Eyewitness report by Hannah Cohen, Lucy Bostwick, Caroline Campbell, Michael Eckel, Maria Bravo, McKenzie Maidl, and Andrew Limthongviratn. Video by Michael Eckel, edited by Christine Dickerson and Chayanon Ruamcharoen
LOEI – On November 16, 2016, the air outside a local subdistrict office is filled with energy and rally cries. Residents of Na Nong Bong and five other villages of close proximity block the entrance to the Khao Luang Tambon Administrative Office (TAO), protesting the meeting scheduled for that morning. TAO officials are to vote on the renewal of a forest use license for the Phuthapfa gold mining site, operated by Tungkum Ltd (TKL). If the TAO grants the license, Tungkum Ltd will once again have all the licenses needed to restart operations in the gold mine. As community leaders call out on megaphones, villagers chant for the cancellation of the meeting.
“THIS IS MY HOME. YOU CANNOT SELL IT,” reads a sign held up by a pair of women, their heads covered with vibrant scarves woven by their community.
3:16 AM Huddled close, bundled in jackets and shawls to stave off the morning chill, villagers slowly trickle toward their meeting point. The sun has yet to rise and the air sits still, blanketed with a thick fog.
Their group is small, but there is a growing energy among them. With heavy footsteps and sleep-deprived eyes, villagers creep out into the driveway of the house where many of them had stayed overnight, organizing for the day. Gears whirr as people biked to and from the house.
The humming engine of a truck trembles, large speakers propped up in its bed. Murmurs rise as more villagers gather. Within minutes, there are twenty, thirty of them. And their numbers only grow.
3:47 AM The villagers, who call themselves Khon Rak Ban Koed (“People Who Love Their Hometown”) begin to rally others. They march through the village, trailing a pickup truck featuring large speakers, as one of the women form the frontline of the protest, also known as the Iron Women, shout encouragements into a microphone.
The truck has been circling the village since 5:30 p.m. the previous evening, gathering the villagers and blaring their fight song, which they created to explain the ongoing mining conflict.
Just hours ago, the villagers gathered at their leader’s house to make their protest plans. Documentaries of previous protests played throughout dinner, leaders decided the final details, and others created anti-mining posters.
A village leader reminds protesters of the potential of violence, a situation they’ve faced before. On May 15 of 2014, when Na Nong Bong villagers attempted to block the access route to the mine, they were attacked by a group of more than 100 assailants, some of whom were off-duty military officers. So far, only two military officers have been sentenced to prison for taking part in the attack.
Keeping this in mind, some protesters prepare for a violent scenario. One individual explains, “It is okay to be violent, because if there is violence, then the meeting must be postponed.”
For the past ten years, the village has suffered from environmental effects such as cyanide leakage, declining economic well-being due to falling crop yields, and health issues, including skin rashes and burns.
In the hours before the sun rises, protesters call their neighbors over the loud speakers and pound on their doors in an attempt to rally as many people as possible. The march, mostly composed of women, has by now grown to 80 villagers strong. The men trail behind in trucks, awaiting the moment when they will load the demonstrators in their pick-ups and drive the final distance to the TAO’s office.
As more villagers rise from their beds to join the protest, the group grows larger, and their collective voice grow louder. “Brothers and sisters, do you want to fight?” shouts the woman on the speakerphone to the crowd.
“Yes!” the villagers scream back, their voices ringing out across the dark rice fields.
6:18 AM As the march reaches the TAO office, about five kilometers from its starting point, and the sun begins to rise, vehicles drop the chanting villagers off in droves. They flood through the TAO gates and head toward the meeting room.
As they approach the building, the Iron Women strategically block the staircase, the only entry point leading to the meeting. Other female protesters fill in the space around them.
The women are later joined by the villages’ men. Clothed in matching black hoodies and bandanas, they gather around the women, arms interlocked to create a physical barricade. There, they plant themselves for hours, anxiously awaiting the arrival of their adversaries.
