Once a Blast, Villagersí Tradition Has Now Simply Been Blasted
By Burmese Writer
Khong Chiam Ė Tears were in Ms. Ruenís eyes while she stood alone on
the Moon River bank. It was the Songkran New Year festival. Thais and Laos
used to celebrate on this river by singing, dancing, playing games and
pouring water over each other.
Now all this was gone. The
sand where they used to play was flooded by the Pak Moon Dam. The big set
of rapids called Kaeng Tana had been blasted to make way for the dam. All
the natural scenery and the traditional life of the village that Ruen had
known for 55 years had been swept away by the dam.
the rapids very much. She still remembered clearly the day they were
blasted. It was a hot day in March, 1992. The authorities were ready to
dynamite the rocks. But people were lying along the riverbank in an effort
to obstruct them.
Hundreds of people were protesting. There
had been a demonstration every day and night for three months. Most of
them were older people and women. Ruen, an outspoken woman with a
weather-beaten face, was among them. The representative of the village,
she and the other women did not want the men to get involved in the
protests because they feared it could get violent. They asked the men to
stay at home and look after the children.
On the other bank
were many people who supported building the dam. They were shouting at the
protesters. Sometimes they fired slingshots.
Kaeng Tana was
200 meters long and 37 meters deep. This was where fish hatched and
spawned. The dam-builder, the Electricity Generating Authority of
Thailand, or EGAT, wanted to blast Kaeng Tana and two other sets of rapids
that they said were blocking the passage of the water.
dynamite was placed at more than 30 spots along the rapids. The officials
told the villagers to go back home and stay one kilometer away from the
area. They refused. Finally, when the officials promised they would not
blast the rapids, the villagers returned home. But then the officials
blasted the rapids. The vibrations reached 20 kilometer away. Pieces of
rock were flying all over. In a school one kilometer from the rapids, the
children had to go into bunkers. People who lived near the river ran under
big trees, bushes and houses for cover.
Ruen and her sister
covered their heads with big cane baskets. No one was injured by the
blasting but some houses were damaged by rocks. EGAT gave 7,000 baht as
compensation for each house that was damaged.
people who had lived with the rapids all their lives were crying. They
felt they had lost someone they knew. Some tried to spit at the officials.
Tongcharoen Sihatham, the chairman of the village protestersí committee,
grew scared when he heard the blast. NGO activist Pana Jaitrong,
meanwhile, was speechless. Ruen, at first, was frustrated. Then she became
angry and then very sad. Ruen poured some blessing water on the river
where Kaeng Tana had been before.
Two years after the
blasting, the dam was completed. Ruenís village was flooded. The villagers
had to move to an area two kilometers away. Ruen said: " Before the dam,
our lives were easier because we could catch fish from the river. I could
earn 10,000 baht a month from fishing. Now I am 30,000 baht in
To pay back their debts and support their families,
people from the villages had to leave their families and go to work in the
big cities. Families were split apart. Every time Ruen thought about the
dam, she got angry. She told reporters: "If the law did not prevent me
from destroying the dam, I would destroy it with pleasure because it is
not useful for our villages."
Ruen was arrested by the police
at the clashes on the Pak Moon Dam in March, 1993. She was questioned and
later released. So was Tongcharoen. He says he cannot remember who started
the fighting. When he and his committee left a meeting with the EGAT
people, he saw his people shouting, "Stop the dam! We donít want the dam!"
Ruen joined in and walked in front of them.
Supporters of the
dam were yelling at them. Tongcharoen was trying to calm down his people
so that it would not get violent. But suddenly there was fighting. They
were throwing stones and firing slingshots at each other. About 300
policemen intervened to calm down the clashes. Twenty-four dam supporters,
10 protesters and four policemen got hurt. The protesters accused EGAT of
using the dam supporters to instigate the fight.
was so sad to see villagers fighting with each other.
the dam was built, EGAT promised the villagers that there would be more
water and more fish. But they ignored the villagersí questions about the
dam, about the flooding and fish migration. Instead, EGAT set up a public
relations department near the dam site. They paid some villagers to
counter the protesters. Some officials made life difficult for the
protesters. They threatened to arrest them.
many letters, pamphlets, posters and videos that said the dam would
modernise the villages and people would enjoy a better life. They accused
the protesters and the NGOs of being communists. Some people believed
these accusations and became supporters of the dam.
village committee and the NGOs held a meeting every month to tell people
about the rumors that EGAT was spreading. Other NGOs, including the
Wildlife Fund Thailand and the Youth Training Coordination Committee for
Conservation, helped the villagers. They provided videos, brochures,
letters and posters.
"Bring back our nature!" "We donít want
the dam anymore!" Villagers waved banners and shouted these demands
again and again in front of the Government House in Bangkok. Over 10,000
villagers started protesting there in February, 1997. They stayed for 90
days. The protesters were not only Pak Moon Dam victims, but were also
those affected by the Sirindhorn Damís construction 25 years earlier, and
from areas affected by the Khong-Chi-Moon project, which involves building
a series of 14 dams in northeastern Thailand.
It was hot, but
people brought food and water to the protesters. "Bangkokians were more
sympathetic than in previous years," said Tongcharoen.
As head of
the village protestersí committee, Tongcharoen held many negotiations with
government officials. He and his people wanted more land as compensation:
15 rai for each family. The government of former Prime Minister Chavalit
Yongchaiyudh promised to provide this, but the new government of Prime
Minister Chaun Leekpai would not honor the promise. Tongcharoen has since
met with two ministers but the issue remains unresolved.
villagers had more unity and fought back, the dam could not have been
built," Pana said. "But we were divided into two groups and EGAT
Pana added, "We had no organization at that time
and we also did not know how to protest."
said, "the government also should have given us all the information about
the dam. They should have been sincere with us."
dam is a classic case," said Pana. "This is a case of the grassroots
against the government. We can learn a lot of lessons from this