Tyrell Haberkorn, PhD Candidate, Cornell University
Note: This is the edited version of a document that was originally submitted to the 84th session of the UN Human Rights Committee by the Thai Working Group on Human Rights Defenders under the title, ‘In struggle and sadness: The lives and deaths of eighteen human rights defenders under the first Thai Rak Thai government, January 2001 – January 2005’ (March 2005). The original version was submitted along with the translation of a report from Fa Dieu Kan magazine (‘Pradap wai nai lokaa’, vol. 2, no. 4, October-December 2004) on the recent killings of 18 human rights defenders. Summarised details of 14 cases follow, which are based upon translations of the originals by Tyrell Haberkorn.
In recent months, Thai and international human rights organizations, United Nations bodies and various governments have criticized the declining human rights situation in Thailand. In 2003, under the so-called ‘War on Drugs’, over 2500 alleged drug offenders were extrajudicially killed. Nearly two years later these killings have yet to be officially investigated. Since January 2004, the three southern border provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat have been under martial law. Over 500 people have been killed since then, at the hands of both insurgent groups and state military and police forces. In two notable incidents, the Krue Se Mosque massacre on 28 April 2004 and the Tak Bai massacre on 25 October 2004, large numbers of civilians have died at the hands of state officials. Simultaneously, press freedom has been markedly curtailed over the past four years, spectacularly evidenced by the libel case against journalist and human rights defender Supinya Klangnarong. In its January 2005 assessment, Human Rights Watch noted that the diminishing respect for human rights that has marked the first government of Thaksin Shinawatra “accelerated sharply in 2004”.
Yet, despite the worsening human rights situation, in February 2005 Thai Rak Thai and Thaksin Shinawatra were re-elected to office for another four years. Amid widespread questions about voting irregularities and election tampering, Thai Rak Thai captured 375 of the total 500 parliament seats, effectively creating a one-party government. On 9 March 2005, Thaksin Shinawatra was officially voted into the office of prime minister by Parliament. Dismissing concerns that a one-party government was tantamount to parliamentary dictatorship, Thaksin proclaimed the election as indicating an overwhelming mandate for his continued rule.
Within the context of Thaksin’s recent re-election, this article considers the assassination of 18 human rights defenders under the first Thai Rak Thai government (January 2001-January 2005). Not limited to any one region of the country, these murders claimed the lives of a diverse range of women and men, village leaders, students, and lawyers who shared a commitment to protecting their communities and working for justice. They opposed rock quarries, fought for community access to forests, and defended southern Thai Muslims accused of being ‘terrorists’. In some cases, either state or private interests were targeted by their actions. However, in the majority of cases it was a combination of both.
The 18 stories of murdered human rights defenders appeared in the Fa Dieu Kan magazine in late 2004. A brief introduction to the stories made three insightful observations. First, the rise in assassinations of human rights defenders has been concurrent with a broader mobilization of citizens to demand justice. Second, the strategies employed by the human rights defenders, especially those engaged in environmental struggles, have grown increasingly savvy and ingenious. As a result, the opportunities for capitalist investors have markedly decreased. In turn, this may have increased the frequency and types of violence used against them. Finally, the harsh and often inflexible response to various activist and people’s groups by the Thai Rak Thai government, especially Prime Minister Thaksin himself, has caused the groups to be branded ‘enemies of the state’. This has caused private investors and other opponents of these struggles to become even more emboldened in their actions.
While not a new phenomenon, the collusion between state and private interests in the murders of human rights defenders appears to have increased under Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai government. In accounts of the lives and deaths of human rights defenders in Thailand during recent years, there have been many references to the presence and actions of ‘influential figures’ (phu mi ittiphon). For example, influential figures demanded that Chaweewan Pueksungnoen cease her opposition to a sub-district construction project in Nakhon Ratchasima. Influential figures in Chiang Mai allegedly have links with the local landowners that Kaew Binpanma challenged. In the case of Supol Sirijant, who defended a community forest in Lamphun against illegal logging, influential figures are alleged to have protected the poachers. In Bo Nok, where Charoen Wat-aksorn was assassinated, influential figures cooperated with investors and civil servants to appropriate ocean front land for their own use.
