In the hills of Chiang Mai province a battle is being fought between locals and the government over a proposed coal mine, which will devastate the local community. We explore the issue and the response, examining  the state of activism within Thailand. 

As what seems to be standard practice for most governments around the world be they capitalist or “socialist”, in Thailand the governing National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) continues to contradict itself by calling for sustainable development yet pursuing old methods of energy production (i.e. coal mining) that are already known to cause massive deforestation and carbon emissions, two key causes of the climate change crisis. Furthermore, although Thailand has already adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which mandates that governments recognise, respect and protect the rights of indigenous people, we see that nothing has changed and the NCPO continues to deny all indigenous groups in Thailand basic land and forest resource rights.

A concrete example of this is the case of the Om Koi coal mine, which will displace the ethnic Karen community of Kaboedin if the project is permitted to move forward. Kaboedin is located in Om Koi District, Chiang Mai. The village derives their income from cultivating tomatoes, pumpkins and chilies to sell at the local market, and to middlemen who will resell their products in the lowland cities. For personal consumption, they continue the traditional Karen practice of rotational cultivation, an agricultural system in which a plot of land is cleared and then cultivated with a variety of herbs and vegetables for a year or two, after which they move to another area in order to let the prior field regenerate its health. This fallow cycle occurs for a period of 7-10 years, after which they return to that field and cultivate it again. The system contains 5-10 plots depending on the family size and the land available, creating an ideally sustainable rotational system that extends throughout their lifetime. 

But contrary to rotational cultivation sits capitalism, which necessitates the continuous need to find new sources of profit, and what better place to find these sources than small communities of ethnic groups that have no rights to their land? According to one of the village youth leaders, in 2000 a mysterious group of people had visited their village in order buy property from Kaboedin locals, without making any clear statements about what they intended to do with it. Although the locals do not have land titles, some of them were able to obtain a small amount of money from this group because they were told that if they didn’t sell, it would be taken from them anyway and they would receive nothing. Soon afterward, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was released, a report that is meant to ensure that those with decision-making power (the mining company) are fully considering the environmental impacts when deciding on whether or not to move forward with a project. That same year, the Department of Primary Industries and Mines proposed the open coal mine in that area. All of this was done secretly and without the knowledge of the majority of the locals. In 2011 the project is approved by the Thai government, but locals continue to be kept in the dark regarding the issue. 

It was not until May 25th, 2019 that the community began to hear rumors of the mining concession. A youth group of concerned women quickly organised the community and were ultimately able to gather 2,000 villagers together to protest at a public hearing for the coal mining concession. Their main demand was to conduct a new environmental impact assessment due to multiple issues with the original version. Inconsistencies with signatures, the withholding of important information and the classifying of seemingly pristine forest as ‘degraded’ are a few of the many problems that they have seen with the implementation process. Furthermore, negative effects that may result from the construction of the mine include huge losses of forestland and biodiversity, air pollution, an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and the release of harmful toxins into the air that will exacerbate the already tense issue of smog season in the North.

These problems will not only affect Kaboedin but the global community in general; all classes, nationalities, races, genders and lifeforms will be affected by the continuation of global warming due to the greed of the elite capitalist class and their accomplice states that continue to seek more and more profits for personal benefit without any regard for others. 

What can be done?

“Kanoksak (Kaewthep) summarizes the period before 1973 as one in which, although farmers were active, they primarily “complained” (rong rian) to the government. Farmers lacked a societywide, sustained, and coordinated movement. They responded locally to individual problems but did so without linking with farmers in other localities or creating a long-term plan” (Haberkorn, 33, 2011).

This quote seems familiar today, except that we can add student activists and NGOs into the mixture. Most of whom seek out their own ‘conflicted’ village to assist, and seem to always be in competition and have ill-will towards like minded groups/individuals (which would seem to be normal knowing the fact that they are all fighting for the same budget money from the same organisations, the UN, EU, etc.). This has prevented real transformation from occurring. 

The Om Koi mine issue is not an  isolated event. There are multiple conflicts happening around Thailand relating to the unjust policies pursued by the capitalist state of Thailand. #saveomkoi, #savechana, #savewanchalerm, #NOCPTPP, the homeless and slum movement, the National Pensions Bill, gender recognition, the list goes on. All of these issues are related to the unjust policies that result from a capitalist state that prioritises profit over people. These movements need to better coordinate and organise together; give true solidarity and stop this baseless hashtag activism in which issues are forgotten within a few days and people are mainly concerned with selfies with celebrity activists and high profile intellectuals.

These issues are all based on the powerful against the powerless, i.e. class; not democracy vs. monarchy, tradition vs. modernity, red shirt vs. yellow shirt, etc., there is no movement that is more important than the others, real solidarity and organisation is needed. 

What can you do?

In my opinion, the most effective action that can be done is the formation of small, dedicated groups that are more focused on long-term goals over individual grandiose events. These groups are dedicated, have consistent meetings and work together in order to achieve an agreed upon goal. The interests and talents of each member are taken into account and utilised to further the pursuit of the cause. Once this is done, and a core group is developed, you can connect with other movements to form strong, healthy and real connections amongst each other. Connections of true friendship and comradery, we must be humble and open ourselves up to new ideas and people. We have become too individualised, too against organisation and structure because of this new individualist, hipster ‘anarchism’ that values personal mental and physical comfort over difficult and stressful social organisation.

Solidarity with Kaboedin! May they continue fighting and have the real support from all sectors of Thai society and beyond! Halt the construction of the Om Koi coal mine!

“As a counterproposal to philanthropy, let us offer solidarity, organisation. Let us give the means to good will, without which it will always remain sterile and barren. It is not the lecture that should interest us, but the detailed work of discussing and investigating problems, work in which everybody participates, to which everybody contributes, in which everybody is both master and disciple” (Gramsci, 1985, 25).