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THAILAND: Call for observers in the case of Land Rights and Human Rights Defenders in Lamphun Provincial Court

June 4, 2012



Urgent Appeal Case: AHRC-UAC-095-2012

4 June 2012
THAILAND: Call for observers in the case of Land Rights and Human Rights Defenders in Lamphun Provincial Court

ISSUES: Human rights defenders; Land rights; Land Reform

Dear friends,

On 6 June 2012, at 9 am in the Provincial Court in Lamphun Province, the Supreme Court verdict in a case involving three land rights activist in northern Thailand will be announced. The three defendants -- Mr. Prawais Panpa, Mr. Rangsan Saensongkhaew, and Mr. Suebsakun Kijnukorn – face potential lengthy prison terms of four years stemming from their actions during land occupations during 2002-2004. At issue in this decision are the individual fates of these three men, as well as land rights and the right to livelihood in northern Thailand in a broader sense. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) urges all concerned persons to attend the court as observers, and calls on other interested persons to follow the decision closely. The AHRC also has a colleague attending to observe.


Beginning in the mid-1990s, farmers and their nongovernmental organization (NGO) allies began organizing a community-led land reform movement in northern Thailand. In 2001, they began to occupy local areas of land left abandoned by absentee landowners, particularly in cases in which the title was in dispute. Despite the legal grounding for their actions under Thai land reform and land use law, many leaders and members of the movement were charged with allegedly trespassing and destruction of private property.

The Supreme Court ruling will apply to two related legal cases involving three different individuals. Prawais Panpa, age 64, a village leader from Prabaht village, Pasang District, Lamphun province, Rangsan Saensongkhaew, age 56, a village leader from Raidong village, Namdip sub-district, Pasang district, Lamphun province, who pushed for community land reform and the current president of the Pasang Chanode Chumchon Cooperative (Pasang Community Title Deed Cooperative), and Suebsakun Kijnukorn, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) activist based in Chiang Mai province who worked with the Northern Peasants' Federation (NPF) to support the land rights movement between 2002-2004, were charged and prosecuted in Black Case No. 1531, 1371 / 2545, Red Case No. 2699/2549, 2700/2549. In the case of all three defendants, the Court of First Instance found them guilty of violating a range of laws related to trespassing and destroying private property, and leading and supporting other people to do so. The Court of First Instance sentenced them to six years in prison. The Appeal Court upheld the conviction, same sentence for Prawais but reduced the sentence for Rangsan and Suebsakun to four years.

The cases against Prawais Panpa, Rangsan Saensongkhaew, and Suebsakun Kijnukorn are part of a larger body of prosecutions against villagers and activists who struggled for land rights in Lamphun province. At present, a total of 22 farmer and movement leaders have been sentenced in relation to their work for land rights in Lamphun province. These include 20 people from Tha Luk village, Nonglong subdistrict, New Wiangnonglong district, Lamphun province. The other 2 people were from Donkhilek village, Sritia sub-district, Baanhoeng district, Lamphun province. They were released after 6 months imprisonment on 5 December 2010. Cases are still proceeding in the Court of First Instance against another 10 defendants, including 8 people from the Phe-tai village, New Wiangnonglong district, Lamphun province, and 2 people from Raidong village, Namdip sub-district, Pasang district, Lamphun province.

What is of concern in all of these prosecutions is that it is a case in which there is the presence of collusion between landowners (many of whom are absentee investors) and the state to prevent villagers from securing access to land and livelihood. In an essay about the land rights movement published by Prachatham, a northern Thailand-based online community news site, Rangsan Saensongkhaew comments that “The primary reason is that us farmers did not have any land. Those who had land did not have enough land [to produce enough food to eat]. Another reason is that the land that capitalists bought up, they abandoned and did not use it. There were two types of this behavior: the first is that the land was simply bought for speculation, not to use it; the second is that they gave the land title to the bank when they became indebted.”

In addition, this case is of concern to the AHRC because it is a clear example of an attempt to use the judiciary to persecute and intimidate community and NGO leaders who have supported villagers advocating for their rights. In October 2011, the Supreme Court ruled against Jintana Kaewkhao, an activist advocating for her rights and the rights of her community to be free of a coal-fired power plant in Prachuab Khiri Khan province (See AHRC-STM-146-2011). The decision was a clear action against the rights of citizens to organize to improve and defend their communities and in the interest of capital, no matter how dubious their claim.

