officers from villagers opposing a local potash mining company (Photo from Pantip)