Murdered After Defending Thailand’s Environment

New York Times
May 23, 2016
By: Seth Mydans

Thailand is among the world’s most dangerous countries in which to oppose powerful interests that profit from coal plants, toxic waste dumping, land grabs or illegal logging. Some 60 people who spoke out on these issues have been killed over the past 20 years, although few perpetrators have been prosecuted in a culture in which powerful people have the last word and professional killers are easy to find.

A 2014 report by the environmental watchdog group Global Witness ranked Thailand as the eighth most dangerous country in which to defend land and environmental rights. It is the second most dangerous country in Asia, after the Philippines.

The killings often involve small-scale conflicts in remote areas, and issues that might seem too narrow to carry assassination as a penalty. Few of them have received national coverage, and few of the names of those killed are widely known.

Portraits of 37 of these largely obscure victims comprise a new project by the Bangkok-based photographer Luke Duggleby and were exhibited this month in Geneva, timed to coincide with a United Nations Human Rights Council review of Thailand’s human rights record.

“It is vital, for the victims and the families, that their fight and their death should not be forgotten and left unrecognized,” Mr. Duggleby said in a statement accompanying his portfolio.

The question was how to present them. The victims were dead, or in a few cases had been abducted and disappeared. The only records in some cases were in the memories of families and in the portraits they kept of their relatives, sometimes in a frame on the wall, sometimes at a Buddhist altar.

It was these photographs that inspired the concept of his project: to place and photograph a portrait of the victim at the site of the murder or abduction. The result is a surprisingly moving set of photographs, mostly expressionless faces in formal photographs looking out from a field, a forest or rubber plantation or a roadside. In one case, the family had only an identification card picture, so Mr. Duggleby photographed and printed it to place at the scene.

The silent portraits, looking small and vulnerable in their settings, seem like tiny, passive missives from the victims, looking back at the viewer from the scene of their last terrifying moments.

In this way, in a very different context and with a very different aesthetic, they share a hollow resonance with the well-known black-and-white portraits of the dead that cover the walls of Tuol Sleng in Cambodia, the former prison where thousands of people were photographed before being tortured and killed.

Tallying the disparate, barely reported killings in Thailand has been difficult, and the first comprehensive list has only recently been compiled by Protection International, a human rights nongovernmental organization. One of its members, Pranom Somwong, worked with Mr. Duggleby in researching many of the cases.

For more than a year, Mr. Duggleby, who speaks fluent Thai, traveled with a Thai assistant throughout the country, covering by his calculation 10,000 kilometers, or more than 6,000 miles. He said he took great care not to endanger people or to make a situation worse.

Some of the disputes and threats remained real; in some cases other people had stepped forward to continue the resistance. One victim, for example, Chai Boonthonglek, 61, who was shot dead on Feb. 11, 2015, was the fourth member of his community to be murdered in five years during a dispute over land rights with a palm-oil company.

“The most important thing was the safety of the villagers,” Mr. Duggleby said. “We made our presence very quiet and very quick. I’d talk to them, spend a few hours with them, finish and drive on to the next place.”

They were, in general, well received, and were guided to the place of the killing. In some cases, he said, it was too dangerous or sensitive to meet the family, so they simply talked by telephone, determined the site of the killing, and with the family’s permission took an image from the Internet.

In a country that, particularly in rural areas, is governed less by the rule of law than by impunity, the killers and the powerful forces behind them usually walk free.

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