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Academics, activists, medical professionals, and residents in Chiang Mai have filed a class action lawsuit against the Prime Minister and other government agencies for lack of action on air pollution, with the provincial capital now ranking among the world’s most polluted cities.

The plaintiffs and their supporters gathered in front of the Chiang Mai Administrative Court on 10 April before filing their lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed at the Chiang Mai Administrative Court on Monday (10 April) by Chiang Mai University academics Somchai Preechasilpakul, Nattamon Kongcharoen, Darunee Paisanpanitchakul, and Dr Rangsarit Kanchanawanit, the activist groups the Chiang Mai Breathe Council, the Northern Breathe Council and the Chiang Mai Balance group, and other residents.

The group is suing now-acting Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the National Environment Board, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Capital Market Supervisory Board for not taking action to solve air pollution issues in the north of Thailand, which affect the health and daily lives of local people.

The lawsuit demands that the Prime Minister use his authority under Section 9 of the Enhancement and Conservation of the. National Environmental Quality Act to order relevant agencies to take action to solve air pollution issues, as the government has not been taking urgent action to tackle the now-severe issue.

It also demands that the National Environment Board follow the national action plan on air pollution declared in 2019, as the plaintiffs have seen no progress in the plan and the issues they face continue to be severe.

The group are also suing the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Capital Market Supervisory Board, responsible for extraterritorial obligations, to provide guidelines for companies to disclose information on their 56-1 One Report form, so that there is information available on the origin of air pollutants, including in neighbouring countries.  

The lawsuit is backed by 727 people who signed a petition supporting the lawsuit. The list of supporters was also submitted to the Administrative Court.

Somchai Preechasilpakul (right) holding a sign saying "Pollution is dangerous. Policy is not okay."

Somchai, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University, Faculty of Law, told Prachatai before filing the lawsuit, that Chiang Mai has now been facing dangerous air pollution levels for several weeks with no action from the government, and these will have a severe effect on people’s health.

Although Somchai noted that the government issued an action plan to tackle air pollutionin 2019, and that both short-term and long-term measures have been prepared, it is now clear that the plan means nothing as air pollution continues to worsen and no action has been taken.

“The air quality right now is more than the word evil. I think that for the middle class and civil servants working in an office, still have a choice at work. When you’re in the office, you turn on the air conditioner and you have an air purifier,” Somchai said.

“But most people don’t sit there. Most people are on the streets, in the market, in the construction sites, on the roads, working as delivery riders. This is the majority. I think the majority are facing severe effects. State agencies should do something.”

Somchai said that the first action the government can easily take is make sure that masks are distributed equally, and not just setting up a table at city hall and making people travel there for a single mask.

While he said that some issues will take time to solve, such as the government having a policy of buying corn from farmers in neighbouring countries, increasing the hotspots in those plantations, the government must take some urgent action.

“I think the situation right now is mass murder,” he said. “To be clear, this is long-term, cold-blooded mass murder at the hands of the state.”  

Performers from local theatre group Lanyim Theatre performing in front of the Chiang Mai Administrative Court

The 10 plaintiffs and a group of supporters gathered at the Chiang Mai Administrative Court on Monday morning (10 April) to file their lawsuit, carrying protest signs demanding the right to clean air and for the government to act.

Representatives of Greenpeace Thailand were also present, while local theatre groups staged performances as symbolic acts of protest.

Dr Rangsarit Kanchanawanit

Dr Rangsarit, a cardiologist and lecturer at Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Medicine, said that the rise of air pollution in Chiang Mai increased the risk of lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke, and reduced life expectancy by 4 – 5 years.

“We want to see policy changes from the government sector with a strong political will and without bowing to capitalists, which will prevent illness and save the lives of millions of people,” Dr Rangsarit said.

Chatchawan Thongdeelert holding a sign saying "The people's health is profit for the capitalists."

Meanwhile, Chiang Mai Breathe Council’s Chatchawan Thongdeelert said that with the pollution worsening each year, it is time for the government to come up with urgent and long-term measures to solve the issues, that political parties and the next government should payi attention, and that there should be a solid policy on air pollution, instead of treating it as an annual event to be solved each year.

“The Breathe Council, as a representative of the people, would like to join in the effort to call for change in our times, so that our children won’t have to suffer and will have clean air to breathe in the future,” he said.

Chiang Mai city on 6 April 2023, with the air pollution turning the sky brown.

According to the live ranking on the air quality information platform IQAir at 21.30 on Tuesday (11 April), Chiang Mai ranked as the 4th most polluted city in the world, measuring 181 on the Air Quality Index and with 113.4 micrograms per cubic metre of PM2.5, over twenty times the limit set by the World Health Organization. During the day, it ranked first on the live AQI ranking, measuring around 350.

Despite the situation, Chiang Mai’s provincial authorities have yet to declare the province a disaster zone for air pollution due to concerns about the effect on the tourism industry. Meanwhile, some subdistricts are been declared forest fire disaster zones on 1 April.

On 6 April, governor Nirat Pongsitthaworn issued an announcement asking government agencies and private companies to let their employees work from home where possible, to reduce the time they have to spend outdoors. Residents are also asked to wear masks if they need to be outside, while at-risk groups, such as young children, the elderly, and pregnant women, are asked to stay home. Child development centres are asked to consider suspending classes, while parks are asked to close and suspend outdoors activities.

Supporters standing in front of the Chiang Mai Administrative Court holding signs demanding the right to clean air.

Previously, on 29 March, the Chiang Mai Administrative Court dismissed another lawsuit filed by Chiang Mai resident Phum Watcharacharoenpalitpon against Gen Prayut over air pollution in the province on the grounds that because air pollution in Chiang Mai is not considered a severe public danger, the Prime Minister was not neglecting his duties by not ordering responsible agencies to act.

Nevertheless, Somchai believes the situation is now different. He noted that, during the past ten days, air pollution in Chiang Mai became visible, and the level of PM2.5 in Chiang Mai is now very unhealthy.

“I think that, right now, the situation has so clearly changed that there is probably no one who would deny that the level of air pollution is beyond what we would call normal,” Somchai said.

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