Mining industry thugs must be stopped
A six-hour-long attack by 300 armed henchmen in the middle of the night on May 15 left protesters in Loei’s Wang Saphung district despairing at the total failure of the state to protect citizens fighting against pollution from the mining industry.
Villagers living in Wang Saphung district of Loei province have been fighting to stop pollution from a gold and copper mine poisoning their water supply and making them sick.
They believe a retired army officer commanded the attack, so have petitioned the military junta to help stop the intimidation and allow them to protect their local environment.
The target of the May 15 attack were villagers guarding barricades blocking transport in and out of the Tungkum gold and copper mine.
For years, villagers have complained that the mine has been poisoning their waterways and rice fields resulting in many illnesses among residents and causing financial hardship.
The barricade was the villagers’ desperate attempt to stop the operation of the gold and copper mine owned by Tungkum Limited after their grievances fell on deaf ears, failing to win the attention of the state.
On May 15, armed thugs captured and beat up the villagers before destroying the barricades to allow a caravan of trucks loaded with ore to pass through. The villagers, many of them severely injured, were released when the company had finished transporting the metals on Friday morning.
Police attended the scene after the attack was over, despite emergency calls from the villagers during the ordeal. It is not the first time that officials have shown which side they are on.
At a public hearing on the controversial gold mine in 2012, for example, an army of some 700 police formed a human wall to prevent anti-mining villagers from attending, in order to silence dissent.
Such state intervention was a blatant violation of the constitutional right of local communities to have a say over the use of their natural resources.
The May 15 attack on villagers is the latest episode of violence in the decade-long conflict between locals and mining companies in Loei’s ore-rich Wang Saphung district.
In 1995, grassroots activist Prawian Boonnak was gunned down in broad daylight because he was campaigning against three quarries. The gunman was a close aide of an influential village headman. He was later released.
A lawyer working for the villagers also had his car shot at while he was discussing a 30-million-baht compensation lawsuit against the quarry operator with residents. Again, the attackers escaped the arms of the law because of protection from influential locals.
In 2006, Tungkum Limited began to operate gold mines in the forest area of Wang Saphung district amid the widespread violence.
According to an official report, Tungkum mined and processed 5 million tonnes of ore which provided Loei province with 879 million baht of income in 2011, 64% of which came directly from gold ore.
While the provincial and local administrative bodies welcomed the mining income, villagers living around the gold mine soon noticed a decline of productivity in their paddy fields and increasing illness in their communities.
The Pollution Control Department found dangerously high rates of heavy metals in water sources in 2008 and 2009, forcing the villagers to buy drinking water.
Meanwhile, Wang Saphung hospital tested 279 locals and detected cyanide in the blood of 54 villagers, but refused to link it with mining.
Facing indifference, villagers took the matter into their own hands by blocking the road that links the mine with the main road to stop the transport of the metals.
Intimidation, drive-by attacks, and visits by armed men in the dead of night followed as the mine tried to resume business. Tungkum also filed criminal and civil lawsuits against village leaders, demanding 270 million baht in compensation.
In April, a group of armed men led by Lt Gen Poramet Pomnak stormed the village, ordering the villagers to open the barricade. The answer was no.
Lt Gen Poramet denied having anything to do with the May 15 attack. He also denied villagers’ allegations that he was working for a Loei provincial administration organisation leader who is also a major customer of the Tungkum mine.
The villagers’ latest call to investigate the mining operation and its licensing has again been ignored.
Panitan Jindapoo, director-general for the Department of Primary Industries and Mines told online news agency Thai Publica that the conflict was the result of villagers being overly demanding.
He is not alone. All state agencies involved agree that the Tungkum mine is operating legally, and have said there is nothing they can do about complaints from locals. They also blame the villagers for being trouble makers.
Given the violence they face and the lack of support from state agencies, villagers had pinned their hopes on intervention from the military junta. But they did not receive the response they wanted.
A group of soldiers turned up to station themselves in the village and asked locals to stop blocking transport to and from the mine. The soldiers also urged an end to links between villagers and environmental groups, saying the conflict is being aggravated by outside influences.
Villagers have been told the mine will be closed for environmental rehabilitation at some point. This might be a compromise, but nothing is certain when they have no say in the matter.
What happened in Wang Saphung is the result of state agencies failing to enforce the law or listen to villagers’ grievances, and neglecting to punish a polluting industry and its armed thugs.
Thailand has seen too many tragedies from polluted mines backed by an officialdom that values short-term monetary gains from environmentally destructive industries over people.
The junta’s promise for reform should start with protecting villagers’ rights to protect their environment by allowing them to have their say.
Paritta Wangkiat is news reporter, Bangkok Post.
Paritta Wangkiat is news reporter, Bangkok Post.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.