18 November 2012

Does any of this make a difference?

On October 31st, our group of CIEE Development and Globalization students had an exchange with a woman named Sadsai Sang-Sok to close out our Unit Four homestay. Sadsai Sang-Sok is an NGO and independent researcher who spoke to our group as a representative of the Thai People Don’t Want Nuclear Power Plants Network. The exchange brought up some very interesting issues that I would have never considered had we not spoken with Sadsai Sang-Sok. According to her, the key reason people are resisting nuclear power plants in Thailand is not because they are opposed to nuclear power itself, but more because they invisible in the government’s consideration of the issue. Thai people who are most affected by the construction of these power plants are not allowed to participate in the government’s conversations over the plants, and are largely never informed in detail about the building of plants in close proximity to their villages. This complete lack of public participation in nuclear projects lies at the heart of the network’s resistance to nuclear power plants.

This particular day we visited the network, however, was a special occasion. Immediately after our exchange, Sadsai Sang-Sok was leaving to attend an unofficial hearing concerning the construction of a new nuclear power plant. This hearing would potentially counter the overwhelming problem of the lack of public voices in major decisions concerning nuclear power projects, as it would include a diverse audience of people from governmental departments, the media, networks, and villagers. This hearing was an opportunity for all parties to hear both sides of the issue and have a constructive conversation together. It sounded to me like an opportunity for substantial progress. Upon asked if she believed any great change would come of the hearing, however, Sadsai Sang-Sok replied, “Well, if the government wants to build it, it probably just will anyways.”

These words resonated with me. If the government is simply going to do and build whatever it wants regardless of public opinion, then what was the point of the hearing in the first place? What was the point of maintaining this whole network of Thai people against nuclear power plants if the government will do what it wants anyhow? And moreover, why were we as CIEE students there, looking to possibly complete a collaborative final project to help the network’s progress, if no change were to come of it?

These feelings that villagers’ and our efforts to create change for the better in Thailand are completely futile in the long run are something I have grappled with since the start of my semester here. In Unit Two, our group visited a forest community of individuals who have been fighting to get their land back from the government and have been doing so through the establishment of a protest village since 2009. As of now, negotiations with the government are at a complete standstill. The community must helplessly wait on the government as it decides what it wants to do with the future of the community.

This trend of community powerlessness arose once again in this recent Unit Four trip, as we visited the community of Rasi Salai that has been protesting the presence of a dam in the village since its construction in 1994. It is now 2012, and while some villagers have been slightly compensated for the dam’s negative effects and the government agreed to complete a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) on the dam, that SIA still remains incomplete and the government still controls the opening and closing of the dam gates.

This brings me back to Sadsai Sang-Sok’s quote from the beginning, “if the government wants to build it, it probably just will anyways.” Do villagers and NGOs have any kind of power in these situations? Do we as American students ultimately have any impact on the progression of their projects? I know much too little to fully and confidently answer these questions, but from what I have seen and experienced thus far, I might argue: no.

Mallory West
Tulane University


Lucy said...

What Sodsai said is too true. The fact that the government will do what it pleases also relates to our latest NGI, P Suvit. He spoke about the invisible hand of the government. Being an outsider, it may be easier for us notice the invisible hand of the Thai government, not to say that this isn't true in America also. The issues we have explored are all connected under the hand of the government: agriculture, land rights, damn construction, and mining. What is done is done in this country. It is interesting to hear that the villagers come together and protest about the injustices done to them and how little say they have in their own country. But still, they protest and make it so their voice is noticed although, maybe not listened to.

Sean Burke said...

I am glad you wrote about this, Mallory. This is a topic that I too have been struggling with throughout this semester. At the beginning of our exchange with Sadsai Sang-Sok from the Thai People Don’t Want Nuclear Power Plants Network, I remember feeling very hopeful that substantial progress would come out of the unofficial hearing she was about to attend. However, when she explained that “if the government wants to build the dam, it probably just will anyways,” I realized that I was foolish to believe that tangible change could come out of the hearing. I should have anticipated that the government’s power always trumps the villagers’ needs and wants. After I reflected on it a bit more, I noticed that this is a trend we are all to familiar with at this point. In fact, community powerlessness is an enduring theme across all five of our Units. This is where a lot of my frustration comes from. Although I knew that us coming here would not result in dramatic tangible change, I was under the impression that we would be able to actually make some sort of difference by mobilizing the villagers’ efforts toward progress. But I have come to terms with the fact that this is most likely not possible in Thailand’s present political and economic climate. So then why are we here? I want to believe that our presence here is enough to create change, even if on the smallest scale. However, I must agree with Mallory. I understand that each semester of students builds off of the work that the previous group has made, so that in the long run our small part here does pay off because we are more than the sum of our parts. But I really wish we could witness actual change. I have realized that this is a lot to ask. Before this could even be possible, the government needs to provide the villagers with ample public participation and create a forum for them when projects such as dams or mines are being constructed. I think that the lack of public participation and transparency between the government as an institution and the villagers is at the root of this problem.

Molly said...

Thank you for writing this, Mallory. This really is the glaring truth of this semester: the government is basically going to do what it wants to, no matter what the people say... it's gotten to the point where villages are protesting public hearings, because they already know what the outcome will be. I got to see this in going to Loei to see the villagers protest a public hearing for a new mine being built. Having been affected by a nearby mine, they of course don't want another one. The sad thing is that they have more participation in the process by protesting and forcibly stopping the public hearing than by participating in it. They know that the mine company will pay for ringers within the public hearing crowd, and forge villager's signatures and so on so that they can get their way. Having a successful public hearing is essential to continue the process of staring another mine, so stopping the hearing has the most power...

however, we talked to an activist who knows a lot about the approval process, and after a certain point, if there is no public hearing, it will be tacitly approved... it seems there is not a lot of hope for villagers affecting change, much less us.

