EARTH Thailand

NHRC warns activists are being monitored

The Nation 29 July 2017 | PRATCH RUJIVANAROM

Human rights group says local opponents of potash project being kept in the dark.

LOCAL OPPONENTS to the opening of a new potash mine in Sakon Nakhon’s Wanon Niwat District were being monitored by the police and military, while many people were sued for their actions to protect the local environment, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) says.

The NHRC says the actions were common throughout the region, and urged the government to change their stance on local activism and assure public participation for the sustainable development of the region.

NHRC and Amnesty International Thailand on Wednesday led a media tour of the potash exploration site in Wanon Niwat District, as they said it was a vivid example of the freedom of expression and communal rights violations in North Eastern Region.

Sakkaphon Chaisaengrat, a lawyer for local people, said that 120,000 rai of land in Wanon Niwat District is currently granted to China Ming Ta Potash Corporation to survey for the possibility of opening a new potash mine in the area. This has caused a lot of concern among the local people.

“Since the company got the special licence to explore potash in the area in 2015, local people have not been told anything about the mine. They only knew that their hometown will be turned into a mining site when the company set up its office in the town,” Sakkaphon said.

“The people were not told anything about the impacts that they may suffer after the mine is operated, and when the people tried to raise their voices against the project they were harassed by officers and sued by the company.”

He said that activism during the administration of National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) was not easy, as the people in the North Eastern Region were usually seen by authorities as the main supporters of the former government Pheu Thai Party. Activism in the region is often treated by officers with great concern.

He said local authorities are friends of the investors, so they usually protect the interest of the company rather than the people’s rights, which has caused many lawsuits against local activists.

There are at least two defamation and Computer Crime Act violation cases against local people and another case of violation of the Public Assembly Act. Local resident Satanont Chuenta said that the company has already violated people’s rights by intruding into the private land to make a potash survey without the landowner’s consent and protesters were also terrified by the military personnel.

“I have experienced the threatening by both officers and the company myself. When I and a group of local people tried to campaign about the project, I was sued in a defamation lawsuit by the company and I was also sued on the Public Assembly Act for arranging a religious ceremony at the temple,” Satanont said.

“The military officers often visit our communities and their presence makes the people feel insecure and makes them distrust the authorities.”

He said that he only wanted to campaign for a careful development, because the improper development will lead to inevitable environmental problems and land disputes in Wanon Niwat District.

NHRC commissioner Angkana Neelapaijit said that the agency has received many complaints on the issues and the NHRC has already made recommendations to authorities to improve the situation.

“It is the government’s duty to protect the people’s rights and ensure that they can participate in managing local resources. They also have to stop seeing the people as obstruction of the development and prioritise preventing negative impacts from the development to the people,” Angkana said.

The NHRC said that the agency’s statistics showed complaints about rights violations in the justice system were highest in the North Eastern Region, as 26 per cent of all complaints in this region were about unfair treatment by officers, planting false allegations, or injustice in the justice system.

China Ming Ta Potash Corporation manager Thanyapat Wangwongsiri said that the company invested in Thailand via the Memorandum of Understanding between Thailand and China and the company has a right to protect its reputation and operation.

“The people are afraid because of false information and our company’s reputation is also damaged, so it is our right to protect ourselves to seek a solution on court. We do not want to be an enemy with the local people, since we invest here and we are also part of the community,” Thanyapat said.

He said that due to the people’s protest, the company can only survey for potash in two areas, which is not enough to assess the worthiness of the mine, so the company’s team will continue the survey in the licensed area.

“We assure that our operation will not pollute the environment and affect the people, because we also have industrial and mining standards. We are the representative of China’s Mineral Resources Department, so the people can trust our mining standards,” he added.