Sunday, June 26, 2016

GIVE US OUR RIVER BACK




BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

Long before the term “Brexit” was coined, long before the EU headquarters in Brussels had become a bloated bureaucracy out of touch with its constituents, I remember hearing voices in the hinterland of Thailand that spoke to the wisdom of disengaging from globalist bureaucratic schemes, large and small.

In the year 2000, resistance to the World Bank-backed Pak Moon Dam in Ubon Province was reaching a feverish peak—the controversial facility, along with a smaller, likewise unwanted dam in Rasi Salai, Sisaket, had been forcibly occupied by protesters.

A veteran activist of the 1970’s student generation named Wanida Tantiwittayapitak rallied the Assembly of the Poor in Bangkok and in the countryside to support the dam-displaced farmers and fishermen. At issue was not just the matter of compensation but preserving a way of life.  The Assembly was a pioneer in “occupy” protests, including an encampment in front of Government House in Bangkok that would become the template for myriad occupations in the years to come.

Talking to farmers and fisherman in Sisaket and Ubon at the time, I was impressed by their plight as expressed in the words, “give us our river back.” Their acute awareness of how outside capital and distant bureaucratic bodies could render people powerless in their own backyard allowed me to see the dam as both a menace and a metaphor.

Native fish were replaced by sterile tilapia fry raised in nets, bought and sold by big agribusiness. The controversial Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand scheme bore the imprint of the central government, the World Bank and faraway investors looking for a return on their capital. The cement monstrosity blocked a free-flowing river to accumulate “capital” for electricity production that would be distributed elsewhere. It devastated a self-sufficient way of life while bringing in big business to fill in the gap, at a profit. Waters that had been fished and refished for centuries were suddenly depleted, while changing salinity levels threatened the vital rice crop. Fish from the far reaches of the Mekong in Laos and Cambodia could no longer spawn upstream and started to die out. So much for “development.”

Old-time activists such as Sulak Sivaraksa, Surachai Chantimatorn, Phongsit Khamphi and Kraisak Choonhavan were among those I spoke with who lent their minds, music and moral support, and for a while it looked as if people power would be victorious. 

To the chagrin of all, the Chuan Leekpai administration didn’t do much to resolve the dispute, but to its credit, it did not bring the heavy hand of the state down on protesters either. In the years since, sluice gates have been opened and closed, and an ineffective fish ladder installed, but basically the damage is done.

The plaintive cry, “give us our river back” is especially poignant because it is human nature to mourn the loss of the things that nurture us, but often there is no going back.

Isan in recent years has become embroiled in the politicking of Bangkok-based political parties seeking electoral advantage. Most of the old-time rural activists have gone quiescent in the face of new money and the new politics, which has introduced populism, but at a price—the program is linked to the fortunes of a billionaire seeking to consolidate power.

The self-sufficient, home-grown activism of the Isan peasants was subsequently hijacked by color-coded political theatre funded and directed in Bangkok, putting the sober anti-capitalist agenda of an earlier generation back on the back burner.

Yet now, even more than then, Thai tycoons and their globalist partners have much to answer for, not the least of which is the steady degradation of Thailand’s environment. The magnates of material development are not only ruining rivers and polluting the air, but are commercializing every last inch of the countryside, while also denuding the forests to sell timber and produce corn for ethanol schemes.

Big business continues to wipe out myriad local businesses, as well as any trace of tradition or self-sufficiency in the hinterland, with the result that self-reliance is dead and the entire nation is plugged into the same big capitalist grid.

Thailand’s tycoons may bicker among themselves, but they find common advantage in quietly yielding sovereignty to globalist partners, for there is ample money to be made as a facilitator and comprador to global capital, letting it flow where it wants to go. The neon-drenched, ecologically unsound street-side emporiums that deliver over-priced, excessively wrapped junk food to every corner of the country are just one symptom of the excessive commercialization, loss of autonomy and unwholesome lifestyle that follows in the wake of big money.

The bankers of the world, from Wall Street to Tokyo, from London to Bangkok promulgate a borderless rush of cash in the name of efficiency, even if the net result is to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.  The power of outside money unleashed and unfettered in its flow now rages around the planet like an unstoppable tsunami, inundating those least able to protect themselves, sweeping away those unable to exploit its ripe tides and raw power. Even though they nearly sunk the world economy in 2008, the self-styled “masters of the universe” in London and New York--the greediest players in a greedy financial system—never seem to have enough.

Big banks have bet the bank on globalism, so it is not surprising that banks were among the biggest losers in the initial stock market tumble that followed the vote affirming the UK readiness to leave EU. Yet the complaints of the pro-EU, anti-Brexit crowd of capitalist supremos such as Hank Paulson (“too-big-too-fail” Goldman Sachs savior and former US Treasury Secretary) and George Soros (investor known for breaking both the Thai baht and the Bank of England) ring utterly hollow; they have long track records of profiting off the pain and misfortune of others.

With their experts in law and public relations the beleaguered banks will no doubt find a way to pass the buck and spread the pain around, and maybe even get ordinary taxpayers to pick up the tab, as they did for their shameless bailout in 2008.

Thinking back to the humble but determined peasants I met in the Moon River Basin a decade and a half ago, I again hear the refrain, “give us our river back.”