The concept of influence has long been present in Thai politics. Yoshifumi Tamada describes the difference between power (amnat) as official authority derived from law and influence (ittiphon) as authority beyond or outside law. Nidhi Eoseewong further argues that the non-legal origins of influence make it difficult to control or resist.1 When he wrote his analysis of influence in 1991, Tamada was not hopeful about democratization in Thailand, as he felt that the relationships between those in civil service bureaucracy with power and those with influence outside was stable and mutually beneficial.2
While many different sectors of Thai society mobilized rapidly in the 1990s and after, the backlash from state and private interests has been fierce. In a recent book, Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker argue that this mobilization has posed a tremendous challenge to big business. Pointing to the intersection of state and business in development projects, they explain that “the rural protests challenged the right of the state to manage natural resources needed for promoting urban growth”.3 Many of the struggles waged by the assassinated human rights defenders concerned the control of natural resources within their communities. In some cases, they fought large-scale projects, including rock quarries, coal-fired power plants, and paper factories. In other cases, they defended the right of their communities to continue using local natural resources, such as the forests. At issue here is not only the natural resources themselves but also the right to make decisions governing the protection and use of those resources.
Citing the problem of the overarching power and decision-making structure encompassing state and citizens, Metha Matkhao, coordinator of the Thai Working Group on Human Rights Defenders, explains that there is collusion at local and national levels among civil servants, politicians, and business people.4 In some cases, the form of collusion between private and state interests is quite explicit. After the assassination of Pakwipa Chaloemklin, who opposed the construction of an inland port in Ang Thong province, an investigation revealed that a local member of parliament was part of the group that requested permission to build the port. Before his assassination, Khampan Suksai helped to stop forestry department officials from using their official position to log the Baan Pa Bong community forest illegally; one of those officials was arrested for the murder. The participation of influential figures and collusion between state and private interests in other assassinations is more difficult to discern.
In her 2004 report on Thailand, UN Special Representative on human rights defenders Hina Jilani notes that violations emerging from collusion between private interests and local or provincial government officials is of concern.5 Most frequently, human rights defenders who suffered violations “were seeking to raise concern with regard to the economic, social, and cultural rights implications of a planned activity by individuals or companies from the private sector” (p. 20). While concentrating on assassinations of human rights defenders, she notes that violations also include threats, intimidation, arrests and surveillance. Many human rights defenders are threatened and intimidated verbally or physically before being killed. Jilani adds that she “is concerned that in its effort to strengthen development the government may actually be supporting violations of the right to development”.
While in many cases the state cannot be identified as directly involved in harassment, threats and violence against human rights defenders, unequal application of the law is more clearly evident. Jilani notes with concern that the law is vigorously applied against human rights defenders, but then not used to fully investigate or prosecute the violations of their rights. Further, she argues that the use of the law against human rights defenders is “initiated to deter defenders from taking public action and to exhaust their time and finances, rather than to enforce the rule of law” (p. 15). Exemplifying unequal application of the law, journalist Surayut Yongchaiyut points to the case of Charoen Wat-aksorn, who was assassinated following his leadership of opposition to a coal-fired power plant and encroachment for shrimp-farming in Bo Nok, Prachuab Khiri Khan province. Although illegally occupying public land, the encroachers cultivated shrimp with no thought for the consequences. After Charoen’s death, Surayut asks, “This present government has a stated interest in strongly suppressing all kinds of influential figures in every single inch of the country, but isn’t it odd that Bo Nok sub-district is an exception?” 6
At the time of writing, the investigations into many of the assassinations remain unresolved: sometimes due to inaction, at other times due to obstruction. In many cases, the families and communities feel as though the local police have not exhausted all possible lines of investigation due to interference by influential figures. In some cases, while a gunman has been apprehended, investigations into the possible individuals or groups behind the assassination has not been undertaken. Many families and communities have chosen to refrain from cremating the bodies of the assassinated persons until the legal cases have been resolved appropriately and fully.
