Phra Supoj's mysterious death:
a Buddhist monk falls victim to capitalist greed
[and the Thai deep state collapses under the weight of its own 'elite' hypocrisy]

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Despite his kind and gentle manner, social worker and Buddhist monk Phra Supoj Suwajo fought fearlessly against greedy investors hungry to turn his monastery in Fang district into tangerine orchards. The young monk paid for the struggle with his life. Two years [now more than a decade] after his brutal murder, the police have yet to arrest anyone.

Part 1 Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Wittayakorn Boonruang

Phra Supoj Suwajo was found dead on June 18, 2005 in the bush near the Suan Metta Dharm forest monastery in Chiang Mai's Fang district. According to police, his brutal death was caused by a sharp object. However, police failed to find any weapon, evidence or material that can identify any suspect for the murder.

Two years later his death is still a mystery. Acquaintances, however, believe that the likely cause of the monk's death is no mystery. They suspect that his forest conservation work on behalf of the Buddhadasa Study Group brought him into conflict with influential investors who want to get the forest monastery's lands, and who had earlier threatened Phra Supoj and other monks at the monastery.

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Phra Supoj and his fellow monks had been widely known for their social work with other civil society groups in using religion and non-violence to solve conflict and violence caused by the state and private sector. Their work caused discontent among government officials and investors. This is a class conflict between the capitalist rulers on the one hand and the people on the other. At a glance, this murder case resembles several others in today's world where the lives of both laymen and priests are at risk. However, a deeper analysis clearly shows that this case represents a bigger problem than just the killing of a monk. Nor is it sufficient to look at the issue as a provincial or regional conflict.

This is a class-based conflict over access to and use of natural resources by the capitalist rulers on the one hand who want to exploit the resources for their own benefits, and conservationists, including Phra Supoj, who refuse, even under the threat of death, to give up their fight for justice. The death of an activist monk: “area-interest-influence”

After the coup last September, Thai Buddhist circles have been enlivened with an attempt to make Buddhism the national religion in the Constitution drafted by the military junta-appointed charter drafting committee. It is a rare scene to see the Thai Buddhist monks involved in the elite political games of Thai politics.

However, another form of political involvement was spearheaded nine years ago by a group of Buddhist monks, in a deadly game against influential investors that were preying on small villagers. Phra Supoj and other members of the Buddhadasa Study Group, including Phra Maha Kitti Dharmapalo, Phra Kittisak Kittisophano, Phra Taweesak Jiradharmmo, and Phra Maha Cherdchai Kawiwangso had moved from Tharn Nam Lai temple, better known as Suan Mokkha Palaram in Surat Thani's Chaiya district in 1998, to stay at the Suan Metta Dharm forest monastery in Ban Huay Ngoo Nai, Moo 5, Tambon Sansai in Chiang Mai's Fang district.

The monks' move followed invitation by Phra Ajarn Singthon Narasapho (or Dr Singthon Khamsao) and Mr Sulak Sivaraksa with the approval of the then deputy chief of Chiang Mai Buddhist Council Than Chaokhun Phothirangsi, to study, practice and teach dharma in accordance with the guidance of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and of Suan Mokkha Palaram.

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Phra Ajarn Singthon also put over 1,500 rai of land [1] under the care of the Metta Dharm monastery. These lands are highly desirable to capitalists who want to invest in the orange orchard business in Fang district. Dr Singthon first bought the land from villagers without land title deeds in 1980. Later, land ownership documents for most of the land, in the form of Sor Por Kor 4-01 titles [2] were given to villagers and wage labourers who used to work for Dr Singthon before he became a monk. Only about 75 rai now allocated as monastery land has title deeds bearing the name of Dr Singthon as the owner.

From the very beginning, monks and residents of the Suan Metta Dharm monastery were under continuous threats by the local thugs and the influential people who wanted them to move out. For example, fires were set, and guns were fired near the monastery. Trees and medicinal plants grown by the monks were also cut down.

In 1999, in order to reduce the land being held, the monks in the monastery consulted with land owners and dedicated some 800 rai as community forest, with some areas set aside as the living places for local monks. Threats from influential people continued unabated.

Seeking legal protection, the Metta Dharmmaraksa Foundation was established in December 20, 2000 to oversee the monastery. On the first committee of the Foundation were Mr Sulak Sivaraksa, Mr Pipob Thongchai, Mr Anand Wiriyapinit and Mr Surasri Kosolnavin.

In about 2001, Phra Singthon Narasapho authorised Phra Kittisak Kittisophano, as coordinator of the Buddhadasa Study Group and the Metta Dharm monastery, to take care of the monastery, its lands and interests. The objective of the monastery is to disseminate Buddhist teaching. As the monastery and the Metta Dharmmaraksa Foundation conducted many activities, pressure from influential groups also increased in terms of the degree of violence.

In mid 2002, two workers of the monastery were physically attacked. A group including a former military officer, a member of the Tambon Administration Organisation and a local influential person was suspected to be the perpetrators.

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Meanwhile, the Sor Por Kor 4-01 land documents had been collected from villagers who were told there would be a new allocation of land under similar land reform project.

Phra Kittisak filed a complaint against the local influential person on charges of land encroachment, harassment, threats, and theft. The police ignored the case. More property was stolen and burglars broke into the monks' living quarters several times. Eventually, encroachers invaded and sold some 70-80 rai of land under the care of the monastery to outside investors, turning them into orange orchards which were booming in most areas of Fang district.

Phra Kittisak and Phra Supoj confronted direct threats. The perpetrator came into their quarters, ordering them to stop their involvement with the land and to move out immediately or face the consequences. He warned that he was heavily armed and was ready to use violence even with monks. More trees had been cut down and 20 rai of forest was burnt.

After three years of conflict with the monastery (from 2002-2005), a group of individuals then invaded the contested land and prepared it for industrial agriculture. Villagers informed Phra Supoj who then told the police to stop the work and ask the encroachers to seek permission from Phra Supoj.

In the meantime, the monastery had developed the land, building walkways and roads, and dredging ponds to prepare for a new office of the Metta Dharmaraksa Foundation which was to be relocated from Bangkok. The new office was planned to go into full operation after the centenary of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu's birth in 2006.

