School in Thailand offers safe space for harassed environment activists

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On a sun-dappled spot of sandy land along Thailand’s east coast, class is in session, as a group of environmental defenders listens to local activists describe battling an industrial park.

At home, some of the 13 students gathered from around the Mekong region face harassment, jail terms and even violence. Environmental defenders worldwide are battling intimidation and violence, with one killed every two days last year.

Under a canopy of mango leaves not far from the Gulf of Thailand, those risks seem far away and the focus is on learning from a community’s fight to protect their land.

The activists are on a field trip with the EarthRights School, an unusual programme of intensive training and education for environmentalists.

It offers a practical curriculum, including campaign skills, proposal writing and evidence gathering.

But it is also a rare opportunity for activists who often face intense pressures at home to share experiences and discuss their work freely.

“Most of them arrive very stressed and worried, either stress related to a specific danger or risk they face … or anxiety in general,” said Krisztina Gyory, 53, an instructor at the school.

Discussing those fears at home can be frowned upon at best, or dangerous at worst.

But at the school, “they start relaxing after a while”.

“These walls come down.”

Win Thandar Kyaw, from Myanmar, was a student at the school in 2014 and credits it with the skills that helped her win compensation for landowners affected by property seizures.

She now works with the school and says it offers “a safe zone” for activists under enormous pressure.

“They can speak out and they can really say what they are feeling and also what they have faced, they can express themselves.”

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