Thailand: Wife of Murdered Activist Demands Justice
On July 28, Jomkwan Sawekjinda's husband Thongnak — an outspoken environmental campaigner in Thailand's Samut Sakhon province—was about to make a mobile phone call when two men pulled up on a motorcycle from the street outside.
That's where he was shot
Soft-spoken and appearing resolute despite her bereavement, Jomkwan Sawekjinda nods her head in the direction of the table to her left.
"That's where he was shot,” she says, pointing at a concrete bench a meter away. Everyone felt worried for him, but we never thought it would come to this"
All I could hear was screaming
Across the table, Kamphol Thongchieu, a petrol station owner who campaigned alongside Thongnak, eerily recounts how he received a phone call from Thongnak right as the shooting took place.
“I answered the call, but all I could hear was screaming in the background.”
Seven suspects have been arrested
In a country where impunity for the killing of political activists is the norm, the Thai police moved quickly. Seven suspects in the murder case have so far been arrested or have surrendered to police, including Thanayso Wongpim, owner of a coal trucking company in Samut Sakhon province, who nonetheless denies any involvement in the murder of Thongnak.
Yothin Theprian, the alleged shooter, turned himself in to police on Aug. 1, apparently as he feared that he would be “silenced” in turn by those who commissioned the murder. He said he killed Thongnak for a 40,000 baht (US $1340) payment.
We will set up a foundation in his name
A half-mile away sits one of the coal plants at the center of Thongnak's campaign. Pointing at a lush array of green either side of the plant, Kamphol Thongchieu said,
“All around are coconut and mango plantations. Farmers have had to stop working some of these fields as the coal dust affected their crops. Some farmers had to look for new jobs.”
The full truth
"I hope that the full truth of the killing emerges and whoever was ultimately behind the murder of my husband is brought to justice. My husband's activism affected the interests of more people than those arrested.
But, the ones who stood to lose most from the campaigns, have not been caught.”
The Green Cause Can Kill
In a country where the going rate for a contract killing is around Thai baht 15,000 (500 dollars), the price paid to eliminate Thongnak Sawekchinda, an environmental activist, has caught the police by surprise.
"The 10,000 dollars paid to kill Thongnak is quite a lot for Thailand," admits Col. Chaicharn Purathanont, who is leading the police investigation in Samut Sakhon, a province outside Bangkok with a range of industries using coal which was - the focus of the Sawekchinda’s activism.
The money was distributed among seven men assembled to target Thongnak, 47, says the colonel, spreading a crumpled sheet of paper on his glass-topped desk. It is a photocopy containing the pictures, names and role of each man involved in the killing.
Yothin Theprian, the alleged gunman on that list of suspects, has already turned himself in. Police say he was paid 1,333 dollars for shooting Thongnak as the activist sat outside his noodles shop on the morning of Jul. 28.
The investigation has frustrated the victim’s friends, including fellow activist Chanchai Rungrotsakorn. "We think there are more powerful people above those the police have identified. There are connections, networks, local businesses and politics."
Chanchai, who has been involved in the five-year-old campaign led by Thongnak to end transportation of coal into the province, sees the rapid spread of this polluting industry across Samut Sakhon as a sign of the power of the nexus.
Samut Sakhon has an estimated 114 factories with coal-fired boilers, and some of the companies in the coal import and distribution trade here are listed on the Thai stock exchange - the country’s largest coal operators among them.
There is no stopping such powerful companies. This Southeast Asian kingdom has a troubling record of 27 environmental activists killed in the past 16 years – yet none of the "masterminds" has been held to account, say green groups.
Justice system cannot reach these people
"The justice system cannot reach these people," Tara Buakamsri, Southeast Asia campaign director for Greenpeace, the global environmental lobby, told IPS. "The few people who have been arrested – and that is also rare – have been smaller operatives."
This climate of impunity, he says, has been most evident in cases where activists have been killed after taking on powerful companies that are polluting the environment in the provinces.
Recent victims include Buddhist monk Supoj Suvajoe, killed for trying to save land from a development project; Pakvipa Chalermkin, shot dead for campaigning against sand transportation, and Supol Sirichan, murdered for leading a local community protest against illegal timber logging.
It explains why local communities are reluctant to protest against private sector dominated projects that pollute the fields, homes and atmosphere in rural and semi-urban settings.
People do not feel safe when they protest
"People in the provinces do not feel safe when they come out to protest," says Chariya Senpong at Greenpeace’s Thailand office. "They know of environmental activists getting killed and nothing being done."