The gold mining company relies on the renewal of the forest land use license in order to restart mining operations, which have been halted since 2013. This permit is one of the many required to carry out mineral extraction in Thailand.
The approval of this license requires a majority vote from the TAO. Of the 26 TAO members, 16 live outside the area affected by the mine.
The villagers, certain that these 16 members will vote in favor of the permit, refuse to allow the meeting to take place; they oppose the idea of giving up agency over decisions concerning their land.
This is the fourth meeting this year where the TAO has attempted to discuss the license, but each time it has been blocked by the Khon Rak Ban Koed protesters.
Rebelling against local government-approved industry is not an isolated case for the province. Approximately one hour away from Na Nong Bong, residents of Kon Sa and Saton villages are also rallying against a coal mining operation. Empathizing with their struggle, four members of these two communities joined the blockade.
Each participant knows what was at stake. Many stand and sit with makeshift masks, some only showing their eyes. Just before 7:00 a.m., protesters carry over a large tent to shield themselves from the sun and the gaze of the security camera.
In Thailand, there is no right to assembly. Following the Public Assembly Act of 2015, no more than five people can lawfully assemble to “express their common petition, support, opposition or opinion on any matter to the public.” Their planning, rally, and protest are in themselves acts of rebellion.
Positioned under the canopy, the protesters ready themselves to fight until the TAO meeting is canceled.
7:26 AM Two vans of about a dozen police and military officials enter the office grounds.
One officer repeatedly asks the protesters to step down and allow the TAO meeting to commence. He urges them to remain seated and calm. Upon this request, the protesters voice their discontent, responding with protest chants.
9:13 AM For forty-five minutes, village leaders alternate speaking over the megaphone.
“If you want to come in with a development project, make sure it’s making the lives of the village and the people better,” an Iron Woman enunciates.
Another protester continues, “The position as head of the TAO requires that he or she take care of the people, so why are the villagers being sued? Have you ever looked at us? Have you ever cared about us? Do you know how many tears we have shed? This is why we have to be here; because no government will help us.”
Samai Phakmee, the head of the TAO council, then approaches the group and reads the official letter the TAO addressed to the District Chief.
“This is the official statement,” Mr. Samai begins. “I attempted to hold the TAO meeting but I could not do so because the affected villagers do not want it to occur.”
He then continues, “We will announce a date and time for the next meeting.”
The people insisted that the TAO reword the statement to foreclose the possibility of such a future meeting. They announce that they would wait until 12:00 p.m. for a more strongly-worded document fully authorized by the TAO council. The protesters say that they will go see the District Chief themselves if the council does not comply with their request.
“Tell the governor’s office to prepare for our visit,” one woman states. While waiting for the TAO to deliver the requested document, the protesters refuse to comply with Mr. Samai’s request for silence.
After waiting some time for a response from the council, they took the matter into their own hands. They decided to write their own letter and demanded that the council head take it to the District Chief’s office.
Just before noon, Mr. Samai appears before the waiting villagers and receives their letter to forward to the District Chief.
3:15 PM Ten protesters and the ten supporting TAO members returned from a meeting with the District Chief, who has called them in to discuss the letters.
The District Chief has only held his office for three weeks, but he promises he will further investigate the villagers’ issues. But the protesters reluctant to believe his vow because of past experiences with government officials. They believe his goodwill toward them is a trick.
Upon the arrival of the ten delegates, the Iron Women take to the megaphone and announce that any further meeting on Tungkum Ltd.’s forest use license will be postponed until the District Chief’s office can conduct an investigation on Na Nong Bong residents’ grievances.
Villagers applaud their victory, yet there is little sense of relief. Questions about the next steps in their fight are met with shrugs and a simple, “I don’t know.” This morning was only one day in an ongoing struggle.
Hannah Cohen, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Lucy Bostwick, Middlebury College; Caroline Campbell, Tulane University of Louisiana; Michael Eckel, University of Puget Sound; Maria Bravo, Davidson College; McKenzie Maidl, Macalester College; and Andrew Limthongviratn, University of Pennsylvania. They are studying about development issues in the Northeast.