It is worth noting that in none of the references to influential figures are individuals, companies, or even groups mentioned. The influential figures remain unnamed. While they may be known within communities, because they are unnamed, it is difficult for action to be taken against them. The harsh and bold assassinations of human rights defenders during recent years in Thailand indicates that the rising power of influential figures is contributing to a culture of impunity in which they can take action against their opponents without fear of censure or punishment. For those human rights defenders who remain active in Thailand today, what are the effects of living with the threat of violence from unnamed, perhaps unnamable, influential figures?
Annexe: Targeted killings of environmentalists
1. Mr Jurin Ratchapol, 55-year-old leader of the Baan Pa Khlok Conservation Association, Amphur Talang, Phuket province, was shot dead on 30 January 2001. He had been threatened eight days earlier by Mr Somsak Wongsawanont, owner of the Watchira Farm shrimp ponds. After the killing, Somsak surrendered to the police on possessing a weapon, but denied killing Jurin. A gunman was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder, but the case against Mr Somsak was dismissed.
2. Mr Narin Phodaeng, 67-year-old president of the Khao Cha-ang Klang Thung Environmental Protection and Natural Resource Conservation Association in Amphur Khao Chamao, Rayong province, was shot dead on 1 May 2001, after a meeting of the group at his house to discuss mining at a nearby mountain. One perpetrator was arrested who is known to have connections to politicians serving on the board of the mining company, Rayong Silapetch. The case is before the courts.
3. Mr Pithak Tonwut, 30-year-old consultant for the Conserve Chompoo River Basin Network, Amphur Nunmaprang, Phitsanulok province, was shot dead on 17 May 2001 while returning from a meeting with the district authorities regarding a rock quarry. Police arrested two suspects, but they were released for lack of evidence. The family and colleagues of the victim allege that powerful politicians and businessmen have interfered in the case and prevented a full investigation to get the necessary evidence for a conviction. The family has refused to cremate the body of the victim until the case is resolved.
4. Ms Chaweewan Pueksungnoen, 35-year-old campaigner with Na Klang Tambon Administrative Organisation, Amphur Sungnoen, in Nakhon Ratchasima province, was shot dead on 21 June 2001 outside her house after challenging the management of local construction projects that were against the public interest. No perpetrator has been charged or arrested, and the police cite lack of evidence. The family has refused to cremate the body of the victim until the case is resolved.
5. Mr Suwat Wongpiyasathit, 45-year-old leader of a campaign against a rubbish landfill in Tambon Ratchathewa, Amphur Bang Phli, Samut Prakarn province, was shot dead on 26 June 2001. He had been threatened repeatedly and had asked for police protection without success. Six suspects in the case were arrested, but the persons behind the killing are believed connected with the Phairot Somphong Phanit Company, which runs the landfill on a concession from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and has close links with a well-known political family in Samut Prakarn.
6. Mr Somporn Chanapol, 41-year-old president of the Khlong Kra Dae Environmental Conservation Group, Amphur Kanchanadit, Surat Thani province, was shot dead on 1 August 2001 while trying to combat illegal logging in the Khlong Kra Dae forest. The police arrested the gunman, but claimed he acted alone. The family of the victim complains that the police have not properly investigated the case to connect it to the illegal loggers.
7. Mr Kaew Binpanma, 59-year-old leader of a landless people’s campaign together with the Northern Farmers’ Federation in Tambon Doi Loh, Chiang Mai province, was shot dead on 23 June 2002 after occupying unused land, which was connected to powerful families in Chang Mai. A gunman was arrested but he claimed the killing was a personal dispute. Colleagues and family members insist that the police did not properly investigate the case, to avoid implicating powerful people.
8. Mr Boonsom Nimnoi, 44-year-old member of the Amphur Baan Laem Ocean Conservation Group and leader of a campaign against a petrochemical project in Amphur Baan Laem, Petchburi province, was shot dead on 2 September 2002. After the killing, the police did not act to catch the perpetrators, so the villagers protested at the provincial headquarters and two suspects were arrested. However, the court released them on 9 July 2004 for lack of evidence; witnesses to the murder had been threatened and refused to testify; material evidence also was not properly recorded and presented to the court. The family has refused to cremate the body of the victim until the case is resolved.
