Guest contribution by Alana Brandt
Nattawut Uppa leans across the dimly lit table and speaks in hushed tones as people dine beside a gas station. He has left the temple where he and other members of the “We Walk” march are staying the night in order to not be seen by the police who keep watch for the night.
Despite the discretion, there is no sense of fear in the air. Nattawut speaks with a wide, eager smile.
“One thing I use in my work is that I’m not afraid of failure. Just do it and learn from your failures. If I had been afraid and hadn’t come out, I would not have met interesting people,” he says.
Nattawut has been a human rights NGO worker for the past 12 years. But before that, 36-year-old activist worked as a programmer in a bank. He laughs as he admits he felt like a robot in those days, waking up at 4am and going to bed at 9pm each day in a cycle of monotony.
Nattawut quit his job and began to pursue a new line of work. Now his schedule is far less predictable, but invariably longer and more grueling. Yet it has aligned him with a higher sense of purpose which was missing in his corporate days, he says.
“We still have a lot of inequality in Thailand so I thought it would be better if I stepped in and worked in this field rather than support the system creating that inequality,” Nattawut says.
This transition, he assures, was not made without sacrifices. Apart from the risk of standing up for human rights in a regime which has indefinitely postponed the freedom to assemble, Nattawut now makes a decimal shift rightward from his previous salary. But he says this is not important when weighed against the work he’s doing.
“I am not afraid of being poor,” Nattawut says. “They were many times that I wanted to get out of this job at first, but I think for whoever gets into this kind of work it becomes difficult to leave it behind. Doing something worthwhile keeps me in this field.”
For Nattawut, this worthwhile job brings about the empowerment of communities and individuals all over Thailand.
“When I see villagers or ‘small people’ starting to question what the government tells them, starting to talk about their own rights, it makes me proud and [that motivates me] to keep me working,” he says.
Nattawut got into NGO work just as a gold mine was being constructed in Phichit Province. The story is a familiar one, differentiated by so many others mines only insofar as it was the first of its kind.
The villagers, he says, knew nothing of the kind of impacts the mine would have on their community. Australian company Akara Resources spoke only of the benefit it would bring, of the increase in wealth and happiness. With the mine, the company said the village could at least be a part, however small, of something grand. But the benefit was all empty glamour, and any advantage was small and fleeting, Nattawut says.
In the end the community lost everything. Before the mine began operation, there were over 200 households in the area. Now there are only five left.Because the gold mine was the first of its kind in Thailand, Nattawut says there wasn’t any knowledge on how the operation would unfold, or what channels could be employed to fight it. Since then, he recounts, land-use advocates have learned the tough lesson that all too many people in power want nothing more than to profit from the earth.
“The government is pretty clear that they see natural resources as assets without realizing that, actually, nature and people have to live together. That leads to policies that destroy natural resources,” Nattawut says.
This issue has now been compounded by the limitations on people to express their dissent, he adds.
“Freedom of expression is gone so [the government] can create policies without responsibility or accountability,” he says.
Nattawut’s focus these days is to prevent the extension of the mine into three provinces, including Phitsanulok Province where he works. Through educating villagers in the area about the impacts of mining on the environment, and promoting alternative projects for the land, he works to prevent another iteration in the abundant history of land misuse. The government’s recent amendments to the mineral act, however, threaten to impede this protestation.
For Nattawut, the walk from Bangkok is about catharsis in the midst of this injustice. Though few tools have been left them, the walkers will not be deprived of their motion, or their courage, he says.
“We use walking as a tool because in the current situation with the government, we cannot do a lot of things,“ Nattawut says. “We benefit from walking first as a practice in our strength in body and heart.”
The walkers have nothing to hide, he says. Their aim is self-evident, and as they move through the country, it is contagious. Many people have gotten involved in the campaign along the way and joined in the affirmation of their agency.
“We believe that walking is the way to show our freedom. It doesn’t matter whether the government allows us to because we are going to walk anyway. It is their job to explain to the public why they [would] charge us,” Nattawut says.
Nattawut believes a community has been formed because of the movement. To him, it is a reminder that taking the chance to stand up for one’s convictions pays off.
He recalls a time where, upon being apprehended by the police, one officer asked him, “Why do you always smile?”
“And so I told them there’s no need to be angry. It doesn’t help anything. So I am happy. Jai yen yen [Be cool!]”.
Additional reporting by Justine Mischka.
Alana Brandt studies International Relations at The University of Texas at Austin. Justine Mischka studies Community Health at University of Wisconsin-Madison. They are both studying development and globalization issues in Khon Kaen this semester.