Isaan Lives - "I believe the villagers will protect me."
Guest contribution by Genevieve Glatsky, Jaime Webb, and Megan Brookens
A train roared past as Kovit Boonjear, a man with a long pony-tail and mischievous look in his eyes, smoked a cigarette behind his modest home in one of Khon Kaen’s slum communities. “I never give interviews,” he said with a smile and more than a hint of irony.
A 60-year-old Isaan transplant from the south of Thailand, Kovit is sparing with his words – not because he does not enjoy conversation, but as a matter of safety. He has been a community rights activist since 1983, a contentious career path in the eyes of the stringent Thai military regime. Freedom of speech and assembly are limited and many of Kovit’s allies and friends have been temporarily detained and fear arrest. With over 30 years of experience, he is well accustomed to the risks that come with the job he has dedicated his life to.
Despite his poor upbringing, Kovit and his siblings all attended school. His father worked tirelessly as a security guard and waiter so that he could send his children to live with their mother in Bangkok, where there were more educational opportunities. His older brother became involved in an activist group while in law school and inspired Kovit to follow a similar path.
During the 1960s and 1970s, when Kovit was starting his law degree, Thai student activism was gaining strong momentum. Several universities had programs that sent students to work with marginalized rural communities so that they could better understand the challenges faced by Thailand’s poor.
As a freshman at Ramkhamhaeng University School of Law, Kovit stayed with a construction worker who was building a school in Bangkok. Because his host’s family didn’t have national identification cards his children were unable to attend the school their father spent so many hours building. The irony resonated with Kovit. “It made me think that if people invest their time in something, they should also profit from the value,” he said.
According to Kovit, his passion for supporting marginalized people stems from this early experience. Seeing first-hand the injustices faced by the urban poor, particularly regarding their lack of access to education, he felt compelled to leverage his own educational opportunities to fight for their rights.
He took his first job after college at the International Foster Care Organization Khon Kaen and he has called the Northeast home ever since. Kovit’s work now revolves around supporting marginalized communities, such as Khon Kaen’s slum residents and villagers resisting a mining company in Loei Province. Kovit uses his experience as a lawyer to navigate the complex legal system to ensure communities’ rights are upheld.
“The law is changing for the benefit of government officers, politicians, and businessmen,” said Kovit, shaking his head in dismay, “not for the poor.” Even with a law degree, he still spends vast amounts of time studying to keep up with ever-changing Thai policy.
Kovit values his high level of formal education, but believes that he can learn the most from personal exchange with people. Understanding the lives of everyday people has always been at the crux of his organizing strategy.
“When the villagers are wet, I am wet. When the villagers are hungry, I am hungry. I never consider myself an outsider. I consider myself a part of the community,” he said as he shared a meal with his neighbor, made from vegetables grown in his own garden.
“I listen. I talk with people,” he said. “The best way to make change happen is by casually stopping by.” Whether working in the rice fields with villagers or laughing over a glass of whiskey, Kovit can often be found discussing social justice issues with those around him.
He has worked closely with the community leaders in Wang Saphung subdistrict of Loei Province in their decade-long struggle to close a gold mine located less than a kilometer from their village. Villagers claim that the mine’s chemical discharge has caused illness and environmental contamination, and that the mining company’s henchmen initiated an attack on the village last May. In response to the tense situation following the attack, Kovit lived in the community for a year to help the villagers create mining-resistance strategies.
“Kovit helped us organize and provided critical information. He was especially helpful after our village was attacked and decisions were being made rapidly,” said Surapan Rujichaiwat, the leader of Khon Rak Ban Koed (People Who Love Their Home), an organization of concerned villagers that has been advocating for the closure of the gold mine.
It is one of Kovit’s primary goals to ensure that communities can sustain their movement without his assistance by identifying leaders and developing a long-term strategy. “I try to accomplish two things in the communities I work with: education and organization. This gets them to think on their own,” Kovit said.
His nonviolent resistance tactics help villagers’ mobilizing efforts to gain momentum. However, as Kovit draws increased attention to communities’ struggles, he too faces heightened risk. He claims his name often appears at the top of the military’s list of people to monitor.
In 2013, he learned that fighting against resource development projects garners the attention of more than just the military. A military officer began following Kovit under the pretense of protecting him from a $10,000 bounty on his head, Kovit claimed. While this could just have been an intimidation tactic, Kovit suspects that the bounty was issued by the mining company.
Despite the threats, Kovit remains undeterred. He has already recruited 18,000 signatures for a petition he is circulating against current Thai mining policy. His goal is to garner 20,000 supporters.
“We have to be careful all the time. One thing I really believe is that the villagers will protect me,” he said.
Moving forward, Kovit seeks to expand his impact outside of Thailand. He is currently working on a website that will spotlight mining-affected communities throughout all ASEAN countries. The effort is one more step in the direction of increasing public understanding of marginalized peoples’ experiences.
Genevieve Glatsky studies International Relations and Megan Brookens majors in Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Jaime Webb studies Music and Philosophy at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.