Thai court rejects class action against sugar giant Mitr Phol

Cambodian villagers accuse Thailand’s biggest sugar company of stealing their land, something the company denies.

Cambodian sugar farmers seeking compensation
Cambodian plaintiffs Smen Te, left, and Hoy Mai, right, tried to bring a class action lawsuit against Thai sugar firm Mitr Phol on behalf of more than 700 families, but their claim was rejected by the Bangkok South Civil Court [Leonie Kijewski/Al Jazeera]

In a major setback to a group of Cambodian farmers, a Thai court rejected their application on Thursday for their legal case against Thailand‘s biggest sugar company to be treated as a class action lawsuit, according to the plaintiff’s lawyer and a land rights organisation.

Though the Cambodian plaintiffs, representing more than 700 families, say they will appeal, the decision means each family would most likely have to bring individual cases against Mitr Phol, making the legal expenses too high for their low incomes. Class action suits are rare in Thailand.

The plaintiffs, Smen Te and Hoy Mai, took the case against sugar producer Mitr Phol to court last year claiming that their land had been appropriated by the company in 2008. Other dispute settlement mechanisms they tried have failed.

Mitr Phol is Thailand’s biggest sugar producer and says it is the world’s fifth-biggest sugar company. Last year, it recorded a revenue of 95 billion Thai baht ($3bn) and a profit of $30.5m.

Smen Te and Hoy Mai are among hundreds of families in Oddar Meanchey province in Cambodia’s north who claim that Mitr Phol’s subsidiary wrongfully took their land. The company returned the land to the government a few years later, but villagers say they have neither received adequate compensation nor their land. 

As a direct result of losing their land to the company, the villagers say they lost their incomes and livelihoods, their children could not go to school, and multiple villagers were arrested for protesting against the company.

One of the affected villagers, Chhouy Chhaya, was arrested on June 11 for “clearing forestland”, one day after her aunt, Hoy Mai, left to give evidence in the Thai court. She remains in prison, Equitable Cambodia, a land rights non-governmental organisation which supported the villagers’ case, said. 

The Bangkok South Civil Court ruled on Thursday that the cases of the 711 families were not suitable to be treated as a class action. 

Language barrier

A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Sor. Rattanamanee Polkla said the court argued that evidence collection was difficult as the alleged human rights breaches took place in another country, that the plaintiffs could not understand Thai, and there would be problems notifying all the members of the class. “So in conclusion, the court realises that taking the case as a normal civil case is more convenient than taking the case as a class action case.” Sor. Rattanamanee Polkla told Al Jazeera.

Sor. Rattanamanee Polkla said the decision was harmful to the villagers claiming damages – who she said didn’t have the resources to go to court in Thailand as individuals. But it also set a negative precedent for future transboundary class action cases, in which, for example, Thai development projects are accused of human rights breaches abroad.

Hoy Mai, who attended the court hearing, said she was “very disappointed” with the decision. She said this showed that it was hard for poor villagers from the countryside to pursue justice.

Eang Vuthy, Equitable Cambodia’s director, said the villagers would appeal the court’s decision which, he said, “amounts to a failure to support the protection of basic human rights and access to justice for vulnerable people.”

“We are saddened by the decision but will fight in appeal,” he told Al Jazeera. The appeal petition is due in a week, but lawyer Sor. Rattanamanee Polkla said they would request a one-month extension to file their appeal notice. The appeal itself would be due six months later.

“Individual civil actions remain possible if the appeal fails, but are a last resort because of expense and access issues,” Vuthy said.

Hoy Mai and Smen Te claim damages totalling about four million Thai baht ($128,000). If class action had been granted, the total damages claims could have run into the millions of dollars.

Mitr Phol representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comments. In June, Vice Chairman of Mitr Phol Sugar’s Executive Committee Krisda Monthienvichienchai, denied responsibility in the case, explaining in an email to Al Jazeera that its subsidiary only had temporary land concessions that they returned to the government.

Mitr Phol is part of Bonsucro, a global sugar industry organisation that aims to “promote sustainable sugar cane” farming. 

After the last court hearing in June, Bonsucro’s Communications Manager Joe Woodruff told Al Jazeera in an email that Bonsucro had exhausted all measures available to ensure that Mitr Phol complied with human rights standards. “Bonsucro cannot exercise pressure on Mitr Phol beyond what it is empowered to do by its policies and procedures, which it has followed,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera