“There are only two paths for those defending their communities against harmful development projects: one is jail, the other is death” I remembered these words, first spoken to me by Ms. Jintana Kaewkhao, a shopkeeper and community leader, while looking at the new photo exhibit ‘For Those Who Died Trying’ in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The exhibit, by Luke Duggleby, features images and messages from family members of those missing or killed for defending human rights in Thailand. Looking at the images, I couldn’t help but recall Ms Kawewkhao’s ominous message. In 2011, she was sentenced to four months in prison. Another leader of the same campaign, Mr. Charoen Wataksorn, was shot dead near his residence soon after he had provided testimony about environmental harm suffered by his community. His picture is part of the exhibit.
In Thailand, where I grew up, economic growth has long been championed with little attention paid to tensions and conflicts between investors and communities who disagree with the government’s plans for exploiting natural resources, land and the environment. I was aware people faced violence for speaking up but looking at the images in front of me, I began to realize that it wasn’t just individual cases but the system as a whole.
Each photograph in the exhibit depicted the framed image of a human rights defender carefully positioned in the spot where they were last seen alive. The images used were the same ones displayed at their funerals. 37 Thai human rights defenders have died in the last two decades and little is written about the struggle to hold perpetrators accountable, let alone how families of the deceased have been coping. At the opening of the exhibit, an audience member asked if there had been any remedy offered to the victims and their families. Pranom Somwong, from Protection International, responded that the government had done very little to support families. Mostly, community members and their friends had organized themselves to support each other. She added one lesson she had learned from working closely with impacted communities — “The best remedy is for communities to be able to carry on their struggles”
There is a social and political system in place that allows killings and enforced disappearances to happen to those who attempt to defend human rights and the environment. According to a report by Frontline Defenders, 282 human rights defenders were murdered in 25 countries in 2016 alone. Half of those killed were actively trying to protect land, indigenous and environmental rights.
We may become momentarily aware of this kind of brutality when it happens but for most of us, it’s just information - news we read or watch. In introducing the exhibit, Luke Duggleby, said he hoped the project would encourage the public to discuss the problem facing human rights defenders. He added that such problems would have to be solved by Thai society, not outsiders, and it would be important to make sure that the victims“will never be forgotten.” This exhibit attempts to bring stories that seem remote, closer to our lives and experiences. ‘For Those Who Died Trying’ is profound not only to Thai society but to all of us. We must take a moment, look back and seriously consider how to protect and support human rights defenders — ordinary people trying to protect their communities, lands and environment.
Tom Weerachat is the Program Coordinator for the Asia Pacific region at the International Accountability Project. On behalf of IAP, he is humbled to support this impactful and historical project in Chiang Mai. IAP extends its acknowledgements and gratitude to Luke Duggleby and Protection International for working to recognize those who died protecting human and environmental rights in Thailand and to the Faculty of Fine Arts, Chiang Mai University for arranging the showing in Chiang Mai. This exhibit has previously been shown in Geneva, Brussels, Pamplona with more events planned this year in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Songkla and Khon Khaen.