BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Hundreds of armed men descended on a village in northern Thailand and overpowered residents blocking the road to a goldmine said by locals to have caused environmental damage so that trucks could take ore away, villagers said on Friday.
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.
Environmental activist group Ecological Alert and Recovery - Thailand (EARTH) said at least 20 people were injured in the attack on Thursday. The unidentified assailants left on Friday.
"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 Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Residents of Khao Luang have for years contested the mining operations of Tungkum Ltd, a subsidiary of Tongkah Harbour Pcl. Villagers and activists say Tungkum – meaning “paddies of gold” – has poisoned the creeks and waterways on which the communities rely for food, irrigation and drinking water.
Many people have fallen ill, said Nicha Rakpanichmanee, a research officer with EARTH. She said residents had symptoms of arsenic poisoning, with their skin turning black, and heavy metal poisoning that caused muscle weakness and numbness.
After tests by government agencies showed high levels of cyanide - used in the gold extraction process - cadmium and arsenic in local creeks, Loei health authorities in 2009 told villagers to stop drinking from Khao Luang waterways, and the following year told them to stop eating clams from one of the creeks, said Nicha, who has visited the area several times.
"After years of complaints and no action from any government agency to stop the contamination - and villagers felt the contamination was getting worse - the villagers set up a blockade late last year to block large trucks from entering or leaving the premises," she said by phone.
The blockade was destroyed twice, so after building a stronger wall, the villagers deployed rotating shifts of volunteers to sit in a thatch hut and guard it.
LATE NIGHT RAID
On Thursday night the attackers destroyed the barricade allowing 13 trucks carrying ore out of the village, residents said.
Wiraun Rujichaiwat, the wife of a local activist who was also beaten, said the attackers stole gold jewelry, cameras and mobile phones from the villagers. She said the police did not intervene.
"Two policemen came and then left. They didn’t do anything. They saw people being beaten and detained," Wiraun told Thomson Reuters Foundation from the police station, where she and other residents had gone to protest.
"People are ill. There are chemicals in the food we grow around our homes. We don’t want them mining here. We are against them, and we want them to stop."
Wang Saphung district Police Lieutenant Suthot Waenthongchan declined comment, saying only that he was learning more as villagers came to the police station to voice their complaints on Friday.
"CORPORATE CITIZENSHIP AT ITS BEST"
Tongkah Harbour did not respond to an email requesting comment on the attack and no one answered calls to phone numbers listed on its website.
On their website’s corporate social responsibility page, Tongkah says it is aware of the challenges developing countries face and assesses ways that its operations may impact local communities.
"Our aim is to give something back to the community and to set benchmarks to improve the lives of citizens… Tongkah's goal is to be synonymous with corporate citizenship at its best."
Tongkah Harbour’s 2012 annual report indicates that Tungkum has mined six plots of land in Loei and plans to expand to 106 more plots of land throughout the province.
The company faces delisting of its shares from the Stock Exchange of Thailand for failing to submit financial statements. Its shares have been suspended since February 2012.