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Struggle for a basic right to a livelihood

Bangkok Post
April 27, 2000

Patience is running thin at Pak Moon and no one can blame the people there. Not after 12 years of struggles that led to a common conviction: the Pak Moon Dam must go.

Come mid-May, the villagers will stage a mass demonstration at the dam site at the confluence of the Moon and Mekong Rivers in Ubol Ratchathani. Their demand: open all the water gates to let the rivers run free once again.

The countdown has begun.

Why May? Because it is the time when fish from the Mekong River swim up the Moon River to breed. Such natural fish migration had endowed the river with fish abundance through time immemorial. The livelihoods of millions of Isan peasants along the 700-kilometre-long Moon River had depended on this natural phenomena. The Pak Moon Dam changed all that.

For the past 10 years, the villagers have suffered tremendously. Their homes were flooded. The rapids-the fishes’ spawning habitats-were blasted. The river became blocked and polluted. No more fish. No more livelihoods.

No more so this May onwards, the villagers declared.

It’s too optimistic to expect an easy concession from a giant corporation such as the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand. Given the importance of face here, it’s mostly likely that the authorities might resort to a crackdown. It’s also more likely that the crackdown would be reported as a legitimate measure against violent, anti-development, law-breaking mobs-thanks to the state indoctrination that makes the public believe that dams are symbols of progress.

No matter how things turn out, the Pak Moon villagers’ decision to drop compensation demands for the return of the Isan people’s bloodstream marks an important step in Thailand’s grassroots movements.

Right from the start, the Pak Moon villagers told EGAT officials that fishing is their main source of livelihood. That the dam will block fish migration and destroy fish abundance. That they did not want the dam because any compensation could not match the losses.

Right from the start, EGAT’s scheme was fraud, with poor information and implementation. Accurate numbers of affected villagers were not available, even after the dam’s construction. The adverse impacts on fish stocks and public health was overlooked.

Now, the World Commission on Dams calls EGAT’s Pak Moon Dam a grave mistake. The 136-megawatts dam can only produce 40 megawatts, and none at all during the rainy season. Irrigation benefits turned out to be zero. Before the dam, 265 fish species were recorded. Only 96 species remained after the dam construction. The much-lauded fish ladder failed to facilitate fish migration and it became a farce.

In other words, the villagers have been correct all along.

What should we do with a state mistake this huge? So far, EGAT has been successful in making the public view the Pak Moon controversy as a compensation wrangle. By doing so, it can paint the villagers as greedy people with endless demands. To undo mistakes, we must view the Pak Moon struggle as it is. The crux of the matter isn’t about money. It’s about the local people’s basic rights to protect their livelihood sources and self-reliance. It’s about the ruling elites’ belief in technology and progress at the cost of ordinary people and the environment.

The villagers have truth on their side. But whether or not they’ll succeed in undoing the dam violence depends very much on public and media understanding.

The media need to see through state lies to understand that the state’s think-big, top-down policy is violence itself, because it hurts small people everywhere, not only at Pak Moon. Only then will peace at the Moon River have a chance.

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