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Mother Nature

Activism: Mothers are palying a leading role in Thai grassroots movements to save the environment for the younger genaration.

Sompong Waiengjand is a goo example. She has risked her life in the Pak Moon dam controvesy. And the story is far from over.

Story And Pictures:Sanitsuda Ekachai, Bangkok Post Outlook, May 3, 2000

Sompong Wiangjand's wish is very simple: She wants to return the Moon River to her children. But the mother's journey in fulfilling that simple wish has been fraught with obstacles.

Twelve years have passed since the first day she heard that the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) was planning to construct the Pak Moon Dam at the confluence of the Mekong and the Moon rivers in Ubon Ratchathani province.

Life along the river has been turned upside down ever since.

The dam now towers across the Moon River, cutting its past from its present. In between, the long and unrelenting protests against the dam have turned what initially started off as a disorganised peasants' resistance into one of the country's strongest grassroots movements.

The struggle has also turned Mrs Sompong, a mother of four, into one of Thailand's most outspoken female grassroots leaders.

"Give us back our river," she declared. "The dam must go."Mrs Sompong, 48, has steely eyes and a strong voice that match her determination. Her electrifying speeches have never failed to lift the Pak Moon crowd's spirits when they were down. Such charisma gives the small, plump woman a larger-than-life aspect. But it is her time-tested commitment and integrity that has won her the widest respect.

Her courage has become a legend in the Pak Moon struggle.

When Egat refused to talk to the villagers and started to blast away the rapids which are fish-spawning habitats along the Moon River, the womenfolk, led by Mrs Sompong, decided to risk their lives to stop the destruction.

To do so, some 100 mothers seized the blasting site. Some formed a human chain around the digging machines while others put their pasin (sarongs) on the explosives and laid down on top of them, refusing to move.

"I didn't have any fear. I only thought that if the bombs exploded, then the children of Pak Moon would benefit from our deaths," she recalled.

The siege went on for two days before Egat agreed to hold compensation talks with the villagers.

"If not for us women, the Pak Moon negotiation process would never have begun," she said.

"Women have had an important role in our movement right from the start."Like other Pak Moon fisherfolk, Mrs Sompong sees her life divided into two starkly different periods: life before and life after the dam.

"I was born by the river. Our house was by the river. I was the eldest daughter and my father, a seasoned fisherman, taught me all the tricks of his trade," she recounted, her voice tinged with nostalgia.

Those were days of peace. The Moon River winds along rocky banks that are the villagers' homes. Though there are little rice-growing fields in the area, the Moon River-thanks to fish migration from the Mekong River and the rapids which serve as natural fish habitats-gave the villagers abundant fish all year round, more than enough to barter for rice and other basic necessities.

Apart from being the villagers' main mode of transport, the river, blessed with scenic rapids and forests along the banks, was also the source of their recreation.

"Mae Moon was our life," Mrs Sompong said, calling the river by its name in the Isan dialect. Mae means mother.

Back then, children, both boys and girls, learned how to fish and to make different kinds of fishing gear from the time they were very young. Mrs Sompong herself started when she was only seven years old. As her mother was frail, she became her father's fishing mate. A seasoned fisherwoman in her own right, the young Sompong knew the rhythms of the river and the nature of different fish like the backs of her own hands.

At only 13, she became a fish vendor, which deepened the teenager's self confidence.

"My father was a just man. When fish vendors cheated us with faulty scales, he told me to buy fish from our neighbours and sell them to the market myself. We had a lot of customers because of our honesty."When her father died, Mrs Sompong, then only 14, became the leader of the family, supporting her mother and younger siblings through fishing and fish trading.

Customs forced her to marry early. "The puyai arranged it. My mother was a widow, and I was so young. It was easy for women in this situation to be taken advantage of. We needed a man in the house to protect us," she recalled.

She mused, though, that it was she who taught her husband how to fish and make fishing gear, "though he became better than I was later on."Like other Pak Moon couples, the husband and wife took turns catching fish day and night. In summer, when the water receded, they helped each other by growing vegetables on the riverbank, giving away the surplus to neighbours who gave their own in return.

Her fish business, meanwhile, enabled the family to buy ricefields and build a bigger house. As a mother, she did what her father had done, teaching her children the art of fishing. When they were big enough, she gave them each a boat, so that they could learn to earn a living independently.

It was the way of the Moon villagers, she said. She truly believed that her children and grandchildren would continue what she and her ancestors had done till the end of time.

Then the dam came.

"We never knew about it. We only learned about it when officials came into the villages to measure flooding levels. They told us we would be compensated only for our house and flooded areas. Nothing more.

"They told us that the dam would not be built until everyone was compensated, that the dam would not affect fish abundance in the river, and that the dam would help us grow rice three times a year! But we saw how the villagers displaced by the Sirindhorn Dam suffered before us, so we weren't that gullible."Common sense also told her that the dam promises were plain lies.