For today we can hear the resounding echo of like-minded voices, in England, in America, in Thailand and around the world. Environmentalists, traditionalists and peasant activists alike have now been joined by the millions upon millions of losers and skeptics in the big grand, winner-takes-all globalization game. It is in the shark-like nature of big banks and big bureaucracies to go on expanding, devouring resources, and accumulating power, and go on they will. Critics of PTT, EU, ASEAN, IMF, ADB alike—now is the time to step forward and join the growing chorus.

“Give us back our rivers, our forests, our farms, our waterways, our way of life. Give us back our dominion, our sovereignty.”




Saturday, June 25, 2016

DISCONTENT ON THE MOON



Looking back on this piece first published in Z-Net in 2000, it is intriguing to see that the voices most closely associated with the peasant struggles in Isan at the turn of the millennium were seasoned activists who did not join the red-shirt craze of later years.  The influential work of these individuals, most of whom are still active in Thailand today, confounds the silly media trope that "red shirt equals Isan."  In fact it is only a small portion of Northeasterners who hitched their fortunes to billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, though an opportunistic bandwagon effect and rent-a-mob politics were in play. While Thaksin's political army of red shirts are widely, and carelessly, described in the media as representing the voice of Isan, there is no depth to this claim. Although Thaksin's political party did manage to stimulate populism and hijack the popular vote for a handful of electoral cycles, it was ultimately in service of one man's political fortunes and not the needs of the rural hinterland. Indeed, several of the veteran protesters I spoke to for this article, including Sulak Sivarak, Kraisak Chunhavan, Surachai Chantimatorn and others were not only agitating for local causes in Isan long before Thaksin created an Isan-flavored political movement, but found themselves more on the yellow side of the spectrum when push came to shove and Thailand teetered on the edge of civil war. The above-named activists continued throughout the divisive Thaksin years, and the coup years that followed, to work in support of village folk for progressive causes. They steadfastly remained outside the eventual populist red juggernaut created by Thaksin for reasons of electoral expediency when his wealth came under attack and he started to slip from power.  




by Philip Cunningham
 

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 "mae nam song si," or the two-colored waters. Rising above this striking riparian swirl are the Pha Taem cliffs, a rocky outcropping scratched with Paleolithic cave drawings, making it one of the oldest known sites of human habitation in Southeast Asia.


A short distance upstream from the flow of the bi-colored waters is another example of man chipping away at nature, leaving a different kind of mark on the environment. The Pak Moon Dam is a homely concrete monstrosity 300 meters wide and 17 meters high. The World Bank has provided loans which will cost the people of Thailand some 223 million dollars, not to mention an onerous amount of interest, when the borrowed funds are finally paid in full. The electricity generating facility exploits the natural gravity-fed flow of the Moon, damming up waters and blocking flow. Despite the mechanics of regulating flow, 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 national total). 

The failure of a big-ticket project to deliver what it promised to deliver is reason enough to question the wisdom of the bankers and technocrats behind the controversial development scheme, since it is ordinary Thai citizen taxpayers who will eventually have to pick up the tab. But it’s not just about cost overruns, weak output and sloppy planning; the dams have resulted in a precipitous decline in fish populations and this in turn has impacted the well-being of villagers who eke out a living along the banks of a once-abundant river. By some estimates, the Moon has lost ninety percent of the fish that used to spawn here, and spread downriver in a way that enriched the Mekong as it travels downstream through 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. 




The powerless and impoverished village folk who initially borne the brunt of EGAT's power plunders in isolation are no longer isolated or alone. They have seized the two dams in a desperate cry for attention. With news of the takeover hitting the newsstand and airwaves, and a trickle of outside supporters joining in, they are getting more and more people to listen. They say the dam is no good and experts increasingly concur. The World Commission on dams released a draft study highly critical of the Pak Moon project in February 2000. Furthermore, the Isan peasants, some of them in their tenth year of protest, have upped the stakes: They are no longer asking for monetary compensation-- they want the river back.

The powers that be in Bangkok are vacillating. It's not that the career politicos and crooks who routinely line their pockets in the name of rural development suddenly had a change of heart, but they are now confronted with public opinion and a dramatic power shift on the ground. Ever since the Sisaket villagers seized EGAT’s Rasi Salai facility, including the dam and control room, they have maintained an encampment to keep up a round-the-clock vigil on the site. Tired of being ignored, lied to, and condescendingly dismissed, the radical protestors took things into their own hands, literally, by seizing control of the dam and its immediate surroundings. The Pak Moon dam and Rasi Salai dam are currently both occupied round-the-clock by militant peasants. The stakes are high and security is tight, so much so that and no one steps near either site, especially the edgy technocrats from 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 a kind of standoff, the psychological warfare at the moment, with radical urban supporters of the largely silent peasants countering the noisy, defensive claims of EGAT on behalf of the largely silent administration of Chuan Leekpai. The Bangkok reaction is rather more passive than active, in the good and bad sense of the word. There has not been a crackdown on the trespassing peasants yet, but nothing much has been done either. EGAT assistant governor Subhin Panyamags says it's too late to do anything about the dam, echoing remarks made by science minister Arthit Urairat. "Compensation has been paid," he announced at a recent seminar in Bangkok. "This business is finished." The Assembly of the Poor, as the activist collective “samakhom khon jon” is known in Thailand's English press, represent a coalition of villagers, fishermen and activists from Bangkok 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.

