Villagers claim the mine has devastated the local environment. Pic: YouTube/Isaan Record.

Large groups of masked and armed men have reportedly attacked locals blocking a road to a disputed gold mine in the northern Thai province of Loei last week, detaining and injuring several dozen villagers. While the numbers of assailants and victims vary in news reports, the descriptions do confirm a lot of common traits in the attackers:

Wearing black and white ski masks and armed with guns, knives and clubs, up to 400 men rounded up and beat 40 people, including women, in the Khao Luang district of Loei province near the northern border with Laos. (…)

“They covered villagers’ eyes, bound their ankles and wrists and beat them black and blue. They treated us like we weren’t human,” one villager, Pauntip Hongchai, told Reuters by phone.

Armed men attack Thai villagers to get to controversial goldmine“, Reuters, May 16, 2014

Police have stepped in to ease tension at a village in Loei, where residents say they were attacked by more than 100 armed, masked men late on Thursday night.

Wielding iron bars and carrying knives and guns, the men attacked residents of Ban Na Nong Bong in Tambon Khao Luang, Wang Saphung district. Some victims say they were detained illegally until early yesterday.

Pornthip Hongchai, a prominent member of the Khon Rak Ban Kerd Group, said as many as 41 people were injured and one remained in hospital. (…)

Yon Khunna, who was watching out for the village on Thursday night, said the men tied his hands and beat him up for hours.  “I was released just at 4.30am,” he said.

Loei villagers claim armed mob attacked them over mine row“, The Nation, May 17, 2014

About 300 armed, black-clad men reportedly broke up the protest, injured many of the villagers and handcuffed and detained about 40 of them.

Villagers said they were threatened at gunpoint and detained until about 4.30am on Friday, when the thugs dispersed after the last truck carrying ore had left.

Two local police officers arrived but did not dare take any action because they were greatly outnumbered  by the armed men, who fired threatening shots into the sky, villagers said.

Loei villagers hurt trying to end mining“, Bangkok Post, May 16, 2014

This again highlights the long-standing protest by locals of Na Nong Bong village in Loei province against the nearby gold mine operated by Tungkum Ltd, a subsidiary of Tongkah Harbour PCL, which publicly traded on the Thai Stock Exchange until its shares were suspended in 2012 for missing financial statement submissions and it was threatened with delisting.

The mine, located within one kilometer from the village, was built in 2006 and immediately locals noticed things drastically changed for the worse in the local environment. The Isaan Record reported back in 2011:

(…) When the mining company began digging, the villagers began to notice changes. They reported rashes and stinging eyes, plummeting crop yields, and higher cases of illness.

It was not until 2009, however, that news of the village made its first waves. To appease the protesting villagers, the Ministry of Health tested local water sources. They found high levels of contaminants and ordered villagers not to use the local water or eat affected vegetables and fish. Farmers who had traditionally relied on their land for nourishment were now asked to buy food and water from city markets.

Concerned about the health effects of the contaminated water, the villagers petitioned the Ministry of Health for blood tests. On February 2 of this year, the ministry published that 124 of 725 villagers had high levels of cyanide in their blood and 50 of 708 villagers had high levels of mercury. In just one week’s time, the [Abhisit] cabinet had paused Tungkum’s expansion.

Fields of Mine: Na Nong Bong, Thailand“, The Isaan Record, September 30, 2011

While this was a small temporary victory against the mine, environmental concerns regarding its tailing pond persisted in the following years and operations resumed. In October last year, a Tungkum executive was quoted as saying the gold mine “will shut down within five years” and move across border to Laos, even if it was given permission to expand.

Unsatisfied by the statement and after years of countless complaints going nowhere, the villagers of Na Nong Bong took matters into their own hands late last year and have built a roadblock preventing large trucks (mostly carrying copper) from leaving or entering the mine, resulting in numerous lawsuits against the protesting locals.

According to the villagers, a retired army officer appeared with a group of men last month demanding that the road be opened, which was taken as a threat and may or may not have been the precursor to last week’s attack. Tensions at the mine remains high as a company checkpoint tent was found burned down on Friday and the villagers repeated their demand for police protection.

The controversy highlights the darker side of Thailand’s recent hunger for gold, as it has become Southeast Asian’s biggest consumer and just third in Asia behind China and India with demands rising to 58 per cent in Q2 of 2013. However, fresh forecasts are indicting that gold shipments this year may suffer a sharp drop as a direct result of Thailand’s prolonged political crisis. 

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About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as freelance foreign TV correspondent. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.