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Land rights activist gunned down in southern Thailand

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 13 February 2015.

Thai authorities should immediately investigate the killing of a land rights activist in southern Thailand, Human Rights Watch said today.

On February 11, 2015, at about 6:30 p.m., an unidentified gunman shot Chai Bunthonglek six times in his chest and head, killing him, witnesses said. The gunman then escaped on a motorcycle with another assailant. Chai had long campaigned for land ownership for the Khlong Sai Pattana community in Surat Thani province.

Successive Thai governments have failed to act to prevent and respond to attacks against human rights defenders, Human Rights Watch said.

"For too long Thai authorities have stood by while activists like Chai have been murdered in cold blood for standing up for their communities," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government needs to immediately conduct a serious and impartial investigation and bring those responsible for Chai's death to justice."

Prior to his killing, three other activists in Chai's network had been targeted in deadly attacks. But neither provincial nor national authorities proposed or adopted any protective measures for Chai or members of the Khlong Sai Pattana community, which is affiliated with the Southern Peasants' Federation of Thailand. Chai's family and members of the federation told Human Rights Watch they are now living in fear because they do not know who might be the next target of a deadly attack.

Chai is the fourth activist from the Khlong Sai Pattana community to be killed over the past five years. No one has been held accountable for the killings of Somporn Pattanaphum in 2010, Montha Chukaew in 2012, and Pranee Boonrat in 2012. All were leaders in the campaign to seek community ownership of land that has been used by a major palm oil company whose land lease contract with Thai authorities has expired. Community members told Human Rights Watch that they see previous police investigations into murders of community leaders as half-hearted, inconsistent, and ineffective.

Since 2001, more than 30 human rights defenders and environmentalists have been killed in Thailand. The police have charged a suspect in fewer than 20 percent of these cases. Thai authorities have also failed to provide adequate witness protection to those who witnessed killings, which allows suspects to intimidate witnesses into silence and undermines efforts to prosecute those responsible. Frequent instances of negligence and corruption of government officials further place activists at risk, leaving them to face deadly threats without meaningful protection, Human Rights Watch said.

The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders requires authorities to take all necessary measures to protect everyone against violence, threats, retaliation, and other abuses because of their work as a human rights defender. International law recognizes state accountability for failing to protect persons from rights abuses and violence by private actors. According to the UN Human Rights Committee, states must not only protect individuals against violations of rights by government officials but "also against acts committed by private persons or entities that would impair the enjoyment" of their rights. A government may be violating human rights by "permitting or failing to take appropriate measures or to exercise due diligence to prevent, punish, investigate or redress the harm caused by such acts by private persons or entities."

"The Thai government needs to end its apathy toward deadly attacks against human rights defenders," Adams said. "Government leaders should recognize that these killings over time weigh heavily on global public perceptions of Thailand as a rights-respecting country."

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