The Foundation in cooperation with the Sekkiyadharm group continued to hold many activities together with community-based groups. More projects were expected to follow. Unfortunately, this brought doom to Phra Supoj. He was murdered on June 17, 2006.

It is clearly beyond denial that Phra Supoj's struggle to protect the land, community and villagers got him into conflict with local influential figures and possibly led to his brutal murder.

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Autobiography of Phra Supoj Suwajo (Duangprasert)

A kind and friendly personality, Phra Supoj Suwajo was born on June 24, 1966. He graduated from Kasetsart University's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. After years of work, he entered the monkhood at Chon Pratan Rangsarit Temple in 1992 at the age of 26.

Phra Supoj was loved by all who know him for his kindness. A veterinarian by training, he always tended to injured animals. He also gave people both material help and advice. His character is of compromising nature and avoided conflict.

As a monk, Phra Supoj studied dharma in many places. He participated in a training of Anapana Sati (the meditation on in-and-out breathing) at Suan Mokkha Palaram in Surat Thani province. He then developed his interest in studying dharma there.

His work at Suan Mokkha Palaram

He was responsible for paperworks and accounting. He was later assigned full responsibility for this works in his position as assistant to the abbot. Responsible for the dharma library (Mokkhapol Bannalai).

Dharma trainer for youth and students who come to study dharma at Suan Mokkha Palaram. Assisted in Anapana Sati training and in organising a youth camp. Initiated and developed participatory forms of training. Co-founded the Buddhadasa Study Group to systematically study the work of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.

Prepared documentation and information on dharma-related activities in solving social problems. Prepared activities in the Dharma Yatra Project (1995-2005) for the rehabilitation of Songkhla lake, a walking campaign to raise community awareness in solving the environmental crisis facing the lake.

Revitalised “Buddhasasana” newspaper as a channel for communicating Buddhadasa Bhikkhu's dharma in contemporary society Designed and formatted dharma books of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu to make them more readable.

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Works under this project including the “Panithan” (wish) series in accordance with the wishes of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu Participated in social-related activities by coordinating with groups both within and without

Suan Mokkha Palaram. Works in the Buddhadasa Study Group

Deputy chair of the Metta Dharmaraksa Foundation which aims to promote quality of life in accordance with dharma principles and to support community activities in education and the environment

Piloted the dharma website http://www.khonnarak.com/ to communicate dharma in simple but beautiful terms.

Created and developed the website http://www.buddhadasa.org/. Created and developed the website http://www.skyd.org/ for the network of monks and nuns working to apply dharma in life. Created and developed the website http://www.kruamas.org/ and prepared the development of the website http://www.nosmoke.in.th/ to campaign for smokingfree temples and monks.

Advised and transferred knowledge about computer programming to several organisations working on social issues such as agencies under Satienkoses-Nakhapratheep Foundation, Komol Keemthong Foundation, and the Buddhikha Network for Social and Buddhism Art editor for the three-monthly newsletter Sekkiyadharm. Formatted several dharma books such as a series of Buddhadasa's writings, Buddhadasa's Dharma Thasna (vision), Dharma Nuraksa newsletter, and over 100 other dharma books.

Phra Supoj Suwajo died on June 17, 2006 at Suan Metta Dharm forest monastery in Chiang Mai's Fang district. He was brutally hacked to death by an unknown number of perpetrators. He was 39 years old. He was in the monkhood for 13 years.

From http://www.semsikkha.org

[1]1 rai = 1600 square metres, 1,500 rai = 240 hectares, ~= 593 acres
[2]Sor Por Kor 4-01 titles are granted under land reform programmes. The owner must be a farmer with little or no land, the land must be used for agricultural purposes only, and the land cannot be traded, but only passed on as an inheritance.

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Part 2 Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Wittayakorn Boonruang

Orange orchards in Fang (from http://travel.sanook.com/)

Fang district... heaven for investors

In today's conflicts over access to natural resources in Chiang Mai's Fang district, big investors reap all the benefits at the expense of local villagers.

Class and environmental problems: the worldwide phenomenon of capitalist development and the competition for limited resources

The problem of increasing competition over common resources, like land, forest, water and sea, faces many developing countries. Before the advent of capitalism, conflict was avoided through common management systems to ensure resources were evenly distributed to different sectors of the community.

Contested access to the commons thus reflects the problem of commercially-driven development in the capitalism system that promotes agro-industrial investment. The state monopoly over natural resource management favours investors over the people. By leaving access to resources under the control of the “invisible hand,” it is always the investors who reap all the benefits. Thus conflict over natural resources is one of the most important class struggle of our time. Those who refuse to yield and rise to oppose oppression and the theft of natural resources by investors are those who realise the structural problem of class struggle. They refuse to give up even though this costs them their lives.

It is thus, within this context of class-struggled competition over resources that we should view the brutal murder of Phra Supoj Suwajo.

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The background: Fang district...heaven for investors

“...In Argentina, investors always ignore the constitutional rights of indigenous people to own the lands which they have cultivated for more than 20 years. Despite living on the land for over a century, even before the birth of Santiago province, villagers have no land title deeds. Legally, these lands belong to the state. Corrupt investors collude with state officials in violating this legal provision and issue land deeds to take land from villagers. These investors use armed gangs to seize land from villagers, a phenomenon which became endemic in the 1990s.

“After they have seized the land, investors turned it into vast fields of soy bean which they grow for many years until the land becomes degraded. This has become known among villagers as “soy bean fever.” Investors also use planes to spray chemicals over the fields. There is not much that villagers can do to protect themselves from this apart from hiding in their houses, while their water sources and other agricultural products lay directly exposed to the chemicals. Children who come out of hiding to watch the planes spraying have suffered chronic illnesses...” (Source: La Lucha Campesina by Ubol Yoowa, August 17, 2006 http://www.thaingo.org).

A phenomenon similar to what has happened in Argentina is occurring here in the northern part of Thailand in Chiang Mai's Fang, Mae Ai and Chai Prakan districts, in the fertile 2,130,446 rai Fang plain that covers these three districts.

Historically, the communities were established in the Fang plain over a thousand years ago. The movement of people in the plain was closely linked to warfare, trade, and the search for agricultural land. Modern history records the first settlement around 150 years ago. The land in this area was found to be good for agriculture.

