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  • Land of their hearts: the Bang Kloi indigenous Karen community on their long road home

    Story by Anna Lawattanatrakul
    Cover picture by Kittiya On-in 

    “We are people, living on the same land, joined together into one forest.

    We are people, living on the same stream, nourishing the plants, nourishing the land.

    We are people. Pha k’Nyaw means people. In our humanity, we are the same,”

    sang Commoner Band singer Natthapong Phukaew at the protest in front of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) on 22 February 2021, surrounded by the lights from protesters’ mobile phones. Natthapong and the other protesters were holding a banner saying “#saveBangkloi,” while one protester held up a placard saying “we are all human.”

    One protester at the BACC protest holding up a placard saying "we are all human." 

    The protest was held to demand an end to human rights violations against the Bang Kloi Karen indigenous community in the Kaeng Krachan National Park, Phetchaburi Province, after it was reported earlier in the day that national park officials, police, and military officers had flown into the Kaeng Krachan forest to evacuate a group of community members who had returned to their ancestral land deep in the forest in mid-January – the third time for the community to be forced out of their homeland after the first evacuation around 25 years ago.

    The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex lies in the rain forest of the Tenasserim Range on the border between Thailand and Myanmar. The vast area spans the borders of three provinces and four conservation areas, one of which is the Kaeng Krachan National Park.

    With an area of 2915 square kilometres, the Kaeng Krachan National Park is Thailand’s largest national park and one of its popular tourist destinations.

    Once, the forest area that is now the national park was home to an indigenous Karen community at the Bang Kloi Bon and Chai Phaen Din (meaning “heart of the land”) villages, which are located deep in the forest. The community was forcibly evacuated in 1997, and once again in 2011, when park and military officials burned down their houses and rice barns, and forced them to relocate to the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi Village.

    Historical evidence, such as a map by the Royal Thai Survey Department dating to 1912 which includes the location of the Chai Phaen Din village, confirmed that the indigenous communities in the Kaeng Krachan forest predate the national park, which was declared in 1981.

    The Supreme Administrative Court also ruled, after the community’s spiritual leader Ko-i Meemi and 5 other villagers filed charges against park officials for burning down the village, that the Bang Kloi-Chai Phaen Din community is a traditional local community in the area, and therefore the officials’ action was unlawful and the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment must pay compensation to the community.

    Despite this, the Bang Kloi-Chai Phaen Din community continues to face unresolved community rights issues, including lack of land and loss of their traditional way of life. They are also not allowed to return to their ancestral homeland.

    This land is whose land?

    “Before [the forced evacuation], the villagers lived comfortably. There were no issues, no going out to demand our rights,” said Pinnapa Pruksapan, or “Minor”, wife of community rights activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, who went missing in 2014 after he was last seen in the custody of park officials.

    “But after 2011, they were burning the land, burning the houses, burning the rice barns. The problems started from that moment. Everyone suffered, and we had to move to Bang Kloi Lang (Pong Luek – Bang Kloi) At first, Billy took Grandpa (Ko-i Meemi) to call for our rights, and he did it according to the procedures, but he had not yet succeeded and had not got anywhere before he went missing.”

    Pinnapa currently lives in Pa Deng village, another indigenous community on the edge of the Kaeng Krachan National Park, with her mother and five children. A poster from Billy’s local election campaign still hangs from a wall in front of the raised bamboo house surrounded by a garden. Before his disappearance, Billy told his wife “The people involved in this aren't happy with me. They say that if they find me, they'll kill me. If I do disappear, don't come looking for me. Don't wonder where I've gone. They'll probably have killed me.”

    Billy's local election campaign poster hanging from a wall at Pinnapa's family home. 

    For the past 7 years, Pinnapa has been fighting for justice for her husband and her community, but the case of Billy’s disappearance appears to have stalled. In September 2019, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) announced that they had found charred bone fragments in an oil drum in the Kaeng Krachan Dam, DNA evidence from which matches Billy’s mother. The DSI then laid charges of premeditated murder, illegal confinement, and concealing a victim’s body against four suspects, including the then-national park chief and two other officials who took Billy into custody.

    Despite this, the public prosecutor decided in January 2020 to drop all but one of the charges, that of official misconduct, against the park officials, citing lack of evidence that Billy had died. 

    Meanwhile, members of the Bang Kloi community continue to face unresolved issues. When the community was relocated in 1997, the authorities promised them that each family would be allocated 7 rai of land each and that they would help the community get Thai citizenship.

    However, they were not given the land they were promised, and the land they did receive was not suitable for growing crops. Many members of the community are also still in the process of getting their citizenship, causing them to miss out on land allocation and welfare.

    Due to these issues, part of the community moved back to Chai Phaen Din, until in 2011 park officials once again forced them to evacuate by burning down their houses and rice storage barns, leading to the court case filed by Ko-i and five other community members against the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in 2012.

    Pinnapa said that the lack of agricultural land forced people to leave the community to find work elsewhere, or take on weaving projects at the local craft centre, while the community’s issues remained unresolved almost 25 years after the first evacuation.

    The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the issues, as many of those employed outside the village began to lose income. In mid-January 2021, it was reported that around 70 members of the Bang Kloi community decided to leave the village and returned to Chai Phaen Din to live according to their traditional way of life.

    The community would also like to perform the final funeral rite for Ko-i, who passed away in 2018 at the age of 107. The ceremony requires his descendants to grow rice on the land at Chai Phaen Din and use the rice to feed people who participated in the ceremony.

    Pinnapa Pruksapan

    Pinnapa said that she felt that the authorities are not making serious efforts to solve their problems, and that they do not care to listen to what the community has to say. She once organised a meeting between the community and park officials, but the national park chief did not stay for very long.

    “For what I feel, it’s like he didn’t take the villagers seriously. He came to talk for a bit, and then he left the room. He said he has urgent things to do somewhere else, so he left. There were many villagers who wanted to ask him about problems with the land. Some people got to ask their questions, some didn’t, but he already left,” Pinnapa said.

    The Bang Kloi community is not alone in their problems, however, as other indigenous communities in the Kaeng Krachan forest also face a similar situation, especially when it comes to lack of agricultural land and legal prosecution when the land on which they have been making a living becomes part of the national park.

    Wansao Phungam, 50, lives in Tha Salao village in the Nong Ya Plong District – another indigenous community on the edge of the Kaeng Krachan National Park. Wansao works on a piece of land she inherited from her parents, but when the government launched the One Map Project in 2016, the borders of the Kaeng Krachan National Park were redrawn and Wansao’s land was included inside the national park.

    Wansao Phungam

    In 2018, Wansao was arrested for encroaching on national park land. The Court of First Instance sentenced her to 3 years and 8 months in prison and a fine of over 2 million baht. Although the Appeal Court later dismissed her case, for the past three years as she has been fighting her case, Wansao has not been able to live on her land and had to leave her home behind.

    “The court asked since what year I’ve been living here. I said I can’t remember, because when I was born, we already had this land. I came to work on it with my mother,” Wansao said. She insisted she has never encroached into the national park area, and has always believed her land to be outside the national park.

    “This is the only property my parents left me, for me to make a living. If they seize this land, then what am I going to do? This is all I have,” Wansao said.

    Thailand’s unrecognised indigenous people

    The communities in the Tenasserim Mountain area are part of the indigenous Karen population scattered through 15 provinces across the country. With a population of around 400,000 – 500,000, the Karen people are the largest of Thailand’s 39 groups of indigenous peoples, none of whom are recognised as indigenous by the Thai state. While the current Constitution mentions the right of “ethnic groups” to live according to their cultural traditions peacefully and without interference, no legislation uses the term “indigenous people”.

    And despite the fact that Thailand, along with 143 other countries, is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the government’s policies and legislation still do not take into consideration indigenous ways of life, and as a result, indigenous communities like the Kaeng Krachan Karen communities continue to face human rights issues from the lack of agricultural land to legal prosecution, lack of citizenship, and loss of cultural identity.

    Members of the communities holding a traditional ceremony to inform the spirits that the event is being held before a discussion on community rights issues on 16 December 2020. 

    Apinan Thammasena, a researcher from the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (SAC), said that Thai society often views indigenous peoples in a negative light, a result of the Cold War situation that pressured the Thai state to aim for assimilation. Indigenous groups like the Karen or other groups in the north who practice rotation farming are often viewed as destructive to the forest, or are believed to be drug traffickers. They are viewed as the Other, which means that those who try to get Thai citizenship must go through a lengthy, complicated process. Not having Thai citizenship also means that they often have a hard time accessing basic welfare.

    Apinan also said that many indigenous communities are often excluded from making use of resources on the land where they live, especially in conservation areas which are viewed by the state as national property that can only be cared for by the government. State conservation policy also often focuses on preserving forest areas without allowing people to make use of it, while the idea that only state agencies can care for conservation areas means that communities are not able to participate in decision-making processes, therefore neglecting the communities’ body of knowledge that can be used in conservation efforts.

    According to Apinan, these problems put the communities at risk of losing their cultural identity, and with it the communities’ body of knowledge and what he refers to as “cultural capital” which the communities can use to manage themselves.

