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Death of Another Land Rights Activist in Thailand Raises Alarms

Human rights groups in Thailand are calling on the Thai government to provide greater protections after the slaying of another land rights activist in southern Thailand.

Sixty-five year-old local land rights campaigner Chai Bunthonglek was gunned down by an assailant who came to his house last week in the early evening, shooting him several times before fleeing on a motorbike.

Chai died almost instantly, making him what Thai rights groups say is the fourth land rights activist killed in southern Thailand since May 2014. The others killed include a lawyer representing landless farmers, a protest leader against a mining operation, and an organizer calling for legal investigations into a palm oil plantation.

Rights advocate Angkhana Neelapaichit, whose husband, a lawyer, was kidnapped and disappeared in 2004, says the killing of Chai in the southern province of Surat Thani follows a familiar pattern of advocates being threatened or killed over issues of land access or natural resources.

“I’m really sad because it happens again and again and we have no mechanism to protect and especially with it happening in the quite remote area. Surat Thani is not far but (killings) happens when the people try to protect the natural resources,” said Neelapaichit.

Angkhana says there is a climate of fear within the community, with people less likely to speak out in the future.

In Chai’s Khlong Sai Pattana community in Surat Thai province alone, there have been four land rights activists killed since 2010.

The conflict involves a palm oil company that had leasehold access to the community’s land. But the entitlement ended under the former government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, which more than four years ago backed the community's right to live on their homeland.

The killings began in 2010 with the murder of a local activist. This was followed in 2012 with the gunning down of two women from the Southern Peasants Federation of Thailand in broad daylight as they made their way to a local market.

The New York based Human Rights Watch has accused successive Thai governments of failing to prevent and respond to attacks against local activists.

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development said there has been a disturbing deterioration in the security of human rights defenders in Thailand, especially those working on land rights.

Asia Forum’s East Asia Program director, Pimsiri Petchnarob, said the killing further highlights the climate of impunity.

“The company or people who murdered human rights defenders they know even if they commit this kind of serious crime against land rights activists but they would be able to get away with it," said Petchnarob. "The government and police must bring the perpetrators to justice and to see that we are not going to tolerate the impunity - that’s why it happens continuously.”

The United Nations Human Rights Office for South East Asia called on the Thai government to promptly investigate Chai’s murder and improve security measures for members of the community.

Rights groups say that in Thailand since 2001 more than 30 human rights advocates and conservationists have been killed with police charging suspects in fewer than 20 per cent of the cases.