With proper management and development, problems such as poverty, conflict over resources, environmental problems and the oppression of migrant workers, which now plague Fang, Mae Ai and Chai Prakan districts, could perhaps be prevented.

Social and economic development that depends on free-market mechanisms has turned the commons into simple modes of production, managed and used by state authority that usually transfers the right to use these resources to investors through concessions or leases. This has effectively excluded the majority of people who can't compete with big investors in accessing these resources.

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Furthermore, while state conservation policy has excluded most people from access to natural resources, the same policy allows some investors to exploit these resources through concessions or leases. The National Forest Reserve Act is a perfect example of this double standard. This is a structural problem which has distorted development across the country; where the real beneficiaries are investors, state agencies and their intermediaries, but not local villagers.

The problems in Fang, Mae Ai and Chai Prakan districts cannot be fully understood without thoroughly considering one major factor - the orange orchard business.

This business was said to have made inroads in Fang district in 1957 through experimental planting. Around 1981 two outside investors purchased some 500 rai of land from villagers to grow oranges. It is thought this was to replace cultivation in Bang Mod, the original site of the famous Bang Mod orange. This move inspired other investors to follow suit.

Banthoon Jirawattanakool of Thanathorn orchard is the most famous and recognised for his contribution to the orange orchard industry in Fang district. His orchard developed the popularity of the Sai Nam Pueng orange, contributing to the growth of this industry since 1994. As a consequence, large tracts of land have been purchased from local people, even by illegal methods such as arbitrary seizure or cheating by influential investors.

Ironically, the National Forest Reserve Act has become the major tool facilitating the use of natural resources by investors while excluding the majority of people; a collusion between the state and investors.

There are three forest reserve areas in Fang district. Their status as forest reserves was declared by ministerial regulations in 1974, 1974 and 1986 respectively. First, the Mae Fang River forest reserve covering about one million rai in Fang, Mae Ai and Chai Prakan districts; second, the Mae Lak Muen forest reserve with total area of 8,512 rai in Fang and Mae Ai districts. Third, the Mae Sun forest reserve which covers 3,906 rai in Fang district.

These vast forest reserves are open for lease by investors for tangerine plantations. Thanathorn orchard for example, first leased about 701 rai of the Mae Fang River forest reserve in Tambon Mon Pin in 1984 to grow oranges. Presently, over 100,000 rai of a total orange plantation area of 300,000 rai in the Fang plain are in forest reserves. Some of these are legally leased while others are illegal encroachments.

Against this backdrop, the well-being of the majority of people in Fang, Mae Ai and Chai Prakan districts has not improved.

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They in fact face increasing problems with regard to conflicts over natural resources, poverty, quality of life and environmental problems, oppression of migrant workers and other problems. Despite the growth of the orange orchard industry during 1994-1997, an evaluation by the Agriculture Promotion Department found that most small-scale farmers had suffered losses by 2001.

Like other industries in the capitalist world, the orange orchard industry testifies to the fact that only big investors are in the advantageous position to invest and to survive. Only they can invest in marketing, transportation, production processes, research and development, effective use of fertilisers and chemicals, modern harvesting, and the hiring of labour, mostly migrant workers at low wages. All this has successfully excluded small-scale farmers from having a share in the industry. Worse still, many who cannot compete in price with investors have been under pressure to sell their land to big investors.

Meanwhile, conflicts over natural resources between villagers and big investors have occurred in many places in Fang, Mae Ai and Chai Prakan districts. These conflicts involved threats by investors and influential people to take land from villagers or were over water resources. In most cases, villagers lost.

The concentration of land and wealth in the hands of a few investors has created poverty among the majority of the people. They have to make a living either in petty trade or small-scale farming, or work as a wage labourers in the orange orchards of big investors.

Environmentally, the orange orchards have caused air pollution in nearby communities and contamination of natural water resources, which affects the health of both workers and local villagers. Other problems include deforestation to make way for orange plantations, and degeneration of the soil which is likely to emerge in the near future.

All these are reasons to make the local people rise and to fight. Indeed, a class war has already been fought in areas of Fang district. It is a war between the investors and authorities on the one hand, and the local villagers and their supporters who fight for justice. Phra Supoj Suwajo is one among many members of the latter group.

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Central Institute of Forensic Science officials mark where evidence was found on the murder scene during an investigation co-organised by the Metta Dharmaraksa Foundation and the Department of Special Investigation on December 7, 2006.

Part 3 Friday, 5 October 2007

Pongphan Chumjai

Solving the murder of Phra Supoj: back to the drawing board?

This is the third of a four-part series on the murder of Phra Supoj Suwajo, of Suan Metta Dharm forest monastery in Chiang Mai's Fang district in June 2005.

  1. On the night of June 17, 2005, Phra Supoj Suwajo is thought to have been hacked to death by a group of people.

    His mutilated body was found on a small path not far from the Suan Metta Dharm forest monastery in Chiang Mai's Fang district on June 18, 2005. The initial post mortem found the monk was hit by an unidentified sharp object. However, police have not been able to find any weapon or any material evidence at the crime scene, or any witness to identify the murderer. Phra Supoj's brutal death remains a mystery.

    Local police in Fang district first pointed to the conflict between the monk and villagers over the cutting of trees in the monastery grounds. Investigator Pol Lt Col Somchai Inthawong of Fang District Police said police found two bamboo poles that has been cut some 10 metres from the corpse.

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    Police said the monk's death might have resulted from a dispute with villagers over the cut bamboo. Another police theory was a dispute over payments to villagers that the monastery hired to cut the trees.

    But Phra Kittisak Kittisophano, a close friend of Phra Supoj and leader of the Sekkiyadharm group rejected local police's theories. The monastery allows villagers to cut bamboo and collect forest products. Besides, Phra Supoj's determination in following the Lord Buddha's path and his strict observance of Buddhist teaching had won him high respect from villagers living around the monastery. Phra Kittisak believed that Phra Supoj was deceived into leaving his kuti in a rush because he did not turn off his computer and it seemed he was in the middle of washing work. Phra Kittisak also said the wounds on Phra Supoj's body showed the murderer's intention to kill the monk. Phra Supoj's pet dog was also hit.

