Environmental Movements and the Politics of Morality: Revisiting Environmental Movements under and, Perhaps, After the Thai Military Government

Bencharat Sae Chua

Our movement is not about politics.”

I have heard this similar claim made by environmental activists in Thailand many times, in both public forums and in private meetings. The claim is especially prominent among three of Thailand’s most visible recent environmental struggles, namely the anti-Mae Wong dam protests, the anti-poaching mobilizations inspired by a scandal involving the killing of a wild black panther by a Thai businessman, and a mobilization against a judicial housing project constructed within the boundaries of Doi Suthep national forest. Why have Thailand’s environmental struggles declaimed politics so loudly? What is the effect of this depoliticized environmentalism? How might environmental claims shift in the increasingly contentious context of Thailand? I explore these questions here to consider the effects of this de-politicization and possible pathways towards a more robustly political environmental movement that aligns Thailand’s democratic goals with these movements.

Depoliticizing the Environment

De-politicization became common under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the military junta that governed Thailand following the May 2014 coup d’état until July 2019. Under the military, activists of all sorts undertook political struggle at considerable risk to themselves and their communities. In that repressive context, it was understandable that movements attempted to distance their material claims from broader political claims in order to stay safe. However, these pronouncements from environmentalists remain under the NCPO’s replacement government, which retained control following a dubious and highly contested election. The persistence of this framing reveals more than a strategic politics, highlighting an underlying belief, if not ideology, that shapes environmentalists’ broader politics and therefore the way they design their movements.

Most environmental movements in Thailand are not mainly about environmental protection. Instead, they link issues of rights to livelihoods and access to natural resources with concerns around environmental protection. This is because movements that aim to protect the environment and/or conserve natural resources gain more public visibility and support than the ones that address livelihoods and resources rights issues.

A good example of this is the movement against the proposed-Mae Wong dam in Nakhon Sawan province. In 2013, that movement reinvigorated Thailand’s environmental politics, which had previously been subsumed by the larger political conflicts of the mid-2000s. But unlike previous anti-dam movements, which emphasized potential impacts on local communities’ livelihoods (and did not draw large middle-class support), the anti-Mae Wong dam movement centered its claims on the protection of pristine forest inhabited by some of Thailand’s last wild tiger population. The movement gained wide attention by the urban middle classes and, for some, became an iconic of environmental struggle of the last decade.

Similarly, in early 2018, two other depoliticized environmental cases made headlines. The first responded to wildlife poaching in Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary by a Thai business tycoon. In response to the grotesque photos of the poachers and the hide of a rare black panther they slaughtered, the movement demanded accountability. Many felt the powerful hunter was likely to avoid prosecution. The protests thus raised concerns about corruption in the judicial process and the conservation of wildlife. Protestors voiced similar concerns over a court housing project that encroached into the protected Doi Suthep forest in Chiang Mai province. Both cases generated public protest and movements demanding strict protections of forests, while also highlighting how corruption and the abuse of power were implicated in environmental damage.

Although these two cases emphasized injustice, they focused on forest protection rather than on wider systemic issues. They, and other “green” environmental movements like them, do not challenge the political and social structures that define the rights to access, distribute, protect, or exploit natural resources. These environmental movements put protection of the environment above the advocacy for equal access to natural resources, equal protection from impacts of environmental degradation, and rights to participate in natural resources-related policy-making process. In this, they reflected an endemic schism within Thai environmentalisms. For example, the past three decades of community forestry has been rife with contention between groups who believe forest protection needs to exclude human activities and groups that campaign for the community’s rights to manage and take care of forest (see, for example, Forsyth & Walker 2008).

Moreover, these environmental movements extended the broader moral claims and anti-corruption sentiments that have dominated Thai political conflicts for more than a decade. Within a moralistic framing, social problems appear to be the results of individual moral failings rather than contested political decisions, policy making, or uneven power relationships. The moral politics of middle-class environmentalism direct public interest from wider questions of environmental justice. For example, movements against mining projects, which tend to employ environmental justice frames, are animated locally by those communities directly affected by environmental degradation, but fail to capture wider public attention. In this sense, the depoliticization of environmental issues and of Thai environmental movements has much wider political consequences.

Moralism, Localism, and Environmentalism

The depoliticization of environmental issues might be explained by reviewing Thai environmental movements’ ideology and repertories. Environmentalism and environmental framings have been adopted by both the green environmental movements and environmental justice-related movements throughout Thai democratization. This is partly because environmentalism drew relatively more support from the middle class. Other groups, especially the grassroot movements, present their issues as environmental problems, but are, in fact, using what Guha and Martinez-Alier call ‘environmentalism of the poor’ (Guha and Martinez Alier 1997, 12) to assert their rights to natural resources by claiming that they are the true protectors of the environment. Environmentalisms during the period of democratization forged cross-class alliances that obscured these differences (Hirsch 1997, 192). Within this context, however, political claims made by pro-poor environmentalisms were given less priority by activists out of fear of losing middle class support.

Environmentalisms of the poor are also influenced by localist discourses and community culture approaches that have been central to Thai civil society organizations and grassroot movements since the country’s political landscape started to open in the 1980s. Localist and community culture approaches adopted by most NGOs idealize rural livelihoods and local wisdom. They also imply a resentment of modern capitalist life and representative politics. Within these frameworks, electoral democracy is seen as a Western idea that lacks moral grounding and, instead, becomes a space where immoral politicians manipulate the poor to seek personal gain. The discourse of dirty politics presents democracy as unfit for Thai Buddhist communities arguing that Thailand should instead be governed by morally superior leaders. This moral discourse links a section of civil society with conservative ruling elites who share the same moral politics (Thorn 2016, 530). Both groups emphasize the “righteousness” of “good people” who are seen as deserving to rule due to their goodness rather than elected politicians who are chosen by a majority of the people who these actors see as incapable of choosing a morally good person. Political conflicts and their repertoires of protest, especially those waged in the name of democracy, are then perceived as a chaotic and violent means of fighting for narrow political interests.

It is within this discursive and institutional context that contemporary environmental movements must frame their engagements with politics. During the protests to oust Thaksin Shinawatra’s government in the mid-2000s and the subsequent protests to oust his allied government from the end of 2013 to early 2014, many civil society organizations and activists, including those working with environmental movements, joined calls for military interruption to representative democracy. They did so believing that the military possesses higher moral standing than politicians. During both the 19 September 2006 and the 22 May 2014 coup d’etat, many environmental activists did not voice their opposition to the coup. Indeed, some key civil society figures joined the junta’s “political reform” process, seeing this as a chance to get rid of immoral politics. In such a context, environmental protection is seen as righteous moral act that the military government can promote.

A leading environmental activist even expressed the hope that the NCPO “could take the opportunity to lay down good foundation in swift manner during the period when there is no opposition” to solve environmental degradation and deforestation or to issue environmental-friendly laws, while recognizing that the regime focuses more on development not environment. The implications here are clear: the moral politics of environmental protection became entirely compatible with military, authoritarian rule.

Bangkok’s smog cloaking the Chao Praya River

Repoliticizing Environmental Politics?

That environmentalists embraced this military government is perhaps ironic. After the May 2014 coup, the military government led by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) offered a clear sense of the relationship between environmental issues and undemocratic political structures. The NCPO issued a number of orders under the auspice of the Article 44 of the 2016 Interim Constitution, which allowed the government to implement development projects with limited public participation.

Many of these projects entail heavy environmental impacts on both people’s livelihoods and natural resources. Examples include the declaration that Special Economic Zones (SEZ) and facilities related to energy production and waste management are exempt from following city planning laws and building control laws (The Head of NCPO’s Orders No. 3/2559 and No. 4/2559). Another exemption made it possible for the government to reclaim public land and forests for use as SEZs without allowing the people who have been living or using that land or relevant government agencies who own the land to raise objections (The Head of NCPO’s Order 17/2558). The Head of NCPO’s Order No. 9/2559 allows the state to search for investors in projects related to transportation, irrigation, prevention of public danger, hospital or residential projects deemed “highest urgency” before Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies have been completed. These orders remain intact under the current government. The suppressive rule of the NCPO and its subsequent government also resulted in a proliferation of arrests, harassment and intimidation of environmental activists, among other political activists.

Many of the Thai civil society actors who actively campaigned for livelihoods rights or for policy changes to address other social issues before the political conflicts erupted were relatively silent amidst the military’s repression. While some question specific policies, they often fall short of demanding for democracy, instead insisting on their non-political position. Even when a network of people’s movements working on environmental-related issues criticized the problematic NPCO orders, it recognized the authority of the Interim Constitution without questioning its illegitimacy, let alone its undemocratic origin.

I am not claiming that all environmental movements in Thailand are depoliticized. In fact, some movements whose causes are linked to environmental justice (e.g communities affected by mining or by sugar plantation and biomass power plant) have not made environmental protection claims the sole basis of their movements, but instead announced their opposition towards the projects as opposition to the military regime, demanding democracy alongside their specific claims against these projects. These claims are not influenced by moral-environmentalism, but by human rights discourses and democratic principles. These actors often express no fear of their causes being labeled as political. Indeed, some welcome it, even joining hands to form the Commoners Party in the 2019 election.

While we may not classify these as strictly environmental movements per se, their goal to protect the environment are strong and may change the face of the Thai environmental movements in the long run. Making sense of Thailand’s environmental politics requires us to track the influence of these efforts to re-politicize environmentalism alongside existing moral-environmental discourses.

Bencharat Sae Chua
Lecturer, Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University

Banner: Protesters hold an anti-Mae Wong Dam rally on September 22,2013 in Bangkok, Thailand. The protesters known as Stop EHIA Mae wong Dam by walking 388 Km. from Mae wong to Bangkok. Photo: jirawatfoto / Shutterstock.com


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Guha, R & Martinez Alier, J 1997, Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South, Earthscan Publications, London.
Hirsch, P 1997, ‘The Politics of Environment: Opposition and legitimacy’, in Hewison, KJ (Ed.) Political change in Thailand: Democracy and participation, Routledge, New York, pp. 179-194.
Thorn P 2016, Redefining Democratic Discourse in Thailand’s Civil Society. Journal of Contemporary Asia. Vol 46, No. 3, 520-537.