The global thirst for palm oil has never been more ravenous. Caught between it and a multigenerational war on Thailand’s poor are the farmers of the Southern Peasants’ Federation, who simply want a piece of land to call their own.
Main photo: Palm tree jungles and the mountains of Surat Thani Province in southern Thailand.
It was the morning of February 11, 2015, when Somrudee Boonthonglek first saw the two men outside her shop. They were dressed as construction workers, with black masks that guarded their faces against the dust. Only their eyes were visible as they passed by on a motorbike. Around 6 p.m. that evening, Somrudee was making dinner when the two men returned. Sauntering through the door of her shop, they asked to buy some beer. Somrudee’s father, Chai Boonthonglek, 61, who had been attempting to soothe her crying six-month-old son, passed the child off to fetch the drinks. When he turned around, one of the men pulled out a .357 pistol and fired six shots, striking Chai in the head and torso. By the time the police arrived an hour later, his body was cold. “I was two steps away from my dad when they shot him. Then they just walked away and got on their motorbike like nothing happened,” Somrudee says. Her son, now a rambunctious five-year-old who squirms in her lap as she speaks to me, has no memory of his grandfather. “My dad loved this place so much, so I am staying here to fulfill his dream,” says Somrudee, now in her early 30s. Since 2009, she has lived in Klong Sai Pattana, a 160-hectare farming community of 70 or so families in Surat Thani province in southern Thailand. Klong Sai Pattana is the largest of five neighboring communities that make up the Southern Peasants’ Federation of Thailand (SPFT), an advocacy group for land rights. Most of SPFT’s members are like Somrudee and her parents, Chai and Usa Suwannaphat, who followed her in 2011 — ordinary people who never owned much of anything, drawn by the promise of a plot of earth where they could grow enough food for themselves and their children. For Chai and Usa, after nearly 30 years together scraping by on manual labor jobs and sorting through recyclables for pocket change, operating a tiny general store and having 10 rai (about 4 acres) to call their own felt like a small miracle.
It was the morning of February 11, 2015, when Somrudee Boonthonglek first saw the two men outside her shop. They were dressed as construction workers, with black masks that guarded their faces against the dust. Only their eyes were visible as they passed by on a motorbike. Around 6 p.m. that evening, Somrudee was making dinner when the two men returned. Sauntering through the door of her shop, they asked to buy some beer. Somrudee’s father, Chai Boonthonglek, 61, who had been attempting to soothe her crying six-month-old son, passed the child off to fetch the drinks. When he turned around, one of the men pulled out a .357 pistol and fired six shots, striking Chai in the head and torso. By the time the police arrived an hour later, his body was cold.
“I was two steps away from my dad when they shot him. Then they just walked away and got on their motorbike like nothing happened,” Somrudee says. Her son, now a rambunctious five-year-old who squirms in her lap as she speaks to me, has no memory of his grandfather.
“My dad loved this place so much, so I am staying here to fulfill his dream,” says Somrudee, now in her early 30s. Since 2009, she has lived in Klong Sai Pattana, a 160-hectare farming community of 70 or so families in Surat Thani province in southern Thailand. Klong Sai Pattana is the largest of five neighboring communities that make up the Southern Peasants’ Federation of Thailand (SPFT), an advocacy group for land rights. Most of SPFT’s members are like Somrudee and her parents, Chai and Usa Suwannaphat, who followed her in 2011 — ordinary people who never owned much of anything, drawn by the promise of a plot of earth where they could grow enough food for themselves and their children. For Chai and Usa, after nearly 30 years together scraping by on manual labor jobs and sorting through recyclables for pocket change, operating a tiny general store and having 10 rai (about 4 acres) to call their own felt like a small miracle.
For more than a decade, three of SPFT’s farming communities have been locked in brutal land disputes with oil palm plantations. Most of these plantations were created after a 1964 law allowed 30-year farming concessions on state-owned land; these leases were initially given to powerful individuals, and after the concessions expired, many of the plantations remained or, in some cases, expanded well beyond their original legal borders. In 1997, one of Thailand’s more transparent governments issued the Official Information Act, which enabled land rights activists to access troves of documents that proved the scale of the illegal occupations. A public outcry to redistribute some of the expired concession areas to the country’s estimated 8 million landless poor grew in the years that followed. In 2009, after a court case determined that one palm oil corporation, Jiew Kang Jue Pattana, had illegally occupied its land for decades, the plaintiff, the Agricultural Land Reform Office (ALRO), allowed a group of farmers from SPFT to settle in the area that is now Klong Sai Pattana. The community has existed in the shadow of Jiew Kang Jue Pattana’s oil palm trees ever since, separated from the plantation’s by a narrow dirt road.