Wanida Tantiwitayapitak, the intense bespectacled Bangkok activist serving as spokeswoman for the Assembly of the Poor is not one to mince words or yield to bureaucrats passing the buck. In a cover story in the Siamrath Weekly magazine 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 has essentially said you can have water for your fields, or water for your fish, but not both.  Slick Bangkok public relations men claim they need to take control of the dam to prevent farms from being flooded as the water has reached the perilous 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 high water line which was a good two meters below the level being claimed. EGAT has also said threateningly that the people of Ubol Rachatani Province will suffer blackouts if the protesters fail 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.


Peasant protest leader Thongcharoen, surrounded by a half dozen sun-bronzed supporters wearing rural threads, looked distinctly uneasy and out of place when he came to Bangkok to speak to foreign correspondents in the chic Chitlom section of Bangkok 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 sharp quips and snappy sound bites were not entirely persuasive, 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 a nuanced 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 plaintive complaint--the fish are gone. Cambodian fishermen, located a considerable distance downstream, are suffering too, because fish that can't return to their natural spawning grounds in the highland plateau bisected by the Moon are not going to reproduce and replenish stock for 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 a Harvard-trained 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 explained how "the fish have to be able to go up and down, and most can't scale the ladders. Fish ladders," he told me, "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 of Siam and the sea." The seasoned protesters, wary of the facile quick-fix solutions that the 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. They cry out for 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 in Sisaket Province where fisherman joined by rice farmers have taken over the facility and threaten to tear it apart in a sympathetic protest. The rice farmers around Rasi Salai not only complain about flooding, but they 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-directed Communist Party of Thailand. Many of these former rebels are still around, now advanced in years, seamlessly reintegrated 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 Rasi Salai which sits on the banks of the Moon. The above-average political awareness of peasants in this area is a legacy of communist agitation which flourished, mostly in the forest and in isolated hamlets in Northeast Thailand like nowhere else in the sixties and seventies. 

The strident dream of changing Thailand by armed insurrection was repudiated long ago, not so much by the military effectiveness of US-backed counter insurgency, (which tended to radicalize people and produce more rebels) but because of the generally easy-going, happy go lucky 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 regional self-sufficiency and moderate prosperity than integration with the distant Bangkok government. Communism took root for a while but did not flourish in the native soil. 

The most politically savvy villagers here are not asking for handouts, some of which have been pre-emptively disbursed to greedy neighbors, but rather a chance to be self-sufficient. Benign neglect serves the region better than uninformed 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 arid, impoverished Isan, but they have been diligent and industrious in extracting protein from the water through sustainable fishing practices. They have also built 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 in recent weeks with constant hints of possible 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
DAM PROTESTERS GET 10 AM DEADLINE TO LEAVE 

The day after the deadline, four popular musicians put on a concert for the embattled protesters, injecting new life in the movement. Surachai Chantimatorn and Mongkol Utok of Caravan, two veteran folksinger activists, were joined by the comedian/singer Pongthep Kradonchamnan and the popular heart-throb Pongsit Khampi. Unlike Bangkok's pop glitterati, these singer-songwriters have deep roots in the countryside. They are the balladeers of the people by popular acclaim and continue to perform and pen "songs for life" speaking to the plight of the oppressed and dispossessed. 

Writer and social activist 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 independent scholar held up a thousand-baht note to preface his comments. "As you know," he says, waving a 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 calculated pointing out of the obvious brought nervous chuckles to audience aware of the famous lese majeste case that put him at risk of imprisonment and got him chased out of the country. 

Sulak went on to say that when he sent food to the Assembly of the Poor 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 pleaded. He went on to lament the fact that Buddhist Thailand had been overtaken by a Western commercial culture that has distorted Descarte's logic, “’I think, therefore I am’ into ‘I buy, therefore I am.’"


A respected scholar of Buddhism, Sulak proposes that basic Buddhist ideas could help set things right by re-asserting, "I breathe, therefore I am," a simple view underscoring the innate sanctity and equality of human life. The philosophically-inclined 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 that 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 saying “the problem with Sirikit." At this point, Kraisak looked around nervously, noting that he, like Sulak, "had one foot in jail" for talking in a way that could be perceived as disrespectful of 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."
  

Friday, June 24, 2016

RASI SALAI: RIGHTING WRONGS OF RURAL DEVELOPMENT




(Isan Journey, part two) 
BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

(Based on an October 2000 report on rural activism in the Moon River basin)


Sitting in a spot of shade with the stoic peasant occupiers of Rasi Salai dam in the rolling farmland of north Sisaket Province, I try to read some of the numerous handouts given to me by activists from the Assembly of the Poor. Thumbing through a thick wad of documents in English and Thai as kids nearby splash and frolic in the reservoir created by the dam, I find it easy to get distracted. The handouts are polemical, technical and worthy of a university seminar table in terms of jargon. I couldn't escape the feeling that I was the beneficiary of a PR push that was aimed not so much at the activists on the ground but rather designed to “educate” Bangkok supporters and the international media. 

-International organizations and how they affect the small-scale farmer
-The history of capitalism
-How colonialism works
-An introduction to IMF, ADB, WTO
–Organizations created by the superpower to make everyone follow same rules.
-"Globalization"
-"How small-scale farmers and poor fare under global capitalism"
-"Weapons used by the globalizers"
-"Q&A on ADB"
-"What is WTO?"  