    Phra Kittisak suspected Phra Supoj's death was linked to local influential people and politicians at the national level. Before his death, a local influential person known to be a younger brother of a Thai Rak Thai Party MP and some government officials had threatened monks at the monastery that the land on which their monastery was built had no proper title deeds.

    However, Phra Kittisak said that the monastery has proper documents. The lands were donated to the monastery by a well-to-do villager for the purpose of building a place to teach and practice dharma. After the threat, the Metta Dharmaraksa Foundation with Phra Supoj as key witness had filed a lawsuit with local police. However, the police refused to record the case until forced to do so by the complainants who brought the case to the government. Phra Kittisak said the prosecutor informed him the case would be brought before the court on June 30, 2005.

    The death of Phra Supoj and the loss of hope in Thai society

    By Phra Kikkisak Kittisophano, Prachatai online newspaper, August 9, 2005

    1. Phra Supoj Suwajo was found dead on June 18, 2005 at around 9.30 on a small path in the Suan Metta Dharm forest monastery. His body lay on the ground, his head pointed northeast. The crime scene was close to a bamboo grove not far from the village road. It was some 300 metres from Phra Supoj's kuti and separated from it by small streams, big ponds and a bamboo plot.

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      The small path was choked with grass, from knee to waist deep, fed by seasonal rain. It was almost abandoned by commuters.

      Kham Laowan walked along the path that fatal day. The Shan woman is in her 30s and a member of one of two families living in the grounds of Suan Metta Dharm. Kham had a bunch of longan from another orchard that she intended to give to Phra Supoj. He was alone at the monastery because two other monks had left for other activities in Bangkok.

      Kham was the first to find Phra Supoj's body. The first thing she saw was his pale feet and calves. When she saw wounds on his face and blood all over his robe, she fell to the ground. The body could not be anyone but Ajarn Supoj, as the monk with the glasses was known to her and for whom she had brought the fruit.

      When she regained consciousness, Kham walked from the crime scene and met Tor, her former husband who used to work at the monastery. He took her to see Pong, another worker who lived some 400 metres away.

      The death of the monk was terrifying enough. However, for these Shan workerd to be involved with the police is even more frightening as they have often been threatened in many ways by officers who claimed authority, laws and regulations the Shan workers knew nothing about. Therefore, it took them over one hour to report the crime to an officer at the house of a former high-ranking policeman near the monastery.

      Kham's nightmare turned into terrible reality. Indeed, death did not just take Phra Supoj from his family, friends and fellow monks, it also changes the lives of Kham and other Shan workers.

    2. These workers said that after the police performed an autopsy, they were taken for interrogation at the police station. They were interrogated many times by several police who asked same few questions. It seemed the police were only interested in the bamboo that had been cut, what the monks were doing at the monastery and why the workers were absent on the day of the murder. They were asked as if they colluded with the perpetrators in the killing of Phra Supoj.

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      On the day and night after they reported the murder and for several days afterwards, Kham and Pong were interrogated again and again for more than ten hours.

      Kham's ex-husband, Tor faced an even worse situation. He was suspected as a perpetrator until it was later proved that he was innocent as no blood stains were found on his shirt or axe.

    3. Phra Supoj was hacked to death with an unidentified sharp object and police failed to find any evidence or weapon at the crime scene so as to identify the perpetrator.

      However, police were not totally at a loss, since the several severe wounds and deep cuts on the mutilated body of Phra Supoj should provide some clue at least.

      There were more than ten deep cuts on his body; three on the back of his head, four on the left and front side of the neck, and others on his face, arms and right hand. One of the cuts on the back of his head was 15 centimetres long and five centimetres deep. Another 15 centimetre long cut on the neck had cut the artery and almost cut the vein. This cut also slashed the larynx, trachea, and neck bone. These cuts, according to a forensic expert, were so severe that they would have killed the victim almost instantly. Phra Supoj's right hand was almost cut off. From all these wounds, it is most doubtful, and almost illogical for police to conclude that 39-year-old Phra Supoj, a former sports player over 170 centimetres tall was killed by a villager who got angry because the monk told him to stop cutting one bamboo pole.

      The observation of other monks that Phra Supoj's death might be linked to earlier threats by the local influential people who wanted the monastery lands, fell on deaf ears. The police refused to listen.

      Later when it became too hard even for the police to believe their own theory, some officers raised a new one, suggesting that Phra Supoj was killed because he scolded villager who came to steal a wooden plank from an old barn near the crime scene, and who hit the monk's pet dog when it barked in alarm. The monk's relatives rejected this theory, based on their knowledge of Phra Supoj's nature. They also observed the irregularity in the monk leaving his kuti without closing the door or turning off his computer, and also, as it seemed, amid the unfinished washing of his robes.

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      In short, it was hard to believe the police's contention that Phra Supoj was killed because of a dispute over some bamboo or a wooden plank.

    4. Amidst the grief of relatives and friends over the death of the young monk, Thai society became duplicitous. On the one hand, many respected figures and rights advocates attended the funeral rites to provide moral support to relatives and friends when they most needed it. On the negative side, government officials at all levels, particularly those involved with ensuring security, and the judicial system refused to take any responsibility for failing to ensure justice. Worse still, some morally deficient officials had even accused the victim of being the wrongdoer, so as not to feel any responsibility toward his death.

      From the viewpoint of symbolic violence, this is no less cruel than the actual killing of Phra Supoj. The ignorance on the part of the Sangha council and administrators only added insult into injury. Effectively, they had left relatives and acquaintances to fight alone in the dark with no hope.

    5. Until today, Kham, Pong, Tor and other disadvantaged people continue to be suspects from times to time. Similarly, Phra Supoj, brutally murdered by the deadly hand of fate, a victim of the greed of local influential people, government officials and investors, was unable to demand justice. On the contrary, the perpetrators and those who must be responsible directly and indirectly for his death remain unscathed, maintain their high position in the society, beyond the reach of people like Kham, Pong or the relatives of Phra Supoj to ask for justice.

      Unless Thais rise up and demand change for a better society in which to live, the death of Phra Supoj won't be the last.

