A bumpy dirt track winds its way through palm oil plantations and slowly climbs up to a clearing in southern Thailand’s Surat Thani province. At the top of a small hill, carved out of a sea of emerald oil palm trees, sits Klong Sai Pattana, a community of landless farmers.
In front of their houses, residents bundle up organic lemongrass and bananas and load them onto a pick-up truck bound for the market. The distant echo of a hammer knocking in a fence post and the mooing of cows drift around the village. There is little that hints at the tense atmosphere, uncertainty and stifling fear that the community felt only a few years earlier.
“The first month I moved here, I heard gunfire every night. They were firing bullets into our village at dark,” recalls Prateep Rakangthong, 62, a community leader who has lived in the village since its establishment in 2008.
Prateep is a land rights defender and founding member of the Southern Peasants’ Federation of Thailand (SPFT), a group advocating to reform the country’s land management system. They founded Khlong Sai Pattana as one of five communities in Surat Thani province to provide landless farmers with a livelihood.
For over ten years, this community of around 70 families was embroiled in a violent conflict over land rights with a palm oil company. Between 2010 and 2015, four community members were killed, but no one was ever convicted for the crimes.
Despite a Supreme Court ruling that ordered the palm oil company Jiew Kang Jue Pattana Co Ltd off the land, community members still worry the situation might escalate again. Nevertheless, they are determined to continue the struggle to secure a community land title that would officially recognise their village.
“I asked the villagers whether they want to stay and fight for our right to be here. Most said they had nowhere else to go,” says Prateep, who has been facing death threats for his activism.
About one-third of Thailand’s population makes a living in farming, but access to land and land ownership is mired in inequality. It is estimated that one-fifth of the population owns nearly 80 percent of all private land. In addition, many land plots are left idle, underused and held onto for speculative purposes.
In the early 2000s, a group of land rights activists and landless farmers in southern Thailand began campaigning for their right to access agricultural land. They formed SPFT representing about 600 people from poor and landless communities who pay a small membership fee to receive assistance in return. The group identifies illegally occupied or expropriated land plots owned by the state to be made available for cultivation.
After unearthing evidence that a palm oil company was illegally occupying a 535-acre plot of land in Chai Buri District of Surat Thani Province, SPFT filed an official complaint. As a result, the Agricultural Land Reform Organisation (ALRO), a government agency, sued the company for illegal trespassing and land encroachment in 2005.
It won the case in the provincial court in 2007, but the palm oil company appealed the verdict continuously. Finally, in 2014, the Supreme Court in Bangkok handed down a final verdict ordering the company’s eviction.
In 2008, after the successful resolution of the initial court case, hundreds of landless farmers under the supervision of the SPFT settled on a 26-hectare land plot in the area, calling the community Klong Sai Pattana. Since then, the land rights defenders have been campaigning for their community to be officially recognised through a community land title.
Soon after, violence erupted, and over the next eight years, the community faced continuous threats and violence and the killing of four of their members, including two women.
Kheetanat Wannaboworn, programme officer at the NGO Focus on the Global South, is one of the few people who worked closely with the community in these early years when she was employed with Protection International, a human rights organisation.
“Klong Sai Pattana was a community of major concern,” she says. “There were frequent reports of villagers facing intimidation and violence namely murders, attempted murders, night-time threatening gunshots, destruction of crops and properties, as well as legal harassment.”
It began with shots fired from the edge of the community, with shooters hiding in the darkness of the palm oil trees. In response, the villagers dug bunkers to seek cover when the shooting began and built sandbag lined security posts at four corners of the village.
On January 11, 2010, the community suffered its first fatal shooting of one of its members, Somporn Pattaphum.
Then on November 12, 2012, two women Montha Chukaew, 54, and Pranee Boonrat, 50, were gunned down a mere 800 meters from the sandbagged security post that marks the guarded entrance to their community. Littered among their bodies were the ten bullet casings from the assault rifle that killed them.