It was not a light reading assignment; the thick sheaf of papers included a sixty page technical report. The eclectic content was too much to digest, especially the ideological tracts, especially after a long, hot day in the Isan sun. Before stuffing it all in my shoulder bag for later reference, I thumbed through something about how the dam here had managed to flood and ruin the productivity of one the most fertile areas in all of Isan. Damming the Moon was said to have destroyed "80 square kilometers of quality land.” 

I looked around the reservoir at the partially inundated countryside.  The countryside around the Rasi Salai dam is indeed abundant and green, at least in the rainy season, and yet, even if irrigation were an issue in outlying areas, the EGAT dam project has been so obsessed with generating power that it has all but neglected local needs for water. Seven years into the dam scheme, and apparently not a single irrigation project has been realized.


Sitting near me on the top of the occupied dam structure are some old women gathered in a conversational circle. They amuse themselves chatting, and making comments at passersby, while a short distance away there someone's cooking rice. On the other side of the causeway across the dam, some young guys listen to luk thung songs blasting from a boom box. On the riverbank, men can be seen napping in the shade while barefoot kids kicking a ball on the lush grass near the control room.


We're driving down a paved highway that more or less follows the Moon as we approach Ubon. It's green rice fields on both sides of the road, with Coca Cola and Pepsi billboards tacked to every other tree. Now I know why the cola giants are itching to get into the closed country of Burma. They've got every nook and cranny of wide-open Thailand plastered with ads for caramel-colored sugar water with nowhere else left to go.


As we pull into Ubon, I suggest to my friend that we eat at a riverside restaurant, and he says he knows just the place. “You want to look at the water, right?” You want fish from the river, right? How about a raft? They serve food and you can take a nap, too.”“No, I was thinking more in lines of a restaurant.”“Okay. I know where to go.”

The riverside restaurant is a pleasant canopied affair, nestled in a stand of trees and surrounded by thick vegetation. The plaintive sound of khaen music is blasting on the speakers. I can't quite see the river from where I sit, nestled in the shade, but I'm assured it's very close. I make a point of not ordering American soda, and go for iced lime juice instead. When I ask the waitress if it’s possible to order some fish fresh from the river she breaks into an accommodating smile, asking how big a fish would I like.

A pert young waitress takes our order to the kitchen. So the Moon River is still producing plenty of fish? Perhaps reports of its demise were premature. While waiting for the fish, we start working on a container of sticky rice and somtam, Lao-style.


The fish is served. It is bigger than I wanted but it has been nicely grilled and the spicy dip sauces were good. It looked something like a catfish; it was bony and not particularly tasty, but the flesh had that muddy taste of the river.


"What kind of fish is this?"
"Pla nin, kha."



 Nin as in Nile? Nile as in Nile fish? Nile fish as in tilapia?


Oh no! Tilipia, the junk food of the natural world. I should have known. Once the river's natural diversity of native fish had been flushed away or diminished by the dam, it had to be replaced with something and that something was introduced from somewhere else. Local fish, stocks of which are now depleted, if not decimated, are replaced by junk fish. That's like shooting all the birds in the forest and replacing them with crows or replacing a garden with hardy weeds. It's like torching every home-cooked food stall in Bangkok and replacing it with a mini-McDonalds. I enquire as to the provenance of the fish and in a few short minutes of discussion learn enough from my gracious host to ruin my appetite.


It turns out the tilapia sprawled out on my plate was not just introduced from very far away, but is raised as a sterile fish. It reaches maturity in a watery cage dipped in the river by aquaculture speculators who buy the fry en masse. Apparently the supplier of the tilapia fry and feed is the well-known food-processing giant CP.


The tentacles of global capitalism don’t just reach deep into the countryside, they have a way of enveloping and choking out competitors. It turns out one of the spurious claims made by EGAT PR director Amnart Chotchuang was that the Bangkok-led dam authority could not open the water gates as demanded by the provincial villagers was because the resultant shift in water level “would damage fisheries along the river."


Fisheries, as in tilapia cages. Fisheries, as in big agribusiness. Fisheries, as in outside money exploiting a damaged ecosystem.


Talk about adding salt to the wound! The sterile Frankenstein fish that abruptly replaced the Moon's natural fish was now being cited as a reason to keep the fish-killing dam in operation!


Later we took a look at the concrete monstrosity known as the Pak Moon dam further downriver, near the scenic junction with the Mekhong.  I had an epiphany as we tooled around the provincial back roads of Sisaket and Ubon that day. Neither of the dams were any damn good for myriad reasons: despoiling and defiling the river, wasting taxpayer money, putting subsistence fishermen out of business, tying the region to the supply chains of big business. 

Wrong idea, wrong place, wrong results! Let the floodgates open!
 
An ecologically sound traditional way of life was being rapidly eroded in the name of “development” by the crass commercialization of the food chain. Camping out on the Rasi Salai dam, even it was technically state property, suddenly seemed reasonable in this light. It was assertive but non-violent, disobedient but civil. It celebrated local life and repudiated the invasive greed of distant investors. The response of the Chuan Leekpai government has been admirably restrained as competing visions of development duke it out. State property in the form of the dam and the opulent grounds surrounding the control room had been swarmed and occupied by villagers. Under a less forgiving administration, such defiance could be construed as a dangerous, provocative act against the state, something to be forcefully crushed as a warning to others.


