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 

LONG LASTING STRUGGLES

Photos/ Story: Luke Duggleby
The Photo Essay series: SDGs I The Depth of Field

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 

Hundreds of villagers stand and cheer in front of an enormous banner that says “Stop the mine in our generation”, fearing that this struggle will plague their children’s lives like it has theirs.
 
Since the early 1990s, a conflict has continued between rural communities surrounding a collection of limestone outcrops in Dong Mafai district of Nong Bua Lamphu province. A private mining company was determined to mine one of these mountains for stone. Fearing the environmental impact and infuriated by the lack of public consultation, the community group tried to stop it, organising protests and voicing their concerns. 
 
When the mining permits were due to expire in September 2020, the communities mobilized and prepared what they described as the last big push to stop the mining by blockading and occupying the entrance to the quarry.
Photo: Luke Duggleby
Villagers of the Bo Kaew community in Chaiyaphum province erect a symbolic monument to mark the day they successfully avoided eviction from their land.

The forced eviction was scheduled for August 27, 2019 and the villagers prepared for the worst and were ready to fight. But a last-minute decision by the government postponed the eviction.

For more than three generations, the 200-plus villagers of Bo Kaew have lived and earned a living from the land. But in 2004 the area, including their village, was declared the Klong San Plantation Forest which was earmarked for a eucalyptus planation. The villagers were then forced to prove that they had lived on this land well before the creation of this forest zone.
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 

Jindarat Rampaipanom, 21, stands in a chili field next to her village in Om Koi. She is a youth leader, who is helping to raise awareness of a large underground irrigation tunnel project that will pass through her community. This village will be the site for dumping excavated earth during the construction of the 60km-long tunnel in Thailand’s far north.
 
In 2021, the Thai government revived a 30-year-old water infrastructure project to address shortages in the Central region. It would construct a dam on the Yuam River, one of Thailand’s last free-flowing rivers, and lay an underground pipe through pristine forests.
 
Civil society groups and experts are concerned about the social and ecological impacts, as communities who were excluded from contributing to the environmental impact assessment report stand to lose their ancestral lands and livelihoods.
Photo: Luke Duggleby 
Prayot Kuenkaew, who lives in Mae Ngao village in Mae Hong Son province, hops across rocks on the River Yuam, a few kilometres upstream from a proposed dam site. He has spent his whole life in the forested mountains of this remote region and is a staunch opponent of the dam and water diversion project.
 
Starting in Mae Ngao village in Mae Hong Son province, six water pumping stations and filtering systems will be built. Water will be pumped from a reservoir created by a 70-metre-high dam about 14 kilometres from the Myanmar border. From there, water will flow in an underground tunnel for 62 kilometres until it reaches Hot district in Chiang Mai province, cutting through pristine forests.
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 

One night, whilst the villagers of Dong Mafai blockaded the access road to a stone quarry, this anti-mining group organised a small candle-lit vigil to remember the four people who had been killed during their prolonged 30-year struggle. One by one the villagers placed candles at the entrance to the blockade.
 
As the expiry date for mining permits approached in September 2020, this anti-mining community stepped up pressure on the mining company and officials not to renew the permit. The community cited the environmental impacts, illegalities in the permit process and the threat to historic and religious sites nearby as the reasons for their wanting to shut down the stone mine.
Photo: Luke Duggleby 
Villagers from the anti-mining community of Dong Mafai in Nong Bua Lam Phu province celebrate, wave flags and chant slogans as three large trucks loaded with large mining machinery leave the area after intense pressure by the community.
 
Almost three decades ago, a struggle began between several communities nestled between rocky limestone outcrops and a private stone mining company began. Affected by daily explosions at the mine, and fearing degradation of the area’s religious and historical sites, the people of Dong Mafai sub-district have been trying to stop the mine ever since.
Photo: Luke Duggleby 
A member of the Southern Peasants Federation of Thailand (SPFT) from Surat Thani province took part in a protest in Bangkok outside Government House, organised by the civil network group, P-Move.
 
Formed in 2008, but with its roots in a land reform movement that started in the early 1990s in Surat Thani province, SPFT works on behalf of landless farmers to secure them land for farming. It rose because of the inability of farmers to count on the government to act independently or the companies in question to regulate themselves by following the laws.
Photo: Luke Duggleby 
Hundreds of embattled farmers, part of a farmer’s network from across the country, camp outside the Ministry of Finance in Bangkok.
 
They stayed put for 66 days until they felt their demands had been acknowledged. Their demands were largely aimed at alleviating their debt, which has been made worse by the COVID pandemic, climate change and increasing prices of most farm products.
Photo: Luke Duggleby 
A protester showers in the late afternoon opposite Government House in Bangkok during a protest organised by the P-Move network. For almost two weeks, local community organisations have camped out as part of a collective action to request the government to listen and resolve their problems that are mainly related to land and community rights.
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 

Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities)
Reduce inequality within and among countries
Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions)
Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

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.