13 November 2009

A Non-Violent Struggle for Justice

During my recent visit to the Rasi Salai protest village, I was surprised to witness the villager’s newly acquired approach. The villagers started fighting the Dam alongside the Assembly of the Poor when the gates first closed in 1993. The first 10 years of protest were “always loud and violent.” The villagers invaded the buildings of the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) and attempted to excavate a manmade road to free up the blockade of their beloved provider, the Mun River. On numerous occasions, the government reacted with force arresting the most active protest leaders. In the process, the villagers’ displayed their strong convictions and their willingness to persist against the injustices caused by the Dam.

The most recent protest, spanning the past five months, has the appearance of another fierce expression by the effected villagers. They are currently squatting in tents on RID land located directly next to the Dam. However, with further investigation, it is clear that the villagers are uniting in a much more organized peaceful fashion. Pra-Kootawaa Ajahrat, a monk in one of the effected villages, praises the villagers’ new strategy as it aligns with the notion of “non-violence” that is central to his Buddhist faith. After talking with Pra-Kootawaa, I immediately thought of the monks in Tibet, including the Dalai Lama, and their passive nature. Despite their devote spirituality and the resulting peaceful unified relationship with the world, their “non-violent” nature allows the Chinese government to continually oppress the Tibetan people with ease. I was worried that the Thai government would start to overlook the protesters requests in the same manner that the Chinese disregarded the passive Tibetans.

After further discussion with the villagers and an NGI (non-governmental individual), I started to notice more of the positive aspects of an organized non-violent approach to protesting. Their fresh calm attitude has allowed them to gather information, examine all involved parties, and map out a well thought out plan. The village leaders work to educate all of the protestors enabling direct involvement in the planning processes. The few remaining youth in the protest village take on numerous roles so that they too contribute. Some of the youth work as security protecting the elders. Others gather information locally and from villages in other provinces dealing with similar issues. They learn to use computers and edit video to process the information and work with the local media. No longer having access to substantial farmable land, these responsibilities provide them with an alternative to going to the city to find menial labor jobs. In the words of a village leader, “we work as a private organization utilizing our own knowledge and skills.” Through the media, they make a point not to present an image of thousands of protesters demanding to “STOP THE DAM!” Instead, they display themselves as an ideal community working for the betterment of society as a whole. Recent media footages included presentations of the values of local wisdom, community harvesting, recycling programs, and self-reliance.

Overall, I foresee this strategy benefiting the villagers in the future of their struggle. Local government officials are much more likely to work cooperatively with the villagers in creating some sort of compromise. I also think the national government could potentially side with these villagers and make an example of them as the proper way to protest and an ideal community for others to model themselves after. All worries of a diminishing passion or a decrease in strength on the side of the protestors are swallowed up by the words of one village leader.

“Speaking from the heart, I am a person who wants to see justice. Whatever problem I face, whether it is a police charge or a problem with my family, I drop it behind for this cause. I sold away all of my cows to come stay here (the protest village). Many people go back home, but I spend almost all of my time here.”

Dan Hebert
University of Richmond


Sagar said...

I find this post intresting. The comment that you made stating the non violent nature of the villagers has crossed my mind as well After going to the village, I could not help but wonder if these people were mearly being over looked by the government, seen as a none issue due to the seer invovlment they themselves have in the dam. The obvious devastation that I saw while going around the rasi sali village made me think that there was no way that the government could possible overlook the situation, and yet they still have not worked in a manner to sufficently compensate that which the villagers had lost. I completely agree that the type of protest the villagers are having is one that is powerful and holds meaning, but I can’t help but think that is the fact that it has been a proper protest of sorts begun to work against them? Have they now gotten their 15 minutes of fame and time with the government, and been swept under the rug. If it seems as if there needs to be some way to revive the movement itself. This is the problem with most protests that go on for so long. They spend time learning how to properly protest, that when they do get enough information, they begin to loose momentum. I hope for the sake of the village that they regain that momentum, and from what I saw, the potential is there.

Scozz Rockets said...

Dan. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. Having been to Rasi Salai several times as well, I find that I relate greatly to many of your experiences and agree with many of your thoughts. Personally, I had also worried that a peaceful protest by the Rasi Salai villagers might result in the government disregarding or ignoring of this issue. Though after exchanging, talking and interviewing the Rasi Salai villagers I feel inspired by the villagers’ perseverance and determination to reclaim their lost livelihoods, as well as the strength of their community after such a long battle with RID and the other parties involved in the construction and management of the Rasi Salai Dam.
It is encouraging to see how organized and driven the Rasi Salai villagers are to their cause. While their rights have been violated for around 20 years, the community is still very strong and well connected. This strength and connectedness is found not only inside the Rasi Salai Community itself but can be seen to extend out other NGO’s and communities. These parties include Thailand’s Assembly of the Poor Network, the neighboring Hua Na Dam Community (who as we know are dealing with a very similar issue) and with the help of televised media, out even to the whole country of Thailand.
When reading this I also thought back to one of the interviews we did together at Rasi Salai Dam in which we asked questions with one of the security guards at the Royal Irrigation Department; a Mr. Sawng-nawp Jun-pee. I remember how he told us that he thought that the Rasi Salai villagers would “succeed” in their goals. He mentioned how there were “no confrontations” with them and felt that the “step by step” ways in which the villagers tried to solve their problems was a “good process”. Mr. Jun-pee had hopes that their Rasi Salai villagers would be successful in their endeavors as do we. I hope that the villagers new protest strategies continue to inspire other individuals as it has us. Thanks for your insights. All the best, Scott

Scott J. Pulido
University of Michigan

Jennifer said...