Development and counter-insurgency often went hand in hand during the Cold War. During the heyday of anti-guerilla warfare in Thailand, unwanted roads to nowhere were plowed into the thick wilderness of provinces such as Chiang Rai, Nan, Petchabun and Pitsanuloke with the intent to expedite the application of force in remote areas.  Road building projects had to be guarded by soldiers and heavily armed escorts because it was understood, by rebel and state authorities alike, that constructing roads in contested areas extended the reach of the state. As much as a good road system might contribute to the ease of regional transportation, it also eased the transport of troops from afar to quell local insurrection. The current government has its big business partners and its vision of development is clouded by self-interest, but it is also loath to employ military or police force to local disturbances. For the moment, the conflict is contained.  It’s more political theatre than an outright fight, and the Rasi Salai dam is a stage for clashing visions and values.
 
Part of the problem is the gap between the city and the country. Sometimes it's hard to believe such diversity can exist within one country, and yet it does. Independent scholar Sulak Sivaraksa has rightly castigated the EGAT brass and their well-heeled World Bank advisors for their five-star hotel lifestyle, which is divorced from gritty, humble reality of life in the countryside. That was the lesson of the seminal counter-insurgency novel, The Ugly American,  reflecting on some hard-won lessons of the Vietnam War.

When powerbrokers and developers are out of touch with the tough conditions of village life, they are liable to make bad decisions. Social critic Sulak shrewdly adds that a complicating factor that goes beyond the relative merits of dam is the loss of face for the government to admit it was wrong, but adds, “if government isn’t willing to lose face, the people will suffer."

On June 23, 2000 the stakes were raised yet again when EGAT started to vilify the protesters and call for a crackdown. As reported in the Nation, EGAT organized a rally "to demand the government and public take action against the Assembly of the Poor, which has led protesters in occupying the Pak Moon and Rasi Salai dams."

The EGAT inspired mob called for "legal action, public disapproval of mob rule and demanded public protest against the involvement of international non-governmental organizations that intended to coerceThai people into becoming more reliant on foreigners."  "Foreigners?" “Reliant on foreigners?” What nonsense!

Flinging the "f" word at the NGO's and the villagers is not just xenophobic, but plainly hypocritical. Is it not EGAT, with its World Bank mandate and foreign investors that is aligning itself with international capital? Is it not EGAT that is introducing a flow of foreign money that threatens to destroy the homes and way of life of local people?A cheap shot, a reflexive ultra-nationalist cry. When in doubt, irrespective of facts, there's a emotive expediency in blaming your woes on foreigners.

Like many intractable conflicts, this one escalated slowly, imperceptibly and including a modicum of good intentions on all sides. For example, hydropower can be a boon to development, and even when a project is well thought out and in a position to do some good, a not-in-my-backyard mentality persists. But the experts are divided in opinion and the World Bank is not beyond making bad investments. The state employees at EGAT have nice jobs in nice offices with lots of money to spend on non-essential prestige items, as was plainly evident in the well-tended garden grounds, peacock cages and expat-style housing for Bangkok officials “roughing it” at the rural dam site. 

But as astutely illustrated in the “Ugly American” one man’s comfort contributes to another man’s distress. Being out of touch with local conditions blinds even the most conscientious of developers from seeing the damage they are inflicting on the recipients of their “largesse.” The weight of technical evidence against the efficacy of the dams--as put together by the World Council of Dams study--suggests that EGAT's behavior is more indicative of bureaucratic stubborness than a spirit of public service. In "Pak Mool Costs More Than it's Worth" Grainne Ryder and Wayne White persuasively argue that EGAT has miscalculated and needs to reconsider its plan.

"Thailand needs power," as EGAT's Mr. Bunpot likes to tell the press. That much is true. But his attitude reeks of a different kind of power, the power of elite privilege. "We are the authorities,” he says. “We have the law. We have the right to develop. We have to have power!"

Power indeed. Thanks to local defiance and support from Wanida and the Assembly of the Poor, the powerless and impoverished who have borne the brunt of EGAT's power plunders are not alone. Through peaceful occupation of state property and pamphleteering, they have won attention the attetion of the press, a key step in righting wrongs and redressing grievances.

After a week exploring the Moon River basin, my initial doubts about the various protests led by the dedicated social activist Wanida were overcome. The aggrieved farmers and fisherman are making a reasonable demand that the floodgates be opened again, but even that concession would be hard to win without a helping hand from Bangkok brethren.

It takes an almost insane amount of courage to stand in front of the steamroller of progress, especially when the juggernaut is approved by powerful politicians and bankrolled by global finance. Yet a balanced ecosystem is the most precious resource of all, more important than the power-hungry needs of bloating cities that think nothing of destroying the hinterland to maintain their own privilege and creature comforts.

Though I detected divisions and opportunists among the ranks of Rasi Salai protesters, and some of them will come under criticism for the means, if not the ends, of their protest to stop the dam. But it is only natural that most Sisaket peasant folk should have a deep and abiding respect for their “river of life” and want to preserve an ecologically sound lifestyle in balance with nature. As plain as it might have been to farmers and fishermen in the river basin that the big, concrete dam designed to generate power for people elsewhere was not in their best interests, it took time, and linkages with Bangkok progressives to still the meddling hand of the state.