Kierstin Wall said...

I'm also glad you wrote about this. I know this is something we have all been grappling with since perhaps unit two, maybe earlier. What can we really do? Our last exchange with P'Suvit only made me a bit more confused about what exactly we can do while we are here. The whole time I was thinking that awareness is a very important aspect in creating change, yet P'Suvit disagreed with me saying, if there is no action there is can be no change. But then he went about saying that a change in consciousness is meaningful and that we are powerful and able to do something and good cam out of our time here as long as there may have been a shift in consciousness.
So. Here is my conclusion.
I think that we are here as students. We are here to learn. We do not need to create change. Yet, I believe that in order for action to happen, a change of consciousness, awareness you may also call it, needs to happen. And this is what we are doing here. This is how we are helping. Every group of students that exchanges and creates a better relationship with these communities and NGO's has a role in changing perspective, in bringing awareness, in discussing and exchanging. This will eventually make a difference, it has already made small differences has it not? I think we have made a good impact on the communities we have stayed in and the work we will do with NGOs. Of course we will. So do not fret. Change will come eventually.

BrytneeMiller said...

This really is a hot topic in Thailand. The fact that the government has such little regard for the feelings of their peoples. It has been a trend throughout every unit- land rights, dams, etc. The government makes plans to do something without accurately and truthfully informing the villages about said decision. This causes a huge division in the country. As CIEE students, the villagers think we are able to change the system, but unfortunately we are just as powerless against the government.

Anonymous said...

Mallory, I could not agree with you more. I think that the Thai government is only having public forums just to say that it that it made a concerted effort to "hear" the voices of the people.

It's clear the the villagers do not want the dams. What I'm confused about is how the government is so obsessed with building dams. Dams are an antiquated power source. As far as irrigation dams go, they often do more damage than good.

But to only add to the confusion it seems that the government's numbers, as to how many people benefit, vary greatly with the local villagers numbers. For example, Meh Pa said that only 500 rais of land were irrigated, but as you may recall, earlier that day the REI vice president said that there are about 40-50,000 rais of land that are irrigated!

So, it's hard to even come up with an opinion either way. Because my opinion as to whether or not the the dam was worth it or not depends on the numbers.

I wish that we took the time to really find out these numbers.

I think that nuclear power plants are a viable alternative. Whether or not Thailand is ready for them is up for debate. Corners can't be cut and bureaucracy cannot get in the way of safety regulations.

But here's the flip side. In America, we never chose our wars. The government doesn't have public forums. congress hasn't approved a war since WWII. I would argue that the U.S. government is just as guilty in regards to making foreign policy decisions. I wonder why Thais aren't visiting our country and trying to stop our government from ruining our reputation abroad. Where are our NGOs!

Sam Carlson said...

I have also been struggling with this each time we visit a community or exchange with an NGO. The fact is, compared to the power of the government and huge industries, NGO's and communities probably don't have any power. I agree with Sadsai San-Sok (not to say that I like the idea). But I do not think that means that villagers and NGO's should stop fighting for change. It seems like what these communities really need is more organization. With better organization and leadership, they would be able to collaborate with other villages, which might change the balance of power.

Marissa Strong said...

It's really a sad reality for the country of Thailand and it's something that I feel strongly against but also so hopeless. It seems as though all of the efforts that are made by the villagers, NGOs, and CIEE isn't going to do anything. It makes me feel really fortunate to come from a country that I do but also I have become a lot more aware of the power that a government has. The United States and Thailand are two very different countries but I still don't feel very confident in the decisions that my own government makes because being from the US I know that their agenda is the money. Although I may not be very informed with things that happen in my own country, living in Thailand and seeing these issues will help me to question and also learn more about my own country and government since there isn't much I can do for the country of Thailand.

Ashley said...

You’re preaching to the choir, Mallory. For a while I had been trying to convince myself that average people could make a difference, but when the vice governor of Loei said that if the majority villagers hadn’t wanted a mine built, it wouldn’t have been built. It has been blatantly obvious from the beginning that the villager did NOT want this mine, as has been apparent from their countless protests. I asked the NGO P’Suwit about what the vice governor had said and he responded by saying that the office had faked a public hearing. They had gone into the communities and bribed or lied to villagers to get their signatures. Government officials keep telling us that Thailand is a democracy, but I just don't see it. Is anything transparent in this country? Politicians buy off the votes they need. Companies bribe villagers to support corporations. Thailand is run by a few people at the top of the chain. Everything is corrupt.

Jackie Creed said...

I find your experience very thought provoking. I'm studying abroad in the Dominican Republic, where the government often does not listen to the voice of the people as well. The people here pay extremely high taxes, but almost none of it goes to social programs. Much of it stays within corruption and wealthier businesses. For example, the people have been crying out for years for 4% of the budget to go into education. The DR has one of the worst education systems in Latin America and lack the funds to even provide a full school day to it's people and instead need to go for half days. Now the government is trying to raise taxes as part of a fiscal reform. The people have been fighting fiercely against this change. But will the government listen? How can people create change on a larger level without governmental support? Thailand and the DR must hope and continue the fight for change. It is a difficult issue these countries, and possibly many more face.