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Land rights activists dice with death in southern Thailand

The latest murder of a farmer suggests powerful interests are behind the killings of those who fight for land rights
Land rights activists dice with death in southern Thailand

Community leaders in Thailand say they live in constant fear of being harmed over land disputes. (Photo: SPFT)

Published: May 11, 2021 04:04 AM GMT
Updated: May 11, 2021 04:04 AM GMT

A prominent rights group has called on Thai authorities to investigate the murder of a land rights activist who was shot dead by an unknown assailant while he was working on a plantation in the southern province of Trang.

Somsak Onchuenjit, a 54-year-old farmer, had been a vocal advocate of the rights of villagers in his community to cultivate plots of land even without personally or communally owning the land, despite constant harassment from companies and government agencies that want to profit from the redevelopment of farmland.

Before his murder on May 4, Somsak reportedly told his relatives that he had been receiving death threats due to his activism. The farmer also reported having been followed.

So far, according to rights advocates, local authorities have made only “half-hearted” attempts to investigate the farmer’s murder, which has raised suspicions that Somsak was silenced by powerful interests.

“Thai authorities should not just stand by while grassroots activists in southern provinces are being murdered for standing up for their communities,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“The Thai government should urgently conduct a credible and impartial investigation and bring those responsible for Somsak’s death to justice.” 

We worry about being attacked again or being sued, but this is our land and we are staying on to fight for it

Somsak Onchuenjit is the latest land rights activist to have been murdered over the years in southern Thailand, a hub of oil palm and rubber plantations in the country.

“All were leaders in campaigns seeking community ownership of agricultural land used by palm oil companies in which the lease with the government for the land had expired,” Human Rights Watch says.

“The police have not made any serious progress in any of these cases. Meanwhile, the remaining activists constantly face harassment, physical intimidation and a barrage of lawsuits filed by palm oil companies.” 

Between 2010 and 2015, four members of the Southern Peasants’ Federation of Thailand (SPFT) in neighboring Surat Thani province were killed while numerous others were jailed during their long fight for land titles. 

Community leaders say they live in constant fear of being harmed in one way or another.

“We worry about being attacked again or being sued, but this is our land and we are staying on to fight for it,” a 33-year-old woman living in a village in Surat Thani told Reuters news agency last October.

“We have no other land,” she added. “So what choice do we have? This is all we have.”  

Her husband, the woman said, had fled from the village after he was attacked in 2016, along with other villagers, fearing that he might be killed the next time around.

As many as a third of Thais make a living as farmers in a country of 70 million, yet available land is hard to come by. Some 80 percent of private land is formally owned by just 20 percent of the population, which means that many farmers till their lands illegally.

With each new killing, Thailand slides further into lawlessness

Farmers’ groups have long been campaigning for land reforms, but vocal land rights activists might find themselves threatened, sued or even murdered.

And when outspoken farmers are murdered, police often fail to investigate adequately, rights activists say.

“The Thai government is failing in its obligation to seriously and effectively investigate deadly attacks against human rights advocates and hold those responsible to account,” Adams of Human Rights Watch said.

“With each new killing, Thailand slides further into lawlessness, and the government’s frequent claims to be protecting rights defenders ring hollow.” 

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