11 February 2015
Klong Sai Pattana, Thailand
Environmental and indigenous activism
Exposure of illegal activity
On the evening of 11 February 2015, the life of 61-year-old Chai Boonthonglek came to an abrupt and violent end. Two men, dressed as construction workers and wearing black masks had arrived at the door of Chai’s small shop in the farming community of Klong Sai Pattana in Surat Thani province, southern Thailand, claiming to want to buy beer. One of the men then pulled out a .357 pistol and shot Chai six times in the head and torso, in front of his daughter and six-month-old grandson.
Chai was originally from a small village in Chai Buri district in Surat Thani province, but he and his wife, Sa, had moved together to the Klong Sai Pattana community of the Southern Peasants Federation of Thailand (SPFT). The SPFT is a group of landless farmers who banded together in 2008 to fight for a community land title from the Thai government as well as to advocate for land reform and the equitable distribution of resources. Across Surat Thani Province, more than 6 500 acres of land have been divided into five SPFT communities.
Although agriculture represents just a small portion of Thailand’s economic output, more than a third of the country’s workers are employed as farmers. Yet many of the nearly 6 million farm households do not own the land they cultivate; some are tenant farmers who are deeply in debt. Several acts of legislation were supposed to rectify this, including the Land Reform Act of 1975, which established the Agricultural Land Reform Office (ALRO), whose purpose is to redistribute unused land for small-scale agriculture. While ALRO has distributed millions of hectares of land to low-income Thai families, tensions persist in local communities, particularly with palm oil companies who also hold claim to portions of the land.
Chai’s decision to join the SPFT was first one of economic necessity, as he and his wife did not have any land with which to support themselves and their children. Yet being a part of the SPFT came with plenty of risk, as these land rights activists have been opposed by owners of palm oil plantations, including a company owned by Singaporean and Malaysian businessmen. Chai’s wife recalled the 61-year-old’s defiance: ‘He used to say, “If I die, I will just die; I don’t care.”’
Both Chai and Sa knew of the influence that internationally owned palm oil companies had over their community. Locally, these companies are thought to be behind acts of harassment carried out by local influencers, which are a combination of allegedly connected local officials and hired local mafia. SPFT villagers describe a web of criminality and corruption involving local officials, police, and palm oil companies, all of whom, it is thought, would prefer that the Klong Sai Pattana community be removed and the lucrative harvest of palm fruit continue unabated.
SPFT members suggest that internationally owned companies also have extensive connections in surrounding communities, with many alleging that bribes are paid to local officials and mafia to maintain the status quo.
In the seemingly shady nexus between palm oil companies, local politicians and the local influencers who do their bidding, the main objective is control of the land. But when palm oil companies lose their concession over the land, controlling the palm fruit harvest becomes of paramount interest. In other instances in which companies surrender their control over agricultural land, local managers illegally sell land plots to other companies or local businessmen. Although local farmers complain about this practice, no action is taken by government authorities. Criminal elements are often loosely connected but locally controlled by politicians or village headmen who are in charge of the palm fruit pickers and bribe local government officials to allow companies to retain the land.
Chai’s murder was one of several attempts on the lives of SPFT activists made between 2010 and 2015. Since then, many more small-scale farmers have crossed paths with men aiming to intimidate them into giving up. ‘These local influencers have been bullying and oppressing us villagers. They hurt us and kill us one by one. They kill one person or a group of people to set an example for the others to be afraid,’ said Sa.
In the days after her husband’s death, Sa was afraid to go to the police and drew on the support of others in the village. She felt that the authorities were under the influence of the local mafia, and the failure of the courts to successfully prosecute the assassination suspects has only added to her fears.
During the investigation into Chai’s death, SPFT members asked Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) to investigate the killings and assassination attempts, but the DSI refused on the basis that the killings did not fall within their jurisdiction. Later, in November 2016, after Chai’s supporters sought justice for him in the court of appeal, the court dropped the case against the only suspect in his killing, citing a lack of evidence. Supoj Kanlasong, another member of the SPFT and a key witness in Chai’s murder survived an assassination attempt in 2016. In February 2017, the provincial court also cited insufficient evidence in the case of Kanlasong’s attempted assassination.
Sa believes that the reason why the court dismissed Chai’s case was that money was paid out to people in all sectors of the justice system, from the prosecutor and the police to officers of the court. ‘On the day I went to meet the prosecutor, I saw a group of local influencers there. I knew that they came because of my husband’s case,’ she remarked.
In the case of another prosecutor, whom she alleges was a member of the local influencer group, Sa felt like he had shown up at the trial to monitor her, as well as her son-in-law and her daughter. While many of Sa’s fears cannot be proven, she is not the first to express these concerns. In cases involving assassinations or assassination attempts on land rights defenders, justice rarely prevails. Only recently, in October 2022, was someone finally convicted in the Thai courts for an attempted assassination on a land rights defender. Prolonged delays and perceptions of prosecutorial bias only reinforce an atmosphere of impunity.
Today, the threats continue. Sa alleges that police have come in plain clothes with members of the local mafia, whom she claims are hired by the palm oil companies. She recalls incidents in which tractors were brought in to destroy their houses, some burned to the ground.
But Sa is resilient. Her husband, despite the risks, chose to stay with the SPFT in Surat Thani, and she aims to do the same: ‘He and I, we moved here, built a home here, and we joined the SPFT movement. Even though it’s hard, I can endure it … We will continue fighting further.’
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