Urgent Alert:  Environmental and community W/HRDs are facing repeated death threats in Nongbua Lamphu Province

 

Bangkok, 23 September 2020. Protection International is extremely concerned about the repeated death threats that leaders from the Women and men Human Rights Defenders (W/HRDs) community in Nongbua Lamphu Province (north-eastern Thailand) are facing as they continue their struggle to permanently shut down a quarry mine affecting their health and environment.


The threats against Mr. Lertsak Kumkongsak arise from
a struggle against a mining operation in his community,
continuing the fight of four other W/HRDs
who lost their lives fighting this same fight.

 

Since 13 August 2020, the day in which the community W/HRDs of Khao Lao Yai-Pha Jun Dai Conservation Group have been occupying the entrance of the quarry mine situated in the Dong Mafai Sub District (Suwannakuha District, Nongbua Lamphu Province), Mr. Lertsak Kumkongsak, has received repeated messages hinting that he is on ‘a hit list’.

 

Mr. Lertsak is an environmental rights defender and an advisor to the Campaign for Public Policy on Mineral Resources (PPM), coordinator of the Ecological and Cultural Study Group as well as the Network of People Who Own Mineral Resources.

 

After reclaiming a 175-Rai area (28 hectares) from the mining operation and successfully declaring it a ‘community forest’ zone on 4 September, the W/HRD group plans to reclaim an additional 50-Rai (8 hectares) of land on 25 September 2020.  The previous action took place one day after the forest utilisation permit expired, and the company could not renew their lease due to prior permit illegalities. Similarly, this new action will start one day after the mining permit expires.

 

As the protest action nears, men carrying weapons, including guns, repeatedly approached Lertsak and verbally threatened him, saying precisely that his assassination was commissioned and he will be shot if he does not back down from protesting against the mining operation.

 

Anecdotal evidence leads many to believe that the owner of the mining company, perhaps with the involvement of the government’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), has commissioned the planned killing of Lertsak. In several incidents, many people, suspected to have close ties with ISOC, have monitored and surveilled Lertsak closely.

 

The community declared its intent to shut down the mining operation forever, as the project lacks lawful community consent as well as the legal health and environmental assessment from the relevant agencies. The mining project has faced opposition from the community since 1994. Between 1995-1999 four members of the community were killed, namely Boonrawd Duangkota, Sanan Suwan, Thongmuan Khamjaem, and Som HomPromma, for speaking up in opposition to the construction of the mine.

 

Protection International in Thailand has documented more than 70 cases of killing and enforced disappearances of community-based both women and men human rights defenders in Thailand over the past 50 years. Most of the perpetrators remain free and have never faced justice. There has been little or no progress in the investigation of attacks and threats made against community-based women human rights defenders.

 

Protection International calls on the Thai authorities and National Human Rights Commission to ensure the safety and protection of Mr. Lertsak Kumkongsak, other staff of the Campaign for Public Policy on Mineral Resources (PPM), and other community W/HRDs in Dongmafai who continue to defend their community and environment. The primary responsibility for protecting human rights defenders rests with the State. Four lives were already lost in this struggle: it is the duty of the state to guarantee that W/HRDs suffer no further harm.

 

Thai authorities, especially the Royal Thai Police, the Ministry of Justice, ISOC and The Provincial Governor of Nong Bua Lamphu, must ensure that both administrative and security authorities exercise their utmost power to provide safety and protection to the Khao Lao Yai-Pha Jun Dai Forest Conservation Group during the blockade and their activities. They are simply exercising their rights according to the Constitution and they must be able to do so without fear of reprisal.

 

Protection International calls on all stakeholders, especially the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights to take urgent, concrete action to ensure the Thai government and agencies protect Mr. Lertsak Kumkongsak while there is still time. Protection International asks them to use their resources to ensure the Thai Government and all relevant enterprises immediately end practices that encourage killings, intimidations, and judicial harassment.

 

We also urge all stakeholders to strengthen their methods of work and develop a more proactive strategy to reach out to human rights defenders in need of protection. The diplomatic community and UN agencies should be more vocal and publicly call for action when human rights defenders are at risk or are murdered.

 

Background

 

Khao Lao Yai-Pha Jun Dai Forest Conservation Group is an environmental W/HRD community-based group struggling against quarry mining in Dongmafai Subdistrict, Suwannakuha District, within the Nong Bua Lamphu Province. They have been struggling for over two decades to stop the mining operations, which lacks the due process required for such a mining project.

 

Sadly, this has led to the killing of four members of the group between 1995 and 1999. Thus far, only one perpetrator has been brought to justice and has been convicted for the crimes.

 

As an estimation, the daily explosions from the mining sites, which cause noise pollution and damage to households due to falling debris, affect around 4,000 people residing in six villages close to the mining sites. Mining activities are also hindering the villagers’ access to food in the nearby community forest, since 175 out of 200 hectares are marked as mining areas.

 

The group demands to rehabilitate the forest and transform it into a conservation zone. Thailand’s Department of Fine Arts, under the Ministry of Culture, have registered some parts of the area as an important archaeological site, since mural paintings – estimated to be 2,000-3,000 years old – were found in the caves of a local cliff. According to the new 2017 Mining Act, a forest area containing watersheds or archaeological sites must be exempted from mining. Although the reserve in Dongmafai Sub district has both, authorities are still allowing the company to continue its mining operations.

 

In 2004, due to unsatisfactory fulfilment of regulatory requirements, the Administrative Court revoked the company’s permit to exploit the forest and its mining license. However, the Supreme Administrative Court later overturned this decision in 2010 – when the mining permit was about to expire – and, instead, the company’s license was renewed for 10 years. It is now due to expire on 24 September 2020.

 

In 2018, after the local residents filed a lawsuit, the Udon Thani Administrative Court revoked the company’s second mining permit and ruled that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, as well as other government agencies, had failed in ensuring public participation, as required by the constitution, before granting the mining permit to the company. However, the company appealed the decision and the mining operations are still ongoing.

 

Despite the local residents’ strenuous opposition to exploit the forest, which goes against the legal principle of obtaining a mining license, the company still sees its permit renewed. The Khao Lao Yai-Pha Jun Dai Forest Conservation Group has found a number of illegalities. Backhanded stratagem were used during the renewal procedures at the sub district administrative level in order to get the forest reserve approved for mining exploitation despite the villagers’ opposition. A mark designating an area as minable was found in a cave containing an archaeological site.