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  2. The failure of the police to arrest the perpetrator led environmentalists and a network of activist monks to issue a statement demanding that the investigation be speeded up. The National Human Rights Commission meanwhile sent its commissioners to follow up the case. The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) later took over the case from local police. However, not much was done until the change of government and a new DSI team was sent to the crime scene to follow up on the case. Like other cases where human rights activists had been murdered, the transfer of the case won't lead to any progress unless the civil groups exert more pressure on the relevant parties. A new development took place with the change of the DSI head. Former chief Pol Gen Sombat Amornwiwat was transferred to take up the Justice Ministry's Deputy Permanent Secretary post formerly held by Mr Kraisorn Baramee-auaychai, who became acting DSI Director-General. Appeals Court Chief Judge Sunai Manomai-udom was nominated as the new DSI chief. Sombat later became Deputy Police Chief for Security, a new position.

    After the change of DSI head, major cases were re-opened, including the disappearance of the Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, other extra-judicial killings, and the murder of Phra Supoj. In December 6-7, 2006, a team of investigators from the Central Institute of Forensic Science (CIFS) and the DSI under the leadership of Pol Lt Col Krisda Ribruamsap visited the Suan Metta Dharm in Sansai Subdistrict, to collect more evidence about Phra Supoj's death.

  3. Investigators searched Phra Supoj's kuti for more evidence on December 7. Reporters and relatives were not allowed into the kuti during the search. In the afternoon, officers used metal detectors to collect more evidence at the murder scene. The spot where the monk's body was found was now choked with tall grasses surrounded by bamboo groves. A spirit house had been erected at the murder spot as well as in the compound of the tangerine orchard opposite.

    During the two-hour search at the crime scene and surrounding areas, the metal detectors gave regular alarms. Investigators collected a glass bottle, shoes, and a spectacle frame and lenses which relatives thought belonged to Phra Supoj. Reporters following up on this case observed that the gathering of evidence by the CIFS investigators was more thorough and used more sophisticated equipments than the previous teams of local police or the DSI. However, the investigators refused to give any interview to reporters.

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  1. Phra Supoj's father and mother, Mr Kittipat and Mrs Daoruang Duangprasert were also present at the Suan Metta Dharm forest monastery during the gathering of more evidence, travelling from their hometown in Nonthaburi province.

    Speaking to Prachatai after the search, Kittipat said his hopes had been revived after the change of the government, and with the collection of more evidence. However, he said it remains to be seen what the revival of the case will lead to. He felt that at least the new investigation team had been very determined in its work; however, this was a bit too late, and all the major evidence might have been lost.

    Indeed, all the evidence collected during the search could have been found earlier by the previous teams right after the death of Phra Supoj. This reflects ignorance on the part of the police for not carefully collecting all evidence, said Kittipat.

    He kept his hopes up, though.

    “It's kind of late. It has been almost two years. However, I still have hope that they will not abandon my son's case. At least it seems to be a big team this time, from all relevant agencies.”

    Meanwhile, Phra Kittisak Kittisophano, abbot of Suan Metta Dharm forest monastery and chair of the Sekkiyadharm group, said that he had been informed by the DSI that this case is now considered as premeditated murder, and not the result of a dispute or angry outburst.

    “This confirms the thesis we pointed out right after the death of Phra Supoj but which had been turned down or ignored. Investigators wasted one year trying to prove their own theory to deny that this case is linked to politics,”

    said Phra Kittisak.

    “It's like we have been pointing to the East for you so that you can find the village but you refused to listen, going instead in all other directions.

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    Eventually when after all the wandering you still can't find the village, now you say; well it might be the East”

    he said.

    This can't be called “progress” because what investigators did in collecting more evidence on December 7, 2006, could have been done 18 months ago, he added.

    “Why did they refuse to listen to us? The reasons I can think is that perhaps they want to protect someone, or that they are inefficient, or that they are too proud to follow our instruction. But who will take responsibility for the damage done (for following the wrong thesis)?,”

    asked Phra Kittisak. Meanwhile, Dr Khunying Pornthip Rojanasunan, acting CIFS Director, told Krungthep Thurakij newspaper on Dec 7, 2006 that her office sent officers as had been requested. She said she will also hear progress on the case from investigators, while admitting that it is difficult to get more evidence given that the case happened long time ago.

    “Taking up the case seriously now might be viewed as attempting to placate the appeals of society,”

    she said, adding that in the past the DSI and her office did not cooperate in their work.

    “Phra Supoj's death is like the case of lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, where our office was called in when the responsible agency felt like it. But the result is that when we were called on late, there was almost no evidence left,”

    she said.

  2. Another development is the change of high-ranking officials in the DSI which has seen a change in the head of the agency that is directly responsible for major cases involving human rights violations. On April 27, 2007, Justice Ministry Permanent Secretary Charan Pakdeethanakul signed an order appointing new officials to major agencies.

    Of particular interest is the transfer of Pol Col Suchart Wong-anandchai, head of the Special Criminal Investigation Bureau which was responsible for the cases of Phra Supoj and Muslim lawyer Somchai to be the head of the Bureau for Foreign Affairs and International Crime.

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    Replacing him is Col Piyawat Kingkade, an expert in special cases and former DSI spokesman.

    “Col Piyawat has proven himself to be capable of taking up this new post from his past works in the investigation of major cases,”

    said DSI Director-General Sunai.

    He also said that the transfer was meant to rotate officials to different work within the department so as not to concentrate power in one particular section.

    Col Piyawat was recently assigned as the chief investigator in the Somchai Neelapaijit case, the extrajudicial killings during the war on drugs, and the physical assaults on suspects in the case of the raid to steal guns from the army camp in Narathiwat on Jan 4, 2004.

    It remains to be seen if the change in the DSI will lead to any progress in the investigation into the cases of Somchai, Phra Supoj, and the murder of other human rights defenders.

    Or will it take the investigation back to the drawing board?

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Phra Supoj Suwajo (picture from www.thaingo.org).

Part 4 Sunday, 7 October 2007

Ong-ard Decha

Questions and doubts: why silent over violence?

This is the final part of a four-part series on the murder of Phra Supoj Suwajo of Suan Metta Dharm forest monastery in Chiang Mai's Fang district.

The brutal murder of Phra Supoj Suwajo on June 17, 2005 at Suan Metta Dharm forest monastery shocked relatives and acquaintances, and severely affected the network of environmentalists, social workers, and Buddhist activists who learned of his deadly fate.

