EARTH Thailand

Gold mine protesters hurt by armed mob and shady deals

By The Isaan Record  20 May 2014

LOEI— Charging with clubs, broken bottles, slingshots, and guns, approximately 300 masked men descended on Na Nong Bong community at 10 p.m. on May 15, villagers claim. Moving under the cover of darkness, and suspected of cutting power to the village, these men had the tactical edge over community members keeping watch at three checkpoints along the road to a controversial mine in Khao Luang District.

The assailants, whom villagers call “Blackshirts,” allegedly beat and held captive forty members of the Na Nong Bong anti-mining group, People Who Love Their Hometown (PWLTH), for six hours.

One hundred Blackshirts raided each checkpoint, which was staffed by about ten village volunteers, community members stated. Villagers claim their feet were bound together and their hands tied behind their backs with strips cloth, zip ties, and handcuffs. Images of the wounds show battered faces and limbs. The Environmental Alert and Recovery Thailand (EARTH) activist group reported at least 20 people sustained injuries from the attack.

PWLTH has been protesting Tungkum Ltd.’s mining operation near their village since 2008 due to the mine’s alleged environmental and health effects.

After six years of protesting against Tungkum Ltd., PWLTH ramped up their strategy against the mining company as a response to being excluded from a public hearing event in September 2013. In October 2013, PWLTH installed three checkpoints for monitoring the operations around the Tungkum Ltd. mine site.

At the final checkpoint, villagers constructed a blockade in an intersection between a public road and Tungkum Ltd.’s access road. The blockade’s location in relation to the Tungkum Ltd. property line is in dispute. Mr. Lertsak Khamkongsak, a community organizer working with PWLTH, states the road was built to cease the transportation of illegal ore after the Tungkum Ltd.’s mining license expired at this site. Since then, approximately ten community members have stationed themselves at each checkpoint for nightly shifts of guard duty.

Prachatham reports that Tungkum Ltd. has since filed seven lawsuits against PWLTH, all of which are pending in court. The cases include three criminal cases of alleged trespassing on Tungkum Ltd.’s property, three civil cases regarding Tungkum Ltd.’s financial losses due to blocked access to the mine, and one case for building an obstruction on the road. In total, Tungkum Ltd. is suing the villagers for over 270 million baht plus 10 million baht per day since September.

Once the checkpoints were secured, the Blackshirts bulldozed the blockade obstructing access to the Tungkum Ltd. mine site. Over the next six hours, the unknown assailants worked to move thirteen trucks full of ore out of the Tungkum Ltd. mine, claim witnesses.

Tungkum Ltd. did not respond to requests for comment.

At 4 a.m., after the last truckload of ore exited the mine, captives and eyewitnesses reported that Blackshirts began untying the hostages.

Community members say it was clear that the attack had been planned. “They had prepared a strategy, they knew how many people we had at the checkpoints,” said Mr. Samai Phakmi, a leader of PWLTH and head of the Subdistrict Administrative Office Council, “The hostages couldn’t have asked for help because they had no time. [The Blackshirts] were so organized, they knew how to disable our checkpoints, they knew our leaders, and they knew when to break down the blockade.”

Witnesses claim they began calling the police at 10 p.m. on the evening of May 15. It was not until three hours after the initial seizure that two police officers arrived.

However, realizing they were outnumbered, the two police officers reportedly left. At 2 a.m., villagers went to the nearby Wang Saphung police station to report what was happening, but according to PWLTH leaders, police did not arrive to investigate the situation until Saturday morning, thirty-six hours after the initial call from the community.

Mr. Surapan Rujichaiwat, another PWLTH leader, visibly shaken by the events, stated that, “In a situation where the law is being broken, we have to fight to get the police involved. It shouldn’t be like that, we shouldn’t have to beg for the police to take action.”

Mr. Samai adds, “If the tables were turned and we attacked the company, we would’ve already been in jail.” There has been no confirmation from authorities that the attacks came from Tungkum Ltd.

Mr. Surapan recounts that on the way to his shift at the checkpoint, “They knocked me off of my motorcycle, kicked me in the face, and asked me over and over ‘Where are you going? Where are you going?’ It was then that I realized my friends were tied up lying face down.”

Mr. Surapan recounts that on the way to his shift at the checkpoint, “They knocked me off of my motorcycle, kicked me in the face, and asked me over and over ‘Where are you going? Where are you going?’ It was then that I realized my friends were tied up lying face down.”

At one point, when he was on the ground, Mr. Surapan claims, “One of the Blackshirts said, ‘Oh, this is their leader,’ and then they started to beat me. They dragged me away from the others and I could hear them counting people by hitting them on their bodies with their wooden clubs.”

