Thai activist faces possible 5-year prison sentence (13/9/2006)

EXCERPT: "...upon learning that virtually every day, some GM seeds have been leaked to the public from the KK station, we realised the problem must be handled immediately. One single papaya could give thousands of seeds and the spread would become exponential, and totally out of control. My lawyers compared it to warning the public that our house is now on fire. The difference is that you can't see this 'GMO fire' as it is like a time-bomb waiting to explode.''

What fate will befall the Greenpeace activists protesting against genetically-modified organisms?
BANGKOK POST, September 14 2006

Patwajee Srisuwan has gathered plenty of material for her next writing project. The only problem is ''where'' she will be doing it: The Greenpeace activist faces three criminal charges as a result of her campaign against genetically modified (GM) papaya, and tomorrow Khon Kaen Provincial Court will hand down its verdict. The maximum penalty, if she is found guilty, is five years imprisonment. Two years ago, on July 27, 2004, Patwajee and her fellow Greenpeace activists arrived at Khon Kaen Agricultural Research Station, a unit of the Department of Agriculture (DOA). In the presence of media representatives, Patwajee and Jiragorn Gajaseni, then former executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, submitted a letter to director Wilai Prasartsri and her supervisor Thanit Sopanodorn, a letter that denounced the Khon Kaen station for illegally distributing GM papaya seeds and seedlings to farmers around the country.

In the ensuing melee, Greenpeace protesters wearing white protective suits climbed over the barbed wire fence onto the experimental plot where GM papaya trees were planted. They harvested the fruit and dumped it into bins designated for toxic waste, sealed the containers, and left them at the entrance to the station.

The incident garnered huge publicity and subsequent studies by independent agencies including the National Human Rights Commission and a string of NGOs have uncovered the widespread presence of transgenic papaya in places as far away as Ubon Ratchathani, Kamphaeng Phet and Rayong (see sidebar). A number of papaya trees have been cut down, but it is still uncertain if the ''genetic contamination'' has been completely eradicated.

Two months after the Khon Kaen affair, prosecutors in Khon Kaen, acting on behalf of the DOA, filed charges against Patwajee and Jiragorn for ''trespass, theft and destruction of state property''.

The thirty-something writer-cum-activist seems to be taking things in her stride, though. She said that she has gone through the early stages of discomfort and awkwardness, of being suddenly pushed to the forefront of things. She said her mother expressed no worries upon learning what could lie in store for her. ''We'll just bail you out, then,'' Patwajee quoted her mum. Last but not least, she said that whatever happens will be another ''set of experiences'' for her to learn from. And perhaps to write about later on.

''Had I not been working here [for Greenpeace], I wouldn't have had the opportunity to be exposed to the mindsets of the judges and academics; to what could have prompted their sets of beliefs, their chosen paths in life.''

Why would this understanding of the ways of thinking of other people be that important to risk one's own status and well-being? Is there an ideological underpinning in this chosen line of work? Interestingly, Patwajee stresses that she considers herself to be a writer who always looks for different angles: ''I've usually changed my job, and thus my exposure to different characters and perspectives, about once every two years.

''When I was working at the National Metal and Material Technology Centre, incidentally an affiliate of Biotec, a key proponent of biotechnology, I got to know several academics, the so-called 'extremely bright people' who have won scholarships to study overseas. They have each 'invested' on average up to 10 full years to study a certain subject. I can see why they have expressed such huge confidence in their own research. I can see, for example, why they have to believe that GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are a good thing.

''And I can see how courageous some of them must have been when they chose to break away from the [main]stream thinking.''

Patwajee's own resume is a curious line of job-hopping - she has been a journalist covering mafia godfathers and holy monks, an editor of books on environmental problems in Thailand, a financial reporter, an MBA graduate, a mid-level manager for a multi-national food company, a director of PR for a state agency, a yoga teacher, a health columnist and of course, a writer with at least two published novels to her credit, one of which has been turned into a popular TV drama series.

Patwajee said she does not see herself as being any more radical than anyone else. The Greenpeace publicity stunt was a way to draw as much public attention to the dispute over GM papaya in as short space of time as possible. Were she not one of the campaigners, she might have opted for more conventional channels, like sending petitions to concerned ministers and staging a rally in front of government offices, urging them to pay attention to the people's voices.

''And we have already done exactly that,'' Patwajee said. ''We have sent letters to the prime minister, the agriculture minister, the environmental, science and public health ministers. We have invited farmers from Hawaii who have suffered from contamination from GM papaya. We have launched a campaign for the public to send postcards to the PM to stop the open field tests [of transgenic crops].

''But upon learning that virtually every day, some GM seeds have been leaked to the public from the KK station, we realised the problem must be handled immediately. One single papaya could give thousands of seeds and the spread would become exponential, and totally out of control. My lawyers compared it to warning the public that our house is now on fire. The difference is that you can't see this 'GMO fire' as it is like a time-bomb waiting to explode.''