Jiew Kang Jue Pattana may not have had a right to the land, but multiple human rights groups say that the company showed no remorse about spilling blood to reoccupy it. According to the SPFT, between 2009 and 2018, the corporation kept up a steady stream of intimidation in an attempt to force the farmers to vacate Klong Sai Pattana, including bulldozing about 60 homes. Human rights groups also allege that gangsters hired by Jiew Kang Jue Pattana repeatedly fired automatic rifles into the village and killed four of the community’s members, including Chai. Less than two years after his death, more gunmen attacked Somrudee’s husband, who escaped with a wounded arm and a pickup truck riddled with bullet holes.
Bullet holes riddle the exterior side of a pickup truck belonging to one of the commune residents in Surat Thani Province, Thailand.
Workers collect palm fruits, one of the community’s cash crops, in Klong Sai Pattana to sell to corporate buyers.
After a court ordered Jiew Kang Jue Pattana to vacate the state-owned land entirely in 2018, the corporation officially folded. But there has been no justice for the people of Klong Sai Pattana — who are not the only community in SPFT’s network to suffer violence and harassment. A short drive away, Santi Pattana and Khao Mai Pattana are also embroiled in conflicts with palm oil companies. On October 20, 2020, Dam Onmuang narrowly dodged a bullet when an attacker snuck into Santi Pattana and fired at him at 1 a.m. while he was on security duty. Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur, and Agnes Callamard, the then-UN Special Rapporteur, released a letter implicating United Palm Oil Industry in the shooting. (United Palm Oil has not responded to a request for comment as of publication.) Dam, who is 69, says the attack has made him fearful of leaving his home and that his health has declined dramatically as a result. He is currently awaiting the results of the verdict hearing on August 26, 2021. If his attacker is convicted of attempted murder, it will be the first time that any of SPFT’s assailants face any legal consequences.
The attacks on the villagers of SPFT are far from isolated incidents in the broader struggle over land rights in Thailand: At least 70 land rights lawyers and community activists have vanished or been confirmed dead over the past few decades. And Thai governments have often been less than sympathetic to the country’s landless poor, particularly in the wake of the 2014 military coup d’état. The Thai government has not only turned a blind eye to the attacks, but it has at times actively worked to displace peasants on behalf of oil palm plantations and other large agribusinesses. After initially promising that the farmers could remain in Klong Sai Pattana, ALRO has repeatedly threatened to redistribute the land to corporate interests, according to the members of SPFT. (ALRO has not responded to a request for comment as of publication.) In 2017, more than a dozen members of the federation’s Nam Daeng Pattana community were charged with criminal offenses, including trespassing on a mining company’s land; seven served jail sentences.
One of the ripened pods on a palm fruit. Though the fruit isn’t edible, the oil produced from it makes its way into countless foods and products all across the world.
In the case of Chai’s alleged assassin, the Provincial Court in Wiang Sa District of Surat Thani Province ruled that it must have been too dark for Somrudee to see clearly and dismissed the charges without further investigation. Members of the community have urged Somrudee and Usa to flee, but they refuse to leave. Together, they care for Somrudee’s youngest son and the garden that Chai left behind. Usa knows there is little chance of justice for Chai, but she continues to tell his story. “I lost my husband in the fight for this land,” she says. “This is the land we fought for with our blood. We fight for it with our tears. This is where I have decided I want to die.”
Thailand has the eighth-largest economy in Asia, but its wealth gap is vast and ever widening. In 2016, the country had the third-highest economic inequality in the world, according to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, with its 50 richest billionaires having a net worth equal to 30 percent of the country’s entire GDP. By the 2018 edition of the report, Thailand had beat Russia and India for the greatest degree of wealth inequality in the world, with the top 1 percent of the population owning 66.9 percent of the country’s wealth. That same year, 55 percent of the population worked in the informal sector, many living one illness or missed paycheck away from starvation; some 6.5 million people did not have enough to eat. Nearly a third of the population works in Thailand’s agricultural sector, often as near-indentured servants to the corporations that control the land they tend. A 2020 report by the World Bank found that the number of agricultural workers earning less than the poverty line of 90 Thai baht (about $3) per day has been climbing since 2016.
