'Mr Big' threatens Loei villagers

Villagers opposed to a gold and copper mine in Baan Na Nong Bon in Loei province have expressed concern for their safety after they claim they were threatened by a former senior military officer.

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The man demanded the villagers open a local road to allow for the transportation of copper from the mine.

“We were threatened to let the vehicles pass by, despite local regulations limiting vehicle weights to not more than 15 tonnes,” said Surapan Rujichaiwat, a leader of anti-mining group Kon Rak Ban Kerd — which means the "Love Hometown Group".

The villagers of Loei’s Wang Saphung district have been protesting against the gold and copper mine's operations for more than eight years.

Seven villagers were sued for alleged encroachment last year by Tungkum Co, the mine operator. The company accused the group of building a wall on its property to prevent access to the mine. The villagers insisted the wall was built on a local public road.

Another 33 villagers were also sued for alleged trespassing and damage to company property.

On Sunday, the villagers say they were contacted by an unidentified person who wanted them to allow a Tungkum Co customer to transport copper from the mine to another area, via the local village road where the controversial wall was built. In return, he offered to withdraw lawsuits still pending in court. However, the villagers declined the offer, saying they want to uphold restrictions limiting vehicle weights for safety reasons.

“We saw four empty 18-wheel lorries heading to the mine area. Each would be well over the weight limit when loaded with copper,” said Mr Surapan.

The next day, Lt Gen Parames Pomnak, a retired army officer, led 16 men to Na Nong Bong village. Villagers claimed he pressured them to open the road.

He also allegedly threatened a local journalist observing the negotiations.

After a meeting, the villagers resolved not to let vehicles loaded with copper pass.

Lt Gen Parames denied that he had threatened anyone. He also denied that he was working for the mine but said that he did have a contract to supply copper to China.

This was why he wanted the villagers to open the local road so he could get the copper out from the mine otherwise he would be sued for breach of contract. Tungkum Co also insisted Lt Gen Parames was not working on its behalf despite the villagers' suspicions he is linked to the company.

“We have been threatened since we started protesting. But it’s different this time. The approach of a senior solider makes us more concerned for our safety,” said Mr Surapan.

Police visited the village to assess if they require protection. The villagers wrote an open letter to the National Human Rights Commission, Royal Thai Army, Royal Thai Police and Department of Special Investigation to launch probes into human rights abuses by mining businesses, and to investigate the ex-soldier.

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