Earlier this month, lawyer and activist Srisuwan Janya was invited to speak at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT). The lecture cemented his status as a public figure _ an idealist lawyer and environmental activist to be reckoned with. The topic of the panel discussion was "The Hazards of Dissent", and Srisuwan evoked the vulnerability of his life as activist and dissident fighting against authority and the powers that be.
According to the Justice for Peace Foundation, during the past 12 years, 23 activists and others who have spoken out against authorities have experienced "enforced disappearance" in Thailand. At the FCCT, Srisuwan was joined by Angkana Neelapaijit, whose husband Somchai Neelapaijit, a human rights lawyer, disappeared nine years ago and is now presumed dead.
As president of the Stop Global Warming Association, Srisuwan says that it is not far-fetched to fear "something" might happen to him.
"Even [though] I am a lawyer, I have been threatened constantly. Mysterious calls and death threats are regular features in my life. But it is useless to fear or worry. If you realise that your work is a public service and a benefit to society, you know it is useless to worry about death. There are two choices: Do it or leave it," he says.
"And if you are fearless about death, it will be much easier to deal with daily pressure and worries."
His work has pitched him against several governments, big businesses and politicians, and he has won landmark cases. Judging from his CV, the Phitsanulok native was born to go after the authorities that fail to serve the people. He started by suing the agency responsible for public buses over toxic emissions, and went on to pursue many environment-related cases. He also notably went up against Channel 3 for violating consumers' rights when they stopped the final episodes of controversial TV series Nua Mek 2 from airing.
In almost two decades of activism, not every case has been successful, but he has claimed notable wins. Among them are the lawsuit against the expansion of 76 petrochemical factories in Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate in Rayong and a victory against the government in the 350 billion baht water management project. That latest win forced the government and state agencies to pause projects and open public hearings on the environmental impact.
Srisuwan, an unassuming person who may remind you of a village leader, is a passionate environmentalist and best known for his equanimity and sound judgement. One of his greatest tests, however, didn't come in court, but when he had to choose between remaining by the side of his dying child _ his only son _ and fighting the Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate case.
"I will not be able to forget that day. I was working with Map Ta Phut villagers who were protesting in Bangkok by day, and at night I ran back to Chulalongkorn Hospital to take care of my gravely ill son," he says. "One day, my son went into a coma and as a dad, I should have stayed with him. I was torn. Should I stay with him or should I go fight the case? Then I made a decision that might be right or wrong. I thought my son would not get better or worse just because I stayed at his side. So I decided to go to work."
His son died and the villagers he represented won the landmark case.
His key to winning is simple: Staying calm and focusing on the tasks at hand.
"I do not go jogging. I do not practise meditation. I just do things according to the schedule and think 'What is the most logical and rational step?'."
As a lawyer who has represented almost 4,000 plaintiffs in cases about polluting factories, noisy airports and failing flood management, Srisuwan looks at problems and pressure as if they were water.
"When I get worried and pressured, I will imagine those negative emotions as a form of liquid. When liquid drops on the ground, it will eventually flow or even seep underground and disappear somewhere. Even if the floor is a hard concrete surface, water will always flow somewhere and disappear. So, it is useless to worry about the things that will disappear anyhow," he says.
But philosophy and stress management cannot deal with some emotions.
"My utmost regret in my profession is that I cannot use the law to protect the lives of local people who died from polluting projects or from protesting against big business and politicians."
Activists have died because of their protest campaigns _ one among them is Thongnak Sewakajinda, a community leader who was fighting plans for a coal-fired power plant in Thasai district in Samut Sakhon province. Tomorrow, the Administrative Court will deliver the verdict on the planned power plant.
Srisuwan will not be happy with the outcome _ whatever the judgement, Thongnak is already dead.
"I might be able to help these villagers win the case. But I cannot apply the law to protect their lives," he says.
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About the author
- Writer: Anchalee Kongrut
Position: News Reporter