In a country that relies heavily on agriculture, land is everything, and nearly 80 percent of the land in Thailand is controlled by just 20 percent of the population. According to a 2019 case study conducted by Focus on the Global South, “land ownership has become concentrated in the hands of a small number with access to information, capital, and connections to authorities.” ALRO, which is in charge of land distribution, is famously corrupt; its officials have historically made little effort to hide their interest in bribery. According to Pornpana Kuaycharoen, a coordinator at Land Watch Thailand, when many of the oil palm concessions were first handed out in the 1960s, anecdotal reports of graft ran rampant, with local officials allegedly handing off parcels of land to powerful friends for as little as 10 Thai baht (33 cents) per rai (0.4 acres).
A dirt path leading through a palm tree plantation in Surat Thani province.
A man collects fish from one of Klong Sai Pattana’s breeding ponds.
Since May 22, 2014, when Thailand’s democratically elected prime minister was arrested in a coup d’état and the National Council for Peace and Order, a military junta under the leadership of General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, seized power, inequality in Thailand has steadily worsened. As prime minister, Prayuth Chan-o-cha has an abysmal human rights record: Since his rise to power, his administration has eliminated political opposition and authorized the use of water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets on crowds of civilian protestors in Bangkok. It has also doled out hefty prison sentences for violations of the country’s lèse majesté law, which forbids anything that could be broadly interpreted as defamation of the monarchy — in multiple cases, the crime in question was a Facebook post.
Less than a month after taking control, on June 14, 2014, the junta launched its Forestry Reclamation Policy, the stated purpose of which was to reforest a sizable swath of Thailand in order to combat global warming. Although the government claims that this was an environmental initiative, activists say the goal was always to draw corporate investment to land that had been occupied by rural communities. Since 2015, more than 8,000 households have faced forced eviction, while the Thai government has leased out 999 hectares of the reclaimed land to agribusiness firms for growing oil palms, eucalyptus, and rubber trees, as well as to mining and cement companies. Those being forcibly removed are invariably subsistence farmers, many of them Karen or other ethnic minorities. “The Forestry Reclamation Policy allows for tremendous dispossession,” says Tyrell Haberkorn, a professor of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of In Plain Sight: Impunity and Human Rights in Thailand. “[The junta] argue it’s to keep land from being further degraded, but if you look at who has been displaced and prosecuted, it’s another way to target people who are already living in the margins of society.”
According to Land Watch Thailand, between 2014 and 2017, the Thai government brought 20,200 lawsuits and criminal court cases against nearly 4,300 defendants, mostly on trumped-up charges of trespassing on their own homes. Soldiers have torched villages and marched elderly inhabitants off of the land at gunpoint that they have farmed for generations. In one instance, near the beginning of the campaign in 2014, Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, described the areas to which more than 1,000 villagers were forcibly relocated as “uninhabitable.” Political propaganda and television commercials depict soldiers in full combat gear standing over unarmed villagers as though celebrating a heroic victory. “What is happening in Thailand right now is nothing short of a war on the poor,” says Pranom Somwong, Protection International’s representative in Thailand.
Since its foundation in 2008 in Surat Thani province, the SPFT has advocated for the landless poor, who seldom have a voice in Thai society. After an investigation by the Southern Poor People Network (SPPN) found that oil palm plantations were illegally occupying approximately 11,200 hectares of state-owned territory, mostly in the south of Thailand, members of SPFT moved into the disputed areas and began to work the land. From the beginning, it was a bold social experiment, a radically democratic society struggling to survive within an increasingly authoritarian one. Among the organization’s principles are that anyone can lead, that all leaders must be elected by popular vote, that women should hold just as many positions of authority as men, and that the communities should be good stewards of the environment for future generations. Every household of SPFT is entitled to an equal amount of land — 10 rai (4 acres) for planting crops and 1 rai (0.4 acres) for building a home — provided they practice sustainable farming methods and sow a diverse mix of seeds. Community members are expected to take their responsibilities to the land and to one another seriously — if they fail to do so, they are asked to leave after a trial year. At the core of it all is a deep-rooted belief that everyone deserves to live with dignity, free from fear of hunger.
A collection of portraits of residents from the three communities in the Southern Peasants’ Federation of Thailand — Klong Sai Pattana, Santi Pattana, and Nam Daeng.