It’s one thing to be right, it’s another thing to be listened too, and in too many cases, no one at the top of the social pyramid listening. Not the Thai government, not the World Bank, not provincial authorities, not even the media.

Even when presented with convincing technical evidence and the media spotlight began to shine, EGAT officials doubled down on their ill-conceived power project. Bristling at the thought that mere peasants could impede their grand development plans, the official attitude hardened.
 
“We need power...” became the rote answer to the people’s protest. More ominous were the increased calls for “law and order.”
 
"We want our river back," I hear the fisherman and farmers say. The Assembly of the Poor joins in, echoing and amplifying the message, making it loud and clear.
 Is anybody listening? 

pc

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

DAMAGED RIVERS: THE HEART OF DARKNESS


Pak Moon Dam
(Isan Journey, part one)
BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

As the all-night express shoots across the central plains heading for the hills and the Isan plateau, I find it hard to sleep, even though the train rumbles forward at a hypnotic clip. The bunk, complete with pillow and sheets, is clean and comfortable, but I'm too excited about exploring the deep countryside to rest easily. By now the other passengers, even those who snacked and chatted late into the night,  have pulled their curtains and gone to sleep. Under the illumination of a small reading  light, I thumb through some Bangkok magazines and papers on rural development, hoping to doze off.

Destination: Moon River. 

There are two major protests going on in Isan now, one at Pak Moon dam, which has been well reported on, and the other lesser known, at Rasi Salai dam, where I am heading. In both cases, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) has been accused of abusing the rural environment and aquatic ecosystem for the power needs of Bangkok and beyond.  Both dams are controversial, both dams have been heavily contested by locals for diminishing fish stock and biodiversity. The river at risk is the Moon River, lifeline of south Isan. The dispute is taking place in a forgotten corner of the country that has always intrigued me because the people there have there own unique way of doing things and look at the world very differently from the Bangkok elite. When I first visited the region over twenty years ago, it was still in a state of rebellion. Peasant guerillas roamed the countryside, villages suspected of housing communist were burned to the ground by government troops and radical students sought refuge in jungle hideouts known as liberated zones.

In a landlocked highland plateau defined by the borders of Laos and Cambodia and a formidable mountain range to the east, the importance of the Moon, a major tributary of the mighty Mekhong, cannot be underestimated. Nor can one underestimate the pride, resourcefulness and rugged independence of the people who inhabit this ancient land.
Communist insurrection failed faster in Thailand than almost anywhere else in the “domino” realm of Southeast Asia for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is temperament. Anything unduly doctrinaire and bossy, as the orthodox China-sponsored Communist Party of Thailand seems to run against the grain of mainstream Thai culture. Thanks to various amnesty programs and the general Thai penchant to paper over unpleasantness with forgetfulness, rebel life in the Rasi Salai area pretty much went back to normal, returning to its age-old rhythms of sowing and reaping rice in the irrigated arid plains.

Then some development experts, backed by big business, decided that the Moon River, the lifeline of the region, should be exploited for power by building dams. The news that the prime source of water in the region was to be jammed up with dams brought out the inner rebel in the now quiescent peasants. That protests erupted almost immediately should come as no surprise, given the region’s flirtation with communist revolt against central authorities, and the subsequent revolt against communism, another kind of centralized authority in its own right. The barefoot, sun-bronzed farming folk in the south Isan countryside may not be as well-schooled as their Central Plains counterparts, but they clearly possess a high level of political consciousness, arguably more sophisticated and nuanced than that of better educated city brethren.

A young train attendant who hails from a province in south Isan but lives on the train for days at a time, notices I am still awake ans kindly asks me if I want anything to eat or drink. After settling for a Singha beer, I lean back in my bunk under the reading light and look through a Thai language magazine that has a cover story on Pak Moon protest leader Wanida Tantiwithayaphitak.

It’s always interesting to read about people one has met in person, especially someone as driven and group-minded as Wanida. Serious, straight-faced and bespectacled, she cuts an impressive figure as she quietly scattered protest movements, including the Assembly of the Poor encampment in front of Government House in downtown Bangkok. The former student activist who briefly trained as a communist guerilla during the divisive late 1970’s expresses her convictions with passion and quiet courage.Wanida makes it look natural, but she is really a pioneer testing out new ground. As one of the few urbanites in the farmer-dominated Assembly of the Poor, she stakes out the precarious ground of being the person not from the village who really cares about and understands the village. An intellectual by schooling, she is not apologetic or shy about her ideological beliefs. She likes to argue that ideology is abstract to intellectuals but not to villagers.

"Intellectuals joining the AOP need to understand this by actively struggling side by side with the villagers,” she is quoted as saying, sounding a bit like communist agitators of yore “The wheel of history (exists) because of the masses' free will to bring about changes...only through intensified struggle can they get to the stage where they can fight against the power structure."

I can’t completely follow her line of thought, but despite the echoes of classical communism, there is something refreshing in her message. At a time when many of her once-idealistic 1970’s student generation are making big bucks, joining exclusive clubs to work on their tennis serve and golf swing, and here she is, still clinging to the slogans of her youth, still doing her utmost to “serve the people.”

