EARTH Thailand

Supreme court acquits all protesters in Hat Yai gas pipeline riot

Bangkok Post 21 October 2015 | Achara Ashayagachat

SONGKHLA — The Supreme Court has dismissed riot charges against all 32 defendants arising from their protest in Hat Yai against the Thai-Malaysian gas project 13 years ago, in a ruling delivered on Wednesday.

The court in Songkhla spent two hours reading out the judgement, which upheld the acquittals handed down by the two lower courts. The demonstrators included villagers, researchers, community and religious leaders, and NGO activists.

The Supreme Court ruled that the demonstration on Dec 20, 2002 was lawful as the protesters had no intention of instigating violence or of attacking police. The riot was due to an abrupt change of plan by riot police led by then-Pol Col Surachai Suebsuk and Pol Col Kamronwit Toopkrachang, who decided to confront and disperse the protesters, the court said.

The protesters faced charges of incitement, carrying items that could be used as weapons, harming officials doing their duty, disobeying police orders to disperse, causing damage to private and public property, and blocking roads.

The court cited prosecution witnesses in ruling the demonstrators had no intention to cause a public disturbance or to instigate violence. The witnesses included junior police officers on duty at the scene and Watcharaphan Chantarakachorn, an adviser to then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and coordinator with community leaders nationwide.

The protest was held in Hat Yai, Songkhla. Villagers, mostly from tambon Sakom and Taling Chan in Chana district, were strongly opposed to the new gas pipeline and gas separation plant. They gathered outside the JB Hotel in the southern commercial hub, where a cabinet meeting was being held on Dec 21, 2002.

Villages affected by the project were denied participation at the two public hearings organised two years before the clashes occurred.

As the opposition to the projects grew, Thaksin pledged in January 2002 to reconsider the project after meeting with protesting villagers.

Months later, he made a U-turn and ordered construction to proceed just a kilometre away from the initial site. The decision enraged the two communities.

Banjong Nasae, an NGO leader who was a coordinator with Thaksin's adviser, told Mr Watcharaphan that 1,000 villagers planned to protest against the decision on Dec 20 before attending the cabinet meeting.

The court said Mr Watchaphan was more familiar with the villagers than other police officers, and knew there was no violent confrontation planned, as feared by some police.

"If the protesters had intended to assault the authorities, they could have done so more violently as they outnumbered the police. Also, witnesses have testified that the villagers honestly had fears about the environmental impact, so their demonstration was a justified cause, and constitutionally legitimate," said the court.

Sulaiman Madyusoh, 47, a former Islamic teacher in Talingchan Tadika School and now a village deputy chief, called the ruling "the best verdict for all community environmentalists".

"It reaffirms that we have done the right thing, caring about our neighbourhood and livelihoods and speaking up in a peaceful manner. Villagers elsewhere should not be discouraged, but be steadfast in their cause," said Mr Sulaiman, a key defendant.

Ratsada Manuratsada, one of the lawyers, said it was a pity all the defendants were handcuffed while the judgement was being read out. 

"We expect the same treatment as senior police officers, including former police chief Gen Sant Sarutanond, received when hearing the related verdict on Nov 27 on charges the villagers filed against them, for unwarranted dispersal of a lawful demonstration," said Mr Ratsada.