    For the Karen communities at Bang Kloi, Pa Deng, and Tha Salao, the lack of land means that it has become impossible for them to use their traditional rotational farming method, which requires a larger amount of land than what they are limited to by various laws and regulations in order to switch to a different plot of land to allow the forest to recover. Many communities now have to turn to chemical fertilizers, as farming the same land over and over means the soil loses its nutrients, while community members must seek work elsewhere to supplement the income from farming, which is no longer enough to make a living.

    This also causes concerns that traditional crops will one day go extinct. Wansao said that local rice varieties are becoming lost, as they must be grown using the rotational farming method, as well as a particular variety of chilli known as the ‘Karen chilli’.

    Traditional beliefs and ceremonies are also at risk of disappearing. Rung Sanetibang, a member of the Karen community at Huai Kra Su, Phetchaburi, spoke of a tradition where, once a child is born, the child’s umbilical cord is put into a bamboo container and tied to a tree to ask the spirits of the tree to care for the child. However, as the current generation of children are born in hospitals, this ceremony is no longer performed. For Rung, this is the same as severing his people’s ties with the forest.

    Meanwhile, Pinnapa said that her community used to hold an annual ceremony where they used newly harvested rice to worship Mae Phosop, the rice goddess, but because they are no longer able to grow rice due to lack of land, the ceremony no longer takes place.

    “We don’t have the land. We don’t get to grow rice. Our children will not get to see these traditions. They’re disappearing day by day,” said Pinnapa.

    Leave no one behind: from cabinet resolution to an indigenous rights bill

    Signs at the discussion on 16 December 2020, one of which says "indigenous communities have been here before the national park. Arresting people is not the solution to the problem," which another says "Respect indigenous community rights according to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples." 

    There have, however, been previous attempts by the government at creating a policy guideline to resolve issues facing indigenous communities in Thailand. In 2010, the cabinet of the day issued two cabinet resolutions, one on the recovery of the Karen people’s way of life and one on the sea nomad communities.

    Both cabinet resolutions contain guidelines for short- and long-term measures for solving the issues faced by each community, such as the lack of citizenship, land rights, the lack of resources, and how to support their traditional ways of life. The cabinet resolution on the recovery of the Karen people’s way of life also states that conservation zones which overlap with the locations of Karen communities that lived in that area before it became a conservation zone should be revoked.

    However, there have been problems with putting both cabinet resolutions into practice. Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri, the current chairperson of the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand, an indigenous rights NGO based in Chiang Mai, said that local officials often do not acknowledge the cabinet resolutions and argue that the Forest Act is a higher-ranking law and therefore they do not have to follow the resolutions. It has, therefore, become necessary for the country to have a law protecting indigenous rights.

    Several bills are now in the process of being drafted and proposed, one of which is the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand bill, which was drafted by the Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (NIPT) and proposes to set up a formal indigenous peoples’ council to give Thailand’s indigenous population the opportunity to resolve community rights issues in ways that are suitable to their way of life.

    Kittisak said that the Council of Indigenous Peoples bill will allow for the protection of indigenous rights in every aspect, from economic rights to cultural. He said that these rights are not new, but are what the indigenous communities once had and would like to have enshrined in law.

    “We would like there to be policies and exclusive plans that are suitable for addressing our issues, because from what we have seen from the lessons in the past, most policies issued by the government sector are very centrist and very grey, and when they are applied in practice, they don’t really solve people’s issues. Even for the Council of Indigenous Peoples itself, we would like an exclusive plan that actually fits with our needs, and we would like to live according to the traditional way that we want to live. It’s like being able to determine the fate of our own lives,” said Kittisak.

    The NIPT is now inviting members of the public to back the bill in order to propose it to parliament. Thai citizens over 18 years old who would like to back the bill can still do so by sending the necessary documents along with a copy of their ID card to the Council of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (CIPT) in San Sai District, Chiang Mai, before 15 March 2021.

    Meanwhile, the SAC is in the process of drafting another bill, called the Protection and Strengthening of Ethnic Way of Life bill, which will protect indigenous people’s right to choose to live according to their traditional way of life and their access to fundamental rights as Thai citizens.

    Apinan said that the bill is intended to uphold equality and cultural diversity, and to put an end to discrimination. It will also include measures protecting indigenous ways of life, including the declaration of a “cultural protection area” in order to create a mechanism to allow indigenous communities to participate in decision-making processes about conservation and to allow for self-management.

    If passed, the bill would also become a central mechanism for government agencies to use to resolve indigenous rights issues. Apinan said that this bill is not about granting privileges to indigenous peoples, but is about protecting the rights which were previously violated. 

    But new legislation may not be enough if existing laws are not changed. Sunee Chaiyaros, former human rights commissioner and lecturer at the College of Social Innovation at Rangsit University, said in a panel discussion organised by the SAC on 21 January 2021 that Thailand’s conservation forest laws, which are outdated and go against human rights principles, must also be revised.

    Sunee also said that amending national park laws would be beneficial not only to the Bang Kloi community, but also to other communities still living in contested forest land. She said that the Constitution has already recognized community rights, which is also protected by international agreements, but the Thai state has never put this into practice. If new legislation is to be drafted, Sunee said, it must not only protect but also empower the communities and give them the power to determine their own lives.

    The Kaeng Krachan Dam, where the oil drum containing bone fragments likely to be Billy's was found

    Raising awareness among the public about the protection of indigenous culture is also important. Kittisak said that the public still has a bias against indigenous peoples, and that time and serious campaigning efforts will be needed to undo them.

    “It’s like arranging flowers in a vase. If there are a hundred kinds of flowers, then it’s beautiful, but if there is only one kind, it would be a bit plain. If we are to make them see the dimension of beauty, the dimension of benefits, values, I think that the educational system is important. Campaigning is important,” said Kittisak.

    Meanwhile, Apinan said that trying to get the state to change its approach to conservation might be difficult without undoing negative stereotypes of indigenous peoples. It is therefore important to work on reducing cultural bias and communicating with the public to create a society that accepts indigenous ways of life before creating legislation, which he said is only a mechanism for solving the issues but may not lead to understanding.

    There seems to be, however, a glimmer of hope. For Apinan, the Doi Chang Pa Pae Karen community in Lamphun is a success story and proof that it is possible for the community to participate in conservation efforts. The community is part of the SAC’s special cultural area pilot project, which designated certain communities as places in which people can choose to live according to their traditional way of life and take part in resource management, and their work on preventing forest fires has proved that they are capable of caring for all 27,000 rai of forest while making use of only 270 rai each year.

    The Doi Chang Pa Pae community has also become a case study for government agencies to use as a policy guideline, which Apinan sees as the beginning of a change in how government agencies view indigenous people.

    Although there is work still to be done, especially in raising public awareness, Apinan said that there are signs of success. He observed that indigenous communities are now able to raise their voice and speak for themselves and are empowered to use their traditional knowledge to solve various issues.

    “I think that, after 10 years of cabinet resolutions, at the very least there is some kind of signs which show that it could lead to success, not that there is no sign at all,” Apinan said.

    Heart of the land, land of their hearts

    One of the representatives from CSO networks who came to submit a petition to the OHCHR to call for an end to human rights violations against the Bang Kloi community holding a portrait of Ko-i Meemi, the community's spiritual leader 

    Back at Bang Kloi, however, the situation has not got any better. Members of the community have faced intimidation from state officials. During the first weeks of February 2021, park officials, police, and military officers were stationed in the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi village and had been patrolling the area every day, while food donations are blocked at park checkpoints and prevented from being delivered to the community members who returned to Chai Phaen Din.

    Phone signals in the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi village were also periodically cut, while officials were asking for the names and whereabouts of community leaders. There is also a concern that the authorities would forcibly evacuate those who returned to Chai Phaen Din the way they did in 2011.

    After a three-day protest in front of Government House to demand an end to intimidation by state officials, four government officials signed an MOU with members of the community promising to allow the community to return to Chai Phaen Din to live according to their traditional ways, to protect their righs to do so and to follow the policy guidelines stated in the 2010 cabinet resolution.

    The MOU states that, for community members who wish to stay at Pong Luek-Bang Kloi village, the authorities must allocate enough land to live and farm so that they can live securely. The authorities must also order officers stationed at the village to stop patrolling and setting up checkpoints, which is intimidating to community members, and must ensure community members’ safety.

    The community members who came to the protest at the Government House on 15 February 2021

    Despite this, on 22 February 2021, there were reports of helicopter flights taking military units up into the Kaeng Krachan Forest, as well as reports that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment had ordered all community members to be forced out of Chai Phaen Din by 18.00 of that day. By the end of the day, it was reported that 13 community members were detained and taken back down to Pong Luek-Bang Kloi.

    Around 60 people remained at Chai Phaen Din on the night of 22 February 2021, one of whom is Ko-I’s son No-ae Meemi, who cannot walk and asked to be carried by his grandchildren up to Chai Phaen Din during the night of 21 February 2021.

