22 November 2010

A Similar Struggle Two Decades Later

In Tamui Village we held our exchange on a deck overlooking the Mekong River. Below us a string of boats lined the riverbank and occasionally a fisherman returned home with a catch. Half way across the river is a cluster of rocks. I was told the best fishing is right by those rapids because that is where all the fish hang out. In the dry season those rocks become a tourist attraction, and backpackers come regularly to camp out in a tent in the middle of the Mekong. Farther, across a stretch of flowing water to the opposite riverbank is a thickly forested patch of Laos. It was a tranquil sight, but the topic of discussion at this exchange was not. A dam has been approved for construction a couple kilometers upstream from Tamui village, and if it is built it will change the lives of the people who live there forever. The Laotian villagers who live across the river are relying on Tamui to resist the dam construction, because under the Lao government, they cannot speak up to oppose it. And those rapids, where the best fishing is and where tourists come to spend the night, is slated for demolition because the Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand has determined it needs to create a deeper channel in that location. The most worrisome effect the dam would have on the lives of these people is that it would destroy their livelihoods. The river is what sustains them.

After our exchange with the Tamui villagers, Paw Somkiat stepped forward from a pack of onlookers and spoke with conviction directly to the people of Tamui. Somkiat is one of the leaders of the Pak Mun dam-affected community, and as such he has been a central figure in the fight against the Pak Mun dam for over two decades. He is familiar with the withering effects a dam has on a community that is so dependant on the river for sustenance because his community experienced these effects thoroughly. He expressed his desire for unity between Tamui and Pak Mun, and he offered to share the lessons he has learned from his many years negotiating, protesting, and fighting against a destructive dam. He said, “Our information is our weapon.” Information is a weapon they will have to use if the villagers of Tamui want to resist the dam from being built, because there are large structural interests that support its construction. Thailand has approved of the project and that Laos government has already checked it off as well. One of the only barriers to construction right now is that the Environmental Impact Assessment has not been completed yet.

Tamui, in a way, is like a snapshot of Pak Mun about twenty-three years ago, before the dam was built. The question that remains, however, is whether the two share a similar fate. The Pak Mun dam has stood across the Mun River for years and years as the pilot project of the Kong-Chi-Mun water development project. It still funnels the Mun River through its menacing turbines, producing electricity (at a miniscule fraction of its projected output) to feed the needs of growing industry and sprawling Bangkok. The dam slated for construction a couple kilometers upstream from Tamui has not been build yet, and the people of Tamui still have a chance to protect their livelihoods, their community, and the region’s natural ecology.

Alex Kovac
Santa Clara University


Emily said...

You really portrayed our experiences in Tamui village very well, Alex! For me, the last paragraph really spoke to me because Tamui truly seemed like Pak Mun twenty years ago in terms of the issues faced and treatment by the government (i.e. bribing, trickery, etc). The government seems to only see development in terms of industry and GDP instead of in terms of the development of humanity and the environment. By that I mean since Pak Mun dam irrevocably changed the lives of hundreds of villagers and is largely considered as a failure in terms of its purpose, wouldn’t you think that the government would stop trying to do similar projects? Especially in a place as little as 30 minutes away from the Pak Mun community! It is my hope that the Tamui village is saved from a Pak Mun-esque fate and that the government can find other ways to generate power and develop their industries in a more environmentally-friendly way.

Maddie said...

Alex, thanks for your post. I enjoyed it. The question you pose at the end is an interesting one, whether or not Tamui faces the same fate as Pak Mun. As much as I want to say that no, Tamui will not face the same fate, its hard for me to say it with positivity. Throughout the past 5 units we have witnessed government corruption and insincerity a number of times. To me, the Thai government just doesn’t care about their people. So what would building one more dam, destroying 1000s of more lives, and affecting countless generations to come matter the Thai government? It wouldn’t. But on the flip side I can see the power of people, and the power of communities coming together to fight against the government. Paw Somkiat’s closing speech at the exchange was a great example why I have faith in the success of the Tamui village. As the plans for the dam progress, people from around the region, the country, and even the world, will be working together to fight against it. “The only thing the government is afraid of is people,” said Paw Somkiat. So hopefully, enough people will come together to stand up for something that they believe in.

Anonymous said...

Although Paw Somkiat’s speech was powerful and emotional, it was a set back that that was the first time he had spoken with that village. Tamui has been struggling with the proposed time for sometime and Paw is an active leader for the Pak Mun dam, and his house was about a 15-minuet drive away. I found it frustrating that there was not a stronger network between the two communities because as you mentioned Tamui finds itself in a place where Pak Mun was 20 years ago. After a little further inquiry there has not been networking because of some territorial problems between NGOs. I find it really aggravating that these community leaders are not trying to help each other no matter what while Tamui is going through a struggle that has occurred only miles away with little help from those who have already experienced the corrupt and illegal actions of the company and the government.

Anonymous said...

For a man who so passionately believes in the power of networking, I was surprised that Paw Somkiat’s speech to the villagers of Tamui came so late in the game, so to speak. Alex, you hit the nail right on the head. Tamui is struggling with the exact same issues Pak Mun communities faced twenty-three years ago. After our exchange with the villagers, I was confused as to why the Assembly of the Poor, an organization established in response to the Pak Mun dam, has not provided Tamui with resources and information. Tamui needs NGO support as soon as possible. If this community doesn’t begin to build a united front, construction on the dam will be set into motion before an EIA is conducted. The villagers of Tamui need to understand the importance of an EIA and their role in the process. It angered me that Tamui is in Paw Somkiat’s backyard and his speech, inspiring nonetheless, was long overdue.

Bryant said...

The fact that Pak Mun has been such a disaster (environmentally, socially, politically, economically), yet the government of Thailand continues to push for the development of more large dam projects, makes me skeptical that the Tamui village will have the power to stop the dam. While I do believe that information is always a powerful weapon, I don’t think that information-filled villagers are the answer to blocking the project. If Somkiat is right in saying there are large structural interests pushing for its construction—which I believe there are—I don’t think more information will be able to stop them. Over and over, a pattern of corrupt support for these projects leads to the eventual construction of them. All they need is the completion of the EIA, but in Na Nong Bong we saw first hand that the EIA is not an objective scientific publication that has the power to stop a project. While I don’t see how the project will not be built, I do believe that this information will help Tamui along the way. From compensation to legal battles, it is great that they get the process of protest going now.