Government agencies responsible came out badly from the case with no progress in the investigation after two years.

Many parties can't help but ask; why this incredible slowness? Or perhaps there is something fishy about this case. The death of Phra Supoj was viewed by many as representing a structural problem of the conflict over access to natural resources between investors and rulers on the one hand, and the majority of the people on the other.

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However, many people have refused to remain silent. They have raised major questions of why there is no progress on investigation, and why such unspeakable violence receives an incredibly quiet response.

“It reflects on our justice system, on the work of the police, prosecutors, and courts. In the work of police in particular; we rarely see sincerity. It is useless to pin our hopes on them. Two years have past and there is nothing. Worse still, if we become noisy, they turn on us, attacking us instead of helping us.

“With the new chief of the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), perhaps there will be change. He seems to be sincere and hard working, unlike the previous team. Yet we have to wait and see how much he can do. I don't want to have high hopes; experience in the past two years has taught us that we can't rely on the justice system.

“If the DSI does its job, and does it best, perhaps we should get something. But if they only work when pushed; then it's no use.

“I have to travel a lot to Bangkok. However, I thought I will have to stay more at the monastery since we have prepared a place for training. We have to keep each other company here. We cannot afford to stay alone or with few people. It is too risky.”

Phra Maha Cherdchai Kawiwangso
Suan Metta Dharm forest monastery

+++

“...I was at the hospital and saw Phra Supoj's mutilated body with several hack wounds. I felt he had suffered more severe torture than that inflicted on Charoen (Wat-aksorn). From his corpse, I believed his death was pre-determined. It was planned to look like the result of a personal dispute rather than a conflict over land of the Suan Metta Dharm forest monastery that local investors wanted...

“...This is like the murder of Charoen. He was killed because of his role in opposing the power plant and the encroachment on public lands. However, there had been an attempt to make his death look like a personal conflict; that he was shot because of his verbal attack on the other side in the dispute.

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“Attempts had also been made to cut short the case so as not to get to the mastermind...

“...Not only have we been victims of the investors, we have also then been victimised by state injustice with the lack of progress in the investigation. Worse still, it was state officials and the judiciary process that attempted to distort the cases. They are hopeless. We people have only ourselves to rely on.”

Korn-uma Pongnoi
Wife of Charoen Wat-aksorn and Chair of the Bonok-Kuiburi Rak Thong Thin group.

+++

“It was clear that local influence can be linked to bureaucratic power, and became stronger, particularly when the power at the centre is weak or has no clear direction. Therefore if the central state power does not try to protect the environment, to protect its citizen, this will allow local administrations and local influential people to corrupt their power to the point that they can block information, and cover up or destroy evidence.

“Phra Supoj's case is like many other. Another 18 cases met the same fate. It is important to dissolve local power as well as pressure central state power to have a clear policy to protect the people, and not big capital. I was alarmed by the recent visit of Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont to Rayong, to receive money donated by Siam Cement Group and other companies for environmental conservation activities. Instead of visiting the local people to see how they have been affected by these companies, he still care more for the old network of big capital. It showed this government also does not care about people.

“In the case of Phra Supoj, we need to fight the war on different fronts so as to enable us to bring about justice and to get the local perpetrators punished.”

Attajak Sattayanurak
History lecturer, Chiang Mai University's Faculty of Humanities

+++

“The problem of the management of natural forests, land, and water resources lies in the state's monopoly and centralised power. This stems from a myth that state is a neutral body and the only one capable of efficiently managing natural resources. Under this absolute power of management, and guided by its own methods and principles, the state has issued laws on the control and management of natural resources.

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“Several divisions have been established and the management of natural resources has been divided among these different agencies, without coordination in their work. Furthermore, at the core of the state's principles of natural resource management is the adherence to “scientific knowledge” as the one and only neutral and proper wisdom.

“Within the context of Thai society where local communities have long been dependent on natural resources for their livelihood, this state monopoly and centralisation has thus excluded community rights in the management of natural resources. Local wisdom was relegated into superstition by the state's scientific knowledge in resource management. State laws have replaced customary management by communities. Gradually, state agencies have taken over all the key roles formerly played by the community.

“In such a state, local communities' normal livelihoods that depend on natural resources are affected. At a much more severe level, state management totally denies the existence of villagers and communities and their rights and voice in issues affecting their own lives. Community life, thence, was condemned to struggle, t an uncertain future, and to never-ending conflicts with state agencies claiming ownership of natural resources.

“The state's concept of natural resource management strictly adheres to two types of management. One stresses state control, on the other emphasizes the role of the private sector. While the former often pushes the extension of areas reserved for the state, thus creating a series of conflicts between state and community, state has exerted little or no control over the management of natural resources by the private sector.

“Within the context of social and economic growth, natural resources have fully become “goods” as is clearly the case with land. Trade in land, for example, whether lawful or not, has resulted in the loss of land from poor farmers to investors who failed to cultivate the land productively.

“While excluding the community from resource management controlled and managed by the state and the private sector, the market mechanism is another principle that state is now considering as a proper way to manage water resources. Despite the establishment of local systems of weirs in almost all communities in the north, the state thought there needed be an agency to control and manage water usage effectively through the employment of the principle of user-fees.

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“Precedents in land and forest management have shown this to be an effective way to exclude villagers' rights in favour of the rich and powerful minority.

“State management of natural resources reflects a different thinking from that of local communities which consider natural resources and the environment as “social capital” meaning resources that enable their peaceful livelihood based on participatory management. Under this principle, natural resources are used carefully and preserved.

“On the contrary, state management looks only at the economic value of resources. The state uses natural resources for economic development without caring how the community will be affected by state use of resources. State management has changed natural resources from community “social capital” into “economic capital.” Such management considers only economic growth while ignoring people's participation in management, and the sustainability of natural resource use.

“In summary, unless the state solves these structural problems, there will remain conflicts in natural resource management in Thai society. Then many more lives of the protectors of natural resources may face the same deadly fate as Phra Supoj. This is not what Thai society wish to see.”

Jessada Chotikitpiwat
Member, Democracy Group for Welfare State

+++

“There has been slow progress in the investigation regardless of the transfer of the case from the local police to the DSI, and even with the change of investigators in the DSI. No one has been arrested.

