Isaan Lives: A gold mine, a chair and an artist-turned-activist


Guest contribution by Grace Valdevitt

It could have been an uneventful meeting when local officials in Loei Province gathered in May 2016 to consider a measure that if approved, would allow a mining company to continue its operations in the area.

But, outside, angry villagers, demanding their place at the table, attempt to storm the meeting room. In the ensuing scuffle that broke out between the newcomers and local government representatives, a chair is launched at the military police trying to halt their advance.

The one launching the chair is a woman of slender build and with short black hair worn like a schoolgirl, one seemingly unlikely to confront the power of the state under military rule.

The woman, 38-year-old Phattaraporn Kaengjump, today seems undeterred as she’s heading back to court to defend herself and fight for her home in Wang Saphung district.

In the ten-year fight of local communities against a gold mine, Phattraporn is a relative newcomer. In 2012, she returned to her village to help her mother as soon as she heard her father was ill.

“I didn’t join right away,” she says. “My older sister had told me about the negative effects of the mining while I was away, but I didn’t pay attention.”

But as she learned more, Phattaraporn was slowly drawn in. “My parents persuaded me to listen to what they [those fighting against the mine] had to say.” Shortly after, a local leader encouraged her to join the community meetings just as the National Human Rights Commission took notice, and encouraged the local activists to attend a public forum that the Tungkum Limited Company was holding for a new concession. This is when Phattraporn really got involved.

As Phattraporn learned about the company’s initiative to start opening a mine on a neighboring mountain, she joined the local activist group Khon Rak Ban Kerd Group (KRBKG) to fight for the protection of the environment. Their name translates to People Who Love Their Hometown, in English.

When the group was not invited to the meeting, the activists decided to storm the meeting. The chair that Phattraporn launched on that day, is now evidence in her seventh court case.

Poring over court documents, artist-turned-activist Phattaraporn prepares to stand trial for the seventh time in the struggle against a gold mine.

Artist-turned-activist

As a teengager, Phattraporn’s wanted go to a university, and move to the city. Like many young students from rural villages, she wanted to go to Bangkok once she graduated high school.

“It was before we had rubber trees and not alot of people did farming,” she remembers.

Phattraporn left for Bangkok in the early 2000’s to pursue a career in the arts. At that time, the company had just started their mining explorations. After studying fine arts in Bangkok, she struggled to find a job in that field.

“I went to work at a Western Digital Hard Drive company. I was responsible for the warehouse for four or five years. I felt frustrated because I felt I was not progressing,” she says.

Phattraporn decided to pack her bags. Several of her friend had become tattoo artists in Pattaya. “I went to stay with a friend in Phuket, stayed there for two years and traveled around, blew all my savings,” she remembers.

Since returning home, Phattraporn feels, she has gained new skills, and found a new meaning to her life. She now sees herself continuing to protect her village for the rest of her life.

“She is equal to any lawyer, a hero that the issue brought out,” says Wiron Rujichaiwat, one of the leaders of the KRBKG.

Constant battle for justice

It is a fight “on several fronts, not only with the company,” as Phattraporn says, because of the lack of government support. Even though many other women were sued at the beginning of this case, theirs’ were dropped because of lack of evidence. Currently, there are two women of the group being sued.

Even though it is the seventh time that Phattraporn goes to court to defend herself and her community – Na Nong Bong – , the experience remains frightening.

“People have said bad things to me in court, but the more often I go there the better I get at it,” she says. “I’m becoming familiar with the courtroom. Now it is easy for me.’’

Before every court case, lawyers help her prepare for answers and give her confidence, in this constant battle for justice.

Phattraporn’s story is a puzzle piece of this community’s fight for their environment and livelihood that began exactly ten years ago. In response to the gold and copper mine project pushed forward by Tungkum Limited Company and the Department of Primary Industries and Mines, locals created KRBKG.

An unexpected role

The fight she has been leading has allowed her to go to Mexico to learn about how other communities are dealing with similar problems around the world. It was encouraging and inspiring for her to see that communities on the other side of the world are going through the same, and that no one is fighting alone.

She also had the opportunity to travel to Myanmar, to learn about democracy issues in anticipation to her involvement in the new Commoner Party. She is expected to take on a major role in this new party, based on her experience in activism.

In spite of the turmoil, Phattraporn speaks wistfully of her personal dreams looks forward to calmer times. ‘’I want to have a coffee shop but don’t have funding for that. If I get some free time I would like to work on some art.‘’

However, she wholeheartedly embraces the responsibility that now lies on her shoulders,

‘’I think I’m going to have to do this for the rest of my life,” Phattraporn says. “If I don’t have the support of my community or family, what would I be doing here?’’

Grace Valdevitt is a Culture and Politics student at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. She has been studying issues of human rights issues and development in Khon Kaen.