May 6, 2018 / 2:53 PM / 7 months ago

Thai environment protesters claim victory in battle over forest housing

CHIANG MAI, Thailand (Reuters) - Environmental activists in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai claimed victory after the country’s military government agreed in talks on Sunday not to use forested land to develop luxury property.

The construction site of a government luxury housing project earmarked as homes for judges on land in the foothills of Doi Suthep mountains is seen in Chiang Mai, Thailand May 6, 2018. REUTERS/Panu Wongcha-um

It follows a protest in Chiang Mai last week in which more than 1,000 demonstrators protested against the construction of a government luxury housing project earmarked as homes for judges on land in the foothills of the province’s famous Doi Suthep mountains.

Last week’s gathering was one of the largest since Thailand’s junta took power following a 2014 coup.

It was also one of a growing number of anti-government protests around Thailand, including in the capital Bangkok, that are putting pressure on the military government before a general election planned for early 2019.

Green ribbons symbolizing the environmental movement have appeared in public places in Chiang Mai, including on lamp posts and on cars, over the past week.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha sent Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana, a minister to the Prime Minister’s Office, to Chiang Mai on Sunday to talk to protest leaders.

“We have concluded that no one will be living in this housing estate,” Suwaphan said after a meeting with the activists, adding that the area “will eventually be restored to the forest.”

Decisions on the future use of the land currently under development, which includes 45 houses, will be taken later this week, Suwaphan said, adding that the government will form a committee with activists and representatives from the local community to determine further steps to restore the land.

However, Suwaphan said construction of the homes already under way would have to continue in order for the government to honor its agreement with the construction firm involved.

He added that nobody would live in the finished homes.

Activists hailed the decision as a victory.

“What we have now is a promise that Doi Suthep forest will be restored,” said Teerasak Roopsuwan, one of the movement’s leaders.

“I think this could be a model for other parts of the country that public projects must not only be legal, but they must also consider local people’s opinions,” Teerasak said.

Sawat Chantalay, a Chiang Mai environmental activist, told Reuters that the activists will continue to organize public events to create awareness about such issues.

“This housing estate is like an open wound that reflects layers of problems Thailand has accumulated over many years,” said environmental activist Wattana Wachirodom.

“But if the government doesn’t fix this then people could rise up,” said Wattana.

Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um in CHIANG MAI, Thailand;Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Adrian Croft

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