The roadblock caused traffic chaos and left tourists headed for Phuket International Airport wondering if they would make their flights.
The fishermen also moved 100 fishing boats into the mouth of the channel used by the Navy to reach the sea, and their leader demanded to speak with RTN Third Fleet commander Vice-Admiral Taratorn Kajitsuwan and Phang Nga Governor Damrong Jarernkul.
The protesters accused Adm Taratorn’s men of extortion, threats, impoper seizure of vessels and harassment by arresting foreign crew members.
Tap Lamu, in Tai Muang district, is home to the RTN’s chief naval base on the Andaman Sea.
The immediate cause of the protest was the seizures by the RTN of four trawlers in recent days and the apprehension of 99 crew members.
“They arrested both those with work permits and those without,” it was reported. Tap Lamu Fishermen’s Association President Tawee Paeyai, also known as Kamnan Piak or Tai Piak, described the patrol boat ratings as “rude and bullying”.
“They threatened the fishermen,” Tawee said, “making all of us in Tap Lamu afraid to go out fishing – which only adds to our troubles because it’s the monsoon season and we’re all losing money.”
Tawee said the problem of foreign workers was one to be dealt with at the national level and decried what he called “selective enforcement” by the navy at Tap Lamu.
Authorities became aware of the fishermen’s ire over Tuesday’s seizures at 3 pm Wednesday, when over 100 trawlers motored to the mouth of the shipping channel, between Tap Lamu Naval Base and Khao Nha Yaks, and tied up, one next to the other, spanning the shipping lane and preventing all boats from moving in or out.
About the same time, a number of large refrigerated trucks arrived at the Tap Lamu Naval Base intersection on Petch Kasem Highway and parked across the road.
The protesters demanded to speak with Gov Damrong and Adm Taratorn.
Instead, Phang-nga Deputy Governor (palad) Kanti Silapa arrived to speak with the leaders. He tried to persuade them to allow traffic to pass so that tourists would not be inconvenienced.
But they had a list of demands ready and insisted Gov Damrong and Adm Taratorn be present before they would consider opening the road.
Chief among their demands, the fishermen said, is that Third Fleet personnel conduct inspections within three days of every fishing boat in their jurisdiction, which covers six provinces.
“If they’re going after contraband, the inspection has to be done at once and across the board, not just among fishing boats from Tap Lamu, otherwise it must be assumed they’re playing favourites by making exceptions in the performance of their official duties,” Mr Kanti was told.
Mr Kanti contacted both the governor and the Third Fleet commander, telling them that they must come listen themselves to the locals’ demands.
“The situation is getting out of hand, and having an adverse impact on tourists staying in Khao Lak,” he explained.
Gov Damrong hurried to the scene and accepted the group’s petitions to him and Adm Taratorn, then made a speech that resulted in the group opening the road about 5 pm and disappearing from the scene.
No arrests were reported.
Gov Damrong said afterwards, “The protesters insist they want officials to prosecute those in violation of the law, especially with regard to foreign workers, who are being moved about in increasing numbers.
“Another grievance they cited was closure by the Navy of waters in an area local people use in conducting their livelihoods.” He said urgent notice had been sent to “the relevant officials” to attend a meeting about this.
Fishermen’s President Mr Tawee had already been involved in a tense standoff on Monday when the Navy tried to stop a fishing boat after – they said – they received information it might be carrying drugs.
It was not the first such boat intercepted; on October 30 the fishing boat Chai Nu Chit 3, was stopped and found to be carrying an unspecified amount of kratom and marijuana.
But on Monday, when sailors went out to inspect another fishing boat, the Chotboonchu 9, the crew refused to stop and radioed to someone ashore.
Shortly after, two speedboats came out from Phang Nga and headed directly for the Chotboonchu.
One of the speedboats turned towards a navy inflatable with 10 men aboard and attempted to ram it. The navy sailors managed to avoid a collision, and warned the speedboats to stay away from them and from the fishing boat.
They were ignored until one of the sailors fired five shots in the air from an M16 carbine. The Navy then put a boarding party on the fishing boat. They found no drugs, but attempted to arrest the captain and crew for infringing navigation laws.
As the confrontation ensued, a speedboat with Mr Tawee aboard came up close to the Navy’s inflatable. He shouted to the crew of the fishing boat that they should not cooperate with the Navy and should head for port.
Mr Tawee then demanded to know the names of the Navy officers involved in the boarding of the vessel. He objected to the way the Navy had boarded the boats and complained that he had received no request from the Navy to carry out the boardings.
Altogether, between October 30 and Tuesday, four fishing boats were stopped and 95 Burmese and four Thais apprehended. They were handed over to Tai Meung Police for prosecution.
After Wednesday’s blockade Mr Tawee noted that relations between his people and the Navy had long been poor.
“The quarrelling among locals and sailors is violent,” he said, “and grows continually worse owing to an order that forbids all Naval personnel from helping local communities, school or temples.”
No reason for such an order was adduced, but Mr Tawee insisted naval personnel must operate “in an honest, straight-forward manner in future and not play favourites”.
He did not say what might happen if Fishermen’s Association members are dissatisfied with the official response. – Additional material: Manager Online