For Kusol Chuaywang, that idea was immensely appealing. Although originally from Surat Thani province, she worked in Bangkok for many years as a contract driver for a van company. Each day, after she paid for gasoline and the van’s rental fee, she walked away with no more than 200 Thai baht or 300 Thai baht (approximately $6 to $9). That left barely enough to cover the 2,000 Thai baht ($63) she paid in monthly rent for an apartment on the outskirts of the capital. Decades of unchecked development — defined by a glut of luxury condos and high-end shopping malls — have rendered Bangkok effectively unlivable for workers like Kusol. Since 2014, the Thai military junta has accelerated the city’s gentrification by supporting the displacement of lower-income neighborhoods and reducing access to affordable food by destroying night markets and systematically evicting many of the city’s 20,000-plus street food vendors. “In the city, I just survived day to day, nothing more. It was always a struggle to make ends meet,” Kusol says.
Kusol was in her late 40s when she decided to begin a new life in Klong Sai Pattana. “When we first started to cultivate the land, it was difficult. Most of us had to use our own savings [in the beginning],” she says. “Now, there is always enough food…nobody has to worry about starving here.” Even at the height of the violence in those early years, she was one of the few villagers who steadfastly refused to leave. “My dream was to have my own land,” she says. “Here, I have hope.”
While SPFT members like Kusol joined to start over, for Surapol Songrak, an SPFT executive committee member, the movement for land rights is tied to a lifelong quest to build a more equitable society in Thailand. “We believe that our struggle will free the land from the corporations and the billionaires and return it to the people,” he says. A round-faced man in his mid-50s with wisps of salt-and-pepper hair, he speaks quietly but carries himself with an unmistakable air of authority. “We are not the only group that has been fighting for justice and equality in this country, and we are not the first group that lost our members,” he says. “There are already several incidents in Thai political history of people’s movements fighting against authoritarian powers. Each movement may look like it’s the same, but the conflict evolves.”
The roots of that conflict in Thailand run back to the 1970s. It was a period of intense upheaval, one in which an authoritarian government brutally suppressed attempts at social and political reform. With the Cold War underway and Communism spreading through other parts of Southeast Asia, paranoia among Thai landowners and government officials was running high. In 1972, security forces slaughtered as many as 3,000 civilians in Phatthalung province who were accused of being Communists. The incident came to be known as the thang daeng, or Red Drum, Murders, since detainees were burned alive in 200-liter oil drums. Witnesses remember that soldiers revved the engines on their trucks to muffle the screaming. “The official reason [for the violence] was to eradicate Communism, but it extended further than that,” says Haberkorn, who publishes in English and Thai and writes about the incident in Getting Away With Murder in Thailand. “‘Communist’ was defined as anything that was dissident, so it ended up including socialism, radical democracy, and essentially any progressive political thought.”
Prateeb Rakmangthong, a community leader and member of the SPFT, stands with his cattle in Klong Sai Pattana.
Payom Narong, a banana farmer in Klong Sai Pattana, holding a bundle of green bananas.
Among those branded as social dissidents were the members of the Farmers Federation of Thailand (FFT), an organization founded in 1974 to advocate for the rights of landless peasants. Over the next five years, many of the organization’s leaders were assassinated or simply disappeared. While some of the names of the victims were recorded by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, as with the Red Drum Murders, state records regarding the incidents remain sealed. Thailand’s pattern of displacing rural communities and quashing resistance has continued through decades of regime changes. Between 1990 and 1992, the military launched a plan to evict up to 5 million residents, mostly in the country’s rural northeast, and hand the majority of their land to commercial eucalyptus plantations. Phra Prachak Khuttasjitto, a former Buddhist monk, led the region’s villagers in protest, wrapping trees in strips of saffron-hued fabric typically worn by monks as a form of symbolic ordination. In retaliation, soldiers arrested him, demolished houses, and opened fire on crowds.
“Many other people lost their lives for the land,” Surapol says. He and SPFT’s other leaders have taken lessons from past land rights movements with the hope that they can prevent history from repeating itself. The political players may have changed, but he sees numerous parallels to Thailand’s past in terms of rising inequality and state-sanctioned violence. In some cases, even the methods of oppression mirror those dark times: When Porlajee Rakchongcharoen, a Karen human rights activist, vanished abruptly in 2014, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) refused to investigate the disappearance. His burned remains were found five years later in an oil drum.
“The threat to equality, justice, and who has access to land is similar across both times,” Haberkorn says. “The difference with the rise of agribusiness is that the risk of ecological devastation is greater. In the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the primary risk was one of further entrenching inequality. Landowners back then weren’t planting palm trees where they shouldn’t be planted, and they weren’t using as many toxic chemicals as today.” Among the pesticides still commonly used on Thailand’s palm oil plantations is glyphosate, a restricted substance in much of the United States that one study found may increase the risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma by 41 percent. Although the Thai government took steps in 2019 to ban glyphosate — along with paraquat and chlorpyrifos, two highly toxic chemicals previously found on Thai oil palm plantations — it reversed the decision under pressure from the U.S. government and Bayer. Workers on oil palm plantations and any villages downstream of their contaminated water supply suffer the effects. As has historically so often been the case, the Thai government prioritized powerful corporate interests over the well-being of the poorest members of society.
Palm oil is the most consumed vegetable oil in the world, with nearly 10 percent of the globe’s permanent crop land dedicated to its production. As agricultural products go, it is astonishingly versatile. In its unrefined form, red palm oil has a rich, intensely earthy flavor that is essential to cuisines from West Africa to Brazil. When processed, palm oil gives ice cream its scoopable, luscious texture; keeps peanut butter from separating; and ensures that chocolate melts in your mouth, not in your hand. As a shelf-stable fat solid at room temperature, it’s an invaluable component of most processed foods. After June 2018, when the U.S. instituted an official ban on partially hydrogenated oils, or trans fats, usage of palm oil as a substitute soared, and it now appears in about half of all products on grocery store shelves. Palm oil is also a key component in cosmetics, shampoos, bioplastics, and biofuels, driving global consumption from 16 million metric tons in 1996 to 60.7 million in 2017; if the industry continues on its current trajectory, palm oil consumption could quadruple again within the next 30 years.
While there is a growing demand for ethically sourced palm oil, much of the current supply chain is mired in human rights abuses. Indonesia and Malaysia together put out 85 percent of the world’s supply. Their economies depend heavily on the commodity, whose low-cost production has been incentivized both domestically and by globalist financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund, which views it in part as a poverty eradication scheme. The resulting environmental devastation — it is a key driver of deforestation worldwide — and rampant human rights violations, which include trafficking, slavery, child labor, and widespread sexual assault, have been well documented in both countries. “There is a high demand for palm oil in processed foods and other consumer products primarily because it has been grown so cheaply,” says Robin Averbeck, the agribusiness campaign director at Rainforest Action Network. “That low price point comes largely as a result of palm oil corporations stealing land from rural communities and labor from workers.”
Palm fruit bursting out of a transport bag in Nam Daeng.
For more than five decades, the Thai palm oil industry has been marred by rampant exploitation, violence, and corporate greed. Thailand is the world’s No. 3 producer of palm oil. Although almost all of its crop is meant for domestic consumption, the Thai government has invested heavily in biodiesel and views palm oil as the key to energy independence, with production ramping up steadily since the mid-1970s. Unlike Malaysia and Indonesia, where large corporations dominate the palm oil industry, Thailand has hundreds of smaller plantations that employ approximately 300,000 workers total.
Harvesting the crop is notoriously dangerous labor. The fruits grow on the tops of trees that can reach more than 60 feet high. Workers stand on the ground with thin metal poles and attempt to dislodge the oil palm fruits, each of which sports a spike-encrusted shell, weighs 10 to 12 kilograms, and falls with such ample kinetic force that it can kill a man. Dam Onmuang — the SPFT member who was shot at last fall — once saw a tree fall and crush a fellow worker to death on an oil palm plantation.
Originally from the part of Surat Thani province where Santi Pattana is now, Dam was forced to leave after United Palm Oil Industry Public Co. Ltd. illegally muscled into his village in 1976, setting fire to their crops and rice supplies. Desperate to feed his children, he took up logging, clearing forest land, and other jobs for another oil palm plantation, often for as little as 100 Thai baht (approximately $3) a day. “At that time, there were five members in my family. I have three children, my wife, and me. It was not enough to live on,” he says. “[My children] were not starving, but it was not a pleasant life. We were very poor.” Like Dam, those who have chosen to work for substandard wages on the oil palm plantations often find themselves trapped in what some describe as modern-day serfdom with no hope of social advancement. Wages hover around 0.50 Thai baht (about 2 cents) per kilogram of fruit picked. On a good day, a team of three might collect 1,000 to 1,500 kilograms, meaning each person walks home with 200 Thai baht ($6) or less, below even Thailand’s modest minimum wage of 313 Thai baht to 336 Thai baht (about $11) per day.
