THAILAND: Protect human rights defenders fighting corporate mining in Loei province

According to information provided by Protection International Thailand and the Khon Rak Ban Koed Group, in 1996, the Thai Department of Mineral Resources approved Tungkam Limited's (TKL) gold mining license applications in Wang Saphung District in Loei Province. TKL is a subsidiary of the Tongkah Harbor Public Company Limited, which has Australian and German financial support.
However, since 2009, there has been clear evidence of the detrimental effects of the mines on the health, agriculture, and livelihood of the surrounding villages. A report released in February 2009 by Thai government officials warned residents to refrain from drinking the local water or using it to cook due to elevated levels of cyanide, arsenic, cadmium and manganese. In 2009, blood tests of local people also showed that the level of toxic heavy metals far exceeded safety standards, while water, soil and farmland were found to have been contaminated with heavy metals.
On 8 February 2011, the cabinet ordered a halt to the gold mining operation in the area pending a proper study on the impacts to the local community's health and the environment. In September 2013, a public hearing was held on the planned gold mine expansion in Wang Saphung District in Loei Province. The hearing captured media interest after local villagers were blocked from entering the hearing venue by approximately 700 police officers.
The villagers in the communities surrounding the mine in Khao Luang have suffered a myriad of consequences from the mining operation, but very few benefits. They suffer health consequences and their water is poisoned. Very few villagers are employed by the mine and they have not received any financial compensation for the negative effects they have suffered. Therefore, since 11 October 2013, the villagers have been blocking the road the mining operator uses to deliver minerals.
In response to the villagers' action defending their rights, TKL has taken legal action. TKL has filed seven criminal and civil lawsuits against 33 villagers. TKL has sought to lay criminal charges on the villagers for trespassing and loss of property and TKL has alleged that 7 villagers trespassed on the company's compound on 11 October 2013. The company has also taken civil action against 20 villagers. TKL has demanded compensation of 50 – 70 million Thai Baht (approximately 1.5 to 2.2 million USD) from each villager; the total amount of monetary compensation being sought by TKL is 270 million Thai Baht (approximately 8.3 million USD).
Mediation between TKL and the community members has been planned for 3 June 2014 and will take place at the Loei Court. A judge from the Loei Court and the National Human Rights Commissioner, Niran Pitakwatchara, will act as mediators to bring the parties together and create a dialogue in an attempt to work out a solution to the dispute that both parties can agree upon.
Concurrent with the initiation of legal proceedings, villagers who are leading the protest against mining operations are also facing intimidation and threats.
In September 2013, a public hearing was held on the planned gold mine expansion in Wang Saphung District in Loei Province. The hearing captured media interest after local villagers were blocked from entering the hearing venue by approximately 700 police officers. The police forces were commanded by Major General Sakda Wongsiriyanon.
In October 2013, the villagers built a barricade in front of the entrance to the mining site. However, the blockades were overthrown twice by the authorities in the same month. Major General Sakda was involved, directly and indirectly, in the attempts to destroy the barricade.
During this time, community leaders were also threatened by fake bombs planted in front of their houses. General Somyot Phumpanmuang, who was the Deputy Commissioner of Police at the time, also held a position as a director of TKL. As a result, the police were never able to ensure the security of the community members. No progress or follow up action was taken by the police in relation to the bomb threats.
Between October to December 2013, community members saw a number of strange men in their area who they believed were gunmen from the Chonburi area. To determine the identities of the men, the community members checked their car registration information. Other strange men with guns were also seen. As a result, the community arranged for four check points to prevent people from coming and destroying their barricade.
On the night of 20 April 2014, the mining operator sent a middleman to talk with the village leader, offering to withdraw three of TKL's lawsuits against the villagers in exchange for the lifting of the barricade so that TKL could move the mined copper out from the mine.
On the morning of 21 April 2014, a convoy of trailer trucks accompanied by a number of smaller vehicles with concealed licence plates drove through the villages to the mine. Later that day, Lieutenant General Poramet Promnak entered into the house of Mr. Surapan Rujchiawat, the leader of the Khon Rak Ban Koed Group. Lieutenant General Poramet was accompanied by 15 men wearing black. Four of these men claimed to be soldiers. Lieutenant General Poramet demanded that Mr. Rujchiawat lift the barricade to allow through trucks transporting copper ore from the mine. The information from the court hearing indicates that the amount of copper ore in concern was worth 300 million Thai Baht. The villagers set up a team to check that the trucks did not contain amounts in excess of that allowed by the law and also to prevent people from coming to threaten the leaders.
On 23 April 2014, Mr. Pramote Pansit, the son of the management director of TKL, telephoned Ms. Samai Pakdee, one of the members of the Khon Rak Ban Koed Group asking to negotiate. Lieutenant General Poramet Promnak also called to ask for a follow up meeting but later cancelled the meeting after learning that Mr. Pramote Pansit had already called.
Mr. Pansit's proposal offered the villagers 20% of TKL's shares in the mine and that the company's profits will be shared with the locals through a fund. TKL also agreed to conduct their mining operations without the use of cyanide in gold and would allow six of the village residents to monitor the mining operations at any time.
Mr. Thanawat Timsuwan, the head of the Loei Provincial Administrative Organization (PAO) has appointed himself as a broker to buy copper ore from TKL. He has offered to give 5% of the profits to the local community in exchange for transporting the products of the mine over public roads. This would involve the destruction of the barricade and rebuilding it after the transportation is completed. A representative acting on behalf of the villagers in the negotiations set a number of conditions prior to the negotiations. The representative sought guarantees from TKL that it will not transport any copper prior to the negotiations. TKL were to disclose their buyers and show the agreements between TKL and their intended and actual buyers. TKL were also asked to show the licences approved by the agencies involved. TKL's representative at the negotiations was also asked to bring a letter of authorisation to show that he had the power to act and make decisions on behalf of TKL.
There are close links among the military, local authorities and private capital figures involved in mining in Loei. Currently, both Mr. Thanawat Timsuwan and Major General Sakda Wongsiriyanon act as consultants to the Sermthappaisan Companies Group. Lieutenant General Poramet Promnak has also claimed that he has close ties with the Timsuwan family. The Timsuwan family has strong influence over the mines in the province and has been accused of being involved in the murder of Mr. Prawiean Bunnuk, the leader of a teacher's association who struggled against stone mining 19 years ago. Given the broader atmosphere in which the status of human rights and the rule of law are at stake in Thailand, the AHRC wishes to stress that it is essential that the rights of the members of the Khon Rak Ban Koed Group and the villagers in the area affected by mining in Loei province are protected. The AHRC is concerned that the growing crisis at the national level in Thailand and the compromised position of independent organizations may create a political vacuum in which the violation of rights is facilitated and securing protection and accountability are more difficult. This case recalls the series of cases of intimidation and assassination of community and environmental activists which took place ten years ago in which close ties between state officials and private capital left HRDs with few avenues of protection (See “Appendix I: Collusion and influence behind the assassinations of human rights defenders in Thailand”). The AHRC calls on concerned parties to take action on behalf of the HRDs fighting against the negative effects of mining in Loei province as well as to continue monitoring this case closely.