Thailand's military government is planning to override the rights of local communities in the name of national development. But people are determined to fight back. Bastian Hartig reports from Bangkok.
"Do you know what it's like to fight with your hands tied?" The old man asks, holding up his clenched fists, his hands tied together at the wrists with a white plastic cord. He is one of roughly 100 protesters sitting in the small parking lot of the Public Sector Development Commission's office building in central Bangkok.
They have come from all parts of Thailand to voice their opposition against the way the country's military rulers are increasingly fast-tracking development projects and simply ignoring the will of affected communities, say the activists.
"The military just doesn't listen," says Akradej Chakjinda. His T-shirt shows a whale shark and a message in bold letters reading "Save Andaman from coal" with the "o" in coal replaced by a human skull. Together with several other protesters, Akradej came all the way from Krabi, one of southern Thailand's main tourism destinations on the Andaman Sea.
There, the government is planning to build a coal-fired power plant along with a sea port to bring ashore coal from Indonesia and other countries. Akradej and his fellow activists warn that the project would not only destroy parts of Thailand's second-largest seagrass area, but also seriously harm tourism in the region. The plans for the power plant and the sea port predate the military government, but were delayed in the past due to resistance by local communities.
Prayuth and the 'dictator's law'
It is this resistance that PM Prayuth Chan-ocha is planning to quell. To do this, he is using a constitutional provision the government introduced nearly a year ago. In Thailand, it is simply referred to as Article 44 - or, as some call it, the "dictator's law." It gives Prayuth and his National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) virtually unchecked powers to curb "acts deemed harmful to national peace and security."
By using this provision, Prayuth has authorized not only the construction of the Krabi power plant but also of 13 other power stations nationwide along with several special economic zones. Government spokesperson Winthai Suvaree recently told Reuters that the junta chief was increasingly invoking Article 44 to get things done, adding that "all orders have benefitted the people."
That's where Somnuck Jongmeewasin disagrees. The environmental and social activist is one of the organizers of the protest in central Bangkok. On the basis of Article 44, he says, the government suspended existing land development regulations. "Now they can use any piece of land for development projects, even environmental protection areas," says Somnuck. Together with 109 signatories, among them civil society and non-governmental organizations, Somnuck petitioned Prayuth to scrap his previous orders. So far he has received no answer.
Many Thais fear that the government's development plans could severely impact communities all over the country
Like many in Thailand, Jamlong Ammarapan also fears that the government's development plans could severely impact communities all over the country. Jamlong has joined the Bangkok demonstrations along with a dozen other activists to protest against a waste-to-energy plant in her home province of Pathum Thani, north of the Thai capital.
The 54-year old fears the plant will contaminate waterways which local farmers use to irrigate their crops and serve as a drinking water supply for the capital. According to Jamlong, a public meeting on the issue was controlled by the governor and only supporters were allowed access. Now the project is on the government's fast-track list. "I can't understand why everything had to happen so quickly," says Jamlong, adding that "they never really asked the public."
'Constitutional mechanism needed'
According to Kritsada Boonchai, an NGO activist, this could become the permanent state of affairs. The draft for the new constitution, which was unveiled last month, includes no clause ensuring communities their own rights to assemble to fight for their rights and manage their own resources. Instead, the draft charter makes it a prerogative of the state to protect community rights.
"The draft constitution monopolizes power in the hands of the state," says Kristada. On this point, however, the activists might have scored a victory. "The drafting commission has agreed to put community rights back into the constitution," says Somnuck Jongmeewasin. But in what way exactly will only become clear when the final draft charter is published on March 31.
Kritsada Boonchai remains wary. "A mechanism must be guaranteed for people to protect their rights," he says. "Otherwise we will campaign for people to vote against the constitution in the planned referendum." Given the strict laws against public assemblies that Thailand's military rulers have decreed, this in itself will be a hard feat to accomplish. "We cannot hold public meetings," says Kritsada, "but we will use the media for our campaigns."
For now, the activists plan to continue their sit-in in the parking lot, secluded from passers-by on the main road. It's the only form of public protest they are allowed to engage in. They say they plan to stay on for at least a few more days, while they wait for the government to respond to their demands.