THE southernmost provinces of Thailand, some parts of which are now reeling from the aftermath of the devastating tsunami, have been plagued with turmoil and killings since early this year. In Chana district in Songkla province, villagers are continuing their long-fought struggle against the $1 billion Thai-Malaysia gas pipeline project and its associated industrial schemes. The villagers warn that the pipeline and industrial projects will affect their livelihoods, which rely on small-scale fisheries and agriculture. Financed by a consortium of banks headed by Barclays, the project is a joint venture between the Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT) and Petronas of Malaysia.
Since 2000, the Thai Government has resorted to violence, intimidation, harassment, arrests, legal fraud, illegal detentions and threats of force to try to push the project through. Defying this violence, local opponents have peacefully occupied land near the construction site of the gas separation plant for nearly two years. The legal status of much of the project land remains heavily disputed.
On 25 October, a shocking massacre in an unrelated protest outside a police station only 200 kilometres away put the national spotlight on police violence in the south: 6 young protesters were shot dead, and 79 suffocated to death after being bound and stacked on army trucks.
The massacre exemplified tensions between southern Muslims and this mostly Buddhist country's central government. Just three days after the killings, the pipeline protesters were visited by a 50-strong solidarity delegation from communities in Prachuab Khiri Khan, over 600 kilometres to the north, who had successfully opposed a coal-fired power plant slated for their own coastline. The sight of the flags of these two longtime allies flying together on the pipeline site - green for the largely Buddhist Prachuab movement, red for the Muslim Chana communities - presented a sharp contrast to continuing government attempts to stoke up Buddhist-Muslim conflict.
In the course of their struggle since 1998, violent clashes with the police have been a recurring theme, most notably on 20 December 2002, when villagers attempting to present a petition to the Prime Ministers of Thailand and Malaysia were assaulted by police, resulting in numerous injuries and arrests. Since June 2003, when construction got under way, hundreds of border patrol police equipped with M-16s and batons have been deployed at Chana itself.
' Is this the project that has advertised itself to be peacefully part of our communities?' says Rogiyoh Madae, a Chana villager. With the recent massacre in Tak Bai still fresh in her mind, she says that anything could happen under the current administration. Yet she continues to fight for the cause that has taken much of her life for the last seven years.
During the second week of December, Sulaiman Matyusoh, a local fisher representing the protesting villagers, travelled to Britain, mainly to meet with Barclays, the leading financier for the project. Embarrassed by his unexpected presence and message delivered at the conference on human rights and business, co-sponsored by Barclays itself, the bank later met Sulaiman and other activists from India and Thailand, as well as The Corner House, Friends of the Earth, and PLATFORM.
'It's disturbing to hear them say that they knew the problems with the public hearings and the violence on 20 December, but they went ahead with the funding anyway,' says Sulaiman. 'They said they were not aware of the heavy deployment of police troops that had been paid for by one of the project consortium. They seemed not to know anything on the ground. How is this possible?’