Friday, June 24, 2016


(Isan Journey, part two) 

(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.
-"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?