Interview with Navin Moul, AJWS Program Officer for Asia

I recently caught up with AJWS Program Officer Navin Moul who just returned from a trip to Thailand and Cambodia where she witnessed the struggles and successes of the communities that AJWS supports.

Can you tell me about some of the main issues you looked at during your trip to Cambodia and Thailand?

A lot of our work in Thailand has to do with community land titles. I was able to go to villages and talk to people about the issues they have around land—such a complex, layered issue with legal regulations, livelihood issues, sustainability, organic, non-organic, community engagement and empowerment. One of the organizations we work with is the Sustainable Development Foundation. They had mapped out the northern part of Thailand and the land designated as conservation or wildlife land, and where it overlaps with community land—where communities have been living for generations. They showed a progression over the past five years. You could see the physical shrinkage of these lands. They use this when they do community meetings with government and local officials, so [the land shrinkage] is not in your imagination, and it’s not only happening to you—it’s quite powerful.

How are land issues similar or different between the two countries?

The land movement in Thailand has been going on for at least 30 years. Villages and communities have been organizing against what’s happening around them—big agro-business displacing people, or the government displacing people and reserving land for protected forest. There are a lot of accusations that people who live in the forest ruin the land. The villagers are trying to prove the opposite—it’s because of the work they do that there’s not more deforestation, because they’re there to monitor it. They realize that their livelihood comes from the forest, so they don’t want to damage it.

In Cambodia, in Ratanikiri [Ed. Note: a province in the northeast], we met with two organizations that work around a dam that is going to be built on the Sesan River. Right where three rivers hit the Mekong is where the government proposes to build the dam. Apparently they’ve done an environmental impact assessment, but didn’t really get community input. I was talking to the director of 3SPN [3S (Sesan, Srepok and Sekong) Rivers Protection Network] who said half the people don’t really read it; it’s just something to do so the [government] can say they [conducted an assessment.] The government can say, “See we’ve talked to people and the benefits to the country are much greater than the risks or negative impacts.” It depends on who you talk to. People who live in that community will not actually benefit from the power source. You’re talking about villages with no running water or electricity. People are actually displaced from their land too. These villages are completely remote. Ratanikiri is seven hours from Phnom Penh and the roads aren’t great, and then you have to drive another two hours on a road filled with potholes. And then you go into these little huts with no running water or electricity. I don’t know where the schools are. Often, there aren’t any young people because they leave to make a living.

The village we went to see was right next to the river. They made lunch for us, and the fish they caught were tiny little fish. I was surprised—I thought the fish would be abundant, but there aren’t many fish left because of the dams built upstream, which affected the cycle of the fish and [created] flooding that happens irregularly because of the dams.

The next day we went with the Highlander Association (HA), which works on land rights. Both organizations work with indigenous folks. At one village we had a community meeting—it was an emergency meeting called the day before. Someone had come in to say, “We are going to relocate you, this is someone else’s land now; we’re planting rubber trees and building roads.” HA was strategizing with the group about what they could do. As we were talking, a police officer came in and said, “Can I sit here and listen?” We said, “Yes, you can sit here, but you can’t say anything, we’re having a meeting.” Then he left, and another police officer came and said, “We want you to sign this because we want to know who was here.” HA said, “No, we’re not going to sign anything, we’re just having a meeting.” We looked out the door and there were three more police officers standing there. The ability to assemble around this issue is so contentious. We were in the middle of nowhere; I don’t know how [the police] knew we were meeting.

Some of the stories are heartbreaking. People say, “I’ve been here for 60 years. If you take my land away, I have nothing to leave my children. You’re basically pushing me off this land and I will die; you’re killing me.” Land is the essence of livelihood in Thailand, in Cambodia. If people don’t have land to work on, they really have nothing.

Fortunately we have these organizations that are doing really great work. What came across was a lack of education of what people’s rights are. They didn’t know they shouldn’t sign these papers. A lot of these people don’t speak or read Khmer because they’re indigenous. Someone in uniform comes and they don’t know better.

It appears to us (Jenna, Thida and I) that the work around land rights in Thailand has progressed a little more [than it has in Cambodia], and we would love to do a partner exchange with organizations in Thailand and Cambodia. The Cambodian organizations would learn so much from the Thai organizations. It might lift up their spirits too to see what has been done in the Thai movement. I think Cambodia can achieve some of that too.

What is the climate like in terms of people being afraid, or receiving threats for the work they do?

In Thailand, people are dissatisfied with the government and everything that’s been going on politically. People don’t feel threatened by the government in the same way that they do in Cambodia. The executive director of HA is an indigenous woman and has received many threats for her work on land rights with the indigenous community. They come to her house. At first they tried to bribe her to get her to work with the government. She said no, but has been very fearful. She never travels along. She’s very outspoken. She is afraid, but said, “I don’t know what else to do. I have to keep on doing this, and be as loud as possible, so that if anything happens to me it won’t go unnoticed.”