    No-ae has said on several occasions that he would like to return to his community’s homeland, and that he would rather die than be forcibly evacuated again.

    One of the representatives from CSO networks who came to submit a petition to the OHCHR to call for an end to human rights violations against the Bang Kloi community holding a banner saying "no rights, no world heritage site." 

    The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex is on the way to becoming a world heritage site. After having their previous three nominations referred by the World Heritage Committee, who asked the Thai government to first resolve the issues of human rights violations against indigenous communities in the area before applying again, the Thai government will file a nomination for the fourth time at this year’s committee session, which is to take place in June – July 2021 in Fuzhou, China. This has raised concerns among the indigenous communities, who fear that their rights will continue to be violated, should the forest become a world heritage site before these issues are resolved.

    And even though the government may be able to pay compensation to the community, or provide other remedies, for the violence the community has been facing, the time they have been forced to spend far away from their ancestral land, while they faced persistent issues, while priceless traditions and body of knowledge become lost to time – how will the Thai state be held responsible? 

    This report was made with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network.

    26 February 2021
    9090 at https://prachatai.com/english
  • Cartoon by Stephff: Antidictatorshipvac
    25 February 2021
    9089 at https://prachatai.com/english
  • Reversing the damage done by the Rasi Salai dam

    On the banks of the Mun River in northeastern Thailand, communities are still struggling with the impact of a dam that was built almost 30 years ago. After calls for the decommission of the dam were left unheeded, local activists are shifting the focus on the recovery of their livelihoods.

    When Pha Khongtham first heard about plans for a dam close to her home in the northeastern province of Sisaket in 1989 she supported the project. Government officials promised that damming the Mun River would improve irrigation and enable farmers to grow rice up to three times a year. Like many of her neighbors in Rasi Salai district, Pha was hopeful that the dam would help boost their incomes and improve their lives.

    “They even told us there would be more fish in the river,” the 69-year-old Pha remembers. “But in the end our fields were completely flooded and it became even harder to catch any fish than before.”

    The Department of Energy Development and Promotion (DEDP) initially claimed it was building a 4.5-meter rubber weir that would not raise water levels above the riverbank.

    But when the construction was completed in 1993, the Rasi Salai dam turned out to be a nine-meter concrete structure with seven floodgates. It inundated a vast area of wetlands and rice paddies upending the lives of thousands of people in the affected provinces of Sisaket, Surin and Roi Et.

    “The construction of the dam didn’t benefit us but had mostly negative impacts on our lives,” says Pha who became a leader of an anti-dam movement of 200 affected villages in the mid-1990s.

    After almost three decades of intense conflict, mass protests and unsuccessful calls to decommission the dam, in recent years activists’ focus shifted to the recovery of traditional livelihoods, environmental restoration and calls for fair compensation from the government.

    “It’s a shame, we should have opposed the project from the very start,” says Pha Khongtham, 69. For almost three decades, she has been fighting for justice after the Rasi Salai dam upended her life and that of thousands others in the Northeast. Photo by Luke Duggleby

    The Rasi Salai dam was part of a gigantic water diversion plan, the never completed Khong-Chi-Mun project. It was meant to address the northeastern region’s water scarcity, boost agricultural output and produce electricity. But these promised benefits did not materialize.

    Instead, the dam – approved without an environmental impact assessment – had severe effects on the ecosystem of the river and surrounding wetlands which in turn affected the traditional livelihoods of local residents.

    Before the construction of the dam, the local lives in Rasi Salai were intimately tied to the Mun River and its surrounding wetlands which were used for rice farming, cattle grazing and the collection of firewood, grasses for weaving, mushrooms, red ants eggs and other edible and medicinal plants.

    Approved without participation of the public or an environmental impact assessment, the Rasi Salai dam affected the lives of thousands in the northeastern region. Photo by Luke Duggleby

    “Our way of life changed,” Pha says. “Our fields were flooded as were the forests where we used to raise cattle; where we used to catch fish and collect snails, the water became so deep we couldn’t catch anything anymore with our traditional fishing gear.”

    The impact of the dam did not only make it more difficult for villagers to fish but it also affected the river’s biodiversity. According to a 2005 research report by the Living River Association about 15 fish species disappeared between 1993 - 2000 as a result of the dam.

    Sitting on top of large underground salt deposits, the water of the Rasi Salai reservoir has a high level of salinity making it less suitable for crop irrigation. As a result, instead of the promised 5,500 hectares of irrigated land, the dam is providing water for only about 1,600 hectares of farmland. Pha thinks the loss of the wetlands has actually intensified water scarcity in Rasi Salai and disturbed farmers’ traditional water management.

    Locals in Rasi Salai have depended on fishing as a sustainable source of food and income for generations. But as the dam caused water levels to rise, traditional fish spawning grounds disappeared affecting both diversity and the health of fish populations. Photo by Luke Duggleby

    It is estimated that the dam directly impacted the lives of up to 17,000 people according to information from the Environmental Justice Atlas. Many of them lost their farmlands and, in consequence, the foundation of their livelihoods.

    Pradit Koson, a resident of Rasi Salai, used to own more than 50 rai (about 8 hectares) of farmland. But when the dam was built he lost the land that used to yield a yearly income of 40,000 - 50,000 baht.

    “If I still had my land, I’m sure my life would be much better today,” the 62-year-old says. Without any land to farm, he was forced to take odd jobs to feed his family and accept financial support from his son who works in the capital.  

    Pradit received about 1 million baht (about 33,000 USD) for his loss of land in 2009 as part of one of several rounds of compensation that the government launched in the mid-90s after the anti-dam movement had organized large protests.

    Yet as many in the community did not have formal land titles, losses were at first not acknowledged by the government.

    In 2019, the military government of Prayuth Chan-ocha earmarked an additional 600 million baht (about 19,9 million USD) in settlements, or about 32,000 baht per rai of land.

    But many affected locals believe the payments are insufficient to compensate for the dire effects of the dam on their livelihoods and the loss of natural resources.

    “I don’t really want any more compensation payments,” Pradit says. “Instead I want my land, my livelihood back.”

    One of the early protests of villagers affected by the dam in 1995 in Rasi Salai district. File photo by Samakhom Khon Tham

    A scene of an anti-dam protest organized by the Assembly of the Poor in 1996. The banner reads “The Rasi Salai dam destroys the forest and the people.” File photo by Samakhom Khon Tham

    In 2011, the Wetland People’s Association was established to find solutions to mitigate the impact of the dam. Prani Makkhanan who leads the association is working on a joint study with Chulalongkorn University to evaluate the economic loss occurred as a consequence of the dam.

    This process also includes an evaluation of the benefits the wetlands provided to communities in Rasi Salai. Prani hopes that this will help them to assess the full extent to what people lost and lead to a review of the distribution of compensation.

    Prani wants the state to allocate resources to recreate the wetlands, restore traditional local livelihoods and provide public land for the community to use.

    “Although all the land is now state-owned, we want the government to allow us to use this land to gather food, use the forests and raise cattle like we did in the past,” Prani says.

    Prani Makkhanan of the Wetland People’s Association in Sisaket’s Rasi Salai district. Photo by Luke Duggleby

    But even with these new efforts and after almost 30 years of fighting for decommission of the dam, some in Rasi Salai have not given up hope that the concrete structure that upended their lives will one day be dismantled.

    “I want them to remove the dam,” Pha says. “Give us back our land and our natural resources.”

    25 February 2021
    9088 at https://prachatai.com/english
  • Protest leaders denied bail again, detained indefinitely

    Four protest leaders currently in detention pending trial have been denied bail for a third time after spending the past 14 days at Bangkok Remand Prison.

    From left: Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, Parit Chiwarak, Anon Nampa, and Patiwat Saraiyaem

    Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) reported on Monday (22 February) that the Criminal Court once again denied bail for Anon Nampa, Parit Chiwarak, Patiwat Saraiyaem, and Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, after lawyers from TLHR, along with former Thammasat University Rector Charnvit Kasetsiri and former Dean of the Faculty of Law at Thammasat University Panas Tassaneyanond, offered to post bail again using 400,000 baht in cash as security.

    The four activists have been detained for the past 14 days pending trial on royal defamation and sedition charges relating to the 19 – 20 September 2020 protests. Parit is also charged with royal defamation for a speech given at the protest at the Democracy Monument on 14 November 2020.

    The Court denied them bail on the same grounds as previous court orders because they are likely to repeat the offenses, and that there is no reason to change existing orders.

    Being detained pending trial means they are detained indefinitely until the trial is over or until bail is granted.

    TLHR also noted that the judge who isseed the order is Chanathip Muanpawong, who sentenced Ampon Tangnoppakul, or “Uncle SMS,” to 20 years in prison on a royal defamation charge under Section 112 in 2011, after Ampon was accused of sending messages to Somkiat Krongwattanasuk, who was at the time the secretary of then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, which were deemed offensive to the King and Queen. 

    24 February 2021
    9087 at https://prachatai.com/english
  • Explainer: Why do Thais want the constitution amended?

    The Thai protests in 2020 had three demands: the resignation of Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, amendments to the constitution, and monarchy reform. After all the struggles last year, the most promising demand is the constitutional amendment. In November, parliament accepted a motion to amend Section 256 to allow an elected Constitutional Drafting Committee.

