Failed Attempts to Form a Fist for Justice, Sarah Kaufman
For the past couple of weeks, my classmates and I learned about water management and dams in Thailand’s Northeastern region of Isaan. We focused on the Pak Mun Dam, a controversial dam completed in 1994 that has caused villagers in the surrounding area hardships for the past twenty years. Out of these adversities, groups opposing the Pak Mun Dam have formed a movement. Over the years, these opposition groups went from working together towards a common goal, to having separate goals and accusing each other of corruption.
As we learned from local villagers and witnessed first hand, the Pak Mun Dam took away the livelihoods of those who live along the Mun River, where the dam is located. Most villagers along the river relied mainly on fishing to bring in their main income. When the dam was built, fish could no longer swim upstream; upstream fishermen could no longer make money to support their families. The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) compensated local villagers at the time of the dam’s construction, accounting for flooding and relocation, but did not compensate for loss of livelihood. Group opposing the dam have risen from this loss of livelihood; the groups’ goals are ways to compensate for this loss, whether it’s through money or other compromises.
We spoke to two opposition groups, the Thai Baan Center and Somkiat Singhakham, or Paw (father) Somkiat. The Thai Baan Center is the largest of the opposition groups. The Center consists of three parts- a co-op to promote new careers for members, a local radio station, and the local knowledge center. The local knowledge center features a museum of the history of fishing in the area and a place for seminars and conferences. The Thai Baan center has a strong movement against the dam. Their main goals are to open the gates of the dam for 5 years and for villagers to receive 20 years worth of compensation for the loss of livelihood. The Center states that they believe there are no better alternatives.
The village we stayed in, Khan Puai, sides with the Thai Baan Center. Villagers want EGAT to pay compensation for the loss of livelihood, which the Center offers as one of its goals. In addition, some villagers want EGAT to support their children’s educations; with the loss of livelihood came the lack of money to pay for village children’s schooling. Khan Puai villagers cited that they believe the Thai Baan Center will bring compensation faster than any of the other opposition groups.
Paw Somkiat supports different end goals. His main goal is to permanently open the dam gates. He hopes that this will return the livelihoods of the local villagers, as well as restore the area’s ecosystem. Another goal that his followers have set is each household obtaining 15 rais (around 6 acres) of land for agriculture or other uses. Paw Somkiat himself does not support this idea, but his followers feel strongly positive towards it.
Paw Somkiat was once a member of the Thai Baan Center, but left to form his own group after he felt the Thai Baan leaders were corrupt. He claims there was a lack of transparency in the finances of the Thai Baan Center and that leaders of the group acted more like commanders. He stated that the leaders did not truly listen to their group members. He also explained that throughout the years, EGAT has bribed 8 opposition leaders. Years ago, when the Thai Baan Center had more support, it was exposed that a couple of leaders accepted bribes. This tore Thai Baan members apart, forming the 5 opposition groups that exist today.
Both Paw Somkiat and the Thai Baan Center stated that the movement would be much stronger if all five opposition groups worked together towards a common goal. Paw Somkiat cited the idea of the movement as a fist; all the groups working together would form a fist, which would effectively knock down the dam gates. At the moment, the five groups are spread out, like fingertips. Each fingertip knocking at the dam gates is not nearly as strong or effective as the force of a full fist. However, both groups also stated that it would be impossible for all the opposition groups to work together. There has been years of each opposition group attacking each other for differences in opinion. This pushes opposition leaders away from each other, further weakening the movement. The Thai Baan Center stated that the government uses this fact to their advantage.
In our exchange with Paw Somkiat, he explained that the dam destroyed local culture. One major aspect of the local culture that existed before the dam was the general attitude of villagers helping each other. Neighbors would share items from their gardens and other items, forming a strong community. When the dam was built and villagers lost their livelihood, they could not afford to give others their precious goods. It seems that this loss of cooperation and sharing has strongly affected the movement against the dam. Paw Somkiat also stated that development makes people selfish. This idea seems reflected in villagers’ behavior. Villagers are now pitted against each other due to opposing ideas of compensation. The five opposition groups have been fighting against the Pak Mun Dam for twenty years; seeing the way the groups act towards each other makes me believe that it will be at least another twenty years before they see any progress towards any of their goals.
Opposition groups to the Pak Mun Dam have been unsuccessful at decommissioning the dam due lack of centralization.