Farmer, Boonkert Kaman, 35, is an active member of the Assembly of the Poor’s Rasi Salai group, and lives at the Wetlands People’s Sufficiency Economy Learning Centre. He stands in the reservoir created by the Rasi Salai dam.
Since 1992, the communities surrounding the Rasi Salai Irrigation Dam on Mun River in Northeast Thailand have been suffering from environmental impacts and have demanded compensation for decades. Constructed without consulting the local communities, the dam flooded an important wetland area that had been utilised for generations by thousands of villagers. In the long-term, the dam has caused a gradual disintegration of the traditional way of life, besides the cultural and social impacts on the people who live there.
Photo: ©Luke Duggleby
Photos/Story: Luke Duggleby
The Photo Essay series: SDGs I The Depth of Field
OCTOBER 31, 2022
Despite years of growth and economic and infrastructural development, Thailand remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, measured by wealth distribution. While the country’s rapid economic growth over the last few decades lifted millions out of poverty, the gap between the few very rich and the many very poor continues to grow.
Thailand’s inequality has many faces, underpinned by geographical disparity and social exclusion, exacerbated by political instability and an entrenched hierarchical social structure. In this context, certain rural communities across the country have been forced to defend their land against non-transparent and ill-conceived development projects, ranging from hydro dams to industrial zones and commercial plantations.
“Inequality is more than a money matter. Inequality is unethical. It crushes the basic principle that every person should have equal opportunities. It is also the root cause of many structural problems in Thai society,” Dr. Somchai Jitsuchon, research director for Inclusive Development Policy at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), wrote in a recent opinion piece. “The lack of social and political stability, the low quality of democracy, flesh trade and human trafficking, crime, corruption… you name it. These social evils are different manifestations of structural problems that share the same root cause – inequality.”
At the whim of a highly centralized government based in Bangkok, rural communities have often felt neglected and inferior, facing the brunt of the environmental impacts of “development” projects that arrive at their doorsteps undermining their ability to earn a living. Regardless of income level, everyone should have an equal say and the right to voice their opinions, especially when it affects their livelihoods, something that has been difficult in recent years.
While experts, politicians, and academics debate issues and possible solutions to such inequalities, communities around the country are forced to face the issue head-on and take control themselves.
British photographer and long-term Thailand resident Luke Duggleby has documented the stories of many communities through his photographs, which illustrate the problems certain rural communities face and how they resist. Common issues range from land evictions, ill-thought-out irrigation dam construction, and environmental impacts from mining projects to a lack of adequate financial relief from debt burden due to skyrocketing agricultural costs.
As a result, many communities have become experts at mobilizing resistance, often with the assistance of networks and NGOs, taking their issues to the doorsteps of Parliament and streets of Bangkok to guarantee those in power listen and people pay attention. While the problem is debated, communities are often left in an unknowing limbo that takes a physiological and economic toll on those involved. But if they garner enough support, such vocal demonstrations can allow for success in their activism.
If Thailand is to become a more fair, equal, and democratic society, inequality needs to be tackled head-on, making sure that everyone – regardless of their socio-economic or ethnic background or location – can exercise their rights and has equal access to justice.
As Dr. Jitsuchon continues, “A level playing field, comprehensive welfare services for life security across the board, and investment in human capital without discrimination are the key solutions. Thailand needs to make this happen if we want to eradicate inequality. When that happens, an open society and democracy are not far behind.”
The piece is a collaborative work between Bangkok Tribune and HaRDstories. Many of these photographs were first published as part of feature stories on the new media platform HaRDstories. ( www.hardstories.org)
Mon Kunna sits inside a now-defunct gold mine located next to her village, Na Nong Bong, in Loei province. She is a leading member of the Khon Rak Ban Kerd Environmental Group, which has been fighting to shut down a gold mining operation that it alleges has allowed dangerous chemicals to poison their farmland. Now that the mine has been closed down, they are fighting for the restoration of the damaged land.
Photo: ©Luke Duggleby
Villagers from the Bo Kaew community in Chaiyaphum province show old land tax receipts, to prove that the community’s presence is even older than the formation of the nearby National Park itself. The evidence was initially ignored in court and an eviction order was issued.
Since 2004, the community has avoided eviction by presenting evidence of their long presence in the village, and lobbying the government. They have travelled countless times to Bangkok and today remain on their land.
Photo: ©Luke Duggleby
Young members of the embattled Bang Kloy community discuss and draw a large detailed map of their cultural area inside one of the houses in the village. The map shows various locations important to them, including the previous village where they used to live and seek to return.
For generations, this ethnic Karen community has been living inside Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi Province and have been fighting for their right to stay inside the forest. The community claims that the area is their ancestral homeland and they have lived there long before the forest was declared a National Park. But Forestry officials don’t agree and have forcibly removed them from their original village deep inside the National Park, sparking one of Thailand’s most well-known land rights cases.
Photo: ©Luke Duggleby
Thousands of pieces of paper reading ‘No NPO Bill’ in English and “Assembly is our freedom; the state can’t touch this!” (‘การรวมกลุ่มคือเสรีภาพ รัฐห้ามควบคุม’) in Thai are thrown from a pedestrian bridge during the march to Government House.
On May 23, 2022, a network of civil society groups, members of the People’s Movement Against the Draft Laws that Undermine Freedom of Association, took to the streets of Bangkok to protest a draft law on the regulation of non-profit organisations.
For seven days, they camped in their hundreds outside the United Nations Headquarters in Bangkok, lobbying the government with demonstrations and forums to raise awareness of the bill. Several protest walks were undertaken from the UN building to Government House.
The protesters who came from community groups, pro-democracy advocates and civil society from across the country are concerned that the proposed Non-Profit Organisations (NPO) Bill will undermine citizens’ rights and enable the government to shut down the activities of civil society groups. First agreed to in principle by the Thai Cabinet in 2021, the draft is currently in the public hearing process and will later be debated in Parliament.
Photo: ©Luke Duggleby
Since being conceived in 1992 during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, “sustainable development” has become a buzzword that has helped guide development around the world. The goals have followed a steady trajectory of increased emphasis — from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, strengthening the world’s new development paradigm. At the heart of the SDGs addressed by the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are 17 key goals that call for action by all countries to end poverty and other deprivations. These must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth — all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests, according to the UN. The only challenge is: how to translate all those goals into a strong commitment and action. To flesh out the ideas so that people can understand them easily and therefore take action, Bangkok Tribune has come up with a new project: “SDGs I The Depth of Field”, using its signature style of photojournalism — storytelling through photo essays — to interpret and translate the ideas and challenges behind the goals into powerful visual stories told through the lenses of noted photographers.
Luke Duggleby is a freelance documentary photographer who has been based in Bangkok, Thailand, for over 15 years. Working for a range of global media and NGO’s he also allocates a significant amount of time to personal work which focuses predominantly on issues related to human rights defenders and environmental justice particularly at a grassroots community level. In 2018, he was awarded by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand for his contribution in covering human rights issues.