In advance of the 6 June 2012 hearing to read the Supreme Court decision in the cases of Prawais Panpa, Rangsan Saensongkhaew, and Suebsakun Kijnukorn, the Asian Human Rights Commission would like to remind the Thai judiciary of the individual rights to assemble and protest and the community rights protected in the 2007 Constitution. The job of the judiciary is to protect the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, not legitimate their violation. Moreover, the Asian Human Rights Commission calls on the Thai government and judiciary to immediately halt all other ongoing cases against activists and villagers involved in land reform.

Detail of verdict hearing:

Venue- Lampun Provincial Court, Moung District, Lampun Province.
Time- 9am.
Case number- Black Case No. 1531, 1371 / 2545, Red Case No. 2699/2549, 2700/2549

Background information on land rights in northern Thailand:

Lack of access to land has been a long-standing problem for farmers in northern Thailand, dating from the middle of the twentieth-century. While the problem for impoverished and landless farmers through the Cold War was access to land with a reasonable rental price, the rise of agribusiness and neoliberal policy, combined with collusion between the Thai state and capital has led to a different set of problems in the last three decades.

In 1984, the Thai government borrowed approximately $200 million from the World Bank to begin a 20-year land titling programme. By 1987, land in many districts in the provinces across northern Thailand were titled without the knowledge of local people. In particular, outsiders were issued with titles to much public land and village common land of great importance to local people. Wealthy investors also obtained land titles land in two locations under dubious legal circumstances: 1) land in state forest reserves and watershed areas where private landholding is prohibited
by law; 2) land in Agricultural Land Reform areas which were supposed to be earmarked for redistribution to poor and landless farmers. Several independent committees have confirmed that land titles issued in these circumstances were illegal.

In addition, a boom in large-scale land speculation peaked in the early 1990s in the North. Many of these titled land plots were left idle. Speculators defaulted on their loans in the 1997 financial crash, and muhc of this land remeained in the possession of the banks; the parcels of land were too large to be affordable for small-scale and poor farmers. Beginning in 1997, villagers called on the government to investigate the legality of the titles issuedand to redistribute lands under the provisions of the Agricultural Land Reform Act.

Beginning in 1997, and particularly during the years between 2000 and 2002, landless farmers joined together in a community land reform movement and carried out occupations of abandoned and disputed lands in their local vicinities. A total of 3,798 families joined the community land reform movement, putting around 14,309 rai (2150 hectares) of abandoned land to use. As communities did so, they put into practice of new form of land tenure – community land title -- and developed rules and institutions for the sustainable management of the land. While these rules and institutions varied from community to community, many of them shared the following characteristics:

• Members must genuinely use the land that they have been allocated. It is forbidden to leave the land abandoned.
• If any member must transfer the land, they must notify the committee in order for the members to consider, and it is forbidden to sell the land to anyone outside the group.
• If there is a transfer of land, a deduction will be made from the income at the rate agreed by all, as contribution to the community land fund.
• Members must join in meetings, fund-raising activities and follow up the resolution of problems, such as the arrests and prosecution of the group or other.
• If the land is transferred, the new plotholder must agree to take responsibility and work with the group in future.

Beginning in 2000, the Northern Peasants' Federation (NPF) called for the government to recover privately-held land for redistribution to local communities. In 2001, the Thai Land Institute Foundation reported that 70% of land for which legal ownership or use documents have been issued has been abandoned or left vacant, and not put to productive use, or not fully put to productive use. In April 2001, NPF secured agreement from the government to investigate the status of various land-holding arrangements, and begin a pilot land reform project in Chiang Mai and Lamphun provinces, two provinces in the fertile Ping River basin in northern Thailand.

However, in April 2002, a Cabinet Resolution was issued to begin prosecuting those involved in what the government termed land "encroachments." This had an immediate effect: within days over 300 police officers sweeped into Baan Dong Khi Lek village in Lampun Province, to arrest villagers on charges of land encroachment. Sweeping arrests in other villages followed. By 2003, over 100 small-scale farmers had been arrested in Baanhoeng, Pasang, and New Wiangnonglong districts of Lamphun province and over 1000 charges had been filed.

In 2006, the land reform movement of the NPF joined with the Thai Land Reform Network to campaign for landless people across the country. Together, they linked the policy of equitable land redistribution to a land fund, a progressive land tax and community land titling.In late 2007, proposals of the Thai Land Reform Network were received by the Thai government and the following initiatives have been set up:

• The Committee to Facilitate the Resolution of Land Problems in Thailand: This committee is chaired by the prime minister. In 2010, a Prime Ministerial Order was issued to legally grant community land title. Two community land titles have been issued. The first was issued to the Agricultural Cooperative of Khlongyoeng in Nakonpathom province. The second legally granted community title was to the Pasang Chanode Chumchon Cooperative established in Pasang district of Lamphun province. The chairman of this cooperative, Rangsan Saensongkhaew, is one of the defendants awaiting appeal in the Supreme Court on 6 June 2012 that is the subject of this Urgent Appeal.
• An institute to establish a national land bank was established to facilitate the redistribution of land to low-income and landless farmers.
• Proposals are currently under consideration in Parliament to establish a progressive land tax.

