As a Canadian Masters student who is researching development practices in Thailand, and works at Prachatai, I often hear and read about conflicts between authorities and activists. After observing interactions between the two groups this past weekend, from the explanations given by the authorities for their interventions at least, it seems like they are there just to help out! Let me explain.
There is an activist group called the New E-saan Movement, which is located in the northeast region of Isaan, in Thailand. The group aims to empower and support the region by raising awareness of issues that impact local populations who face struggles against companies, the government, and more. They are currently leading a campaign called the Walk4Rights.
Three activists share a provacative photo to raise awareness of the Walk4Rights Campaign. Credit: New E-saan Movement
Walk4Rights is a month long campaign that has been in operation now for 17 days. In the campaign, participants are travelling province to province in Isaan to walk through villages. Walking days include upwards of 20-30km of travelling by foot to protest human rights violations and rally support from small communities.
The goal of the campaign is to advocate for human and community rights for villages that have been impacted by various issues. For example, I arrived on 17 June 2016, day 13 of the campaign, to the village of Na Nong Bong, in the province of Loei. This village has faced issues, such as cyanide leaking into their local river, from a gold mine located a mere stone throw away.
Walk4Rights protestors posing as murder victims at the Tung Kum Mine in Na Nong Bong with a sign that reads “Mines Kill People.” Credit:New E-saan Movement
To the government, this is completely fine because forest protection is only provided to areas that are unpopulated. So for people who live in forests, no protection of natural resources is guaranteed. This makes areas like Na Nong Bong fair game to extractive industries.
Back to my main point, Isaan authorities seem to show interest in the efforts of the participants of the Walk4rights Campaign. Around 1pm on 18 June 2016, day 14, while the Walk4Rights protesters were stopped at Chamtaram Temple in Udon Thani for lunch, a wave of authorities, including military officers, police officers, and plainclothes officers showed up to inform themselves about the movement.
Many officers showing up to the Chamtaram Temple where activists are eating lunch. Credit: New E-saan movement
It began with many photos and videos being taken, as if it were a Justin Bieber concert. The authorities were such fans of the campaign, I would assume, that they made sure to get photos of everyone and everything. Furthermore, they collected plenty of information to assure that campaigners were safe because the village they were about to walk through has been fighting against a mining company for about 16 years. It would have been a shame if the march got the village all riled up again, not that that was the point of the campaign or anything.
While the authorities waited for further orders on how they could further assist the Walk4Rights, which included considerations for stopping the campaign because, of course, the protesters need to be safe, the walkers began their march through the village.
A while after the walk began, and the authorities finally received their orders, they were very courteous in providing a police escort for the walk to assure the protesters safety, as they were told time and time again. Unmarked police cars led and followed the 2km march, while other military and police cars passed the walkers to take more fan photos.
Upon arrival at the destination, another temple in the village of Ban Non Som Bun, the authorities came out to gather more information and take more photos. Although I typically tried to avoid the cameras, I think I blushed at one point when a main military officer singled me out and asked if he could have a photo-op with me so his fellow officers and others could take photos of us two (#celebritystatus, right?).
More authority presence at a temple in Ban Non Som Bun, where the protesters march to earlier in the day. Credit: New E-saan Movement
Typically participants stay in communal places, like temples, overnight. In Ban Non Som Bun, the temple which participants were to stay at, however, had no running water due to electrical issues. An alternative plan was made to split up the walkers to stay with villagers overnight, but the military, as kind and supportive as it is, donated a large tub of fresh water to the temple so the protestors could stay there together in one manageable place as a whole group.
That evening, participants of the Walk4Rights found out that in the night prior, a lady named Manee, who is the leader of the village, had about 20 police and military officers show up to her house asking for details about the arrival of the campaigners. Must have been to find out how they could help with the accommodations.
Overnight, some authorities remained at the gate of the temple to take photos and record license plates of people and vehicles coming in and out of the temple to, again, continue assuring the safety of protesters.
The following morning, day 15, police greeted the walkers just prior to departure wondering what the destination of the day was. Walkers were seemingly reluctant to answer, likely because at this point there was a common feeling that the authorities were like a clingy significant other.
After travelling to the province of Kalasin, the campaigners were dropped off 20km away from the next destination, the village of Ban Nong Sang, in the Tha Khantho District. This village had been impacted by a company that hoped to begin natural gas drilling in the area.
Throughout the 20km walk, only a few plainclothes officers dropped by to check up on the walkers and snap some fan pics.
One of multiple police cars driving past participants of the Walk4Rights Campaign during their 20km march.
In the late evening, just before the walkers were going to have a meal, an officer showed up to pay a visit and to say the walk should not continue. Maybe he was showing concern for how hot it was that day while the 20km walk was made. Regardless, as any polite host would, leaders of the Walk4Rights invited him to join the meal, but he politely declined and left.
Overall, I think it is quite clear here that the authorities support this campaign. By providing plenty of protection and offering kind gestures such as ice cream and tubs of water, they obviously wish for the best for the protestors.
It would also make sense because who would not want to support the livelihood of people in rural communities who are suffering from poisoned rivers, internal village conflicts because of extractive industries, and ultimately a lack of human and community rights.
If all of this is not the case, which I couldn’t imagine because why else would they do these nice things, it really should be. Any group of people willing to walk long distances every day in the blistering Thai sun to advocate for human rights deserves the utmost respect and appreciation for their efforts.