I was very struck by the form of protest at Rasi Salai also, especially when we went to the Pak Mun Dam immediately after and saw almost the opposite strategy. Rasi Salai has been so successful – many have already received compensation for their loss of land and it is likely that everyone will. However, Pak Mun Dam villagers have been fighting for over thirty years and virtually nothing has been accomplished.

Whereas Rasi Salai villagers use tactics such as blocking the car of the governor from reaching his destination of the Royal Irrigation Department Office so that they can have an impromptu conversation and give him a tour of the protest village, Pak Mun villagers have really only protested by showing how angry they are.

I had a teacher once who said, “You can’t change someone’s mind until they are coming toward you.” I think that by taking the high road and showing off the good aspects of their community to government officials, Rasi Salai has demonstrated an impressive model of how to effectively create change and that villagers in Pak Mun would greatly benefit from following their lead.

Jennifer McGinnis
Western Michigan University

Hilary said...

Hey Dan,

Your discussion on the non-violent protest strategy Rasi Salai has adopted has made me think a bit more about what exactly went wrong at Pak Mun? I know Pak Mun has a much longer history, but if I remember correctly, the villagers in that area adopted similar non-violent approaches in the beginning. Like at Rasi Salai, a protest village was set up next to the dam (pretty balsy if you ask me) and the villagers participated in a number of sit-ins at government offices in both Ubon and Bangkok. I think the biggest difference is how the government responded to each movement. I believe Pak Mun was the first major dam in Thailand to garner such an intense opposition and the Thai government responded by violently suppressing the villagers. Subsequently, their protests seemed to get more and more intense and at times violent as well. Rasi Salai on the other hand has not been handled so forcefully and has actually been remarkably successful with getting their demands met, which could be due to a variety of factors. One is that Pak Mun set a precedent for social justice organizing in the region. By seeing what did and did not work for Pak Mun, I would imagine the Rasi Salai villagers organized with a much more comprehensive strategy. But it could also be because each dam was built and subsequently handled by different government administrations and agencies. I got the sense after talking to the main man at RID that they agree that Rasi Salai was a disaster. Their actions towards granting compensation shows that they are aware of the negative impact the dam has had. Yet at the same time he deflected all responsibility for the dam to the prior department that had built it. RID doesn't seem to have that much personally invested in the dams succes, while EGAT has their entire credibility resting on maintaining the successful facade of Pak Mun. To give in to the Pak Mun villagers' demands would be to admit that the dam was a hugely destructive project that even failed to produce the projected electricity. I guess I've just been wondering if the Pak Mun villagers had done the same thing as Rasi Salai villagers would they have been more successful? Are they two totally different context that can't be compared? This is just what you got me thinking a a bit about.

Hilary Ford
Sarah Lawrence College

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your interesting post. I think this community sounds inspiring; I especially like that they try to be "an ideal community working for the betterment of society as a whole..., (valuing) local wisdom, community harvesting, recycling programs, and self-reliance" And that "the village leaders work to educate all of the protestors enabling direct involvement in the planning processes."

I really like the idea that they are demonstrating, through their own community, alternative values of environmental care, equality, and valuing local wisdom and traditions.

One of the groups that we have been studying here in Mexico this term is the EZLN or the "Zapatistas," a group of indigenous people here in Mexico who, like the community of Rasi Salai, are radically protesting neoliberal development plans for their land and protecting their right to keep their own land and govern themselves.

One of the exciting aspects of the EZLN movement is that they, like Rasi Salai, are trying to demonstrate through their own community an alternative to the individualist, modern neoliberal ideas of development, and also through promoting the equality of women and indigenous people despite the Mexican government's failure to give them equal rights.

I really like this quote from Commandante Marcos, an EZLN spokesperson: "We do not believe that the end justifies the means. Ultimately, we believe that the means are the end. We define our goal by the way we choose the means of struggling for it." (Sub. Marcos, 2003).

Cecilia Marquez said...

One of the things that I have been struggling with during my time in Mexico through our study of guerrilla movements in Mexico and Central America is the value of non-violent versus violent approaches to activism. I hesitate to value non-violent struggle over violent struggle, since I think that in many ways non-violent struggle allows those in power to remain in power.

I think there is a lot of value in violent struggle like that of the EZLN, the FMLN, and the FSLN. I think it is also important to recognize that not every community has the time to wait for their non-violent struggle to take effect. For many communities it is a matter of constant police violence and attacks, and retaliating is the only way to survive.

I don't know, just some food for thought.