The Moon river is the lifeline of Isan, bringing sustenance and irrigation to the poorest and most populous part of Thailand. The World Bank identified the Moon, the greatest of the Mekong’s tributaries, as a suitable location for a giant dam, and proceeded to fund a hydropower project that is destroying the traditional way of life in a picturesque river basin of self-sufficient villages.
Why is it that dams are always built in such beautiful places? The Pak Moon Dam is located in the lush hilly zone where Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia come together. Here the yellow waters of the Moon surge downstream into the mud-red Mekong mixing to form bi-colored waves, like coffee splashed with cream. The banks on both sides are dark green, covered with thick, jungly vegetation at the juncture known as the "mae nam song si," or two-colored waters. Overlooking this scene are the Pa Taem cliffs, protected surfaces of which are scratched with artful paleolithic cave drawings, one of the oldest sites of its kind in Asia.
A short distance upstream is another work of man, an altogether different kind of scratch on the environment. The Pak Moon Dam is a homely concrete monstrosity 300 meters wide and 17 meters high. The World Bank provided technical support and loans which will cost the people of Thailand some 223 million dollars plus interest when the loan is paid in full.
The electricity generating facility blocks and regulates the natural flow of the Moon, but it’s not been working as well as proponents claimed it would and economists reckon it won’t pay for itself, let alone contribute meaningfully or profitably to Thailand’s electricity grid (the 1995 estimated Output was 0.04% of the total).
Failure to deliver what it was supposed to deliver is reason enough to question the wisdom of the bankers and technocrats, since it is ordinary Thai citizens who will eventually have to pick up the tab. But the precipitous decline in fish populations and growing poverty of villagers along the banks of the river is stirring angry protest. By some estimates, the Moon has lost ninety percent of the fish that used to spawn here, and once enriched the Mekong downstream in Laos and Cambodia.
Peasant folk, with a deep and abiding respect for their river of life, opposed the dam early on, as did numerous NGO’s and technical experts. But it’s not easy standing in front of the steamroller of progress, especially when funded by a prestigious US based institution such as the World Bank. Early protests against the project were blithely ignored by contemptuous yet insecure Bangkok politicians suffering from development envy. Power hungry EGAT, (the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.) "We are the authorities, we have the law, we have the right to develop," said one of EGAT’s public relation men recently. "We have to have power.”
Power indeed. The powerless and impoverished who have borne the brunt of EGAT’s power plunders are getting more and more people to listen.
For one, the World Commission on dams released a draft study highly critical of the Pak Moon project in February. Furthermore, the Isan peasants, some of them in their tenth year of protest, have upped the stakes: They are no longer asking for compensation; — they want the river back. It’s not that the Bangkok pols and crooks who routinely line their pockets in the name of rural development suddenly had a change of heart so much as the fact that EGAT suddenly lost control of the dam. The villagers, tired of being ignored, tired of being Dismissed, took things into their own hands, in this case, literally.
The Pak Moon dam and Rasi Salai dam are both occupied round the clock by angry peasants and no one steps near either site, especially the edgy authoritarians at EGAT, without protester permission. Journalists, demonstrators and rock bands have been welcomed with open arms, but EGAT, which has a long record of deceptive public announcements, has been kept firmly at bay.
It’s psychological warfare at the moment, with radical supporters of the largely silent peasants countering the noisy, defensive claims of EGAT on behalf of the largely silent state. EGAT assistant governor Subhin Panyamags says it’s too late to do anything about the dam, echoing remarks made by science minister Athit Urairat. "Compensation has been paid," he announced at a recent seminar in Bangkok. "This business is finished."
Wanida Tantiwitayapitak, a well-known Bangkok activist serving as spokeswoman for the peasants is not easily cowed by bureaucrats passing the buck. In a cover story in Siamrath’s weekly she said, "If we are to oppose an unjust state, then we have to engage in rebellion," echoing the strident rhetoric of Thai leftists of an earlier generation. She says she doesn’t mind being arrested. "The state is part of an unjust system exploiting the poor."
