Women and Engery, Mariah Phillips
CIEE students make use of the learning center that Meh Pah helped to start. The Learning Center is responsible for educating youth about the impacts of dams on farming, health, the environment and land rights.
After returning from my home stay near the Hua Na and Rasi Salai dams, I had a confluence of experiences to reflect upon. One of the most stark and interesting of these experiences was the role of women in the larger communities affected by dams and other energy producing plants. But before I delve into the intricacies of gender dynamics among energy movements in Isaan, I should give some background and context on the energy issues themselves.
Thailand, in its mission to develop, has placed a great deal of emphasis on alternative energy sources, increasing irrigation technology, and industrializing. This, in many instances, compromises local communities and the more simple, agrarian, lifestyles that they are accustomed to leading. For instance, in communities neighboring the Rasi Salai dam, farming has been severely hindered by longer lasting floods brought about by the dam and inefficient water management practices. In a village where the vast majority relies on farming income, excessive floods can tear communities apart and force people to move in search of cultivatable land elsewhere, or to work in the cities. As a result of these disturbances, villagers have banded together to voice their objections and grievances, making their struggles known to the greater public and the governmental agencies responsible for their plight. Most of these movements have been in the form of peaceful protest, engagement in public meetings, and education for younger generations about the current and future issues facing the community.
In Rasi Salai specifically, a learning center has been established in an attempt to impassion the younger generations about the importance of protecting the villagers’ land and educate them about their rights. This learning center just so happens to have been started and run by a woman by the name of Meh Pah. Acting as chair of the Association of Wetland People, she is in charge of organizing and recruiting people to her cause. She has played a crucial role in cultivating such a positive relationship with Rasi Salai’s former nemesis the RID (Royal Irrigation Department). But what is more shocking than Meh Pah’s involvement in politics, is her perception of how her gender has acted as not a hindrance, but an advantage. She says as a woman she is seen as much more levelheaded, and compassionate making it easier for her to gain the trust of villagers in neighboring communities. It also has enabled her to communicate with RID officials more effectively.
Another woman that our group spoke with echoed this notion that womanhood has an advantage in fostering strong relationships. P’Satsai, leader of a movement to prevent the construction of a nuclear energy plant near her village in Ubon Ratchathani, claims that villagers trusted her more quickly. As a woman attempting to recruit an array of people to her cause, this ability to forge trusting relationships in a timely manner is of great importance. It is possible, that if it was not for her role in the movement against the plant, they may have never succeeded in preventing its construction in Ubon Ratchathani. This is an impressive feat for anyone, regardless of gender, and the fact that such an impressive case was fought and won under the direction of a woman is something to note.
Furthermore, consider the gender dynamics in the communities in which these women live. Village life, as I have experienced thus far, has been relatively gendered, conforming to traditional roles. Bearing this in mind, it is incredibly refreshing and eye opening seeing women with so much agency and respect among their peers. Thinking about the implications of such an idea, womanhood and its role in social movements, is empowering and exciting. If this were to be adopted and practiced more widely, I can only begin to conceive of the shift in gender equality that would follow as a result. By utilizing women and their reputation for compassion and levelheadedness, perhaps we can begin to entrust them with greater socio-political standing and readjust the already grossly lacking agency given to women.