Lisu human rights defender felt threatened by army over land dispute

 | Tue 12 May 2020 19:19 ICT

Katima Leeja, a 35-year-old year old Lisu woman human rights defender from Chiang Dao District, was visited by a plainclothes military officer on Saturday evening of 9th May 2020. The plainclothes officer, who was from the 4th Cavalry Regiment in Chiang Mai, said that he was told by his higher up to gain information about Katima. The incident took place a week after eight Wildlife Sanctuary Inspector Officers became involved in land disputes with three villagers in an incident where a soldier allegedly hit a 55 year old Lisu man in the head during a confrontation in Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary zone on 2nd May 2020.

Later, Katima as a coordinator of the Lisu Network of Thailand, was seen in a video uploaded on Facebook on 5th May, where she was reading out a statement by the network, criticising the authorities and demanding the incident to be investigated by a committee. On 7th May, she and about 30 villagers submitted a letter to Chiang Dao Chief District Office demanding that the investigation committee be set up to look into the incident, and that the authorities conduct proper survey of the land to clarify the land use area to avoid further conflict.

During the house visit, the plainclothes military officer told Katima there was no specific reason for the inquiry, but said that he was asked by his supervisor to find out more information.

He asked how Katima came to be involved in human rights work relating to land rights and indigenous people’s rights. The officer also asked Katima information about her birthday, marital status, phone number, members residing in the house, her parents and siblings’ name, and their occupation. The visit lasted about 30 minutes.

Katima said that the visit was the first time she ever received an obvious threatening act from authorities and that she and her family felt concern for their safety. As they are from an ethnic minority group. In recent years, there have been various cases of enforced disappearance or extrajudicial killing against vocal indigenous human rights defenders, such as the case of Billy Rakchongcharoen, a prominent Karen HRD who disappeared in 2014 and later whose body was found in 2019.

“I feel quite concerned and so are my family members to receive such visit. It feels strange that he asked me a lot of questions. Now it made me think twice if I have to go anywhere by myself. Of course, I don’t want to be the second Billy,” said Katima

The military officer, who refused to identify his name, explained to PI on the phone that the visit was supposed to be only “casual” and “friendly” and not meant to be threatening in anyway. He said he was not aware that the inquiry has anything to do with the Katima’s action protesting the forest authorities, and that he only followed his higher up’s order to get the information. Such visit is common for soldiers, who regularly exchange friendly conversation with villagers, he said.

Katima, who received a recognition and award from the National Human Rights Commission as an outstanding women human rights defender in 2017, started her human rights defenders work after her father, a Lisu community leader, was shot to death in 2012 in a case relating to land disputes and discrimination against the indigenous people.

Protection International, Thailand has announced that states have a responsibility to pledge protection to WHRDs at risk and should be held accountable for fulfilling this responsibility. They went on to highlight “the necessity to progress an included concept of security that goes beyond just the physical protection of the individual. Such a notion of security would encourage the expansion of prevention measures and take into account the need to feel safe at home, at community and in public, as well as integrating the physical and psychological well-being of WHRDs, families and their groups.”

Read more about the plight of our ethnic minority and migrant residents here at Migrant Lives Matter.