The rocky topography made irrigation claims impossible. And it was certain that the huge dam, which would obstruct fish migration, would certainly affect the majority of the villagers who depended on fishery for their livelihood.

Furthermore, the number of those who would be affected was not accurate. The villagers complained that the dam overlooked the impact on fishery and the compensation scheme did not take into account the villagers' loss of livelihood. But Egat refused to take heed.

That was why Mrs Sompong, along with other Pak Moon mothers, joined the resistance.

"I started off in the kitchen. When we villagers gathered to discuss things among ourselves or to stage a protest, I cooked for them. I never thought I would become a leader myself."Her role changed one day when a male speaker was absent during a protest in front of Government House. "I was trembling. I was afraid to speak into the microphone. But I had to do it."The crowd, however, was impressed by her outspokenness. She was later elected to represent the affected, first in her own district and then for all Pak Moon villagers.

A woman's path to leadership is never easy, however. For Mrs Sompong, her biggest obstacle was prejudice.

"In our village culture, women were not supposed to step out. Those who did not stay home were labelled man-hunters," she said.

The Pak Moon struggle often took Mrs Sompong away from home for extended periods of time. Hence rumours abounded about supposed infidelity, which hurt her deeply.

"But I was clean. So I let time prove myself to others," she said. "If you're a leader, you must be patient and calm. You must be able to withstand people's emotions and criticisms."It took many years before her husband and her children understood her commitment, she said. "When they did, they supported my work fully."Twelve years in the movement has completely changed her, she said.

"I was a different woman before the dam. As a woman, and as a fish vendor, I had to always talk nicely to people. But you cannot survive this struggle-and other male leaders-if you act like a pleaser. I've learned to speak up, to confront. It's out of self-protection. The struggle has made me tough."But toughness is necessary for successful negotiations. "Egat always told the public they gave us this and that, painting us as greedy. They never say that they didn't give us anything until we protested for our rights and proved our cause," she said bitterly.

Through the villagers' persistence, sound data, and alliance-building with environmentalists, academics and other grassroots groups, Egat agreed to compensate the villagers for their loss of livelihood.

The compensation for lost income during the three-year period of dam-building was bargained down, however, to only 90,000 baht; each family would be paid 30,000 baht in cash and the rest of the money would go into a cooperative fund.

Egat has yet to fulfil an agreement to compensate for the decline of fish after construction of the dam with 15 rai of land or its equivalent in money.

"The officials never believed us when we said that the fish would disappear. They told us to prove it by waiting at least three years after construction of the dam. We did. And we were later proved correct."A decade on, the Moon River has also become polluted, something the villagers did not anticipate. To rescue their dying Mother Moon, the villagers said there was only one choice: Open the gates to the Pak Moon Dam and let the river run free again.

"We want no money. We want no compensation. We want nature back," said Mrs Sompong.

"We never wanted the dam in the first place. But the authorities never listened to us.

"Before the dam, fish from the Moon gave us everything. We were never hungry. We built our own school and temple without using state money. We were self-reliant. Our communities were close. Our families stayed together.

"After the dam, we lost not only our river but also our communities. People were divided. Families were broken. I never thought our old life at Pak Moon would come to this point, in such a short period of time, in my own lifetime."The dam-opening demand entails another long wrangle with the authorities. But the villagers have learned their lessons. Instead of demonstrating in the Ubon Ratchathani town seat or in Bangkok, they continue camping out at the dam site. Some 3,000 affected are staying put there, including Mrs Sompong and her husband. They call it a village and gave it a name: Mae Moon Man Yuen, which means long-lasting Mother Moon.

Like other families, Mrs Sompong's is scraping out a living now that fishing in the Moon is impossible. Her two sons, former fishermen, are now charcoal makers, an occupation for the poorest of the poor. One of her daughters is a maid in Bangkok supporting her youngest sister's education.

"I used to visit them in Bangkok. Often they had nothing to eat. My heart broke for them," said Mrs Sompong, her voice trembling.

But Mrs Sompong sees her duty as a mother now is with the Pak Moon struggle.

"For justice, we must fight, not for ourselves but for everyone. If we don't fight, who will? We must be examples for our children."Twelve years into the struggle, the iron woman said her goal was no longer limited to the cause of the Pak Moon.

"I want a just society. I want to awaken the Thai people so that they are aware of the on-going system of exploitation, about the country's national debt situation, about strings attached with foreign loans that affect us.

"I also want local villagers to have the right to manage their own natural resources. No more top-down policies from the authorities without consulting us."Despite the odds, Mrs Sompong nurtures the hope that one day society will open up and the Moon River will be returned to its children.

That's probably the reason why she still keeps old fishing gear in her house and, in between marches and negotiations, keeps making new gear. "I'm waiting for the day when I will be able to fish in the Moon again," she said.

She knows that when that day comes, her family will be together again-and her duty as a mother will be finally fulfilled.


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