Mekong Utility Watch

Changnoi: Not a picnic for Pak Mool refugees

The Nation
April 21, 1999

With the arrival of the World Commission on Dams, the Chuan government may not be able to ignore the Assembly of the Poor this time.  Last week, some 3,000 members of the Assembly of the Poor seized land around the Pak Mool dam in Ubon Ratchathani.

In 1995, 1996 and 1997, the Assembly of the Poor staged protests during the dry season in the heart of Bangkok.  On the last of these, up to 20,000 camped outside Government House for 99 days, while the leaders conducted an epic negotiation with the government.

Although only a handful of the assembly’s 121 demands were settled, the event was a landmark. The government agreed to pay compensation of Bt4.6 billion to over 7,000 families for the loss of their land and livelihood. Most had been evicted to make way for dams. But the Chuan government has since reversed most of the decisions and withheld most of the money. It passed a cabinet resolution stating simply that no compensation can be paid for dams that have already been built.

But what use is a protest on a rocky piece of wasteland 600 km away from Bangkok? The government will try to ignore it. The provincial authorities will be commissioned to look after it. The press will not take much interest.

”Go to Bangkok again?” says Wanida Tantiwitthayaphithak, adviser to the assembly. ”The villagers just can’t face it. It’s too expensive for a start. It’s a long way to travel. They really have no money.”

Besides, the Bangkok strategy may not be so effective. This government has proven very thick-skinned. Protesters from Rasi Salai spent months camped outside Government House with no result. Moreover, public opinion may not be so favourable. Bangkok is absorbed in its own crisis, and not disposed to be sympathetic to others.

”Here at least they can find some fish,” continues Wanida, ”maybe plant some vegetables on the river bank, possibly find some casual work. And they can rotate back to their homes every now and then.”

But still, what’s the point if the protest here can be ignored?  The answer lies in the backdrop to the protest camp. The Pak Mool dam. This project completed in 1994 has proved to be a social and environmental disaster. It is a monument to bad development thinking and bad government. It has enough moral potential to magnify the importance of this remote protest.

Building the dam destroyed a stretch of rapids which contained one of the best fisheries in the country. ”It was so beautiful,” says one of the leaders of the Pak Mool fishing community now taking part in the protest. ”There were several sets of rapids, dropping down level by level.”

Swimming these rapids gave fish a special texture, taste and value. Fish from here commanded a better price than elsewhere. The fishing community flourished. Restaurants in the area were nationally famous. Now the dam has disrupted migration patterns. The beautiful rapids have been dynamited into an industrial-ugly channel. The fish have disappeared from a stretch of 30-50 km of the Mool river. Some members of the camp are grilling the catch-of-the-day — a couple of 2-inch tiddlers. If you order fish in a nearby restaurant and enquire about its origin, the answer is likely to be: Laos.

The World Bank’s environmental impact assessment of the dam in 1993 announced confidently that ”if Pak Mun Dam does cause any changes in the fish community, the Department of Fisheries and Egat have several proven mitigation measures available to respond to any changes.” This was, quite simply, a lie. The fish ladder incorporated into the dam has proved quite useless. Few fish can locate it. Those that do beat their heads on the steps. This protest has perhaps given the ladder some usefulness for the first time: protesters are using it to hang out their washing.

”When they first told us about the dam,” says the fishing community leader, ”they promised us we would have more fish, more money, better roads and houses, everything would be better. Some of us did not believe them. But they kept making these promises. So of course we split. Then they promised that if the fish really did disappear, they would give us 15 rai of land each.”

The government has broken that promise too. It cannot find enough land.

These protests happened during the first Chuan government (1992-5). Then too the protesters occupied the dam site. The Democrat minister, Suthas Ngernmuen, came up to negotiate. ”He assured the villagers there would be a peaceful and reasonable solution,” says Wanida. ”The day after he left, Chuan sent in the Border Patrol Police to beat the villagers and break up the protest. Chuan knows all about the Pak Mool issue.”

A set of rapids, a unique fishery and a fishing community is a relatively high price to pay. But still, any price can be justified if the result is much more valuable. But the Pak Mool dam is a relatively small hydro-electricity project. Its output would barely power one Bangkok shopping mall. In fact, it has been running at only around 20 per cent of this full capacity. Raising the output from the similarly under-utilised (and much larger) Sirinthorn dam a few kilometres away would more than compensate for Pak Mool. The rapids, fishery and community have been sacrificed for electricity capacity which is not needed or can be replicated elsewhere.

The dam is a monument to the careless belief in technology, and to the Democrat-led government’s hatred of protesters. ”Chuan always leaves things to officials, whose thinking is out of date,” says Wanida, ”and leaves things to laws, which are out of date.”

The Pak Mool dam was obviously a mistake. Egat, which owns the project, may resist this conclusion. So too will the Democrat leaders who pushed the project through. Others wonder whether it is a mistake that could be reversed. Take the opportunity of this crisis and the decline in power demand. Open up the dam gates, throw some rocks back to rebuild the rapids, and see if the fish come back. That would really be development.

Recently the World Bank, which helped finance the project, has joined in the establishment of a World Commission on Dams to investigate projects where the real cost-benefit has differed widely from the plan. Pak Mool has been selected among the dozen or so dams around the world which will be reviewed. The process begins next month.

The protest around Pak Mool has the look and feel of a refugee camp. The core of the camp is the fishing community and others disrupted by Pak Mool. But other groups under the Assembly of the Poor have joined the camp to show solidarity and to continue their own opposition to other projects, past and planned. These are Thailand’s own internal refugees, displaced by the sort of folly to which the Pak Mool dam serves as a fitting monument. The government will try to ignore them.

The attitude of the provincial governor is revealing. Last Thursday he said about the protest: ”It’s the dry season. The villagers have nothing to do for a couple of months. So they come here for a picnic because it’s a nice place.” But the arrival of the World Commission on Dams at this refugee picnic could shift this attitude a bit.

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