Mae Sot (Thailand). In the name of national security the Thai junta granted itself an absolute power with which it can either crush dissidents or evict villagers from land coveted by big businesses. Mining and drilling projects, industrial estates or reforestation plans have met in the military the perfect ally to avoid the bureaucratic procedures that had kept them stuck for years.
Participatory processes or environmental impact assessments, adopted in the 1990’s after years of mobilization by rural communities, have been largely ignored and by-passed by big businesses after the coup in May 2014. Since then, thousands of villagers have been ordered to leave their homes and any attempt to protest or show opposition has been repressed by the authorities with the same range of laws and orders used to clamp down on political opposition.
“Farmers lose the land, lose our homes. Where do they want us to live?”, says a dusty banner hung in a corn field in Tha Sai Luat, a district in Mae Sot (Northwest Thailand) near the busiest crossing point between Thailand and Myanmar.
The plot in Thai Sai Luat is one of those affected by a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), an old scheme recovered last May by the government in order to attract foreign investment, boost trade and reanimate the country’s languishing economy, which grew just 0.7% in 2014.
No compensation or alternatives offered
Just a few meters away, workers build a bridge to link the area with Myanmar in the sugar cane fields Kathalaya Inthalak’s family worked for six generations despite her family lacking an ownership title. “They told us we are illegal, that we encroached the land and we had to leave”, said Kathalaya as she complained that authorities haven’t offered her any compensation or alternatives.
There are 97 families in the same situation. Most of them are relatively well-off farmers, with several employees on their plantations, who had kept out of politics and the bitter dispute which roughly pits supporters of the Bangkok based establishment against the political movement led by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, backed by north and northeastern rural communities.
“I used to watch all those protests on TV and wondered why they did it”, said Sunthorn Sribona, another villager. “Now I feel it is our time. But we have no experience in situations like this, we don’t know how to deal with it”, he added. He also said that authorities have ignored their complaints and suppressed their protests using the same order in force since the coup that bans public gatherings, as it happened during a visit in town made by the Prime Minister and Junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha. “We tried to get close to give him a letter but they blocked us. They took our banners and tore them up”, said Mr. Sunthorn, adding that some villagers have also faced other forms of intimidation.
Intimidation by plainclothes policemen
This is the case of Pranee Muangpueak, who said she has been under surveillance by plainclothes policemen, threatened with the harsh Computer Crime Act for having criticized the provincial head for his management of the conflict on Facebook and summoned by the military. “We got the land from our ancestors and this is not the right way (to claim the land)”, she said.
There are ten SEZs planned across the country on plots of land the authorities claimed through junta order 17/2558. This order invokes Article 44 of the provisional Constitution that grants the junta chief absolute power arguing that “it is necessary to accelerate the process to procure the land needed”. According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights this article (and previously the martial law) is used to “control and place pressure upon the movements of local communities opposing large-scale development projects” and “to take action in order to provide benefits to large-scale private business groups”.
“With these laws the military can go to an area and force the villagers to sign a document in which they agree to leave, detain those who oppose or ban meetings and prevent the submission of complaints or external observers”, said Poonsuk Poonsukcharoen, lawyer with this organization.
Far-reaching powers for military
Another order, 64/2577, aimed to increase forestry areas, allows the military to arrest and evict local communities [and] destroy their crops without previous notice or any compensation or relocation scheme, according to the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR). This organization estimated in a report last May that up to a million people could be affected by this order alone, which is enforced by the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) together with the Ministry of Natural Resources.
Since they took power the military have used these powers to intervene in multiple disputes, many of which had existed for several years, confronting rural communities with business groups and state agencies.
One of them was in Loei, where villagers were threatened to end a blockade against a gold mine that had polluted the rivers. Another dispute was in Khon Kaen, where martial law was used to prevent people from protesting against drilling operations carried out by a company that the military had helped to move and store equipment.
Are the bureaucrats favoring the military actions?
Activists claim that the military actions also meet the interests of bureaucrats, who see an opportunity to recentralize paperwork and proceedings which were sent downwards under the 1997 Constitution to give locals a say. “I am not sure the military can control the bureaucrats”, said former member of the NHRC, Niran Pitakwachara, who thinks the military “have no idea” about sustainable development.
“Bureaucrats always see rural people as a problem when it comes to natural resource management. With an elected government it is not that easy for them to clear land”, said Puangthong Pawakapan, a political expert at Chulalongkorn University.
In a forum in Bangkok of communities affected by SEZs, Somnek Chongmiwasin, an environmental activist, complained about the lack of transparency in these projects, set up without proper environmental impact assessments and denying villagers any participation. Another activist, Penchom Sae-Tang, pointed at the collusion between politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen which she sees as a revival of “Money Politics” introduced by Thaksin, whose political movement has been ousted twice from government by the military since 2006. “These projects have been in the bureaucratic system for a long time and now they are moved forward by Somkid (Jatusripitak), who sees natural resources as a product to sell”, said Mr. Niran referring to the Minister of Finance who held the same position in the first Thaksin administration.
Junta overlooking the past of communities
Behind these conflicts lies the unsolved dispute of the property of land declared as state-owned forestry areas in the 1970’s, despite pioneers or indigenous communities dwelling on many of these lands. “The junta has completely ignored methods to verify the rights of these communities, including historical, traditional and cultural elements”, said Ms. Puangthong.
One of these methods is the proof of rights, another success from rural demonstrations in the 1990’s, which the community in Tha Sai Luat wants to use to prove they’ve lived in the area before it was declared public. Even though they don’t have land titles, these villagers have permits that allow them to work the land, for which they pay taxes, and they are recognized as a cooperative, which they can use as a bank guarantee to ask for loans. Sometimes, plots have even been sold through traditional arrangements aside of official red tape. “We don’t oppose the SEZ but I want to live here, I have nowhere else to go”, said Mr. Sunthorn, who bought his land in the area 20 years ago. The government is finalising the transfer of ownership of the land to the Treasury Department, the body in charge of SEZ’s development and management.
Regarding the SEZ in Mae Sot, sources within the department said that for the time being each plot is being analyzed to assess its assets and that an economical compensation will be considered case by case, without specifying any amount. Ironically, the eviction orders were issued three years after the Tha Sai Luat community was praised as an example at the national level of a self-sufficient economy that fosters development in rural areas.
“Now, they tell us we are illegal”, grumbles Mr. Sunthorn.