On February 11, 2015, another community member, Chai Bungthonglek, 61, was shot dead. Police arrested the gunman but released him soon after. He was subsequently arrested again for the attempted murder of Chai’s nephew Supot Kalasong in 2016, but the Surat Thani Provincial Court acquitted him, citing lack of evidence.
Many communities of land rights defenders in Thailand have been facing intimidation attempts, violence and legal harassment by companies in recent years.
“Five years ago, we fought for our land rights all by ourselves. It ended with four SPFT core members being shot dead, and the gunmen are still at large,”
In 2017, a palm oil company accused fifteen members of Nam Daeng village, another SPFT community, of trespassing, property damage and other crimes. They were arrested and charged by local police. Unable to secure bail, two women land rights defenders spent almost two months in pre-trial detention. Seven were later convicted and sentenced to jail.
The human rights organisation Protection International called the charges an “unprecedented case of judicial harassment against land rights defenders”.
The latest attack on a land rights defender occurred in October 2020 in Santi Pattana, an SPFT community previously considered relatively safe. A gunman attacked Dam Onmuang, a community leader, and fired a shot at him. But Dam narrowly avoided the bullet and managed to escape the shooter.
The gunman, a former employee of the palm oil company that has been in conflict with the community, was charged with attempted murder. He was sentenced to 14 years and four months in prison in August 2021. It was the first time someone was held accountable for the murders and acts of violence against the SPFT.
However, the community of Klong Sai Pattana is still waiting to receive justice for the murders of their four members. At the same time, while the crimes sent shockwaves throughout the village, they also strengthened people’s determination to stand their ground.
Faced with violence and left with little assistance from the authorities, the community took measures to protect themselves. They erected four security posts built with sandbags and wood, located at four outer corners of the village. Until recently, when the security situation improved, these posts were operated 24 hours a day by small groups of three to four people who were all connected via walkie-talkies.
The only entrance to the village for vehicles was closed at night to all traffic. Every vehicle entering or leaving was meticulously logged in books, recording the licence plate, date, time and reason of entry. Some community members still carry walkie-talkies today and have video cameras attached to the dashboards of their pick-up trucks.
Every morning at 7 am, the community holds a meeting where members perform role-call, discuss anything out of the ordinary and voice grievances. Although some families chose to move away, the collective self-protection measures prevented the community from falling apart in the face of violence.
However, many of its members still wonder why there was such little help from the authorities.
Kheetanat, who studied the case of Klong Sai Pattana, believes that linkages between local authorities and businesses in the South created a “rule of law vacuum at the village level”. At the same time, there was little public support for the struggle of the SPFT.
“The SPFT’s proactive land occupation strategy was deemed radical and illegitimate,” says Kheetanat.
“In response, the SPFT resorted to other advocacy channels and employed many strategies to legitimise both their constitutional rights, the universality of their rights, taking the struggle to the national and international levels,” she says.
In late 2020, the SPFT persuaded the government to set up a committee chaired by Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan to solve the land rights issues in Surat Thani Province. Thamanat Prompow, the agriculture and cooperative minister at that time, held a meeting with the SPFT, Surat Thani deputy governor, local administrative offices and the Agricultural Land Reform Provincial Office.
As a result, Klong Sai Pattana was issued house numbers, and officials measured the area, an essential step in the community’s official recognition and acquiring a community land title. While they are still not connected to the electricity and water supply system, the community is now a place that could not have been imagined even a few years ago.
“Five years ago, we fought for our land rights all by ourselves. It ended with four SPFT core members being shot dead, and the gunmen are still at large,” says Theeranate Chaisuwan, who lives in Klong Sai Pattana and is one of SPFT’s younger generation of leaders.
“We learned from it and adopted a more collective approach in recent years,” he says. “We’ve tried to make society see us and understand our land rights problem because gaining supporters and expanding our networks will help to reduce the violence in our community because we are in the right.”
Additional reporting by Paritta Wangkiat | Edited by Fabian Drahmoune