What happened to the idealism that burned so bright in the aftermath of uprising of October 14, 1973? What happened to the resolve to change the rotten structure of society after the bloody crackdown of October 6, 1976? I switch off the light, let the magazine drop and finally doze off, dreaming of Wanida, mass demonstrations and a lost generation.

The train pulls into the sleepy town of Uthumpornpisai in Sisaket shortly after sunrise. The rotary in front of the train station sees a flurry of activity as passengers de-board and are met by eager luggage porters and trishaw cyclists, but no sooner does the train leave, than it all goes quiet again. The air is fresh and free of dust, and the sun too low and its rays too oblique to discourage outdoor activity. It’s too early to call on my friend’s parents who live on a quiet street just beyond the police station and a playing field, so instead I trek on quiet dirt roads to Sakhampaeng Temple. It’s a great way to start a day, taking in the fresh morning air while zig-zagging across the banks of the deeply furrowed rice fields. 

At last I reach the site of the Khmer ruins and the modern temple that has sprung up in the midst of the old, abandoned stonework. The giant, weather-worn laterite blocks of the ruined temple are a reminder that this region was once a flourishing part of a vast Khmer empire that radiated outwards from Angkor Wat and includes Sisaket’s most famous archeological site—the long contested Preah Vihear Temple which sits smack on the contemporary Thai-Cambodian border.

Sisaket Province, whose very name betrays a Khmer-inflected past, is said to be the poorest province in Thailand. Poverty is never a good thing, but there is something to be said for a province that quietly looks after itself, even if the neglect on the part of central authorities is unjust in political terms. Sisaket is quiet and cohesive, free from the extremes of wealth that characterize more “developed” areas. It exudes a rustic, rough-edge charm and maintains a traditional lifestyle, if only because such a poor, simple place is of limited interest to greedy developers and tourist hordes. One feels liberated from Bangkok's brash commercial influences the moment one steps off the train into a different place, a different time.

Neglected, isolated and thus by necessity self-reliant, Sisaket Province sits on the edge of the Isan Plateau, overlooking the lowlands of Cambodia to the south, while rimmed by the Moon River to the north. The Moon skirts Surin, another province with a strong Khmer legacy, which lies just to the west and threads its way through Sisaket to Ubon, a Lao crossroads. The Moon pours its coffee colored waters into the muddy Mekhong River at Khong Chiam, at the watery junction with Laos, known for its bi-colored waters.

The same friend I hesitated to inconvenience with an early arrival is out looking for me and in a small tight-knit town it takes no time at all to find the foreign visitor, even though I’ve wondered off track to examine ancient ruins. He offers me a seat up front with him and his son, but I choose to make the 38-kilometer journey to the Rasi Salai dam in the back of a pickup truck, to better take in the view.

It’s not an unreasonably long ride, but it is full of bounces and splashes as we seem to hit every last bump and puddle on the ruddy earthen roadway. The air is blazing hot but the sky is laden with towering thunderheads, reducing the exposure enough to make the journey cool and pleasant. As the truck bound forward, I am enveloped by the sound of wind and the rise and fall of insect voices for much of the way, punctuated by greetings exchanged in Lao and shouts of “hello,” presumably for my benefit, as we pass through dusty villages of elevated wooden dwellings, barnyards and tidy open spaces where much of the cycle of daily life is visible in passing.

Just before reaching the dam we stop to talk to some farmers. One of the men takes us to see his field. It is filled with brackish water and he says the rice plants are dying.

"What do you think about the dam on the Moon River?" I ask.

"The dam?” he asks, gesturing in the distance. “No good. It's killing all the fish.”

"Is there a problem with too much salt in the rice fields here?" I ask, referencing some research on shifting salinity patterns.

"You better ask them about it," the farmer said, pointing to the distant cluster of people gathered near the riverbank.

When we get near the encampment for the demonstrators, we park by the side of the road and walk over. The encampment is guarded and has a rudimentary security team. Looking skeptically at me, my driver and his three-year-old son the guard somewhat officiously asks how many in our party. He pauses to count us, unsure if we should be marked down as a party of two, two and a half or three. I explain that I want to take pictures and write a story for a Bangkok newspaper. The journalist plea seems to work for he immediately welcomes us to enter the protest zone and walk around at will on the dam itself. During our informal explorations, I was even able to get a look inside the control room adjacent to the dam. Run by the big Bangkok utility, EGAT, the command post looks totally out of place and character, sort of like an American suburban house dropped in from the sky. It not only speaks to the material needs and visions of its cosseted Bangkok owners, but addresses the needs of possible foreign investors with English language signage.

A road runs across the curved concrete dam, effectively bridging the Moon River, though there was is no traffic on this day except on foot. Numerous tents and lean-to shacks have been erected on the riverbank, and there is the serendipitous discovery of a local refreshment stand that predates the protests. The rumble of distant thunder is created by the rush of water being forced through the metallic gates of the dam. A closer looks shows the water to be churning violently before the waves flatten out and the water becalms again. Downstream villagers are carrying on as if there were no dam, bathing and washing clothes as they have since time immemorial. Even in the shadow of the dam, the locals behave as if the river still belongs to them, there are kids swimming and old women bathing fully clothed.

