Fight like a bulldog, persevere like a bee

Environmental activist Jintana Kaewkhao appears at the office of the Lawyers' Council of Thailand in February. She has become a role model for people whose livelihoods are under threat from development projects. TAWATCHAI KEMGUMNERD

Two decades ago, Jintana Kaewkhao found herself thrust into the public limelight as she led local opposition against a coal-fired power plant project close to her home in Ban Krut of Prachuap Khiri Khan province.

Her campaign turned this schoolteacher, small trader and housewife into a respected environmental activist. The transformation put her in conflict with influential people in the world of business and bureaucracy. She faced death threats and was jailed for four months.

In the process, she helped pioneer a grassroots movement that fought heavily financed, state-supported projects with knowledge and courage. She has become an example for local folks elsewhere whose lives and livelihoods face the devastating effects of development projects.

Not long after the fight against the power plant project was won, her attention turned to a proposed plan to build a steel manufacturing plant. Again, the locals' firm stance and knowledge of the law prevented the plant from getting built.

But for Ms Jintana, success did not mean complacency. She has remained vigilant against possible threats to the environment, particularly near her community.

A week ago, Ban Krut villagers were dismayed to find that a number of mature pine trees on their beach had been felled. Suspicion was directed at a major resort behind the line of the felled trees.

But no one would point a finger at the premises' owner, apparently an influential businessman. That might explain why the felling operation could be conducted in broad daylight.

A day or two passed and there was no word from the local authorities as to why the trees were allowed to be chopped down.

So Ms Jintana decided to take the matter up with the authorities and filed a complaint with the police.

The story was soon widely shared on social media. Only then was the silence broken. The mayor of Ban Krut municipality also rushed to file a complaint of his own with the police.

Meanwhile, the suspected perpetrator, revealed as the owner of Baan Grood Arcadia Resort and Spa, admitted to the authorities that he did indeed order workers to fell the trees.

He apologised, saying it was an ignorant act but one intended for tourists' benefit.

People may be forgiven for expecting the story would soon fade from the public consciousness, much as other cases have done when people of means and influence were implicated.

But that may not be the case, mainly because Ms Jintana is known to have a bull-dog attitude -- once she bites, she won't let go.

She has said she will keep monitoring the case to ensure justice is done, both for the felled trees and for her community.

Meanwhile, a local youth group announced it would assemble today to demand clear-cut action from the authorities against the perpetrator.

Ban Krut is more fortunate than most localities in having Ms Jintana, her friends and a youth group watching out for any unacceptable impact from development projects.

Where strong grassroots leadership does not exist, people feel powerless to do anything about harmful or illegal acts by influential people, often in connivance with officials.

Ms Jintana and her group have set an example for citizens in other communities to assert themselves in the face of injustice. Subsequently, more people have adopted her branch of activism by standing up to abusive practices by big business and bureaucracy.

However, Thai governments do not tend to admire such active citizenship. In fact, the current regime has forcefully discouraged this. Instead, it wants docile citizens who obey its orders and edicts.

In a recent speech on the country's latest episode of flooding, junta leader Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha chided "some people" as well as non-governmental organisations for obstructing the government's efforts to solve water-management problems.

Instead of examining the bureaucracy's failure to handle the floods and a lack of adequate warnings, Gen Prayut would rather blame the public for their lack of cooperation.

Instead of examining why some people refuse to cooperate, the regime leader resorts to invoking the authoritarian Section 44 to solve the problem in his own image.

One lesson that should have been learned a long time ago is that power cannot solve all problems -- particularly those created by bad planning -- without the public's participation.

Without this, it will only cause more hardship and resentment among those who have been affected.

But if there is a silver lining to this story, it is that in the long run grassroots movements will be stronger, providing fertile ground for more people like Ms Jintana to emerge.

Wasant Techawongtham is a former news editor, Bangkok Post.

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