Thai Villagers Threatened with Arrest for Opposing Potash Mine

By Sara Schaumburg

April 2006

Boonlert – a slight and unassuming man wearing a bright yellow hat – hardly looks like someone wanted by the police. Neither, for that matter, does La-iat, who lies on a nearby mat. Five months pregnant and visibly uncomfortable in the stifling midday heat, La-iat munches irritably on sour mangoes.

Boonlert Lekkhieo, 56, and La-iat Onsa-art, 38, are two leaders of the Udon Thani Conservation Club, a group of villagers who are fighting plans to construct a multi-billion baht potash mine beneath their farmland.

About an hour ago, Naowarat Daoruang, another leader in the movement, got word that she and four others are to be arrested for their involvement in a recent confrontation with mining representatives. Although hundreds of villagers participated in the conflict, a local government official explains, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that the company chose to arrest these “vicious ones” to set an example.

The five protesters decide their next move. Because it’s a Friday afternoon, they choose to hide at the house of a local supporter until office hours end, hoping to avoid spending the weekend in jail.

The incident that prompted the warrants occurred on 11 March when villagers, out tending buffalo, noticed several young men from a neighboring village who were surveying the land.  More than a dozen police officers, anticipating resistance from local residents, accompanied the surveyors, who had been hired by the Canadian-based Asian Pacific Potash Corporation (APPC) and who were using metal poles to mark the proposed site of the ore-processing factory.

A villager ran to alert La-iat, who promptly announced what was happening over the local PA system. Within minutes, 200 villagers arrived on scene demanding that the men stop what they were doing. After an hour-long standoff, the surveyors abandoned their work and hurriedly drove away, leaving the field studded with metal poles.

No sooner had they left than a handful of young boys began a friendly competition to see who could gather the most markers. The boys strode proudly across the field, hoisting their trophies over their shoulders.

The villagers had won – for now. Attempting to hold on to their small victory, they held sunrise-to-sunset vigils for almost a week, waiting for any sign of the surveyors’ return. Every hundred metres along the road adjacent to the mining site, groups of a dozen women sat watch, peering intently at any passing vehicle.

In the end, their efforts proved futile. Apparently survey teams returned to finish the job at night, bringing the mining project one step closer to completion.

“Weapons of the Weak”

What forced these villagers to resort to desperate measures to ensure that they have a voice in planning a project that will affect their land and their livelihood? Why must this community physically block surveyors, remove metal markers by hand, and wait for long, hot days on the side of the road to gain this fundamental right? The legal structure that should act on the villagers’ behalf seems to have failed, causing villagers to rely on what James Scott, author and scholar, calls the “weapons of the weak.”

By law, APPC does not need villagers’ permission to demarcate the land. Even so, Naowarat vehemently defends the actions of the Conservation Club during the altercation. She points out that Thailand’s 1997 constitution – heralded as the “People’s Constitution” – mandates that the government allow citizens a chance for public participation in any projects that affect their community. But these provisions are seldom enforced, however, so the villagers must rely on the goodwill of the government to see that the opportunity for participation is fulfilled.

Thai Human Rights Commissioner Sunee Chaiyaros is skeptical about the chances of that happening, either in Udorn or elsewhere. “Constitutional provisions mandate local villagers’ right to participate in the management of natural resources,” she says. “However, the government tends to ignore them.”

Denied a Voice

Pachara Petchasuwan, head of the Basic Industries and Mining Department in Udorn, disagrees. He claims that residents have “ample opportunity” to voice their concerns about the proposed mine. With demarcation complete, he says, his office will post a map indicating what land will be affected by the project. He adds that, in accordance with the Minerals Act, villagers will have twenty days in which to raise objections and concerns.

By taking these small steps, the local government can claim it abides by the letter of the law governing mining projects. Still, Naowarat argues, neither local officials nor APPC are acting within the spirit of a constitution that seeks to protect community rights. She points out that Section 79 of the constitution calls for the state to “promote and encourage public participation” in the preservation and maintenance of local natural resources. The Udorn case demonstrates the gap that often exists between what is written on paper and what happens in practice.

In 1999, APPC hired Team Consulting Engineering and Management Co. (TEAM) to perform an environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the mine’s potential effects. Noticeably absent from the process was a single member of the village or anyone with a genuine understanding of local customs and lifestyles. Villagers claim they were unaware that TEAM was even conducting an EIA.

The constitution also guarantees that an individual “shall have the right to get access to public information in possession of a State agency.” And yet, simply obtaining the final report proved to be a further challenge in itself. It was only when a sympathetic official at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment leaked a copy of the EIA that villagers had their first glimpse of what they were up against.

The information gap remains a problem, since villagers still lack access to a thorough and accurate EIA. As reported in the Bangkok Post on 24 January of this year, the National Environment Board rejected the previous EIA, citing twenty-six serious flaws. APPC is revising the report. Still, there is no guarantee that the company will be finished by the time the 20-day review period is scheduled to begin in early May. Without this study, the villagers have little ground on which to base their opposition.

Finally, exactly how much resistance villagers must demonstrate to block the mine remains unclear. As Pachara points out, APPC has already invested billions of baht in the project. He is skeptical that anything short of an overwhelming show of opposition can derail it.

When asked about the prospect of achieving unanimity among villagers on this issue, Banya Khamlap, another leader of the Conservation Club, shakes his head.

“Villagers can’t devote all of their time [to the movement],” Banya says. “We still need to feed our families.”  Unlike the villagers, the company knows it can well afford to continue this struggle as long as necessary.

 The arrests, Banya fears, may also deter villagers from supporting the anti-mine movement. “APPC’s strategy is to intimidate us,” he explains. “They want to waste our time [by threatening arrest] so we cannot work to actively oppose the mine.”

On 29 March, over 500 villagers gathered outside the Udorn Provincial Hall, calling for the governor to nullify the demarcation results. Charged with slander and trespassing, the five leaders turned themselves in to authorities as the finale to the event.

The message to the governor was clear. Laws alone do not make a democracy. It is the people, given a genuine voice in determining their welfare, who do.

The Thai constitution intended to refashion the relationship between citizens and their government. But the handling of the potash situation, observes the well-known philosopher and social activist Sulak Sivaraksa, is not in the spirit of the constitution. “In a democratic state,” he argues, “the government must be under control of the citizen. It cannot be the other way around.”

Until this happens, Naowarat will continue protesting, La-iat will return to wait on the side of the road, and the war over the markers will continue.

Sara Schaumburg is an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently studying with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) Program at Khon Kaen University.