So what is the dam good for?

According to the protesters I met, it is good for nothing. Well, almost nothing.

"It's a good place for dam officials to drink whiskey and have a nice barbecue," was one snappy answer. I liked the guy’s sense of humor, too rare a trait in committed political activists. It did make for a lovely picnic spot and therein was a delicious irony too. The white-shirted EGAT officials were nowhere in sight, but here were hundreds of villagers and a number of urban supporters, camped out on top of the dam, overlooking a wide man-made lake, enjoying the fresh air, scenic views and a non-stop barbecue of grilled fish, roast chicken, somtam and sticky rice.

For a political protest to persist in face of difficult odds, it needs to address basic needs, and better yet, to become a celebration of everyday life. I had experienced this first-hand on Tiananmen Square in Beijing in May 1989 when the Chinese student movement was in its delirious Woodstock phase. Protests are rich communal experiences and can be a lot of fun until someone comes along to ruin the party.

I saw two kinds of protest going on at Rasi Salai. One could not but admire the pluck of the people who had the courage to actually camp out on top of the controversial dam itself. I liked their gypsy tents, their make-shift kitchens, their guitar strumming and singing and their laughter. I liked the look of the protest. The Assembly of Poor campsite was especially comely at sunset, since the dammed up lake is to the west of the dam encampment and reflected the sky brilliantly.

On the other hand, there was another protest going on, just a few hundred yards away. Situated in a depression alongside the Moon River, a camp called the “Assembly of the Moon River Basin.” This group, which chose to differentiate itself from the protesters who had temporarily seized the dam, had already been camped out for a year. They had a poster proclaiming they were the true core of the protest, a clear rebuke to the other half of the protest. It must have irked them to be upstaged, literally, by the newcomers who came in May and staked out the desirable high ground.

The "River Basin" contingent were touchy about visitors, too, as I discovered when I tried to enter their "gated" community. Guarded by barbed wire and thick hedges, it wasn’t the kind of protest site one could just wander into. Even before I could get a word in edgewise, I was shooed away and told to enter at the main gate.

"What's your business here?” snapped the unsmiling woman guarding access at the main gate. She looked as jaded as a tollbooth collector, and had bureaucratic airs to boot.

"I'd like to go in and take some pictures."

"You can't go in."

"What do you mean?"

"You need permission."

"Well, who do I need to get permission from?"

"That person is not here now,” the gatekeeper intoned. “There's nothing I can do for you."


A terse silence followed. My Thai friend indicated it was time to leave but curiosity piqued, I wanted to I linger. From what I could see, the protest site consisted of a small shantytown, a squatter's village, with one interesting exception. A stage had been erected in the middle of the cluster of huts.

"What's that for?"

"That's where we attend political theatre," the gatekeeper answered smartly. "That's where we educate the masses."

Feeling as if I'd accidentally stumbled across the border into the remnant of a Khmer Rouge stronghold, I meandered back to the "friendly" side of the encampment. Strolling with my friend and his young son we admired the peacocks on the well-kept grounds of the utility and to talked to people at random, trying to learn more about those audacious enough to take over the state-run EGAT site.

The dam at Rasi Salai does not produce electricity which begs the question why the floodgates couldn't be opened as the villagers are demanding? When big business backed by the state makes an invasive move like building an unpopular dam, is there no recourse or conversation? If I understand the spirit of the Moon protesters correctly, it's not just about one ill-conceived dam but rather more a struggle to hold onto or regain a vanishing way of life.

The battle over control of natural resources is further complicated by the contentious issue of compensation; how much is to be dispensed and to whom? The less idealistic dam dissenters seem keener on a cash payment than restoring things to what they once were.

We spent a pleasant day by the dam, even taking time to join locals for a daring swim in the stopped up lake. We were warned to be careful as the dammed up waters are irregular in depth and full of unexpected currents. It’s just as well that it wasn’t till we got back safely on shore and dried off from our swim that we encountered a shrine to victims of river's wrath. Apparently a protester had drowned not long before and was now being memorialized with a plaster bust on a flower-bedecked altar. We later learned that a fifteen-year old girl had also tragically drowned at the same spot.

So what was the dam for? A bridge over the river would be one thing, a number of villagers remarked. But blocking the natural flow of a key waterway and calling it a bridge by putting a road on top of a dam goes against the common sense, let alone respect for locals and a reverence for nature.

That's why some of the Rasi Salai protesters were taking the provocative step of hammering and chipping away at the stone and cement monstrosity, bit by bit.

"We're trying to unflood the rice fields,” one man explained, grinning.

“To make a living,” a comrade of his added, “We need to reclaim nature as it was."

A representative of the Assembly of the Poor offered me some reading material including a statement in Thai from a group called the Southeast Asia Rivers Network. The statistics on the dam at Rasi Salai were full of suspicious numbers. Construction expenses went way over budget, "from 140 million to 871 million baht." This may be par for the course in boondoggle construction schemes, but I couldn't help but wonder how much of the cost overrun included the sumptuously landscaped grounds around the EGAT control room and command center.

At a glance the outpost could mistaken for a Bangkok garden or hotel, what with the neatly-trimmed grass lawns rimmed with a profusion of flowers, and peacocks strutting around inside a giant enclosure.

Peacocks--the essential accessory to any bloated government budget.