In 2008, the year SPFT was founded, oil palm plantations occupied 320,000 hectares of land. Since a government policy was established to expand the oil palm industry in 2005, that number has risen steadily, particularly in the south. The current regime has plans to increase it by an additional 50 percent by 2026. If that happens, SPFT’s already precarious position is guaranteed to worsen.
Since 2010, when gunmen allegedly hired by Jiew Kang Jue Pattana came through Klong Sai Pattana at dusk and murdered Somporn Pattaphum, 53, members of the community have lived under constant threat of attack or eviction. When that first death failed to scare away residents, the violence escalated. By 2012, Klong Sai Pattana had become a war zone: Often before the sun went down, villagers saw men in military-style camouflage gear or black clothes running into the bushes near the edge of their territory. After dark, the farmers huddled in a bunker while bullets thudded against the earthen walls. No one knew which direction they were coming from or if they would stop. Members who patrolled the area around the bunker learned to find their way without the luxury of electric light for fear of being seen. “Every night, I heard gunshots. We had to be careful. We had to be in a state of constant alert. We had to travel in groups,” Kusol says. Even during this time, she volunteered to stand guard, walkie-talkie in hand in case of trouble. “Sometimes when I had the night shift, I could tell from the shots that the attackers were right by us.”
Three men under community house arrest because of land rights issues in Surat Thani province.
An elderly couple’s small village home in Klong Sai Pattana.
As the death toll continued to rise in Klong Sai Pattana, the Thai government continued to expand the palm oil industry, both by seizing land from villagers and by spending billions of Thai baht on cash subsidies for plantation owners. In 2014, not long after the coup, Colonel Sombat Prasarnkasem of the Surat Thani Provincial Internal Security Operations Command stormed into Klong Sai Pattana with 50 soldiers carrying assault rifles. Without a search warrant, the military officers began interrogating members of SPFT. The officers forced Prateeb Rakmangthong, Klong Sai Pattana’s leader, to the ground with an M-16 pressed against him and his hands tied behind his back, then demanded that he and the other farmers of Klong Sai Pattana vacate. When describing the incident later, Prateeb would say that he felt like a prisoner of war. He admits that he was afraid, but he knew that if the farmers left Klong Sai Pattana, they would have little hope of returning, so they had no choice but to ignore the order.
From an airplane, Surat Thani province resembles a patchwork quilt of spiky palm fronds and spindly, silver-trunked rubber trees stretching to the horizon in orderly rectangular plots. In July, at the height of Thailand’s rainy season, I climb into a pickup truck with Sutharee Wannasiri, a human rights activist and translator, to visit the members of Klong Sai Pattana. Jugkarawoot Thuwaratkeeri, an SPFT member, cranks the ignition and we set off down the dirt road that marks the boundary between Surat Thani and Krabi province. On either side of the divide are rows upon rows of evenly spaced oil palm trees planted by Jiew Kang Jue Pattana.
At one point, the car stops and Jugkarawoot points to a stretch of sun-dappled road. It was here that, on November 19, 2012, villagers from Klong Sai Pattana found the bodies of two women from the community, Pranee Boonrat, 50, and Montha Chukaew, 54, ringed with assault rifle shells. Our vehicle slows down as we approach a raised bamboo hut that stands watch over the entrance to Klong Sai Pattana. Everyone who enters the community must pass one of these four guard stations, and no one is allowed in or out after 6 p.m. After a motion from our driver, the watchman on duty swings the wooden gate open. As we exit the truck, a pack of skinny, stray dogs greets us with lolling tongues and wagging tails.
Seated across a table laden with platters of bamboo-smoked sticky rice and fried bananas with a syrupy glaze is Prateeb. Now in his 60s, Klong Sai Pattana’s elected leader has been involved in Thailand’s fight for land justice for decades. According to Protection International, there was once a bounty of 300,000 Thai baht (about $9,500) out for his assassination. “In the past, many land rights groups were not able to hold on to the land in the long run. We want others to see that we are the alternative,” Prateeb says. “The constant threats and intimidation tactics were part of our decision to network. The landless and the poor should have the right to community. We believed that if we are united, we are more powerful when we speak.”