    However, constitutional amendment is also a most complicated topic. It involves many technicalities, and yet it affects so many sectors in Thailand. Public figures and numerable groups in civil society have pointed out problems with the constitution for years, but the information is scattered and difficult to find.

    In this report, we have collected as many of their points as possible. The problems of the 2017 constitution include problems over the drafting and approval process as well as problems over content. Some of the problems have lingered from the past constitutions and remain unsolved. Having the information in one place might explain why the Thai protesters have been calling for constitutional amendment.  

    Problems over the drafting and approval process


    • The constitution was drafted in 2015-2016 by a committee appointed by the military junta who came to power through a coup.

    • It was approved by a questionable referendum in 2016. Campaigns for a no vote or abstention were restricted, obstructed, and prosecuted by the police and military.

    • The referendum added a misleading question about allowing unelected senators to vote in the selection of the prime minister and the 20-year National Strategy together with elected members of house of representatives.
    • Before the constitution was promulgated, King Vajiralongkorn asked the junta to revise 7 of its sections even though it already passed the already questionable referendum. His request was followed.

    Problems over the content

    About executive power 

    • Section 272 allows parliament, in the first five years of the constitution, to nominate an outsider prime minister who does not have to come from an election.

    • Section 88 allows political parties at a general election to nominate candidates for prime minister without them having to be elected members of the House of Representatives.

    • Chapter 8 on the Cabinet does not require cabinet members to be members of the House of Representatives, allowing the putschists to appoint cabinet members of their own choosing.
    • Section 252 allows “other ways” apart from elections for individuals to come into power in local government. Even though local administrations are currently elected, the government may make use of this clause in the future to come up with new local administrators without them having to be elected.     

    About the unelected senate

    • Section 107 said that after the first five years, there will be 200 senators, down from 250 during the first five years.

    • Section 269 allows in the first five years of the constitution the putschists to appoint 250 unelected senators. 6 senate seats are reserved for the Supreme Commander of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, the Permanent Secretary for Ministry of Defence, and the Chiefs of the Royal Thai Army, Royal Thai Navy, Royal Thai Air Force, and Royal Thai Police.

    • Section 270 allows the 250 unelected senators in the first five years of the constitution to vote together with the House of the Representatives on laws which the cabinet considered as relevant to National Reform according to Chapter 16. 
    • Section 271 allows the 250 unelected senators to vote together with the House of Representatives on a law consideration of which was withheld by the senate or the house, if that law exonerates a member of the legislature, judiciary or executive of malfeasance or seriously affects the administration of justice.

    About the election of Representatives

    • Sections 90–91 mandate a Mixed Member Apportionment System for Thai general elections. The Organic Law on Elections and the 2017 Constitution as interpreted by the Election Commission appointed by the putschists, allowed a strange system for calculating the votes needed for a party to successfully seat a part-list MP which resulted in the emergence of pro-government “micro-parties,” one of which earned a seat with as few as 35,000 votes nationwide or 0.1% of the total votes

    About the continuation of the putschists’ power 

    • Sections 65 and 275 have allowed the putschists, also known as National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), to appoint a committee to draft a 20-year National Strategy to be imposed on future governments.
    • Section 279 legalizes the orders of the NCPO, thus giving them political amnesty.
    • Seven organic laws to the Constitution allow the NCPO to meddle into the selection process of the independent bodies including the Constitutional Court, the Election Commission, the National Ombudsman, and the Anti-Corruption Commission. These independent bodies have returned the favour by acquitting the establishment of legal charges and attacking their political opponents.
    • An anti-coup clause in the 1997 and 2007 Constitutions to the effect that “a person shall have the right to resist peacefully any act committed for the acquisition of power to rule the country by means which is not in accordance with the modes provided in this constitution” is not found in the 2017 Constitution. 

    About religion

    • Section 31 mentions the right to the freedom of religion but not the right to freedom of thought and conscience. Puey Ungphakorn had proposed that this should have been added to the 1974 Constitution to provide a legal basis for conscientious objection.

    • Section 96 restricts the right of Buddhist monks to vote. Section 133 says that only eligible voters have the right to propose laws. Laws related to monks are imposed on them without their say.

    About public health

    • Section 47 (1) says that “an indigent person shall have the right to receive public health services provided by the State free of charge as provided by law.” The term “as provided by law” was added to the 2007 Constitution.

    • A clause to guarantee that “a person shall have the right to receive comprehensive and efficient public health services from the State”, which appeared in Section 51 (2) of the 2007 Constitution, is not found in the equivalent section of the 2017 Constitution (Section 47).

    • Section 47 (3) says that “a person shall have the right to the protection and eradication of harmful contagious diseases by the State free of charge.” The term “prompt” before “protection and eradication” was removed despite its existence in the equivalent section of the 2007 Constitution (Section 51). (A mistranslation from Thai to English by the Office of the Council of State also added “as provided by law” to this section.)

    About marginalized persons

    • A clause to guarantee equal access to education for people with disabilities, the poor, and people in hardship, which appeared in Section 49 (2) of the 2007 Constitution, is not found in the 2017 version.

    • A clause to guarantee the equal right for the people with disabilities to get access to, and make use of, welfare, public facilities, and appropriate aids from the state, which appeared in the Section 54 of the 2007 Constitution, is not found in the 2017 version.

    • A clause to guarantee appropriate aid from the state for homeless people and people with insufficient income, which appeared in the Section 54 of the 2007 Constitution, is not found in the 2017 Constitution, which instead combines the state’s obligation to provide appropriate housing with strengthening the family, health promotion, and excellence in sports in Section 71.

    About the monarchy

    • Section 6 gives the King immunity from any violation, accusation, or legal action. 

    • Sections 10-14 establish the Privy Council, a constitutional body which the pro-democracy protesters want to abolish as unnecessary. 

    • Section 15 (1) says that “the appointment and removal of officials of the Royal Household shall be at the King’s pleasure.” Section 15 (2) says that “the organisation and personnel administration of the Royal Household shall be at the King’s pleasure as provided by Royal Decree.” The protesters call for the abolition of the Royal Household by dissolving unnecessary units in the Royal Household and transferring the units with clear duties (for example, the Royal Security Command) to other agencies.
    • Section 16 says that “whenever the King is absent from the Kingdom or unable to perform His functions for any reason whatsoever, the King may or may not appoint one person or several persons forming a council as Regent.” The Section provides grounds for the protesters’ call for the German government to investigate whether King Vajiralongkorn governed Thailand from German soil.

    About lack of process to solve a constitutional crisis

    • Section 5 (2) says only that “whenever no provision under this Constitution is applicable to any case, an act shall be performed, or a decision shall be made in accordance with the constitutional conventions of Thailand under the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State.” After King Vajiralongkorn’s intervention to change the draft before final approval, a clear process for deciding the definition of “constitutional conventions” was removed. In a former draft, the Constitution said that Section 5 (2) shall be implemented by the President of the Constitutional Court convening with the House Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition, the President of the Senate, the Prime Minister, the President of the Supreme Court, the President of the Administrative Court, and the Presidents of Independent Organs to vote on the matter.

    Difficult amendment

    The amendment process under the 2017 Constitution is harder and more complicated than those of the 2007 and 1997 constitutions. Section 256 of the 2017 Constitution is central to the problem. Under the previous constitutions, parliament required only a majority vote to pass a motion. There was no specification over the percentage of votes required from members of the House of Representatives or members of the Senate.

    Under the 2017 Constitution, a proposal can be made either by the cabinet, one-fifth of the current members of House of Representatives, one-fifth of members of House of Representatives and Senate, or 50,000 citizens eligible to vote. When entering the floor of parliament, the proposal will go through three readings.

    The first reading is to approve the principles of the constitutional amendment. It requires at least one half of the total votes in parliament (375 from both the House of Representatives and the Senate). At least one-third of the unelected senators is also required to pass the motion.

    The second reading considers the constitutional amendment in details. These shall be approved by a majority vote of parliament. If the amendment is proposed by citizens, the citizens who have proposed the amendment can send a delegate to speak in the parliament.  If the motion passes the second reading, there is an interval of 15 days before the third reading begins.

    The third reading also requires a majority vote of the parliament. However, that majority must also include one-third of the Senate, and 20 percent of MPs from all political parties which do not hold positions as cabinet members, Speaker of House of Representatives, or Deputy Speaker of House of Representatives.

    Even though there have been prohibitions against changing the form of state in every constitution throughout Thailand’s history, there has been no restriction against amending specific chapters or sections. Even then, some sections are more difficult to amend than others under the 2017 Constitution.

    After the third reading, there will be an interval of 15 days before the Prime Minister sends the final draft to the King to sign. However, the government must hold a national referendum if the constitution amendment involves Chapter 1 (General Provisions), Chapter 2 (The King), or Chapter 15 (Amendment to the Constitution).

