(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.