Braving the odds for the greater good

national March 07, 2018 20:31

By The Nation

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Supaporn Malailoy 

She is a human rights defender and the manager of ENLAW Foundation; community rights advocate for changes to community rights concerning the environment and natural resources and their political rights. 

Supaporn has been working to equip villagers with legal tools. Her role for the past 10 years has been as office manager and community relations worker with ENLAW Foundation. Supaporn began by providing villagers with legal knowledge. In 2013, the organisation became a registered foundation that aimed to help people affected by large-scale development or industrial projects.

She assisted lawyers in gathering information on each legal case in various communities. Later, she became a project coordinator. For the last 10 years, she has been the Manager and Community Relations Officer for the Foundation for Environmental Laws. The main task is to coordinate and develop the legal work on human rights. 

She considers her greatest experience to be her involvement in the 2015 struggle against coal-fired power plants in three provinces – Thepha (Songkhla), Krabi and Chachoengsao. All the local people in the provinces were united with the knowledge that the construction of a coal-fired power plant would bring more harm than good, particularly for the environment that is their home.

Since 2015, EnLaw and Supaporn have been part of the struggle against the construction of coal-powered plants in three provinces – Songkhla, Krabi and Chachoengsao. The villages in all three areas came together to oppose the plants as they believed they would cause much harm, especially to the local environment. 

The 1997 Constitution enshrined the right for community participation and rights over use of natural resources. Even though the 2017 Constitution has weakened these rights, people still had an awareness of their community rights and knowledge that legal rights could be invoked to guarantee their participation in planning, survey and decision-making. The 2,200-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Thepa district in Songkhla was to be the largest of its kind to be constructed in Thailand. The local community was actively protesting against it, knowing that the building of such a power plant would lead to the removal of at least 200 households and damage the environment. ENLAW Foundation became involved in supporting and promoting the rights of the villagers, especially with the legal documentation to submit to the courts and official letters to relevant government agencies.

This process enabled the villagers to understand the project, learn about the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and the Environmental Health Impact Assessment (EHIA) that had been done without any community participation due to them under the law. 

Most recently, villages from the communities of Krabi and Songkla gathered in front of the UN building in Bangkok and went on a hunger strike for many days. The court dismissed the request from police to move the protesters, upholding their constitutional right to peaceful protest. Finally the Ministry of Energy signed a memorandum of understanding with power company Egat, agreeing to suspend the projects and to withdraw the existing EHIA and repeat the assessment over the next nine months.

The other aspect of Supaporn’s work is to organise people’s participation in urban planning and land management. However her work is often in conflict with NCPO Order 3/2559 regarding exceptions made for Special Economic Zones. The Order allows for the announcing of zones without any public consultation, denotes what activities can be undertaken and, along with NCPO Order 9/2559, allows for large-scale projects deemed urgent to be permitted without the need to wait for an EIA to be completed or approved. 

The current situation is unique. People are not allowed to stand up and march in the street to show what is happening. The right to participate in some areas is harshly restricted. This is a very different era. Supaporn feels the power used by the NCPO may cause more conflict in the future. 

Recently Enlaw represented the People GO Network as their legal team in suing the Royal Thai Police and three high-ranking police officers in the Administrative Court for allegedly disrupting and intimidating the “We Walk” peaceful demonstration and violating people’s right to gather in public.

The Administrative Court issued an order granting legal protection for the People GO Network to continue their long march from Thammasat University to Khon Kaen, and ordered the police to perform their duty according to the Public Gathering Act to provide the security the demonstrators needed until the march ended. 

Dararat Suthes

She is the director of Phang Nga Child and Family Shelter, Department of Child and Youth Affairs, under the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, in Takua Pa district, Phang Nga province. 

Dararat is a dedicated civil servant working to defend the rights of women and children to live free from fear and violence. As the administrator of the Child and Family Shelter, her work extends beyond simply providing basic shelter to ensure safety and freedom from discrimination for women and children across borders, nationality, and religion. 

Dararat Suthes, affectionately called “Chief Bu” by co-workers and “Mother Bu” by children, had been working for more than 22 years when in January 2013 she was tasked to take care of Rohingya refugee children who had crossed the Andaman Sea by boat to reach Thailand. At that time, more than half of the refugees arriving were women and children – a total 189 lives. It is a very complicated and difficult situation to work in. There are multiple obstacles and challenges. These include differences in language, culture and tradition. 

The arrival of Rohingya refugees caused social conflict and there was difference of opinion on how the problems should be addressed. Some people supported the need to provide humanitarian assistance while other sectors maintained the refugees created problems and were a burden to Thailand, especially on Thai social welfare resources. Others raised concerns about the potential impact on the local way of life, security, public health and even the fear of terrorism from “extremist Muslims”.

In addition “Chief Bu” and the other shelter staff also had to manage incidents of Rohingya refugees escaping the shelter in their pursuit of a better life in neighbouring countries despite the risks such as exploitation by human traffickers, sexual violence and extortion.

In addition, the shelter promotes social understanding and harmony. Rohingya women and their children take part in story-telling to share the tales of their journey to Thailand and use “Community Theatre” to express their gratitude to the local Thai community. This increases their security and sense of worth. Chief Bu uses her many years of experience of caring for asylum seekers to build a more positive public perception of Rohingya asylum-seekers. She has a deep understanding of the sensitivity of customs, culture and religion.

It is clear how the work of Chief Bu transcends nationalities and religion to create a common space. Chief Bu has changed attitudes and practices of many individuals, agencies and organisations, especially on discrimination against refugees arriving by boats. Instead of mass arrests, it has now become common practice for all agencies to work closely together to check for the risk of exploitation, coercion or human trafficking among asylum-seeker groups. Those identified as victims can then be given concrete assistance, and action against anti-trafficking is strengthened ending the exploitation of refugees. The process of sharing information between staff in different provinces is continually being developed.

Currently those sheltering in the Phang Nga Child and Family Shelter under the care of Chief Bu also include those impacted by sexual abuse and family violence.

Chief Bu is under constant threat from different sectors. When asked about this, she is silent as she does not know what to say. She suggested that the threats may be due to the fact that her work was in conflict with some of the victims’ families, and others such as human trafficking networks, corrupt state officials involved in people smuggling, or local villagers in the community. On many occasions, strangers have been seen hanging around the shelter and she has even been threatened with transfer from her position. There are many problems for the shelter from a shortage of personnel, inadequate budget and even a security system that puts staff – mostly women – in fear of carrying out their duties.

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