Trying to pit farmer against fishermen, EGAT public relations men claim they need to take control of the dam to prevent farms from being flooded as the water was above the flooding level of 110 meters. The protesters quickly countered on June 10 with a photo provided to newspapers showing a protestor dangling in front of the dam watermark which was a good two meters below that level.
EGAT has also said the people of Ubol Rachatani Province will suffer blackouts if the protesters failed to disperse, but university experts came in and pointed out that the only blackouts likely to occur would involve a malicious flip of an EGAT switch since electricity is currently in over-supply and not dependent on the dam which has never performed up to standard. The Assembly of the Poor, as they are known in Thailand’s English press, represent a coalition of villagers, fishermen and activists from Thai NGO’s hoping to stop the kind of development that only construction firms and kickback rich politicians can love –something totally unnecessary and ecological damaging that makes the place where it is located worse off than before.
Peasant protest leader, Thongcharoen surrounded by a half dozen villagers wearing rural threads, looked distinctly uneasy and out of place when he came to Bangkok to speak to foreign correspondents on May 31. Sporting a wispy Uncle Ho style goatee, cowboy hat and a plaid peasant scarf, he spoke in a quiet and dignified manner. "The Moon is our bloodline…how dare they destroy nature…we predicted this would happen…electricity output goes up and down but villagers life only goes down. We used to have a rich life…let it be the last dam."
The use of snappy sound bites was a bit disconcerting, coming from a man otherwise convincing in his sincerity, but the fact that there is a warrant out for his arrest might help explain his inability to engage in any real conversation. Surrounded by a dozen supporters both rural and urban, Thongcharoen moved within in a bubble so tight that even esteemed social activist Sulak Sivarak had trouble breaking in. Isan villagers long dependent on the Moon for fishing have the most easily defined complaint –the fish are gone. Cambodians down river are suffering too, because fish that can’t return to their natural spawning grounds upstream at the Moon, are not going to make the downriver journey via the Mekong to Tonle Sap and beyond. The World Commission on Dam study says 169 of 256 species have been affected and 77 prevented from migrating. Furthermore, some fifty breeding grounds in shallow rapids have been submerged.
According to an American fisheries expert, long resident in Thailand, the peasants are exactly right. "Dams kill rivers," explains Tyson Roberts of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. A burly, cheerful man, whose thirty years in country leads him to say "our" river, instead of "their" river, Tyson says "the fish have to be able to go up and down, and most can’t scale the ladders. Fish ladders," he said, "are an afterthought, put in to counter ecological criticism but actually ineffective." Social and environmental considerations should be given equal weight to financial considerations he says, adding. "Hydropower threatens to destroy 20% of "our" fresh water fish. Damaging the river ecology in term impacts fish populations in the gulf and the sea."
But the seasoned protesters, wary of quick fix solutions that EGAT technocrats have come up with, such as stocking the Moon with new kinds of fish and generous (from the point of view of poor peasants) offers of cash compensation are calling for something less definable but more valuable, the autonomy to preserve a way of life that has served them for centuries, even millennia.
The Moon is blocked by a smaller dam at Rasi Salai, where fisherman joined by rice farmers have taken over the facility and threaten to tear it apart in a sympathetic protest. The rice farmers not only complain about flooding, but say their fields suffer increased salinity due to the backed up waters and flooded forests. The protest at Rasi Salai has gotten less attention in the press but is worth taking note of for several reasons. Being smaller in size and having earthen ramparts filled with stone, it can be, and is, at least symbolically at the moment, being deconstructed brick by brick.
During the height of the Cold War, this stretch of the Moon river was "infested" with communist insurgents, some loyal to Hanoi, but mostly under the command of the China-dependent Communist Party of Thailand. Many of these former rebels are still around, now advanced in years, seamlessly blended into the social fabric as rice farmers, teachers, even policemen. In fact, the notorious village of Ku Sot, considered so red it was burned to the ground during the heyday of Vietnam war era counterinsurgency, is not far from the banks of the Moon. The above average political awareness of peasants in this area is in part the legacy of communism which flourished underground in Northeast Thailand like nowhere else in the sixties And seventies.