“The Subcommittee on Land and Forest Management of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) has been assigned to look into two aspects. First, the progress of the investigation; the Subcommittee has been following this case since when it was under the local police in Fang, and later invited DSI officials to report on progress. Furthermore, arrangements were made for Phra Supoj's parents and Phra Kittisak (from Suan Metta Dharm monastery) to consult Ministry of Justice Permanent Secretary Charan Pakdeethanakul in June. The meeting was postponed due to inconvenience on both sides.

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“The Subcommittee is now attempting to set up a new appointment.

“Secondly, it is important to continue the will of Phra Supoj in his operation of Suan Metta Dharm forest monastery for the purpose of forest conservation and dissemination of dharma. Several meetings had been held with involved agencies in Chiang Mai in order to settle the question of the legality of lands donated to the monastery. However, the Subcommittee reported that the Office of Land Reform for Agriculture needs to accelerate its work on this issue.

“Statistically, most cases of murder involving human rights defenders have no progress. The HRC study and found that after the promulgation of the 1997 Constitution until 2005, 21 human rights defenders had died. Eighteen of them were environmental activists; there still are many more unknown fighters who were threatened, arrested, or killed.

“It is important that the judicial process must be strengthened. No theories regarding the causes of the deaths of these human rights defenders must be neglected. Particularly the theory of conflict with influential people must get special attention. Justice must be done.

“Meanwhile, the state must strictly enforce the law against the real encroachers of the watershed like resorts or big tangerine orchards. The authorities must not arrest only small villagers. In many cases, villagers have been arrested even though the process of verifying their rights was in progress. It's not their fault as it is the state authorities who are to be blamed for not accelerating the process.

Sunee Chairos
Human Rights Commissioner

+++

“We see no work of the DSI. We have never been informed how much the DSI has worked on Phra Supoj's case. His relatives see no future for this case, no progress. They are almost hopeless.

“I remembered the HRC once invited DSI officials to report the progress of the case. However, they expressed dissatisfaction when we questioned them, as if we didn't have the right to do that. This has furthered discouraged us. I am not sure if transferring the case to the DSI is right or wrong as there has been no progress at all.

“I would like to see the present government headed by Gen Surayud Chulanont to push the DSI to report the progress of the case.

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At least, this prime minister, who is a student of dharma and who was ordained as a monk, should get himself involved in this case to see how the killing of a monk can be allowed to happen in Thai society.

Baramee Chairat
Subcommittee on Land and Forest Management, Human Rights Commission

+++

“The murder of Phra Supoj is a capital crime. This is the murder of a monk in the compound of a Buddhist monastery. I believe that if no influential people were involved, the police should have been able to solve the case long time ago because this case received quite a lot of publicity and even international organisations have paid attention to. The United Nations is also aware that Phra Supoj was one of the monk and lay activists who fought to conserve the forest against local and national influential people.

“In the past, relatives lodged complaints with several agencies, be it police, government or DSI. Surprisingly, there has been no progress at all. This reflects high-level involvement of influential groups.

“Recently, we sent a letter to the Justice Minister asking about progress in the case; we have not yet got his reply. Unless the perpetrators are arrested, environmentalists and human rights defenders won't dare continue their work.

“The murder of Phra Supoj happened during the Thaksin Shinawatra administration when 29 human rights defenders were killed including the environmentalist Charoen Wat-aksorn, and the disappearance of Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit. These cases continue unsolved even now.

“The Surayud government is not interested in or has not yet resolved these cases because something else got their attention, the present political crisis. In addition, I believed that local influential power is still holding firm.

“Moreover, attempts by this government to reform the National Police Bureau seem to have produced no change; there has also been internal opposition to any change in that agency.

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“Neither does the DSI provide any hope.

“Indeed, the DSI was established to solve special cases that require high expertise when police had failed. Such were cases that involved the local influential and political power that make the DSI necessary. However, it turned out that most of the DSI officials were the same group of policemen transferred from the National Police Bureau. Recent efforts to reduce the number of DSI officials who come from the police produced no fruitful result in terms of the progress into all major cases; Phra Supoj, Charoen, or lawyer Somchai, or the physical assault on Somchai's clients. Worse still, the DSI has been viewed as taking sides with the accused state officials.

“Thus, all sectors in society be it the news media or civil groups must help in closely checking and following up on these cases and the DSI's work in order to exercise and protect the rights of the people.”

Somchai Homla-or
Secretary, Foundation for Human Rights and Development

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Part 5 Thursday, 17 October 2008

Ongard Decha

The circumstance will be remembered surrounding the brutal slaying of Phra Supoj Suwajo, the activist monk of the Buddhadasa Study Group and the abbot of the Suan Metta Dhamma Meditation Centre, Ban Huai Ngu, Sansai Subdistrict, Fang District, Chiang Mai Province, who was killed on 17 June 2005. This case has aroused continuing public interest.

The case reverberated in Buddhist circles because it was believed that Phra Supoj was continuing the work of Buddhadasa, who was respected throughout the country. The murder was a heinous act, using a sharp object of an unknown type or size, by an unknown number of assailants. There were more than 20 serious wounds to the head, front, hands, arms ad trunk, causing death. The killing occurred 300 metres from the monks' quarters at Suan Metta Dhamma.

This case is another example of conservationists and Buddhist teachers who have sacrificed to protect natural resources in he communities where they live, against the power of local influential groups who, hand-in-hand with state officials, use brute force to destroy the lives of villagers who stand in the way of their profits, so that they can continue to scoop up the resources of the community.

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Many people see this case only as an ordinary murder case, Whether a layman or a priest, there is the random chance of becoming a victim in dark times like the present. But if the details of the case looked at carefully, we will see the links behind the problem from a broader perspective. This is not just the murder of a monk in Fang District; it is not just the murder of a monk in Chiang Mai; and it is not just the murder of a monk in Thailand. The problem is many times bigger than that.

This can be said to be the problem of global competition for resources among capitalists-administrators in order to obtain the highest benefit for themselves. Sate policy and the system of justice of Thailand are continuously crippled, to the point where Thai society is beginning to wonder who in the end can people put their faith in.

Prcently, Prachatai interviewed Phra Kittisak Kittisophano, chair of the Metta Dhamma Foundation, to ask about progress in the Phra Supoj Suwajo case. His answers showed clearly that this case is a memorial to the failure of the Thai system of justice.

images/figure-6.jpg

Can you please tell us of the progress in the Phra Supoj Suwajo case?

This January 2008 is the 31st month since the loss of Phra Supoj Suwajo. It's like every time we talk, it is about the worry of the relatives of the deceased that state officials have not been able to bring the perpetrators to justice. Right now, whoever killed Phra Supoj is walking about freely.

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There has been no arrest warrant and no clear identification of anyone who gave the orders, or of anyone at all. At present, the state agencies, the police, the Department of Special Investigation, or the other security organizations who have declared their interest, are not sure who is connected to this case.

Various hypotheses of the parents and relatives believe that the death of Phra Supoj was the action of those who did not agree with Phra Supoj and of influential people. But in the end, the criminal goes free and the state agencies have given up on the problem and don't offer any help.

And now there are moves to cancel the witness protection programme, and to cancel the investigation, both the public one and the one behind closed doors. In sum, the reality is that the family of Phra Supoj have heard of no progress for half a year now. It's another historical case which reflects the clear failure of the investigation and of the Thai system of justice. Why has witness protection been suddenly cancelled like this?

Since September last year, the end of the budget year, it was cancelled for unknown reasons. There were no reasons. Some say that the Royal Thai Police gave an order to cancel witness protection in this case. Then the Department of Special Investigation said that if the police do not provide protection, it will contact the Third Army. Col. Piyawat Kingket, Commander of the Special Crime Office of the Department of Special Investigation, said this, bit has since gone silent. There has been no contact.

The Office of Witness Protection of the Ministry of Justice has been in contact and asked if there is still protection or not. But when they were told that the police officers had withdrawn, they said that the issue of witness protection would later come under the DSI. The various expenses came from the DSI.

Now that there is no witness protection, have there been any threats?

Now that there is no witness protection, there are threats all the time and violence is increasing. The latest incident was gunshots. A stranger came into the Meditation Centre at night. We told the DSI but nothing happened.

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Now there are police officers from Fang Police Station stationed at Suan Metta Dhamma Meditation Centre from Monday to Wednesday in the mornings until noon. Then they go back. This is like a symbol, or talking about safety. But it does not inspire confidence. But it s loving-kindness, it is the generosity of the Commander of Fang Police Station who still sends police officers here. And it's the same agency that's ends them. But if you ask whether it's effective in protecting people, that's hard to answer.

As regards progress in the case, do you see any chance of movement?

The opportunity for gathering testimony from witnesses and evidence, I we speak knowledgeably, is something that is time-sensitive. If a long time passes, memories fade, materials degrade with time. The chances of finding the perpetrators are reduced. It's even worse if you follow the trail of someone and want to punish him by law, because there are no solid witnesses, no good evidence, nothing in the case. The agencies that by law are responsible are using time to destroy justice, to destroy the truth, to wear people down so that they give up. These agencies have to do their job, to move forward. Time is making this case a sorry affair, especially because it is the murder of a monk in broad daylight in a public place. But the power of the state, with all its resources and personnel, has not been able to ensure justice. So it really is a memorial to failure.

Does it seem as though the case is scarcely given any importance by all the government agencies?

Yes. You can see that no matter who is in charge at the time, whether it is Pol Lt Col Thaksin Shinawatra or Gen Surayud Chulanont under the CNS, or under the 2007 Constitution, this case has limited importance. When we go to see the Minister of Justice, we are told that this case has to wait because there are more important cases they have to deal with first. If you ask them what these are, they say, for example, corruption in the Thaksin government, Suvarnabhumi Airport, the concealment and movement of Thaksin's money. This reflects a picture that when someone at the level of the Minister of Justice, who has supreme authority over the DSI, thinks this way, people on the ground can't do much. They can only do what is under their responsibility. There are more important cases that take precedence.

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Was it a mistake to transfer the case the DSI?

You can conclude that it was a mistake for us to have the DSI take over this case. Just like the case of Somchai Neelaphaijit, or the murder of Charoen Wat-Aksorn. None of these cases has made any progress. It is a failure of the agencies and the personnel working on these cases.

These agencies have a structure that is defective. This results in internal conflict, including what is in the news about their many problems. Officials who have been seconded from the police or military, officials in different sections who work in DSI, are in conflict with each other and can't solve the problem. At the same time, the DSI has gone back to being used politically as a way of hampering the opposition. This also shows there is no efficiency in their work. You can say it is a failure, a waste if the people's tax money.

Or is it that this case has been a failure because the original investigation methods were faulty?

Yes. The Thai system of justice under Thai law is a matter of collecting evidence to prove what happened according to the charge. If the original procedures by the police who build the case are defective, the whole process collapses like a line of dominoes. So people with influence, who know the system of justice, will use loopholes. It's the same in the case of Somchai's murder, which can't be proven, since it is only a missing person case. The case of Phra Supoj was the same from the start. Some lawyers raised suspicions that it was case where the suspects could not be identified because no one saw what happened, there were no eye witnesses.

We can see that if there is no solution to this, the system of justice will fail from the outset. It fails because the people who collect evidence, the people who do the initial investigation, intend to go off course. They make false hypotheses. The judge cannot provide justice, because the judge is the person who considers the case as presented by the officials who collected the original evidence. If it is like this, then it's like what the villagers say, the rich don't go to jail. It's only stupid people and poor people who go to jail.

So we cannot expect that there will be any big guy who gave the orders, who manipulated a web of misery through illegal acts and evil depravity. There is no way to be confident that he will be brought to justice, not to mention anything more elevated than that, such as that these people with influence in the patron-client system are connected to politics and economics, are connected to the community culture.

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In the end, the mechanisms of the state cannot put this right. It's like the state pushes officials to kowtow to influential people to ask for proper justice.

The case of Phra Supoj is not a matter of Phra Supoj alone, or of his family, or of the network of people's organizations. But the case of Phra Supoj is a picture of the entire system of justice. Those who have the power of the state in their hands cannot see the overall picture of the connecting factors. There is no way to solve this problem. There is no way at all of improving the system of justice.

Translated by Mukdawan Sakboon

Source: http://www.prachatai.com/05web/th/home/page2.php?mod=mod_ptcms&ContentID.

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