Thai environment protesters stage largest demonstration since start of military rule

Reuters 29 Apr 18;

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Over a thousand people gathered in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai on Sunday, police said, to protest against the building of a government luxury housing project on forested land, in one of the largest demonstrations under military rule.

The gathering was one of the largest since Thailand’s junta took power following a 2014 coup. The junta imposed a ban on public gatherings of over five people and has largely curbed freedom of expression through various orders and used military and police force to block public gatherings.

Ariel images of the housing project for judges, circulated on social media over the past few months, showed construction has carved into the forested foothills of Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep mountain, inciting public anger.

The police estimated over a thousand people took part in the protest on Sunday which it said proceeded in an orderly fashion.

“Around 1,250 people took part in the protest,” Police Colonel Paisan, deputy commander of Chiang Mai Police told Reuters.

“The protesters were focused on environmental issues and not politics, and they cleaned the street afterwards,” Paisan said. He said the organizers made a proper request for the gathering beforehand and so the protest was allowed to proceed.

Protesters, many wearing green ribbons, demanded the government demolish the new buildings that encroach into Doi Suthep mountain, saying the government must comply in seven days or face more protests.

Public officials have defended the project, pointing out construction was legal and on state-owned land which does not encroach into the national park that covers the mountain.

Officials also said protesters could face legal action if the housing is demolished and that the homes should be used for 10 years before the public can reassess any environmental impact.

Construction started in 2015 and has faced opposition from local environmental groups who regard the mountain as sacred for Chiang Mai and as a “natural lung” for the north’s largest city.

The military government, which has promised to hold an election next year, has faced a growing number of public protests in recent months, including a pro-democracy demonstration in Bangkok last month demanding the military withdraw support for the ruling junta.

Reporting by Panu Wongcha-umEditing by Christopher Cushing

Thai environment protesters claim victory in battle over forest housing
Reuters 6 May 18;

CHIANG MAI, Thailand (Reuters) - Environmental activists in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai claimed victory after the country’s military government agreed in talks on Sunday not to use forested land to develop luxury property.

It follows a protest in Chiang Mai last week in which more than 1,000 demonstrators protested against the construction of a government luxury housing project earmarked as homes for judges on land in the foothills of the province’s famous Doi Suthep mountains.

Last week’s gathering was one of the largest since Thailand’s junta took power following a 2014 coup.

It was also one of a growing number of anti-government protests around Thailand, including in the capital Bangkok, that are putting pressure on the military government before a general election planned for early 2019.

Green ribbons symbolizing the environmental movement have appeared in public places in Chiang Mai, including on lamp posts and on cars, over the past week.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha sent Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana, a minister to the Prime Minister’s Office, to Chiang Mai on Sunday to talk to protest leaders.

“We have concluded that no one will be living in this housing estate,” Suwaphan said after a meeting with the activists, adding that the area “will eventually be restored to the forest.”

Decisions on the future use of the land currently under development, which includes 45 houses, will be taken later this week, Suwaphan said, adding that the government will form a committee with activists and representatives from the local community to determine further steps to restore the land.

However, Suwaphan said construction of the homes already under way would have to continue in order for the government to honor its agreement with the construction firm involved.

He added that nobody would live in the finished homes.

Photographs of the construction of a government luxury housing project earmarked as homes for judges on land in the foothills of the province's famous Doi Suthep mountains are on display at an art fair organised by environmentalist groups in Chiang Mai, Thailand May 6, 2018. REUTERS/Panu Wongcha-um
Activists hailed the decision as a victory.

“What we have now is a promise that Doi Suthep forest will be restored,” said Teerasak Roopsuwan, one of the movement’s leaders.

“I think this could be a model for other parts of the country that public projects must not only be legal, but they must also consider local people’s opinions,” Teerasak said.

Sawat Chantalay, a Chiang Mai environmental activist, told Reuters that the activists will continue to organize public events to create awareness about such issues.

“This housing estate is like an open wound that reflects layers of problems Thailand has accumulated over many years,” said environmental activist Wattana Wachirodom.

“But if the government doesn’t fix this then people could rise up,” said Wattana.

Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um in CHIANG MAI, Thailand;Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Adrian Croft