Crabs, clams, and curries during a communal lunch at Santi Pattana village.
Prateeb and the other leaders of SPFT have met with dozens of journalists, human rights activists, and politicians at this table. There is always food present at these meetings, both as a gesture of hospitality and as a canny PR maneuver: While some Thai politicians who have visited in recent years, including the minister of agriculture, initially balked at eating “peasant” food, the experience of sitting down for a meal together changed the conversation. A crucial legal component of land ownership in Thailand is that the land must be used; a heaping table is proof that the people of Klong Sai Pattana have transformed the soil, once depleted by the oil palm plantation’s heavy use of pesticides, into fertile farmland. Dragon fruits, bananas, durians, lemongrass, cassava, and more vegetables than I can name now grow here. The farmers have also experimented with coffee trees, as well as a variety of mountain rice that does not require paddies. Some of the plants grow in orderly patches, while others crop up seemingly at random.
Virtually everything is edible, as I learn later while walking with one of the community’s sustainable-farming leaders, Nittha Noosoma, a sharp-eyed woman in her 30s with a bob cut and a T-shirt depicting Uncle Sam that reads DOWN WITH AMERICAN IMPERIALISM. At one point, Nittha hands me a fistful of cashew leaves, explaining that SPFT’s core belief in food sovereignty means that everyone has the right to food that is safe; it’s okay to snack directly from the ground because the community strictly prohibits the use of pesticides or herbicides in any of the residential areas. The leaves have a bitter, astringent quality that lingers on the palate.
A key component of SPFT’s sustainability efforts is upholding a high degree of biodiversity. In order to join SPFT, prospective members must commit to growing at least 10 kinds of crops. After witnessing how large corporations like Monsanto have wrought havoc with Southeast Asian agricultural systems through the use of patented terminator seeds, SPFT steers clear of GMOs altogether, fearful of losing control over another aspect of their livelihood to agribusiness. “If you rely on GMO seeds, then you must always go back to the corporation for more,” Nittha tells me. As a safeguard, SPFT has been building a seed bank. “When we visit grassroots movements in other regions, we ask for their local seeds and distribute them to our members. The five communities within SPFT also exchange seeds.”
As we walk, Nittha points out pigs, ducks, cows, chickens, and the former irrigation ditches left by Jiew Kang Jue Pattana where the farmers now raise tilapia and catfish. All of these resources are communal — the valuable herd of cattle is the closest thing the farmers have to a collective savings account. In order to raise money for larger expenses, including legal fees and organizing costs for SPFT, members also sell a small number of cash products, including canned fermented bamboo shoots and flash-fried banana chips.
Over the past several years, the farmers have invested in another commercial resource: They have started growing oil palm trees of their own, pooling the harvest of four communities and selling it through a cooperative. Since their oil palms are still dwarfed by their towering counterparts across the dirt road, the cooperative collects a relatively modest haul. Nevertheless, they have high hopes of creating a more equitable model for the industry, one in which they are owners rather than employees. “In our system, all of the profit goes back to community members. What we plan to do next is to provide a welfare system. We hope to be able to provide travel expenses for members to go to the hospital and for family to visit them,” Thonglue Yothapakdi, who runs the cooperative, tells me. More solemnly, he adds, “We want to be able to provide burial expenses.”
The Soviet Marxist-inspired logo for the Southern Peasants’ Federation of Thailand.
A portrait of Surapol Songrak, a leader of the SPFT.
Near Klong Sai Pattana’s central meeting hall is the memorial for the dead, a concrete obelisk topped with a steel coil and three stars — red, green, and yellow. “The red star is for the blood of the fallen workers, the green for the land, the yellow for virtue,” Surapol explains. “The coiled spring is symbolic of a social evolution theory based on Marxism. Each rotation of the coil builds on top of the previous ones; it doesn’t come back to the same origin.” At 7 a.m., members of the community gather around the statue, as they do every morning, to pay their respects and dance. Slowly they begin to clap, before breaking into song in one unified voice. They sing workers’ songs of solidarity, of overcoming, all while swinging arthritic knees and joints. The scene resembles an aerobics class crossed with a Pentacostal revival service. “This statue reminds us that the people who have fallen are still protecting land for those who are living,” Surapol says. “Even if their physical bodies are gone, the spirit of their sacrifice continues. Even though they are dead, they continue to inspire the ideology of the next generation.”