Note: The background information provided here is drawn from the work of the Land Research Action Network and Focus on the Global South. For further information, including a letter sent by the network to the Thai authorities on 31 May 2012, please see: http://www.focusweb.org/content/stop-prosecuting-land-reform-activists-says-international-letter-thai-pm


Thank you.

Urgent Appeals Desk
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) (ua@ahrc.asia)

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Extended Introduction: Urgent Appeals, theory and practice

A need for dialogue

Many people across Asia are frustrated by the widespread lack of respect for human rights in their countries.  Some may be unhappy about the limitations on the freedom of expression or restrictions on privacy, while some are affected by police brutality and military killings.  Many others are frustrated with the absence of rights on labour issues, the environment, gender and the like. 

Yet the expression of this frustration tends to stay firmly in the private sphere.  People complain among friends and family and within their social circles, but often on a low profile basis. This kind of public discourse is not usually an effective measure of the situation in a country because it is so hard to monitor. 

Though the media may cover the issues in a broad manner they rarely broadcast the private fears and anxieties of the average person.  And along with censorship – a common blight in Asia – there is also often a conscious attempt in the media to reflect a positive or at least sober mood at home, where expressions of domestic malcontent are discouraged as unfashionably unpatriotic. Talking about issues like torture is rarely encouraged in the public realm.

There may also be unwritten, possibly unconscious social taboos that stop the public reflection of private grievances.  Where authoritarian control is tight, sophisticated strategies are put into play by equally sophisticated media practices to keep complaints out of the public space, sometimes very subtly.  In other places an inner consensus is influenced by the privileged section of a society, which can control social expression of those less fortunate.  Moral and ethical qualms can also be an obstacle.

In this way, causes for complaint go unaddressed, un-discussed and unresolved and oppression in its many forms, self perpetuates.  For any action to arise out of private frustration, people need ways to get these issues into the public sphere.

Changing society

In the past bridging this gap was a formidable task; it relied on channels of public expression that required money and were therefore controlled by investors.  Printing presses were expensive, which blocked the gate to expression to anyone without money.  Except in times of revolution the media in Asia has tended to serve the well-off and sideline or misrepresent the poor.

Still, thanks to the IT revolution it is now possible to communicate with large audiences at little cost.  In this situation there is a real avenue for taking issues from private to public, regardless of the class or caste of the individual.

Practical action

The AHRC Urgent Appeals system was created to give a voice to those affected by human rights violations, and by doing so, to create a network of support and open avenues for action.  If X’s freedom of expression is denied, if Y is tortured by someone in power or if Z finds his or her labour rights abused, the incident can be swiftly and effectively broadcast and dealt with. The resulting solidarity can lead to action, resolution and change. And as more people understand their rights and follow suit, as the human rights consciousness grows, change happens faster. The Internet has become one of the human rights community’s most powerful tools.   

At the core of the Urgent Appeals Program is the recording of human rights violations at a grass roots level with objectivity, sympathy and competence. Our information is firstly gathered on the ground, close to the victim of the violation, and is then broadcast by a team of advocates, who can apply decades of experience in the field and a working knowledge of the international human rights arena. The flow of information – due to domestic restrictions – often goes from the source and out to the international community via our program, which then builds a pressure for action that steadily makes its way back to the source through his or her own government.   However these cases in bulk create a narrative – and this is most important aspect of our program. As noted by Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando:

"The urgent appeal introduces narrative as the driving force for social change. This idea was well expressed in the film Amistad, regarding the issue of slavery. The old man in the film, former president and lawyer, states that to resolve this historical problem it is very essential to know the narrative of the people. It was on this basis that a court case is conducted later. The AHRC establishes the narrative of human rights violations through the urgent appeals. If the narrative is right, the organisation will be doing all right."

Patterns start to emerge as violations are documented across the continent, allowing us to take a more authoritative, systemic response, and to pinpoint the systems within each country that are breaking down. This way we are able to discover and explain why and how violations take place, and how they can most effectively be addressed. On this path, larger audiences have opened up to us and become involved: international NGOs and think tanks, national human rights commissions and United Nations bodies.  The program and its coordinators have become a well-used tool for the international media and for human rights education programs. All this helps pave the way for radical reforms to improve, protect and to promote human rights in the region.