Shortly after arriving in Thailand this summer, I was dispatched to Kho-ha, a small village in southern Thailand’s Songkhla province, to write a legal memorandum regarding a local mine blasting and causation lawsuit.

For the past several years, Khu-ha has been the scene of a struggle between a socially aware community group and a powerful Thai mining company.  Khu-ha is situated at the base of a large lime-stone mountain called Khoa Khu-ha—a mountain that has been one of Khu-ha’s symbols for centuries, as well as the source of fresh stream water for the village and home to lush greenery and a high number of bats that inhabit its many caves.

Khoa Khu-ha also happens to be located on a large swathe of public land that the Thai government leased a few years ago to the mining company.  Since that time, the village of Khu-ha has not been the same. As soon as the mining company set up shop, it began blowing up Khao Khu-ha with large quantities of dynamite to extract the limestone.  I arrived in Khu-ha to see a mountain with a gaping crater, the entire center blown away.

A community in jeopardy

But the community of Khu-ha’s injuries aren’t limited to the destruction of their precious Khao Khu-ha.  Many people have suffered property damage from the close-range blasts, health problems due to the mine dust, loss of livelihoods from the mine activities, and loss of the general sense of security that they used to have before the massive explosions began launching dust, large stones, and loud booming blasts into the atmosphere on a daily basis.

One family owns a duck farm, and as soon as the explosions began, their ducks stopped producing eggs—wiping out their family income.  Another family’s house is falling apart, its foundation cracked by the constant explosions, and the family now lives in a home of cracked walls, damaged floors, and bursting water pipes.

Thai lawyer takes the case

Thankfully, Thai lawyer Sor Rattanamanee Polkla and activist Prashant Bhagat decided to take their case. Sor and Prashant founded the Community Resource Center (CRC) in 2010, and Sor is also a member of the Mekong Legal Network (MLN).  ERI has also supported CRC by helping with fundraising, international legal research and sending ERI interns to participate in community meetings and trial observation.

With CRC’s backing and Sor’s legal expertise, six villagers of Khu-ha brought two suits against the mining company—one in district court and one in provincial court—for property damage, loss of livelihood and a sense of security, and health related problems caused by the mine blasts. They sought money damages as well as an injunction on any future mining activities.

Although there are only four plaintiffs in the first suit, several others have the legal right to join. Unfortunately, they have been threatened by a local gangster who has interests in the mine, and therefore have been too afraid to have anything to do with the case.  And, according to Prashant, many people in Thailand think that courts are for trying criminals and not the place to solve the community’s problems.

Countersuit fails to intimidate plaintiffs

The mining company reacted to the plaintiffs’ suit with a countersuit for 64 million baht (over US$2 million) against nine members of the community who have led the campaign against the mine, arguing that the mine has lost business because as soon as the suit began the court ordered a moratorium on all activities until a judgment was delivered.

This countersuit has been deemed by Sor and Prashant as a tactic to scare the few people who had the courage to file a suit against the mining company in the first place into dropping out of the case.  But, according to Sor, the mining company’s countersuit has done nothing but strengthen the entire community’s resolve to seek justice through the Thai legal system.

A landmark victory

Their resolve paid off— the district court recently ruled in their favor, requiring the mining company to pay damages to the plaintiffs and issuing an injunction against further mining activities.

Despite the threats and the countersuit, the community has held its nerve and placed its trust in the Thai legal system to bring peace and dignity to their community.  Although the district court’s verdict cannot make the community of Khu-ha entirely whole again, what remains of Khao Khu-ha will be salvaged; their lost sense of security at home can be rebuilt; and most importantly, their faith in a unified community—as well as the faith of other communities around the world who read about their struggle—will be restored.

Although this victory is only the first step in what promises to be a lengthy battle, the case of Khu-ha is a landmark decision in the judicial system of Thailand. There are very few examples of successful mining lawsuits, so this judgment will encourage other victims who suffer from the effects of mining to bring their cases to the court.

This guest post is from Maria Chickedantz, a student at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, who this summer interned in Thailand with ERI’s legal program.