The resilience of Thai women land and environment defenders
This week World Environment Day came and went, with more than 100 countries worldwide raising awareness about environmental protection. Here in Thailand, I celebrated with women who are a commanding force in protecting the environment. Unfortunately, they’re often targeted for abuse, and their roles and contributions not welcomed or overlooked.
Women human rights defenders in Thailand, particularly those working to defend land, water, and forests, have risen up in the context of a growing authoritarian administration, led by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). But they’ve been struggling for years.
In 2012, two women members of the Southern Peasants Federation of Thailand (SPFT) — a grassroots network of landless farmers advocating for land rights and food security in Surat Thani province — were brutally killed. The families of Montha Chukaew and Pranee Boonnak have yet to receive justice, while other members of the group were subsequently killed with impunity as well, as recently as 2015.
The Klong Sai Pattana community was involved in a long and notorious drawn-out battle for the use of state land after a palm-oil company’s concession expired.
In 2014, Thai soldiers threatened at gunpoint approximately 30 SPFT community members, including women and children, in Klong Sai Pattana community in Surat Thani. Despite having no search warrant, Colonel Sombat Prasarnkasem of the Surat Thani Provincial Internal Security Operations Command led around 50 military officers to search and question SPFT community members, claiming to be implementing NCPO policy.
“The military officer told me to shut up, that I was not allowed to speak,” Chusri Olankij, a 50-year-old woman leader of SPFT, told me. “I was forced to walk while the military pointed a gun at my back.”
The military attempted to force the group off their land and out of their residences. “You farmers are living here illegally,” a soldier told Chusri at the time. “If you don’t move out of this area, we’ll enforce the law on you.”
Four years on and these wounds haven’t healed — nor should they.
On April 20, 2017, Chaiburi district police arrested Nongyao Klabnui, a 65-year-old land-rights activist, also a member of SPFT. She was one of 14 farmers facing a similar criminal lawsuit involving land use.
“The police told us they would question us and let us go home,” she told me, “but when the evening approached, the police sent us to stay overnight at the police station.” Nongyao spent the next 48 days in detention awaiting trial.
Subsequently, on June 7, 2017, the Wieng Sa Provincial Prosecutor charged 14 farmers including Nongyao who are members of Nam Daeng Pattana community with trespassing, mischief, and being members of a criminal association in three separate criminal lawsuits. Private companies and individuals initiated these complaints in relation to a land dispute. If convicted, the farmers face up to five years’ in prison and/or a fine of up to 100,000 Thai Baht (US$3,333).
Chusri, Nongyao, and other SPFT members have long called for fair and equal land distribution for small-scale farmers, but their demands are often contested by local authorities and powerful business groups.
The threats and intimidation have created a climate of fear, which has led to several community members vacating the land because of fear over their security. Chusri, landless but resilient, said: “We are villagers who simply want security and economic stability.”
These courageous women are dispossessed but never give up. Today, they continue their struggle against all odds and with remarkable determination, creativity, and resilience.
In early May this year, I met these SPFT women again, but this time in Bangkok. They came to the capital, camped on the streets, and marched alongside members of the People’s Movement for a Just Society, or P-MOVE, to various government agencies and the United Nations offices, urging the authorities to repeal laws and policies that adversely affect their communities.
After 11 days of peaceful protest, they returned home after securing agreements with the authorities to guarantee a community land title and halt criminal prosecutions against villagers as a result of the NCPO Order No.66/2557 on forest management.
These and other Thai women have risked their lives to advocate for land rights and environmental protection, but more often than not, the Thai authorities have either targeted them or failed to provide adequate protection or access to justice and remedies. That needs to stop. It is not too late for Thailand to formally recognize the importance of women human rights defenders and provide much-needed protection.
Ms. Sutharee Wannasiri is a Thailand Human Rights Specialist with Fortify Rights. Follow her on Twitter @SuthareeW.