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Following the death of an indigenous activist from dengue fever, indigenous and community rights groups are demanding that the Ministry of Public Health take responsibility, saying that her death is the result of racial discrimination and negligence by a local hospital.

Gift Tonnamphet (front) performing a traditional blessing ceremony for Bang Kloi activists before their march to Government House during a protest in February 2022.

44-year-old Gift Tonnamphet was an activist from the Bang Kloi indigenous Karen community in Kaeng Krachan, Phetchaburi Province. Since she was arrested in early 2021 along with 21 other community members for returning to the location of their former village at Chai Phaen Din in the Kaeng Krachan forest, Gift has been protesting for her community’s right to return to their ancestral land and live according to their traditional ways and for the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi community’s right to land.

Gift died on 24 May from dengue fever, after the Kaeng Krachan Hospital refused to give her a blood test, delaying her treatment.

Activist Anchalee Ismanyee, co-ordinator for the indigenous rights network Save Bangkloi Coalition, told ThaiPBS that Gift developed a high fever on 22 May. Her husband took her to Kaeng Krachan Hospital, but due to the condition of the route from Pong Luek-Bang Kloi to the hospital, the journey took three hours and they arrived at the hospital at 17.00. A hospital official then told them that they needed to return the next day because it was out of hours, and so they could not give her a blood test. 

Gift and her husband returned to the hospital early in the morning of 23 May, but she was not seen until 12.00. A doctor then told them that her symptoms were severe and she must be transferred to the provincial hospital in Phetchaburi. She was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit at the provincial hospital that afternoon. She died in the evening of 24 May.

Anchalee said that Gift suffered from malnutrition, for which she has previously been admitted to hospital, and had kidney issues. She also said that the provincial hospital said that Gift died because of several complications from dengue fever and because her treatment was delayed.

ThaiPBS reported that a complaint was filed with the hotline of the National Health Security Office (NHSO). The Phetchaburi Provincial Public Health Office said it has received the complaint and has ordered the director of the Kaeng Krachan Hospital to give evidence within 15 days.

Meanwhile, the Save Bang Kloi Coalition issued a statement saying that Gift’s death is the result of discrimination by the hospital, as members of the Bang Kloi community are frequently treated rudely by hospital personnel, and emergency cases were often not attended to promptly. This meant that community members often do not want to go to the hospital unless they absolutely need to.

The group also said that community members suffer from malnutrition due to the lack of farmland. In over two decades since they were forcibly evacuated from Chai Phaen Din, they have not been allocated land for agriculture as the authorities had promised them, and the land they did receive was not suitable for growing crops. This led to economic issues and food scarcity, and seasonal diseases are worse for community members.

Pictures of Gift and her family were placed in front of the Ministry of Public Health sign during Monday's demonstration

On Monday (29 May), activists placed a wreath at the entrance to the Ministry of Public Health and filed a petition with the Permanent Secretary’s office to demand that they take responsibility for Gift’s death and to ensure that no such loss happens again.

Wara Chanmanee, an activist from the People’s Network to Protect Rights, Liberties and Justice, said that Gift’s family believes her death is due to negligence by Kaeng Krachan Hospital and the Prachomklao Hospital in Phetchaburi, and that activist networks working with the community said the negligence is due to racial discrimination against indigenous peoples.

Wara said that the activists are calling for the Director of Kaeng Krachan Hospital and the hospital personnel involved in this case to be punished for negligence, and for Prachomklao Hospital personnel involved to be punished for intubating Gift without informing her family and obtaining their consent.

He also said that Gift’s family must be given the compensation they are entitled to under the National Health Security Act, noting that her husband is in poor health and that they have 7 children. The Ministry must also implement measures to ensure no repeat of the incident, especially at Kaeng Krachan Hospital, where personnel should be trained to treat the indigenous community members in the same way as others.

The Network proposes that the Ministry hold a human rights workshop so that members of the Bang Kloi indigenous community can talk about their problems, noting that civil society should also be invited to participate in the workshop.

Wara posted on his Facebook page on Tuesday (30 May) that he has contacted the NHSO so that Gift’s family can receive compensation, noting that the highest amount they may receive is 400,000 baht.

Anchalee said that while the activists were placing the wreath at the Ministry, a Ministry official threatened to call the police on them, telling them that the area is sacred and so placing a wreath there is inappropriate. However, no officer came to the scene.

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