When I meet Surapol for the last time early on our final morning in Klong Sai Pattana, the sky is pale, the air thick with the promise of rain. He places a moka pot on a propane canister, and we both wait for the smell of coffee. “In the past, there were other farmers and community leaders who were murdered because of the work that they do,” Surapol says, his voice flat and hard. “There was often no systematic documentation and records of what happened to them, but they are a part of our history and a part of how our society has evolved.”
Surapol has spent years trying to track down the families or the stories of some of the victims, often without success. For the most part, the government has done little to acknowledge that atrocities such as the Red Drum Murders ever occurred. Surapol remembers a time when he fell into despair, when he was ready to abandon the idea that anything could ever change. Then, in 2004, a trip to Brazil to visit the leaders of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), or the Landless Workers’ Movement, changed his mind. He left with a deep conviction about the importance of creating pragmatic solutions and records so that the names of the dead would never again be erased. “What is most impressive about the MST movement is that they had transformed these abstract theories into practice,” Surapol says. So he set about learning the tactics of nonviolent resistance — how to choose your words when speaking out against authority, how to form alliances with other advocacy groups, how to stand united when your adversaries come for you.
The result of all those years of study is an effective organizational network that has survived in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds through a campaign of global outreach. SPFT has made sure that, this time, it will be harder to forget the names of those they have lost. Despite the efforts of the Thai government to shut it down, a photo exhibition titled For Those Who Died Trying, by photographer Luke Duggleby, features the portraits of Chai Boonthonglek and Klong Sai Pattana’s other murdered land rights defenders and has traveled to the UN headquarters in Geneva as well as all around Thailand. Noting that revolution and systemic change in Thailand, from the 1970s to the pro-democracy protests of today, has almost always begun with the country’s youth, Surapol takes heart in the fact that thousands of students have shown their solidarity at peaceful protests. “You know, in Christianity, they believe that after you die, you live happily in a fertile garden,” Surapol says. “We believe that you can have that in this life if you join the struggle for land. You don’t have to wait until after death.”
SPFT’s struggle is far from over, but a turning point may be within reach. On March 19, 2021, after eight years of awaiting a verdict, the Thai Administrative Court sided with the farmers of Santi Pattana and ordered the Department of Land to remove United Palm Oil Industry Public from the land it unlawfully occupied. While this does not guarantee the long-term security of the community, it gives them the right to remain for now and ensures that both the people of Santi Pattana and SPFT’s other communities will have a stronger standing in future court cases. After 13 long years, the dream that drew so many people to this land no longer feels impossible.
Usa Suwannaphat did not attend the morning exercises on the last day of my stay, so after the crowd dispersed, we returned to her house later in the morning to pay her a final visit. Although she tries to go every morning, sometimes her diabetes and blood pressure get the better of her. When she awoke, she felt dizzy and decided to stay home, sitting on her porch beside several dozen papaya seedlings she had just finished planting. “If I can plant at least five trees today, I will be satisfied. I want to be able to grow something every day,” she says.
Usa’s knotted fingers clutched the only photograph of her late husband that she owns. It’s a blown-up ID portrait set on a backdrop of hard cerulean in a chipped gold-painted frame. The face inside is solemn, the features too low resolution to betray any hint of personality. But Usa remembers Chai’s happiness when he tended to their rows of jackfruit trees, lemongrass, and bird’s eye chiles. “Chai loved this place,” she says. “He planned that we would grow old here, peacefully and quietly, just me and him in this small house.”
Usa says that after Chai’s death, her daughter and the other members of Klong Sai Pattana were what kept her going. Maintaining the garden by herself becomes more of a challenge with each passing year, but she could not imagine going anywhere else. “For us elderly people in Klong Sai Pattana, sometimes it’s hard to keep fighting. Our knees don’t always cooperate,” Usa says with a smile. “I am not strong enough to do all of the work that Loong Chai used to do. I’m getting old. I am tired, but I am not going to give up.”
Reporting for this story was funded in part by a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship.
Diana Hubbell is a food and culture journalist. Previously based in Bangkok, she has spent more than a decade reporting on Thailand.
Aaron Joel Santos is a photographer based in Bangkok.
Translations by Sutharee Wannasiri
Fact checked by Tal Milovina
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein