Women human rights defenders spearheading struggle for a better tomorrow

Shobha Shukla, CNS (Citizen News Service)
Photo courtesy: Bee Pranom Somwong,
Protection International
The talk about 'sustainable development' and 'no one left behind' looks difficult to believe when people's lives, livelihoods, human rights and dignity are violated in pursuit of the so-called development . Bee Pranom Somwong, who works with Protection International, and is also among the key participants at the 3rd Asia Pacific Feminist Forum (APFF 2017), which opens later this week in Chiang Mai, Thailand (7-9 September 2017), was recently in conversation with CNS (Citizen News Service) on the current development model.

Bee Pranom Somwong is a lawyer by qualification, and her main work is to ensure that human rights defenders are able to continue their work safely, especially women human rights defenders. Most of her work is centred around women and communities, who are fighting to claim community land titles, access their land, and fighting abuses of gold mining and other forms of extractive industries.

Here are some excerpts from her exclusive interview with CNS Managing Editor Shobha Shukla:

Please share some of the problems faced by the people you work with?

Bee Pranom Somwong: "Access to land is becoming a major problem for farmers, especially women farmers, in Thailand and in other countries of Asia Pacific. Most of the land belongs to the rich few. In Thailand, public land is managed by Agricultural Land Reforms Office - this office is supposed to distribute the land equitably among the landless. One of the organisations I work with is the Southern Peasants Federation of Thailand which works for farmers - most of whom are women- and their land rights. Previously these women managed to have an agreement with the government to allow them to have access to this land in the form of 'community land title'. But for many years they have been facing threats and harassment from the private companies and the local mafia, who are trying to grab that land for their benefit. Four members of the Southern Peasants Federation of Thailand have been killed in the past six years and two of them were women. Local communities are facing high risks and are being forcibly evicted from their land by the local Land Reforms Office.

The land earmarked for landless peasants is being allowed to be occupied by private companies-- chiefly companies producing palm oil. The Southern Peasants Federation of Thailand is trying to take this land and give it back to the landless peasants. The land so redeemed is now used to grow bananas, vegetables, Thai herbs, etc. These crops have not only made the soil healthier, but also improved food security and provided a source of livelihood to the local community. But threats from local influential groups continue. So, it is important to ensure that land title is handed over to the community, and this might become a reality very soon. Unless community land titles are handed to the community there will always be loopholes for land mafia to attack the community.

There is another new government policy - Order No. 64/2557 on the suppression and prevention of forest resource exploitation - for taking back the forest lands where no community would be allowed to live and that forest land would be taken care of by the forest officer or the military. This new policy could put at least 8000 families under threat of forced eviction."

Are extractive industries posing a threat to development justice?

Photo courtesy: Bee Pranom Somwong,
Protection International
Bee Pranom Somwong: "Gold mining industry is a hugely problematic industry in Thailand. Mining has snatched away the livelihood of many people and has also resulted in major health problems--it has contaminated the ground water, making it unfit for drinking, and has made the soil unfit for rice cultivation. The government had already passed a cabinet resolution to close all land mining around Thailand. But recently, a new Mining Act has come into being, which, the community is afraid, might open the way for mining companies to operate in Thailand. Women too are facing judicial harassments. In the community I work with, the locals are facing more than 20 legal cases against them by the gold mining industry, just because they want the mining to close - and start habitation - as gold mining has affected their livelihood and health."

How is Thailand different from other South East Asian nations in terms of women empowerment?

Bee Pranom Somwong: "On the face of it, women are leading the economy in Thailand. We need the acknowledgement of other forms of contributions to the social security system. Women also provide social security network, not just in Thailand but across the region as well in case of natural disasters, where they take the lead to help rebuild communities. They are also leading efforts to taking care of natural resources which too is empowerment. A tourist in Thailand sees only the technological advancements that are visible in the urban areas. Most women living in the cities work in companies or factories or run their own small businesses—like street vendors. But a very large number of women live in rural areas whose livelihoods might be under threat. Also, there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. In terms of inequality I think Thailand ranks no.3 after Russia and India. Inequality gap exists not only between rich and the poor but also between men and women, urban and rural."

What is the status of women human rights defenders in Thailand as compared to other South East Asian nations?

Bee Pranom Somwong: "Space for women human rights defenders is shrinking in several countries of the region as a result of militarization, authoritarian regimes, capitalism, patriarchy. Before 2014, Thailand was relatively better off than many other nations as we have more freedom of expression, more rights and liberties. Yet women who are fighting to protect their land and forests are facing serious threats. Recently, in the north-east of Thailand, 7 women human rights defenders were taken to the court under the Public Assembly Act. This law was enacted under the military government in 2015 and its purpose is to regulate public gatherings. The women only wanted to participate in decision making in local council area but under this new law they were accused of assembling not for peaceful purposes.

Thailand recently reported to CEDAW at the UN, and CEDAW committee has already issued a very strong observing conclusion, one of which is for protecting women. CEDAW committee has asked the government to protect women human rights defenders and also to consult women in rural area for development projects."

Please share some of your achievements in your pursuit for development justice?

Photo courtesy: Bee Pranom Somwong,
Protection International
Bee Pranom Somwong: "The issue of women human rights defenders has gained more recognition. Media as well as mainstream society now heeds the issues related to women human rights defenders and gives credit to women who are fighting for justice. This recognition is helping women to have more space to be able to say the kind of development they want for development justice.

Labour protection for sex workers in Thailand was needed since many years. Police in Thailand uses police entrapment to charge women under Prostitution Act which is a serious women's human rights violation. EMPOWER Foundation in Thailand worked hard on this issue and CEDAW committee in its recommendation has asked the government to immediately stop police entrapment and make sure that labour rights of sex workers are protected. This is a big achievement for women who work in the entertainment industry. The fact that we are able to continue working strongly with women in the community gives us hope. The next step is to link ourselves with our sisters in other countries, which is the whole idea of the 3rd Asia Pacific Feminist Forum."

What is the way forward?

Bee Pranom Somwong: "Community leaders, lawyers, journalists and other human rights defenders across the world are facing unprecedented levels of persecution. Everyone is at risk when we talk of human rights-- not just women in rural areas but also women in media, in policy making etc. So, the more we talk of human rights and work on the issues the higher are the risks. We need to do risk assessment and mitigate those risks, and also make sure that women have resources available to them. If they are sued we must ensure that they have access to justice and resources to pursue their case. It is important to make resources available to help support women human rights defenders meaningfully.

We should encourage men also, who are feminists, to reach out to other men! We need to build solidarity not only between men and women; but also between young and old, rural and urban women to be together in this fight for development justice, wealth redistribution, and larger social justice movements. And above all we have to protect those women who have come out in the forefront, fighting for the very basic rights of the communities - like right to land, right to livelihood, right to participate in policy making."

Shobha Shukla, CNS (Citizen News Service)
4 September 2017
(Shobha Shukla is the Managing Editor at CNS (Citizen News Service) and the above article is based upon her interview series of key women leaders in Asia Pacific region who have played a key role in striving for development justice. Follow her on Twitter @Shobha1Shukla)

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