One striking feature of the GM papaya saga are the discrepancies in how the fruit in question is portrayed. Patwajee noted that the plaintiffs consistently refer to ''papaya'' as a state property. There is no mention of it being genetically engineered, let alone that the seeds and seedlings have been sold to an uninformed public.

On the other hand, the defendants' lawyers try to reinforce the idea that it is the people's duty - as endorsed by the Constitution - to protect natural resources, in this case to prevent ''genetic pollution'' from disrupting the food chain and posing risks to consumers.

The court's decision, whatever it may be, will set a precedent for any future cases regarding the introduction of GM plants and products to Thailand. Patwajee said her lawsuit is literally the first where environmentalists have been indicted for their activism.

In 1999, another anti-GMO campaigner, Daycha Siribhatra, was charged with defamation by the then DOA director-general, Anant Dalodom, after a much-publicised leak about transgenic cotton. Daycha was eventually ordered to pay a 20,000 baht fine, but has since appealed. Again, there has been no discussion of punishing the DOA for having allowed the illegal spread of the GM cotton. However, the Assembly of the Poor later successfully lobbied the first Thaksin cabinet to issue a moratorium on April 3, 2001 on all open field tests of GM plants.

The present legal action, Patwajee said, is a great opportunity for both Thai society and in particular the judicial system, to be educated about GMOs. ''Even my lawyers had to learn from scratch what GM is all about,'' she noted.

Having sat through several hearings, however, Patwajee smilingly remarked how she had faced several unusual vibak karma - hurdles - that included two of the judges asking to be transferred to different cases, her own case being shuffled back and forth between courts in Bangkok and Khon Kaen, and minor verbal disputes between the judges and the defendants' witnesses.

''I have no idea if our good intention will be understood, that what we did was for the public benefit,'' she said. ''But my lawyers seem to have a positive outlook. On the last day of the hearing, they prepared a long 'closing argument' _ something they would only do in a high-profile case, and/or when it is of a sophisticated nature that needs lots and lots of data.''

Jongrak Kittiworakarn, a pharma-cologist at Mahidol University, knows well how the complexity of GM issues require more than a simple ''yes or no'' answer. As one of the expert witnesses invited by Greenpeace to testify about the potential effects of biotechnology, he said he was initially intrigued by the GM papaya controversy and tried to contact the DOA for more information.

''But it was surprisingly difficult to get access to the information. I was quite frustrated. I filed a petition to the panel in charge of access to public information. The DOA finally consented to give me something. But it turned out to be so piecemeal and too generalised to be of any use.''

During his testimony, Jongrak said he had another difficulty - trying to explain to the judges that as a scientist, he could only predict future scenarios if and when cultivation of GM plants was allowed. Taking into account how little is known of the illicit spread of transgenic papaya it's difficult to know how the situation will develop.

''Given the predominant resistance to transgenic foods around the world, I wonder if the idea of promoting biotech foods is suitable for Thailand. A blunt but possibly rude question I have in mind is: 'Who is the real beneficiary?'

''When water hyacinths and golden apple snails were first imported into the country, nobody could have foreseen how they would be ravaging the environment as they do now. We still don't have the ability to get rid of these simple weeds and pests. And genetic contamination by GM papaya would be much, much harder to clean up afterwards.''

Indeed, the answer is never easy. As much as the judges have to decide whether to uphold the letter or the spirit of the law, the agricultural sector in Thailand as a whole is also at a crucial crossroads: To jump on the biotech bandwagon or to take a precautionary approach.

To be able to withstand the flux of modernity does require a certain fundamental change of heart.

From her campaign work with Greenpeace, warning rural people of the dangers of GM crops and promoting organic farming as a way of life, Patwajee said transformation would only come when farmers experience themselves the critical, turning point.

''They either have to be almost sick to death or on the verge of bankruptcy. Such people will then have the guts to stick it out, especially when things get rough in the early years.

''But they are only few and far between; you can practically count their heads. The majority, countless numbers still believe they cannot survive if they don't use chemicals.''

In a way, Patwajee has been carrying on her own small campaign of sorts - through her fiction writing. One book subtly promotes the concept of self-sufficiency through a love story of a city girl who loses her job during an economic downturn and decides to start a farm in her hometown. Another cleverly satirises the booming business of image making where every party gets infected by the get-rich-and-famous-at-all-costs disease.

There is yet another book, about the lurid, cut-throat world of corruption surrounding government construction projects, which has yet to be published because ''my editor says the plot is a little too dark'', she said. And an on-going project, which Patwajee said she started some time before joining Greenpeace, is about a character who has received a heart transplant and learned to communicate with the soul of his donor, through the practice of meditation. Incidentally, the deceased is an organic farmer who was murdered for his part in an environmental crusade, part of which was the battle against GMOs.

When does Patwajee plan to finish the book?

''I'm not in a rush. Actually, my understanding of certain issues has become deeper as I go about my work at Greenpeace, and it helps me to polish things up.''


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