Mr. Samai stated, “It seemed like we were in a battlefield.”

Members of PWLTH also claim they were threatened as they were beaten. Mr. Surapan stated, “They threatened me, told me it’s not safe for my wife and kids. They said, ‘I know you well, if you keep doing this, it will not be good for your family.’”

Many people who watched the situation unfold felt helpless. “We couldn’t do anything,” explained Ms. Wiron Rujichaiwat, wife of Mr. Surapan. Disheartened, she continued, “The Blackshirts made it seem like if we attacked them, they would beat or kill those held hostage.”

Ms. Wiron sat and gazed at her husband, who was standing near the road. “My husband was captured,” she said. “He said he could hear them saying, ‘If the people try to charge us, capture them and put them in the trucks, drive away, kill them, and dump the bodies.’”

The most common injuries to those captured were cuts from knives and glass, scrapes, beaten and bruised faces, and one individual reported blood in his urine. Of the forty hostages, seven have filed complaints to the police and only one person could provide the name of an un-masked Blackshirt whom he recognized.

Mr. Surapan explained, around 4 a.m. on May 16, he was untied by a captor who then began to apologize for the violence inflicted upon the community. The captor then attempted to bribe Mr. Surapan. “He offered me a car, money, and a job with [Tungkum Ltd.] if I stopped our protest movement.”

For villagers, this has been a serious turn in their battle against the mining industry. “This conflict is not about making a profit for us, it is about protecting our livelihoods, our food sources, our security… It is not a business conflict, it is about protecting our environment which affects our life, our health, our children, and our family,” said Ms. Wiron.

Recently, on April 22, Mr. Surapan stated that a retired high-ranking military official came to his house, allegedly claiming to be a Tungkum Ltd. buyer and asked if the copper ore from the company mining site could be transported. Mr. Surapan deflected the retired military official’s request and said that he needed to talk to the members of PWLTH.

Mr. Surapan stated that on May 5, he received another visit from the same retired military official, this time accompanied by his son, again requesting to transport the copper ore. Purportedly, they questioned Mr. Surapan, stating, “We just want to buy the copper, why are you making this so difficult for us?”

Ten days after the last contact with the retired military official and his son, the blockade obstructing Tungkum Ltd.’s mine was torn down and pieces strewn about.

During the events of May 15, villagers claim that they recognized the retired military official from his previous visits to Na Nong Bong and heard references to his son on walkie-talkies. It is reported by captives that the mask-less retired military official had physical altercations with a villager and his son was controlling the transportation of ore from the mine that night.

“People were mentioning [the retired military officials’ son] on the walkie-talkie the whole night,” stated Mr. Samai. Those uninvolved with the anti-mining movement know little of the son’s identification otherwise.

Mr. Thanawoot Pimsuwan, Head of the Provincial Administrative Office of Loei province, explained that the retired military official’s son came to his office before the Songkran holiday claiming Tungkum Ltd. would make the retired official’s son the Managing Director only if they transported the copper ore from the site in Na Nong Bong. Mr. Thanawoot advised the son to work through the legal cases with Na Nong Bong by negotiation and more communication with the villagers.

According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, Mr. Thanawoot has appointed himself as a broker to buy copper ore from Tungkum Ltd. Mr. Thanawoot denies this allegation. “Why would I want to be a part of this smuggling business?” he said.

Mr. Thanawoot explained that the moving of minerals from the Tungkum Ltd. site on May 15 is illegal unless the company holds the proper permits from the Mineral Transportation Office.

He urged the villagers to go to the Office of the Governor and request to view the mineral transportation documents to find out if the copper was legally or illegally taken out of the Tungkum Ltd. mine on May 15. Community organizers and members state that the Tungkum Ltd. transportation documents are registered for May 16 and 17, which excludes the transportation of ore from 10 p.m. to 11:59 p.m. on May 15.

“What’s going to happen when it happens again?  It will when they want more copper,” claimed Ms. Wiron. Villagers described a sense of injustice throughout the investigation process and a fear of being ill equipped to handle more violence from gangs and mobs.

She explained, “We have our own way of dealing with finding justice, and it is through the courts, not through violence.”

A local community organizer, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, said, “This is a collaboration of three parties that work as an organization. You can’t say that this is just the company, or just the gangsters, or just the administrative offices, but it is a conflict over the rights to resources and who will benefit most from them.”

Thanawoot, for his part, believes this conflict may be the end for Tungkum Ltd. Shaking his head in disappointment, Mr. Thanawoot said, “[Tungkum Ltd.] has done itself in through this violence against the community.”