    The government must also hold a referendum if the amendment involves qualifications and prohibitions of persons holding the positions under the Constitution, the duties or powers of the Court or Independent Organs, or rendering the Court or an Independent Organs unable to act in accordance with its duties or powers.

    If the amendment is suspected of being unconstitutional, one-tenth of the total number of the current members of parliament has the right to file a joint petition with the Constitutional Court where it shall be decided within 30 days whether the draft would amount to “changing the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State or changing the form of the State” according to Section 255. 

    Thanks to the pressure from the nationwide protests, the parliament started working to amend Section 256 in November last year to remove the specification on the number of votes from the House of Representatives and of Senate, and to set a requirement that the government must hold an election to establish a Constitutional Drafting Committee for future constitutional amendments. 

    However, amendment of Section 256 would have to pass through the whole process as mentioned above, which would take at least 4 months from the parliament to the referendum. So amendment of Section 256 would be complete in March or April.  

    But a motion was passed on February 9, with a majority mostly from by the ruling Palang Pracharath Party and the Senate to refer the amendment process to the Constitutional Court, supposedly to establish that the proposed amendment was legitimate.  Many saw this move as a deliberate attempt to hijack the process and delay it even further, since the court could take months to reach a ruling.

    Even without this detour, it was anticipated that the elections for the Constitutional Drafting Committee would take around a year to complete if and when Section 256 was successfully amended.

    At this rate, the process of amending the constitution may last longer than the life of the current government, which ends at the latest in March 2023. 

    24 February 2021
    9086 at https://prachatai.com/english
  • From Saleng to factories: Vulnerabilities & limitations of the recycling business

    A look at the recycling industry in Thailand from top to bottom. Despite its important role in recycling waste in the country, it still faces various limitations and vulnerabilities that are only understood by those on the inside.

    The saleng or tricycles which buy old stuff are important to waste recycling in Thailand. The constant sight of saleng and the business of buying waste which can be seen all over the country is proof that garbage is valuable.

    According to data from the Pollution Control Department, the national volume of waste in 2016 totalled 26.19 million tons, of which only 4.82 million tons, or 18%, could be recycled. 76% of what was recycled came from the saleng and recycling businesses. In 2019, Thai PBS reported that Thailand generated a total of 28.7 million tons of waste, of which 12.6 million tons was recycled and 9 million tons was plastic. These figures reflect an improvement in the country’s recycling efficiency.

    Aluminium cans in storage, awaiting either crushing or sale.

    Plastic Atlas, a 2019 publication by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a foundation which has a close ties to the German Green Party, conducted a survey of 763 garbage collectors in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and showed that 65% of the respondents earned their main source of income from selling garbage. This shows the economic importance of garbage in several parts of the world, particularly in developing countries.

    Even though waste has become valuable, insiders are aware of the vulnerabilities of this occupation, hemmed in by state policies, laws, as well as people in the business themselves.

    Headaches at the bottom of junk supply chain

    The bustle typically seen in a middle-class and student residential area like Soi Suea Yai Uthit (Ratchadaphisek 36) is merely a front for a large one-stop area at the back to sell, buy, and deliver garbage, which is connected to Soi Lat Phrao Wang Hin, home to more than 300 saleng drivers’ families and many junk shops. Along the roadside, one can see all sorts of waste displayed for sale, ranging from glass bottles to old car bodies.

    Saleng and huge piles of junk are a common sight at Soi Suea Yai Uthit.

    Ket Yoti, 58 years old, is one of those who have been affected by plastic and paper waste imports by the Thai government, just like other saleng drivers, with drastically lower prices for paper arising from a policy to import garbage from overseas which made the headlines in 2018 as China stopped waste imports from other countries. The reality of waste imports, put simply, was renting the country as a garbage dump, which affected the environment to the point where China stopped their imports.

    Ket Yoti in her garbage-filled house.

    The closing of one garbage can in China opened up others in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The influx of waste without investment in buying, storage and sales, was followed by auctions to take the waste to the factories. Imported waste consequently has a cheaper price than waste from recycling. When supply increases, it lowers the price of junk goods the market, according to market mechanisms.

    Chaiyut Phonsen, President of the Saleng and Junk Shop Association, gave the example of the price of cardboard, one of the most commonly found household materials, which plunged between January and May 2019. The buying price for cardboard paper at furnaces dropped from 6 baht per kg to 5 baht per kg. in Mar–Apr and later to 2 baht per kg. in Sep–Oct. At such low prices, traders earned almost nothing after transportation and other costs.

    Plastic has faced a similar fate. Chaiyut said that small factories from China had been opened to take imported waste for recycling, but not junk from saleng. When it was like this, large factories that used to be able to sell recyclable materials could no longer continue to do so, and had to ask for waste import quotas to reduce costs in order to compete with the small factories. As a result, domestic recyclable waste could not be sold, or was sold at a low prices.

    Saleng drivers receiving bags of goods at a charity event held by the Re-users and Recyclers Trade Association in May 2020.

    Ket told us in an interview in July that prices had fallen. Previously he earned 300-400 baht a day from selling junk he had collected. But now, he had to make 2 trips to get the same money. The policy to solve the paper price problem was yet to reached the saleng drivers at some shops, as the storefront buying prices varied. Some shops still offered 1.10 baht. Moreover, the debt from buying a saleng on instalments, which sometimes were bought on instalments from a junk shop, was another factor to consider, because many times, the instalment was deducted from the sale.

    “[Prices] fall very easily. When we went to complain, they went up only slightly. But don’t think that the increase is the same everywhere. It is not. Some shops raise it by 10 or 20 satang. Others just reduce it.”

    “Simply put, are you satisfied to sell to me? If you are not satisfied to sell to me, you cannot sell to any other shop because it is my saleng. You have no choice but to sell to me”.

    Ket also said that saleng often had their weight of their goods cut by the junk shops claiming that the goods were contaminated with other material, for example, when selling lead or necklaces, the weight was cut on the pretext that they were mixed with iron. Or the paper price was cut again after the shops also had their prices cut by the factories because they had sprinkled water over the paper to add weight before it was sold.

    Vulnerabilities of traders

    Thawat Krairak, owner of Thawat Recycle, a junk shop which he claims as one of the largest on Soi Suea Yai, told us that business was booming in the past. The growth of Thawat Recycle, which came from seeing a business opportunity by his father who collected waste, was confirmation of his hypothesis.

    Thawat Krairak

    Thawat said that the junk shop business had been heavily hit in 2019, when iron prices in the recycling industry drastically declined because iron imports from China caused iron prices to drop extremely rapidly from 11-12 baht to just 2-3 baht in the course of 2-3 months, costing Thawat several hundred thousand baht.

    Having learned the lesson from the import of paper and plastic and the resulting price mayhem, people in the junk industry consulted each other, which eventually led to a gathering of stakeholders at the Ministry of Commerce.

    A crate of copper wire. Copper is one of the highest priced waste traded in junk shops.

    Thawat said further that, after 11 meetings and a push by the Minister of Commerce, a policy to guarantee the price of paper was passed. The price of paper, though not no better than before, did not worsen. In the beginning, the factory-set price was 3.20-3.50 baht, which later slowly rose to the point where Thawat’s shop could buy cardboard at 4.60 baht and coloured paper at 2.50 baht (data as of September 2020).

    Following those negotiations, a group of saleng drivers and recycling businessowners got together and founded the Saleng and Junk Shop Association in 2019 as a channel of news and information about the recycling business, and to register saleng to provide information, share news, and negotiate with the government. The Association has succeeded in giving the occupation of saleng drivers, who had not been able to register professionally, a certain status. Thawat himself was one of the founders.

    The establishment of the Association was a noteworthy gathering as clearly serving as negotiators with the government in terms of waste management on the side of capital. Prior to this, Association members were also part of the push against foreign plastic waste import quotas until the government decided in September 2019 not to import plastic waste.

    Tax: Burden of the recycling business

    In order to open a junk shop legally, there are many processes to pass through. According to the Control of Sale by Auction and Trade of Antiques Act B.E. 2474 (1931), business owners must possess one license for the auction and trade of used goods per shop. They must be commercially registered under the Business Registration Act B.E.2499 (1956). In addition, recycling shops are regarded as used goods shops or sites conducting activities dangerous to health according to the Public Health Act B.E. 2535 (1992) and the Ministry of Public Health Announcement No. 5/2538, which requires payment of a commercial registration fee and annual fees according to the local rate set by each municipality or Subdistrict Administrative Organization, commonly known within the cycle as the “socially repulsive tax”. According to the Saleng Association, the tax rates range from 1,000-10,000 baht per year.

    A worker at Thawat's shop unloading scrap from a pickup truck.

    Thawat told us that tax was something business owners and saleng drivers were deficient in and did wrong. One of the reasons was that both business owners and saleng drivers lacked knowledge about the taxation system. At Thawat’s shop, an accounting firm was hired to do the job. Since that cost him tens of thousands of baht per month, it was difficult to imagine how small- and medium-sized businesses could shoulder such high costs. The Association planned to discuss this matter with the Revenue Department in order to create understanding on the junk business for the future.

