SAMUT SAKHON, Thailand – In a country where the going rate for a contract killing is around Thai baht 15,000 (US$500), the price paid to eliminate Thongnak Sawekchinda, an environmental activist, has caught the police by surprise.
“The US$10,000 paid to kill Thongnak is quite a lot for Thailand,” admits Colonel Chaicharn Purathanont, who is leading the police investigation in Samut Sakhon, a province just southwest of Bangkok with a range of industries using coal, which was the focus of the Thongnak’s activism.
The money was distributed among seven men assembled to target Thongnak, 47, says the colonel, spreading a crumpled sheet of paper on his glass-topped desk. It is a photocopy
containing the pictures, names and role of each man involved in the killing.
Yothin Theprian, the alleged gunman on that list of suspects, has already turned himself in. Police say he was paid $1,333 for shooting Thongnak as the activist sat outside his noodle shop on the morning of July 28.
The investigation has frustrated the victim’s friends, including fellow activist Chanchai Rungrotsakorn. “We think there are more powerful people above those the police have identified. There are connections, networks, local businesses and politics.”
Chanchai, who has been involved in the five-year-old campaign led by Thongnak to end transportation of coal into the province, sees the rapid spread of this polluting industry across Samut Sakhon as a sign of the power of the nexus.
Samut Sakhon has an estimated 114 factories with coal-fired boilers, and some of the companies in the coal import and distribution trade here are listed on the Thai stock exchange – the country’s largest coal operators among them.
There is no stopping such powerful companies. This Southeast Asian kingdom has a troubling record of 27 environmental activists killed in the past 16 years – yet none of the “masterminds” has been held to account, say green groups.
“The justice system cannot reach these people,” Tara Buakamsri, Southeast Asia campaign director for Greenpeace, the global environmental lobby, told Inter Press Service (IPS). “The few people who have been arrested – and that is also rare – have been smaller operatives.”
This climate of impunity, he says, has been most evident in cases where activists have been killed after taking on powerful companies that are polluting the environment in the provinces.
Recent victims include Buddhist monk Supoj Suvajoe, killed for trying to save land from a development project; Pakvipa Chalermkin, shot dead for campaigning against sand transportation, and Supol Sirichan, murdered for leading a local community protest against illegal timber logging.
It explains why local communities are reluctant to protest against private sector-dominated projects that pollute the fields, homes and atmosphere in rural and semi-urban settings.
“People in the provinces do not feel safe when they come out to protest,” says Chariya Senpong at Greenpeace’s Thailand office. “They know of environmental activists getting killed and nothing being done.”
Environmental conflicts in Thailand have ranged from protests against polluting industrial estates, deforestation, industrial waste management and concessions for stone mills to destruction of mangroves.
Grassroots protests against the toxic trail left by the coal industry are more recent, but increasing, as Thailand turns to this fossil fuel to meet its energy needs. It imported 10 million tonnes from Indonesia last year.
Local protests have recorded successes too. Work on a copper mine and a potash mine in two provinces across northeast Thailand have come to a standstill following strong opposition from grassroots groups.
Last year, communities affected by pollution from one of Thailand’s largest industrial estates succeeded in securing a court victory, forcing companies with billion-dollar investments to mend their ways.
But such successes are few and far between. Thongnak’s death has served as a grim reminder about how environmental issues attract the national media only when the leader of a protest is attacked or killed.
“The conflicts have always been between local activists and ordinary people in remote places standing up against big projects and corporate interests,” says Sunai Phasuk, Thai researcher for Human Rights Watch, the New York-based global rights lobby.
“There is no interest from the state and even from the mainstream media about these tensions because big business has been accepted and recognized as an important part of the Thai state’s national development,” Sunai told IPS.
“These conflicts are seen as isolated local problems, and the activists are viewed as nuisances, troublemakers or in the worst case branded as enemies of the state.”
Jomkwan Sawekchinda, Thongnak’s widow, rejects such labels. “Thongnak became an activist only after the coal pollution began,” she said outside a temple where mourners were gathering to pray.
“He was afraid that coal would affect the community in this generation and the next,” she said.
By Marwaan Macan-Markar