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Once a Blast, Villagersí Tradition Has Now Simply Been Blasted Away

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.
 
She missed 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.
 
The 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.
 
The older 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 debt."
 
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.
 
Tongcharoen was so sad to see villagers fighting with each other.
 
Before 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.
 
EGAT distributed 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.
 
The 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.

"If our 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 exploited this."
 Pana added, "We had no organization at that time and we also did not know how to protest."
 
"But," Tongcharoen said, "the government also should have given us all the information about the dam. They should have been sincere with us."
 
"Pak Moon 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 case."

Copyright 2009 IMMF.