    Another point of concern among junk shop circles is value-added tax (VAT), which they have to pay upon buying and selling garbage. The intermediary companies linking junk shops and factories usually manage and pay VAT after receiving payment from the factories. However, some brokers sneak the tax money into their pockets and vanish. Not paying tax also means that they can set a higher price than those playing by the rules, skewing the junk market.

    Chaiyut explained that these mechanisms emerged because factories were not the ones buying the junk themselves as their payment system was on a credit basis, which would only be settled every 7-15 days and junk shops could not afford to wait that long. And that was where the brokers came in. If the brokers’ failed to pay VAT, the Revenue Department found out when it was already time to close the books at the end of the year, when they knew there was something wrong because at that time, the factories submitted requests for tax refunds. Many times, the junk shops that sold stuff to the brokers also got prosecuted.

    A void waiting to be filled in the recycling business

    How serious are the organs of the Thai state regarding waste reduction and management policies? According to October 2020 data from the Customs Department, Thailand still imported 8,715 tons of plastic waste under HS Code 3915 (plastic waste, parings and scrap) from 22 countries, with imports from China being the largest, worth a total of 10,038,664 baht.

    At the same time, even though saleng trading in junk plays a significant role in terms of waste management in the country, they still have questions about the limitations of price mechanisms. The Plastic Atlas report suggests that using market mechanisms to manage recycling waste is problematic in that when an item has no economic value or is worthless, it will be instantly ignored by garbage collectors. For example, some areas in Thailand do not accept coloured PET bottles (such as green soda bottles) or milk cartons due to storage costs and the long time required to collect before sale.

    Tara Buakamsri, Country Director of Greenpeace Thailand, sees that recycling is only a fraction of the solution to the problem of waste management because the production process has by-products like toxic fumes and wastewater from industrial processes, and recycling still cannot completely convert all materials into their original substances. Thus, in recycling, there is something called “downcycling” – a process in which the recycled material becomes of lower and lower quality until it is eventually no longer usable.

    “When we look at the impacts of recycling, if we weigh whether recycling has more benefits than not recycling, we have to look at the entire cycle, including the life cycle of each particular product, because recycling is only a small part. If we could design packaging that is more reusable and more durable and can be used more times, we would not need recycling in the first place because reuse does not involve an industrial process.

    “Reuse may have a very low impact compared to recycling because the industrial process of recycling produces wastewater, waste, and residues as byproducts, requiring waste management in the process”.

    A void waiting to be filled in policy

    In 2016, the NCPO government drafted a policy-level plan on waste management as a national agenda item based on the 3R concept (Reduce/Reuse/Recycle). The goal is to promote a zero-waste society.

    According to the National Waste Management Master Plan (2016-2021), a concrete, effective, and sustainable approach to waste and hazardous waste management involves building the capacity of saleng drivers to manage waste and hazardous waste by supporting a system of saleng and junk shops and of community recycling activity networks and recycling markets to increase alternatives and channels for waste sorting.

    Chaiyut said that this initiative had not met with much success. He wants the state sector to be more serious  about the 3R policy. If possible, as the first step, he proposed the registration of saleng, like the government has done with farmers, to allow them to get assistance if they get into trouble, as saleng are crucial to bringing scattering waste into the recycling process.

    The Country Director of Greenpeace Thailand proposed that the state’s perspective on waste reduction was still fixated on waste incineration for energy, which favoured capitalists under the Pracharat policy, who operated many waste-to-energy incinerators. The solution to this policy inadequacy could come from a law on environment-friendly waste management pushed by the people, which should be rolled out in parallel with the people’s draft constitution because they are related issues.

    “The current Constitution may guarantee the peoples’ current rights to a certain extent. But if the mechanisms under it guarantee the peoples’ rights no better then this as regards environmental rights, because incinerators or waste management are not only about waste, but also about resource management, then plans for economic reform and environmental reform must go together. If we look at waste management in a fragmented way, it’s over,” said Thara.

    24 February 2021
    9085 at https://prachatai.com/english
  • Regional lawmakers renew call for release of Philippine Senator de Lima

    JAKARTA - 24 February 2021: On the fourth anniversary of Philippine Senator Leila de Lima’s prolonged imprisonment, parliamentarians from across Southeast Asia today expressed their collective solidarity with her and renewed their call for her immediate and unconditional release.

    Leila De Lima (Source: APHR)

    “It should never be a crime to challenge the authorities or hold them to account. This is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy and ensures that those in power are kept in check,” said Wong Chen, a member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and Malaysian lawmaker. “Senator de Lima’s detention represents the worrying state of democracy region-wide and the rise of authoritarianism, which we must work relentlessly to push back against to protect fundamental freedoms.” 

    Senator de Lima has been one of the most vocal critics of President Duterte’s deadly anti-drugs policy, and has remained in detention since her arrest on 24 February 2017 for alleged drug trafficking charges. Prior to her arrest, she launched a Senate investigation into extrajudicial killings under the current administration. Her legal proceedings have also faced significant delays and at least six judges have withdrawn from hearing her case.

    Most recently, on 17 February, the Senator was acquitted in one of her three cases, after a Regional Trial Court granted her demurrer to evidence application (a motion to dismiss based on insufficiency of prosecution evidence). Her applications for bail and demurrer in another case were however denied, and she remains in detention until the resolution of her two pending cases.

    “While we welcome the judge’s decision to acquit Senator Leila de Lima in one case, the charges against her were politically-motivated from the start and should never have been brought in the first place. The continued judicial harassment and prolonged detention are harsh reminders of the administration’s zero-tolerance for political dissent and critical voices,” added Wong Chen.

    Regional lawmakers also noted that Senator de Lima’s case reflected a broader trend of harassment and intimidation, not only on fellow parliamentarians, but on dissent in Southeast Asia.

    In a report published last year, APHR found that at least 27 opposition lawmakers in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines have been investigated or charged for merely carrying out their parliamentary mandate. Tactics used were similar to those deployed against human rights defenders, journalists, and other pro-democracy activists, and part of a wider attempt to silence opinions.

    “As regional lawmakers, we continue to stand in solidarity with Senator de Lima until the day she walks out a free person. She has now spent four years in prison and none of the cases against her have resulted in a conviction. Her unjust detention must end now, and we urge the Philippine authorities to allow all lawmakers to carry out their mandate effectively without fear of reprisals,” Wong Chen said. 

    24 February 2021
    9084 at https://prachatai.com/english
  • Letter from Prison: Penguin to His Mother

    A letter from Parit 'Penguin' Chiwarak, a prominent activist, monarchy reform devoter and one among the 4 pro-democracy protest leading figures who are under indefinite detention awaiting lèse-majesté trials after a bail was rejected by the court on 22 February.

    Parit Chiwarak and his mother.

    Dear Mother,        

    Six years ago, you did not stop me when I started out on the path to democracy by holding up a sign protesting Prayuth. You did not forbid me from choosing my own path. You only warned me that struggle might come with a price. I decided that day to accept paying such a price to travel down the road in which I believed. 

    My decision that day has led me to pay the price over and over again. The price has come in the form of legal case upon legal case and threats of every sort, including death threats. These are the costs I have borne thus far. But not once have you left me to face the cruelty I have met on the path to democracy alone. You always embrace and encourage me, and today the price I have to pay has reached the level of sacrificing my freedom to maintain my beliefs. The struggle now taking place behind bars in one in which pressure is placed upon my body and soul, and and in which suffering is inflicted which does not leave a visible trace. 

    The feudal dictatorship wants to destroy your son from within. They want to make your son so hopeless, dejected, and weary that he steps off the path he has chosen to walk. But your son never loses heart with the path in which he trusts because he knows that you will never leave him alone on that long and difficult path. 

    You embrace  and stand next to me in encouragement every time I have to pay the price for democracy.  Even more so this time, as I heard you decided to join the “Walk Through the Sky” event with Older Brother Pai. This makes me especially happy because I know that while I am struggling inside here, you have not abandoned me and have joined my struggle outside. Because of this, my body and soul are strong enough to surmount the trials that I must face. No matter how long it is, I will endure and be steadfast in struggle to maintain the principle that this land belongs to every one of the people and is not the personal property of a single individual.  There is no institution greater than the people.

    I want to thank you, mother, for understanding, accepting and providing encouragement throughout on every step I have taken on this path during the past 6 years of struggle. I apologize if the path I have chosen has taken away precious time that a son should give to his mother. But I believe that you understand well that you did not only give birth to a son, but you gave birth to a thinker, dreamer and fighter of the world. Your son’s fight is not only for himself, but for the future of every mother and son in this land. I hope very much that you will be proud that your son is a fighter, just as I am proud that you, my mother, is a fighter. 

    Every day and night, no matter where I am, I dream of the time when the long-standing Thai feudal dictatorship will collapse and the Thai people will rise to be the rightful owners of the country.  That will be the day when I no longer have to go out to fight against feudalism anymore and I can return home into your embrace, mother, who loves me and whom I love the most of all in my life.  For now, I will look after myself and keep my soul and dignity as a fighter intact until the day I am released and can embrace you again. Our family will be warm, happy and together, as every family in Thailand should be.

