LOEI — Hundreds of masked men have attacked villagers in Loei province who are protesting chemical contamination from a local gold mine.
Witnesses said over 300 assailants stormed barricades set up by villagers in Na Nong Bong village in Wang Sapung district last night. The barricades were intended to block operations at the nearby gold mine owned by Tungkum Company.
The incident is the latest development in the long-running dispute between the villagers and Tungkam Company, which is a subsidary of the mining giant Tongkah Harbour Public Company Ltd.
For almost ten years, Na Na Bong villagers have tried to shut down the mine because of the widespread contamination of lethal substances they say its operation has caused.
In 2013, Na Nong Bong villagers erected the "Wall of Heart" barricade to stop trucks from entering the mine.
Last night’s masked attackers, many of whom were armed according to the witnesses, quickly overwhelmed the 200 villagers who were guarding the barricade. At least 30 villagers were held hostage at gunpoint while the masked assailants proceeded to dismantle the barricades.
Angsana Puangpaiwan, a 22-year-old resident, said the attackers arrived on two pick-up trucks and four minivans. "Dozens of shots" were fired into the air to frighten the villagers, Ms. Angsana said.
When other villagers learned about the confrontation at the barricade, they rushed to the scene and attempted to help those who were being held hostage by the armed assailants, Ms. Angsana said.
However, the perpetrators reportedly charged at the crowd of villagers, beating the group back.
During the clash, a convoy of twelve 18-wheeler truckers drove past the remnants of the barricades into the gold mine, presumably to collect the mined ores left behind by the company’s employees. Rows of armed, masked men guarded the convoy while the minerals were being collected.
After the convoy left, the militants reportedly released their hostages and forced villagers to delete any images of the clash from their cellphones. Some villagers were also forced to surrender their cellphones to the armed men.
Over 40 villagers were reportedly injured in the assault, and they were only transported to hospital after the perpetrators left the scene, witnesses say.
The villagers pressed charges at Wang Sapung Police Station this afternoon, accusing the perpetrators of attempted murder, assault, and theft.
Na Nong Bong residents began their protests against the mine in 2006 after some of them began suffering illnesses they suspected were caused by the nearby operation of the Tungkam gold mine.
From 2007-2011, studies by local authorities and environmental agencies reported a widespread contamination of deadly substances such as lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and cyanide in the area adjacent to the gold mine.
Despite the published studies and a lawsuit filed by the villagers to the Administrative Court, the Tungkam gold mine was permitted to continue its operation.
Frustrated by the lack of concrete response from the authorities and the company, Na Nong Bong villagers erected the "Wall of Heart" barricade in late 2013. Tungkam Company hit back with a lawsuit to the Loei Provincial Court, accusing the village's leaders of obstructing the company's enterprise. The lawsuit also demands 50 million baht in damages from the villagers.
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