Saturday, June 25, 2016


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 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: 


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."