Environmental conflicts in Thailand have ranged from protests against polluting industrial estates, deforestation, industrial waste management and concessions for stone mills to destruction of mangroves.
Grassroots protests against the toxic trail left by the coal industry are more recent, but increasing, as Thailand turns to this fossil fuel to meet its energy needs. It imported 10 million tonnes from Indonesia last year.
Local protests have recorded successes too. Work on a copper mine and a potash mine in two provinces across north-east Thailand have come to a standstill following strong opposition from grassroots groups.
Last year, communities affected by pollution from one of Thailand’s largest industrial estates succeeded in securing a court victory, forcing companies with billion dollar investments to mend their ways.
But such successes are few and far between. Thongnak’s death has served as a grim reminder about how environmental issues attract the national media only when the leader of a protest is attacked or killed.
"The conflicts have always been between local activists and ordinary people in remote places standing up against big projects and corporate interests," says Sunai Phasuk, Thai researcher for Human Rights Watch, the New York-based global rights lobby.
"There is no interest from the state and even from the mainstream media about these tensions, because big business has been accepted and recognised as an important part of the Thai state’s national development," Phasuk told IPS.
"These conflicts are seen as isolated local problems, and the activists are viewed as nuisance, troublemakers or in the worst case branded as enemies of the state," Phasuk added.
Jomkwan Sawekchinda, Thongnak’s widow, rejects such labels. "Thongnak became an activist only after the coal pollution began," she said in a soft voice outside a Buddhist temple where mourners were gathering to pray.
"He was afraid that coal would affect the community in this generation and the next," she said.
Thailand: Killing of human rights defender Mr Thongnak Sawekjinda
Thongnak Sawekjinda, along with twelve other prominent human rights defenders and community leaders, had been actively involved in publicising both the environmental and health risks associated with coal mining factories operating in the Tambon Thasai Community.
On 28 July 2011, at 10.00am approximately, two men, on board a black and green Honda motorcycle stopped in front of Thongnak Sawekjinda's home.
The pillion passenger disembarked from the motorcycle, approached Thongnak Sawekjinda who was sitting in front of his house reading the newspaper, and opened fired. Thongnak Sawekjinda was shot nine times and was wounded in the left shoulder, stomach, chest, and back. The gunman returned to the motorcycle and both men, who were wearing helmets, fled the scene.
Thongnak Sawekjinda was transported to Mahachai Hospital where he was pronounced dead upon arrival.
On 29 July, a number of human rights defenders from the Tambon Thasai Community, accompanied Ms Jomkwan Sawekjinda, Thongnak Sawekjinda's wife, to a meeting with Mr Julapak Saengchan, Governor of Samutsakorn Province, during which they demanded that the preperators of Thongnak Sawekjinda's murder be brought to justice. Julapak Saengchan reportedly stated that he would coordinate with the police officers overseeing the case and ensure that those responsible would be held to account for the murder.
Between 30 July and 3 August 2011, six suspects believed to be involved in the murder were apprehended by the police, and are reportedly being held at Samutsakorn Provincial Prison.
On 27 July, the day before he was shot dead, Thongnak Sawekjinda went to the Administrative Court in Samutsakorn Province to provide additional information regarding a complaint he had lodged with the court concerning alleged violations of the rights of the Tambon Thasai community by five coal mining factories namely Unit Mining Company, Asia Green Energy Company, Technic Team Company, Mahachai Energy Company, SCG Energy Company. These factories are situated in Muang District and Krathumban District in Samutsakorn Province.
On 21 July, Thongnak Sawekjinda filed a complaint with the Samutsakorn Muang District Police Precinct after receiving a phone call during which the caller asked him why he was leading a campaign against the coal-mining companies. The caller then warned Thongnak Sawekjinda to “watch your back”.
Since 2006, Thongnak Sawekjinda has publicly criticised the construction of coal mining factories which often encroach on the Tambon Thasai Community's right to land, and create pollution. In March 2008, he led a campaign against the coal mining industry in Tambon Thasai Community following the purchase by a coal mining company of land worth 200 Rai from the Tambon Thasai Community. More recently, on 13 July 2011, Thongnak Sawekjinda led a demonstration demanding that the Governor of Samutprakarn Province sign an agreement calling on all coal mining companies to cease operating immediately, a move which would permit the Pollution Control Department to conduct an investigation into the environmental and health risks associated with such companies.