    Before long, the son who has left you will return,

    Love and miss you the most,


    Zone 2, Cell 7

    Bangkok Remand Prison

    23 February 2021

    24 February 2021
    9083 at https://prachatai.com/english
  • Floods: Persons with disabilities and dealing with the 2011 flood, and new waves of floods in the future

    Article by Kotcharak Kaewsurach
    Cover picture by Kittiya On-in 

    “It is said that people with disabilities are the last to be thought of compared to what happens. Ask if it is like that in the various plans that are drawn up. Disabled people are like any other people; the plans focus on the reactive and being helped. That help did not recognize their needs.”

    In 2011, Thailand faced the most severe flood in its history. Information from the National Hydroinformatics and Climate Data Centre, Hydro-Informatics Institute (Public Organization) thaiwater.net, set the damages from the flood: a total of 65 provinces were affected with 657 deaths, 3 missing, 4,039,459 households and 13,425,869 people affected, 2,329 houses destroyed, 96,833 houses partly damaged, and 11.20 million rai of agricultural land and 13,961 roads damaged.

    Although there are no figures to indicate how many people out of the entire population faced flooding that year, it is still enough to know that disabled people at that time faced difficulties to a greater or lesser degree, including aid and evacuation which were not comprehensive, and improper care. Disabled people had difficulty in adapting to deal with the situation.

    Even though up to today there have been no other floods as big as the one in 2011, Climate Central’s report on BBC news points out that climate change has caused a rise in sea levels with the risk of coastal floods. It is predicted that more than 12 million Thai people will be affected from the increase in sea levels. Bangkok is at risk of being flooded by 2050. This includes disabled people.

    We went into the field and talked to people with disabilities, rescuers, and researchers about their concerns and hopes, projecting the problems in the 2011 flood into the future, and whether there any methods or mechanisms. Because there have been a number floods throughout the past year, such as in the north in August and the south in December, it is necessary to be ready for a new wave of floods.

    Pathum Thani: Flash flood area where disabled people could not adapt in time

    Wanlop Sali

    “In 2011, the flood kept rising to the point that we couldn’t stay and we had to escape. At that time, 5-6 people were needed to carry me onto a truck, both me and my wheelchair and my things. After that I had to go to stay in Ratchaburi with my older sister.”

    Wanlop Sali is currently the Director of Pathum Thani Centre for Independent Living. In the year of the flood, he was one of the people that had to escape the flood to a safe place. Wanlop pointed to the level of water that entered his house. Although it was not too high for normal people, it was not a good thing at all for a severely disabled person like him.

    Although he didn’t have to stay in the middle of masses of water for months, Wanlop is able to narrate the problems he faced as a severely disabled person. He said that in general, some groups of severely disabled people cannot urinate by themselves and need to use a urine bag which needs to be changed every 10-15 days. A consequence from the flood is infection.

    Evacuation centres lacked facilities

    There were many other people with disabilities who were not able to leave the area due to many different problems, including worry about their home, poverty, having no relatives or anywhere else to stay . The Centre Director pointed out that most disabled people in the area need to stay in shelters which were mostly temple buildings raised above the water levels. Of course, that was followed by the problem of a lack of facilities for disabled people.

    “The reason for turning the temple into an evacuation centre was because the temple buildings are raised high, such as the sala kan prian (sermon hall). But if they could choose, disabled people would not like to stay there because there aren’t any facilities. Disabled women especially have to change their sanitary pads and pampers, but there aren’t any separate rooms or a private area. Many would think that it’s inappropriate and the disabled people feel ashamed. They had to take off their clothes and excrete in public or in places with a lot of people like the shelter; it was distressing.”

    After the Centre recognised the importance of temples as evacuation areas, they tried to provide information on facilities for disabled people. But the temples did not seem to understand, so it did not achieve much, and so they built facilities near a small meditation centre nearby. They also accepted donations to build a bathroom for disabled people who visit the place, and if something happens in the future, it will be of use.

    “There should be a place that a state agency is responsible for. They should organise a place that disabled people can use. There should be an agency which is directly responsible during disaster situations. Where are disabled people, and how are they living? How will we notify disabled people so that they can relocate during floods?

    “Another issue is that understanding how to help persons with disabilities is something important. There was a case where someone helped a disabled person but did not also take his wheelchair. A non-disabled person probably didn’t think how important a wheelchair is to a disabled person. I want you to try to think that when you go out of the house you’ll think of shoes. Disabled people are like that as well. A wheelchair is a disabled’s most important part. It’s like our feet that takes us places. Let’s say we don’t take our wheelchair with us and we are taken to a shelter; that disabled person won’t be able to go anywhere, and will just sit there and be a burden.”

    Post-flood mechanisms

    From the 2011 incident, the Pathum Thani Centre for Independent Living understood and recognized that preparation is important. They arranged training on giving support to disabled people during disasters. The project ran from 2012 to 2014, focusing on training young people in schools in districts in Pathum Thani on helping, supporting, moving, or dealing with the disabled, such as helping them up and down slopes, moving up and down stairs, taking them to the toilet, getting them into and out of bed, and on and off a boat.

    Wanlop told us that he focused on young people because they learn easily and understand flexibility. Teaching them will enable them to know how to help disabled people in the future. If something happens, these young people will be able to correctly help disabled people. Unfortunately, the project did not continue since the province, which was responsible for allocating the budget, saw it as redundant since the province later also organised a similar event. However, the Centre Director affirmed that both the administrative format and target groups of the two projects were different and there was still a lack of participation in management.

    Agencies in the state sector saw that recently there has been increased interest, but there is not yet a plan to manage and help with anything. As a person working for disabled people in the area that has yet to see it, he hoped that at least there would be an evacuation centre that could support disabled people in the district or subdistrict for easy access.

    Ayutthaya: repeated floods but lacking long-term assistance

    Aree Thongthiengtham

    As in Pathum Thani, the lack of preparation and information is still something disabled people face, especially during floods. Aree Thongthiengtham, President of the Ayutthaya Association of the Disabled talked about the problems she faced in 2011. The shelter for persons with disabilities did not understand disabled people as well as they should, there were problems with the bathroom  and access to the building, there was no slope, and it lacked facilities. Disabled people who were stuck at home did not receive help. She had to take at least 6 people through the floods to the east since they could not stay there. As a member of the provincial Association of the Disabled, she volunteered to be a representative in coordinating the work and saw the problems that existed.

    “Some disabled people had to sleep on the second floor and weren’t able to change their urinary catheters. They weren’t able to go out anywhere. They had to stay at home. A province which floods often like Ayutthaya never has any proper preparation or preventive measures despite being a repeated flood and water catchment area. There should already be systematic management. In the 2011 incident, we had to take 6-7 disabled to the Redemptorist Centre, because if they stayed here, there was nothing ready to support them.”

    There should be an evacuation centre that is disability-friendly

    Ayutthaya gets flooded often. Apart from 2011, Ayutthaya has been flooded all the time. For example, in 2017 there were floods in Bang Ban and Sena districts, but there was too little preparation. Aree said that she has yet to see any long-term support mechanisms where local people with disabilities can voice their opinions or participate. An evacuation centre for the disabled has never been created, either location or personnel.

    The question is why these things have never been thought about. Ayutthaya has around 20,000 people with disabilities, Phachi district has around 600 people – why is it not done? In the past, we see that equipment and locations were not at all prepared for disabled people. For people with the money, relatives can take them to a safe place. But people without the money or power have to stay in these places. As the state holds the resources, she thinks that this is it the responsibility of the relevant governmental agencies to start pushing for a solution.

    Other than her concern for the future, she is also worried about the work of officials in the area because floods or crises in the past have shown that the Provincial Social Development and Human Security Office still needs to perform the main functions in terms of people and issues. The number of workers is small and there are many problems. The people with more roles are local working groups, and the subdistrict and district administrative organisations, rather than the central agencies for disabilities, especially in her district.

    “After the big floods, there was some talk in related agencies on how things should be done. There were various seminars. The province arranged to have a flood prevention plan, learning lessons from the problems that had occurred, and tried to find solutions. They should have information and details that will help them work easier when there is a problem. It was a plan where they went into the field to observe at what points there were disabled or vulnerable groups that needed special care. Disabled people should have some kind of symbol. The subdistrict administrative organisation where I am also does this, but I’m not sure about other places.”

    Rescue and helping people with disabilities in floods

    Samroeng Phonrat

    One of the important agencies for rescue during floods is part of this. Samroeng Phonrat and Khanakon Buaket, officials at the Office of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, Bangkok, told us about their work in 2011 and the scope of their duties which became lessons for their work and developed into a framework for future assistance, including preparation, approaches to assistance and prevention, from the experience of disaster to evacuation.

    Samroeng Phonrat, head of the Bang Khun Thian Fire and Rescue Station, in 2011 was an Experienced Level officer at the Bang Khae Fire Station, responsible for Bang Khae, Nong Khaem and Phasi Charoen. He said that rescue workers’ main responsibility was to help disaster victims who were stuck in their houses, especially the elderly and children, as well as bedridden disabled people who could not get out themselves. They had to move them to a safe place for an agency or relative to pick up from there.

