Public Interest Law in India, from a Thai Perspective

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I am a community rights lawyer in northern Thailand working on environmental and human rights legal cases and training. I recently travelled to India to attend a conference and meet with likeminded lawyers, campaigners and communities. This was my first time outside Thailand on a plane and I did not know what to expect. Before traveling I felt under pressure because my English is still developing, but I did see this as an opportunity to deepen my understanding and experience of public interest law. And as our Indian legal guide, Mr. Kranti, from the Human Rights Law Network said, “The Indian legal system is crazy, but anything is possible!”

Global Alliance for Justice Education Conference (GAJE) Conference

The 7th GAJE conference was held at Jindal Global University just outside of Delhi. It is a global conference held every two years as a forum bringing together teachers, lawyers, academics, and NGOs to exchange experiences about teaching clinical legal programs and preparing law students to become agents of social change.

Those presenting at the conference explained that many law students don’t understand the nature or importance of human rights violations. There were also some presentations on the challenges of trying to teach about justice in developing countries like Lao and Vietnam where the political space for discussing social justice topics is small. There is also the challenge that most law students prefer to focus on economic rather than social justice subjects in order to further their own career.

Like other countries, there are many challenges to teach about justice in Thai law schools. For example human rights law and environmental law are only electives, and many Thai students prefer business law and other subjects that will help them earn money in the future. Once a lawyer finishes law school there are also limited career opportunities for those lawyers who are interested in a career pushing for justice. This is why the Bertha Foundation Fellowship, which has brought me to EarthRights International for a year, is so important!

Thailand is often perceived as a developed and wealthy country, but there are many social and environmental problems. In my own work as a lawyer I have represented many clients suffering injustices. Many people in Thailand, especially from ethnic minorities, cannot reach public services, and some of them cannot speak Thai or access public education. In one of my cases a Thai drug dealer assaulted a boy of Palong ethnicity, but the police refused to take action until the community itself arrested the culprit (who was also a police informant).

The opportunity to hear about models for justice education from around the world and to discuss, ask questions and learn new concepts was an important opportunity for me.

Meetings with Campaign Groups

We also had an opportunity to meet Ms. Moulika Arabhi, Director at the Centre for Environmental Law at WWF-India. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) works on environmental issues such as forest and wildlife conservation and the improvement of policies and practices in the extractive industry. WWF’s strategy is to work closely with government in accordance with strong internal policies. One interesting fact shared by WWF is that there is increasing forest cover loss in India due to coal mines and power plants, and that not a single application for an environmental concession has been refused by relevant environmental authorities, even though environmental impact assessments for these projects are a “mockery” (often cut and pasted from other projects and no proper public hearings). There is some hope for the future however as in 2010 a National Green Tribunals Act established an environmental court in India. The key will be to see whether the court can be used to improve environmental decision-making in these extractive industry projects. Thailand does not have a separate environmental court, but it does have a special division of the Administrative Court that specializes in environmental cases.

We also met with lawyers from the Human Rights Law Networks (HRLN) three offices in India (New Delhi, Imphal and Mumbai). These meetings were very interesting to me because I’m also interested in human rights and a member of Human Rights Lawyer Association of Thailand (HRLAT). The main difference between HRLN & HRLAT is the members of HRLN are both lawyers and campaigners working together, while the members of HRLAT are only lawyers. Seeing how the HRLN works has given me the inspiration try to change the structure of HRLAT to include dedicated campaigners as well. The HRLN also has offices in most of the 28 states and seven unions in India, while HRLAT only has one office in Bangkok and does not have such capabilities in Thailand’s provinces. The HRLAT can learn from the HRLN how to expand its network to better serve communities needing legal advice on human rights issues.

An important part of any campaign is working with the media. In Thailand all media is effectively under the control or influence of the government. When we invite the media to cover social or environmental problems it can be very difficult to get them interested. The media currently will only cover the Red and Yellow Shirt demonstrations. I have travelled to Bangkok many time to protest with the villagers, but I never see the media covering these villagers’ problem except by the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (TPBS) channel. In contrast, at the protest we attended against the Indian Supreme Court’s decision not to decriminalize gay sex, there were many local journalists.

Finally we also had a meeting with Tibetan campaigners living in New Delhi. The most impressive part of meeting these inspiring and committed Tibetans was that they did not give up in the face of tight and repressive control of Tibet by China. One part of the group was campaigning for a free Tibet, the other part were campaigning for special autonomy for Tibet as part of China. Although they had different goals they respected and listened to each other.

Field Trip to Imphal

Upon arriving at Imphal City in the State of Manipur, I was struck by the military presence in the streets. My friend from Imphal told me; “Imphal is a border town near Burma with a different identity, tradition, culture and language from India. We [want] to be independent from India, so the Indian government sent the military to control our city.”

We had an opportunity to listen to women’s rights campaigners. The problems faced by these women are similar to the problems faced by women from ethnic minorities in Thailand. In particular sexual abuse and other forms of violence is a big challenge faced by this new generation of campaigners. In Imphal women have a curfew of 9pm.

We had the privilege to meet Irom Sharmila Chanu, who has been on a hunger strike for justice following the “Malom Massacre” in 2000. She is in police custody for attempted suicide and is kept alive by intubation. Before visiting we needed permission from the commander of the Imphal’s jail. I think her fight is not just for Manipur people but also on behalf of people around the world who have problems of impunity. The hunger strike has made her body looked haggard, with tired eyes, but when she spoke, I saw her eyes sparkle giving me energy to continue fighting for justice. When she cried, I could not hold back my tears. Her struggle makes me think of the words of the Thai lawyer and HRLAT member Mr. Sumitchai Hattasarn, who said. “Stand up for what you think is fair, although sometimes you may have to stand alone.” Keep fighting Shamilar– you are not alone!

Visits to Supreme Court in Mumbai and Delhi

We were able to attend sessions of the Supreme Court in both Delhi and Mumbai, including a side meeting with the Chief Justice in Mumbai. I found the judicial process in both the Mumbai High Court and Supreme Court in New Delhi fascinating, including that they were very crowded and conducted in English. The Thai Supreme Court is less strict about security and it is easier for foreigners to attend sessions.

 

Many Thanks

Finally I want to say thank you to Jenifer Robinson from Bertha Foundation, Daniel King from EarthRights International, and our super special host and mentor Mr. Kranti from HRLN for the opportunities in this program. Thanks also to my Bertha Fellow friends from around the world who were on the trip and always ensured that I understood what was going on.

The photo at the Delhi Supreme Court is courtesy of Jen Robinson.

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