The strident dream of changing Thailand by revolution was undone long ago, not so much by the effectiveness of US backed counter insurgency, (which tended to radicalize people and produce more rebels) but because of the generally easy going, happy go luck nature of the village folk who don’t take well to regimentation or dictatorship of any sort. Nearby towns, such as Bungbun, are pleasant villages composed of small merchants and small landholders who strive more for self-sufficiency than integration with the distant Bangkok government.
The politically savvy villagers here are not asking for handouts, just a chance to be self-sufficient. Benign neglect serves the region better than meddling from Bangkok, abetted by the World Bank and other organizations of global reach loyal to no one in particular. Villagers here grow only one rice crop a year, like other parts of dry, impoverished Isan, but they have been diligent and industrious in building up cottage industries such as silk weaving, and under nearly every wooden house on stilts, can be heard the clackety clack rhythms of spindles and heavy wooden looms.
News about the Pak Moon has been steady fare in Thai papers, with constant hints of violence keeping readers on edge. PROTESTERS FEAR BLOODY CRACKDOWN, THE DARK SIDE OF DEVELOPMENT, PROTEST CHIEF DARES POLICE TO ACT, POWER SUPPLY MAY BE HIT, etc.
The day after the headline, DAM PROTESTERS GET 10 AM DEADLINE TO LEAVE, four popular musicians put on a concert for the embattled protesters, injecting new life in the the movement. Surachai Chantimatorn and Mongkol Utok of Caravan, two veteran folksinger activists, were joined by the comedian/singer Pongthep Kradonchamnan and the popular heartthrob Pongsit Khampi. Unlike Bangkok’s pop gliterati, these singer-songwriters have deep roots in the countryside and frequently pen "songs for life" about the oppressed and dispossessed.
Writer Sulak Sivarak too has dedicated much of his work to improve the life of the meek and abused, and his scorn for those on high sometimes gets him in trouble. At a recent public forum on the Moon in Bangkok, the British educated scholar/activist held up a thousand-baht note to preface his comments. "As you know," he says, waving pale pink bill in the air, "the American dollar says ‘In God we trust.’ Well, this is Thai money, Thai money shows, well, respectfully speaking, their majesties, the King and the Queen and a picture of a dam." Sulak’s pointing out of the obvious brought nervous chuckles to audience aware of Sulak’s famous lese majeste case that got him Chased out of the country.
Sulak went on to say that when he sent food to the protestors at government house, he learned that the hospitals had been ordered to stock up on blood supplies since a violent confrontation seemed inevitable. "If you want to show you have power, use non-violence." He lamented the fact that Buddhist Thailand had been overtaken by a western commercial culture that has distorted Descarte’s logic into "I buy, therefore I am," and proposes that Buddhism could help set things right by re-asserting, "I breathe, therefore I am," a simple view underscoring the sanctity and equality of human life.
Sulak says the government must take the villagers seriously, as they represent 85% of the nation. "Talk to them as equals." He criticizes the EGAT fat cats and World Bank experts for their five-star hotel lifestyle, divorced from reality of countryside. He acknowledges that it is not easy for the government to admit it is wrong, but said," if government doesn’t lose face, the people will suffer."
Melissa Foster, the only representative of the World Bank at the meeting, spoke briefly in a sweet and soft-spoken manner that did not entirely mask an awkward note of guilt in her voice. She said she was at the forum not to preach but "to listen and learn." That’s a commendable approach, but why didn’t the World Bank listen and learn from the peasants ten years ago before funding the controversial project? Kraisak Chunhavan, son of former prime minister Chatchai, and a member of parliament, takes issue with the World Bank view, saying "I’ve been opposing dams all my life." He said even when he worked as an advisor to the government, he couldn’t stop the bureaucracy from approving Pak Moon. "Dams are named after royalty to avoid controversy," he noted wryly, "but it backfires because when something goes wrong people call it by royal name, like the "problem with Sirikit."
At this point, Kraisak looked around nervously, noting that he, like Sulak, "had one foot in jail" for talking this way about the monarchy. He said that developers "view farmers as serfs," moving them around at will like pawns. "I hope this is the last dam. Learn the lesson of Pak Moon or face the consequences." he concluded, shifting from eloquent English to tough Thai street talk.
"Mung sang, gu phao." You build it, We burn it."