9. Mr Preecha Thongpaen, 57-year-old leader of the Tambon Kuan Krod Environmental Conservation Group, Amphur Thung Song, Nakhon Si Thammarat province, was shot dead on 27 September 2002 after campaigning strongly against a poorly-conceived sewerage water treatment plant project from which local politicians and businessmen would obtain considerable financial benefit. It took one year of constant pressure by the family to have the alleged gunman arrested. As a result, other family members have been threatened. The case is in the courts, but the family complains that the police have not properly collected evidence and they are concerned that for this reason the accused will be acquitted.
10. Mr Boonyong Intawong, 42-year-old leader of a campaign against the Doi Mae Auk Roo stone quarry, Amphur Wieng Chai, Chiang Rai province, was shot dead on 20 December 2002, after bringing a team from the National Human Rights Commission to see the damage caused by the quarry. The company working the quarry is owned by a member of parliament. One suspect has been arrested, but charges have not yet been laid by the public prosecutor.
11. Mr Samnao Srisongkhram, 38-year-old president of the Lam Nam Phong Environmental Conservation Association, Amphur Ubonrat, Khon Kaen province, was shot dead on 25 November 2003 after years of fighting environmentally unsound practices of the nearby Phoenix Paper factory. The police arrested the alleged gunman, who said that Mr Sompong Naree, the headman of Tambon Kok Sung, had hired him. However, Mr Sompong was released for lack of evidence, and the alleged gunman has since pleaded innocence.
12. Mr Charoen Wat-aksorn, 37-year-old president of the Love Bo Nok Association, Amphur Muang, Prachuab Khiri Khan province, was shot dead on 21 June 2004, after successfully fighting against the construction of a coal-fired power plant in the area. He was killed after coming back from a Senate hearing into fraudulent use of public land. The family claimed that the autopsy was deliberately botched, and over 1000 villagers took the body to Bangkok for re-examination by the Forensic Science Institute. Under public pressure, the case was transferred to the Department of Special Investigation under the Ministry of Justice, and five suspects have since been arrested. However, villagers and family still allege that the investigation has not been done properly, as the investigators claim the killing was a personal dispute to avoid implicating higher-up people.
13. Mr Supol Sirijant, 58-year-old leader of the Mae Mok Community Forestry Network, Amphur Thun, Lamphun province, was shot dead on 11 August 2004 after causing the arrest of an illegal logger and seizure of a number of trucks on August 10. A warrant for one person has been issued, but no further action has taken place.
14. Ms Pakwipa Chaloemklin, 49-year-old vice president of the Baan Hua Krabu community group, Amphur Ba Mok, Ang Thong province, was shot dead on 14 October 2004 after fighting against construction of a container port in the community. Three days later, the community was to meet with officials over the proposed construction. Pakwipa had been threatened and offered money to drop her campaign. A member of parliament is closely linked to the proposed construction. The case is still with the police.
1. Nidhi Eoseewong, ‘Rattahthamanun chabab watthanatham thai’ (‘The Thai cultural constitution’),
Sinlapa watthanatham, vol. 11, no. 1, November 1991.
2. Yoshifumi Tamada, ‘Ittiphon and amnat: An informal aspect of Thai politics’, Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 28, no. 4, March 1991, pp. 455, 465.
3. Pasuk Phongpaichit & Chris Baker, Thaksin: The business of politics in Thailand, Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 2004, p. 170.
4. Metha Matkhao, ‘Raengan: Karn khuk khaam doy karn sang harn nak thaw suu pua sitthi manut sia chon nai rattaban Thaksin Shinawatra’, (‘Report on the threat of assassinations of human rights defenders under the Thaksin Shinawatra government’), Thai Working Group on Human Rights Defenders, March 2005.
5. United Nations Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, 60th Session, Addendum: Mission to Thailand, Promotion and Protection of Human Rights: Human Rights Defenders, Report submitted by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights defenders, Hina Jilani, (E/CN.4/2004/94/Add.1), 12 March 2004.
6. Surayut Yongchaiyut, ‘Palang satawn klap ¡K Karn sangharn “Charoen Wat-aksorn” tung khra “ittipon”…Tuk lang bang?’ (‘The reflection of power … Influence behind the assassination of Charoen Wat-Aksorn’), Matichon, 8 July 2004, p. 9.