BANGKOK – International rights Group Human Rights Watch is pressing Thailand authorities to investigate the recent murder of an environmentalist who exposed the dumping of toxic waste, and condemned the government’s “fundamental failure” to protect activists fighting for social and environmental change in the kingdom.
Thai police vowed Wednesday to probe possible links between the murder of a village headman and his work to expose toxic waste dumping, as rights groups called for the killers to be brought to justice
On Monday afternoon, village headman Prajob Naowa-opas,43, was shot dead while waiting to get his car at a garage behind the local department store in Chacheongsao province, 20 miles east of Bangkok, after spending the past year fighting illegal toxic waste disposal by various industrial estates in the region.
Prajob was a village leader who stood up to fight against the disposal of toxic and industrial waste being dumped in the area.
“He was a nice guy. He had no problem with other people,” his older brother Jon Naowa-opas, 46, said.
Villagers have protested against the disposal of toxic and industrial waste in the area – on Bangkok’s eastern fringe – for three years.
“The cold-blooded killing of Prajob marks yet another example of the fundamental failure of Thai authorities to protect activists who risk their lives while defending their communities,” said Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, Brad Adams.
More than 30 human rights defenders and environmentalists have been killed in Thailand since 2001, Adams said, with suspects charged in fewer than one in five cases.
On Monday, Prajob was at a garage waiting for mechanics to finish work on his pickup truck when a gunman arrived at the scene, approached Prajob, fired four shots with an 11mm semi-automatic weapon and escaped. Prajob was rushed to hospital but died on the way.
Local police said the murder was the mark of a professional hitman and that it was likely Prajob’s activism had made him a target, the Bangkok Post reported. Prajob’s campaigning had made national headlines over the exposed waterways and farmland full of industrial runoff in Chacheongsao, where carcinogens had been found at levels 30 times their legal limit, according to the provincial health office.
Prajob had allegedly been warned by police in December that he might be in danger and in January purchased two pistols to protect himself. According to Human Rights Watch, he regularly reported that he was being shadowed by unknown men on motorcycles and in vehicles, including the same car that was allegedly used in his murder.
An official overseeing the toxic disposal in Chacheongsao told the Associated Press that Prajob’s murder “only goes to show that the toxic waste dumping is a big issue that needs national and international attention, since there is likely something else the dumpers were trying to bury”.
Pongin Intarakhao added that his agency, the department of special investigations, would continue to fight the dumping and that investigators had already pressed charges against a Thai man accused of overseeing toxic disposal.
But Adams warned that more needed to be done to bring the perpetrators to justice. “Police investigations have been characterised by half-hearted, inconsistent and inefficient police work, and an unwillingness to tackle questions of collusion between political influences and interests and these killings of activists,” he said.