SAMUT SAKHON, Thailand – Soft-spoken and appearing resolute despite her bereavement, Jomkwan Sawekjinda nods her head in the direction of the table to her left.
“That’s where he was shot’, she says, pointing at a concrete bench a metre away. On July 28 last, husband Thongnak Sawekjinda, an outspoken environmental campaigner in Samut Sakhon province, was about to make a mobile phone-call when two men pulled up on a motorcycle, turning in from the street outside.
The pillion passenger pulled out a gun and shot 47 year old Thongnak nine times with 9mm bullets, from behind, before the pair sped off. Thongnak died shortly afterwards in hospital. Seeking protection which never came, he told police he had been threatened during the weeks before he was murdered. The shooting came after he fronted several high-profile public protests against coal-related operations in the area.
On July 13 his campaign made national news when he led around 1000 people onto a major highway for several hours, in a gambit to press the Samut Sakhon provincial governor to in turn press coal depots and separation factories to stop operations, pending proper health inspections.
“Everyone felt worried for him, but we never thought it would come to this”, said Jomkwan. Across the table, Kamphol Thongchieu, a petrol station owner who campaigned alongside Thongnak, eerily recounts how he received a phone call from Thongnak, right as the shooting took place. “I answered the call, but all I could hear was screaming in the background’, he says.
On July 22 Thongak and a group of residents from the nearby Muang district took control of a coal truck, which they said was contravening the Samut Sakhon provincial
governor’s order banning transportation of coal in and out of the area. Later, on July 26, Thongnak testified in a court case against a company that had transported coal into another district, called Tha Sai.
A half-mile away sits one of the coal plants at the centre of Thongnak’s campaign. Pointing at lush array of green either side of the plant, Kamphol Thongchieu says “All around are coconut and mango plantations”.
Aside from local anger at the negative health impact of coal plants so close to residential areas, the proximity of the plant to farmland and cashcrops has hit local livelihoods. “Farmers have had to stop working some of these fields as the coal dust affected their crops. Some farmers had to look for new jobs.”
An August 1 court ruling forced the temporary closure of some of coal-related operations that Thongnak protested against, some reward, albeit in death, for his work. “We will set up foundation in his name”, says Kamphol.
In a country where impunity for the killing of political activists is the norm, the police moved quickly. Seven suspects in the murder have so far been arrested or have surrendered to police, including Thanayso Wongpim, owner of a coal
trucking company in Samut Sakhon province, who nonetheless denies any involvement in the murder of Thongnak. Yothin Theprian, the alleged shooter, turned himself in to police on August 1, apparently as he feared that he would be “silenced” in turn by those who commissioned the murder. He said he killed Thongnak for a 40,000 (US$1340) baht payment, according to accounts in Thai media.
Asked about the arrests so far, Jomkwan said that she hopes that the full truth about the killing emerges, and that “whoever was ultimately behind the murder of my husband is brought to justice.”
Her husband’s activism “affected the interests of more people than those arrested,” she says. Without giving names, she adds that “the ones who stood to lose most from the campaigns have not been caught”.Show