    Khanakorn Buaket, Experienced Level Disaster Prevention and Mitigation officer, talked of the work approach based on core principles for rescue agencies. There are many, from essential operational planning, to safety awareness, establishing an understanding the types of disability and the different kind of assistance that each requires, and the limitations of the disabled. These will be analysed jointly while providing assistance. For example, warnings needed to be sensitive to certain disabilities, such as deafness. Symbols, lights or messages need to be used instead of sounds.  For blind people, warning signs or images may be inappropriate. A system of sounds and vibrations should be installed. In general, warnings of emergencies must use more than one channel and use concise, easy to understand language.

    Additionally, an understanding of disability is still necessary, since it impacts the methods of assistance in accessing and dealing with, for example, the blind, deaf, and wheelchair users, in terms of readiness with equipment, safe relocation methods and respect for human dignity. Khanakorn said that these were the rough principles in rescue work, but all of this requires preparation and regular training.

    Increase in bedridden patients

    Samroeng told us that although there been no recent flood as severe as in 2011, there are still cases involving bedridden patients and they are increasing. The reason is because Thailand is an aging society. There was an attempt to identify vulnerable groups for easier management in emergency situations. Boundaries were planned in a communal process with flags or symbols used to tell which house or group needs special assistance. It is a way of prioritising work. Having contact information for relatives helps make work easier.

    Samroeng said that once, there was the case of a bedridden patient who died from smoke coming from a nearby fire, because no one knew that there was a bedridden patient lying there. So it is very important to have specific information for officials to understand which points they must be aware of, not just the scene of the incident, and to be able to help in time.

    Disaster management plan for persons with disabilities revealed

    The Disaster Management Plan for People with Disabilities, 1st Edition, 2017-2021, shows the development of a plan for the disabled in disasters. This plan was created by the Strategy and Planning Division, Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPD), Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS), with the vision “persons with disabilities and their caretakers are safe in disasters” and 3 strategies which are:

    1. Develop measures, reduce risks and prepare for disabled people and their caretakers in disasters. For example, evaluate the situation, make a community disability plan, make a preparation manual for dealing with disasters, develop warning systems for volunteers/persons with disabilities, prepare evacuation shelters and centres. The responsible agency is the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, MSDHS.

    2. Develop a disaster management system and efficiently integrate operations in disasters. For example, integrate collaboration between agencies and networks in disaster management, set up warning systems, identify communication channels, create evacuation shelters and centres and a safe area management system. The responsible agencies are DEPD, MSDHS and disability organisations.

    3. Increase efficiency in the rehabilitation and treatment of disabled people and take care of disabled people in a comprehensive and fair manner in all respects, such as developing manuals on rehabilitation and care, survey data on problems, adjust the environment post-flood, and promote access to benefits and treatment. The responsible agencies are DEPD, MSDHS and various disability organisations.

    Universal Design should not be overlooked

    Sawang Srisom

    Sawang Srisom is Project and Planning Manager of Transportation For All  and member of the “Disability and Disaster: Empowering People and Building Resilience to Risk” research team. This has allowed him to see more of the problems of the power and adaptability of disabled people in disaster situations.

    Lack of preparation was something Sawang could see. He assessed that the policy of providing assistance is still reactive and lacks recognition of the needs of the disabled. The disability management plan for floods is still short on details, especially with regard to Universal Design. He said that helping people with disabilities should not be seen as welfare.

    “In the end, Universal Design is essential. We’re not worried about having to go to an evacuation centre. When something happens, we can understand that. It’s just that basic needs should be accessible, and we should be able to use it with human dignity. As for the various methods of help, officials or volunteers should have to undergo training. It’s not just assistance, but assistance in the correct way. Disabled people should be asked about their needs, don’t think for them, or take over.  This is the reaction of the disabled.

    “Actually, international conventions or laws on persons with disabilities like the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) or the Incheon Strategy also talk sketchily about the principles. But the important thing is the domestic plan which still lacks coverage. It doesn’t look at the needs of each individual or respect the privacy rights of a person with disability. In the plan it says to help the disabled first. Facilitation and needs should also be included in the plan. While there is nothing happening, it should be improved to be user-friendly and efficient. Because when something happens, it will be okay.”

    Sometimes possible, sometimes impossible – structural issues

    An organisational structural issue is one thing that has caused problems for working with persons with disabilities. This was reflected in problems during the flood which showed us why some sectors were able to work well with support plans, but why was it that some parts were still lacking. There had been no attention paid or there were no plans, and if there were, they lacked participation. This lack of information integration between organisations meant that working with persons with disabilities and disasters was overlooked. There was no host or main agency responsible for this work.

    “I think that the issue of the organisations of the disabled themselves is important. It may be a structural problem of disability organisations in our country as well the fact that they’re separated into types, not issues. Like the association for the blind has to take care of education, has to take care of disasters, has to take care of travel, etc. One organisation has to take care of many issues. In the end they choose just some issues. It may be something people are very interested in or something funders are more interested in. If funders are not interested in disasters, there would be no push for it. Some issues may be seen as something distant. Separating work according to disability types is also difficult. This may be a disadvantage.

    “A finding from research says that some agencies are not attentive to this issue, and we can’t really blame them. Disability organisations have limitations with a lack of resources. When there are not many personnel – 1 person looks after 10 issues – it decreases work efficiency. Pushing forward various issues then becomes worse or does not progress. Maybe there should be a talk on how disability organisations in Thailand should work, especially in this situation where one organisation takes care of various issues and there is always overlap. Like education, which is being done by every disability association, but none of the organisations do it together.

    “For this, the Department of Public Disaster Prevention and Mitigation and the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities should work together. I understand that in the past there was no host who could get these 2 organisations to meet, and both organisations have the status of departments. An interesting point is that, for persons with disabilities, there is not much on the issue in the DPDPM. While in the DEPD, there are few who are interested in disasters. What should we do in order to have the 2 organisations meet and bring the knowledge of the two organisations together, which seem to be working separately today?”

    This report was made with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. 

    23 February 2021
    9082 at https://prachatai.com/english
  • Arundhati Roy Defends Democratic Space for Discussion and Dissent

    Department of English, Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok organised an online reading and discussion titled “The Pandemic, (Necro)Politics and Literature” with Arundhati Roy on 20 February (The link to the discussion).

    The event was moderated by Professor Verita Sriratana who was joined by the guest panelists Palin Ansusinha, Judha Su, Chalita Setthachayanon and Pattanun Arunpreechawat. The panel discussed about a wide range of significant subjects, from democracy and dissent to the choice of language in postcolonial writings.

    However, the most intriguing aspect of the panel was that it did not only include experts or academics but students who also availed this opportunity to look at Roy’s writing and locate themselves in the context of their socio-political placement in it. Sitting in her home with what seemed like installation art of crowded books behind her, Roy spoke in her usual nonchalant style while playing with her wild hair and discussing about the infinite space of fiction, spectrum of marginalised characters in her work, current state of democracy and climate change.

    Much like Roy’s writing (non-fiction, in particular) that has “polis” at the centre stage as she invokes a sense of solidarity among the masses, the panel discussion provided a democratic space for all the participants to make their cases. In “Do Turkeys Enjoy Thanksgiving?”, Roy implores the readers: “When will you stop waiting? When will you say ‘That’s enough!”  It’s this personalised approach and subjective appeal of her writings that has made her both a literary darling and an anti-national entity to both her ardent admirers and equally (or even more) zealous detractors. It is this allegiance to “polis” that was maintained during the event as Roy didn’t hijack the panel and allowed for a more inclusive space where all the panelists could participate in an equally significant manner. The discussion succeeded in drawing parallel between the ongoing protests in India and Thailand, their portrayal in popular media and the role of intellectuals in stirring public discourse regarding matters of social importance.

    Even though a few attendees expressed their feedback suggesting that Roy should’ve been given more time to talk, the panel succeeded in doing what it aimed to do; first by stirring a discussion and second by building a democratic space in the panel which will innovate this kind of receptiveness and openness in academic and intellectual circles in the public sphere. As a Booker-winner for her debut novel who started writing about the issues that many felt should be left to the experts, Roy challenged the remoteness of conventional academic scholarship that is inaccessible for the common masses back in 1998 (or even earlier when she published reviews of the Bandit Queen).

    During this discussion, Roy adopted a similar attitude to streamline the issues that are important and create a space that is easily accessible for the “polis” that is directly affected by these issues. The discussion ended on the right note as Roy read out her desire “to never complicate what is simple, to never simplify what is complicated” to communicate to ordinary people what is happening in the world. And that is what this event rightfully did, thanks to Roy and the fervent panelists.

    About the Author: Urvi Sharma is an Assistant Professor working in Mehr Chand Mahajan DAV College for Women, Chandigarh. She is currently pursuing her PhD research on the critical reception of Arundhati Roy’s Writings. 

    23 February 2021
    9081 at https://prachatai.com/english