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Focus, the Nation, July 5, 2000

"It's too complicated. You wouldn't understand it"

"Try me."

"Well, you see, some villagers got paid off and now there's others who are saying 'hey, we want to be paid compensation too.' The problem is that some of those who got paid didn't even live beside the river."

"Ah, typical! They filed false claims then?"

"Yeah, and then there's Chavalit [former prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh]. They got money when he was in power and he has supporters among the protesters. You see, the protesters are divided into two groups: those who got money and those who didn't."

"And they're not talking to each other?"

"They're divided into two different camps."

"Well, is the dam causing flooding?"

"No, not really."

We talked on with reaching any conclusion. Nothing is as simple as it seems. As I find is often the case in Thailand, the more I learn, the less I feel I know. Now I was sure I had to go see the dam for myself.

I got a lift to Rasi Salai Dam in the back of a pickup truck which bounced over every bump and puddle on the ruddy, muddy back roads. Along the way we stopped to talk to a farmer whose fields are filled with brackish water and dying rice plants.

"What do you think about the dam on the Mool River?"

"It's right over there and it's killing all the fish."

"Is there a problem with salinity in the fields here?"

"You better ask them about it," he said, pointing toward the river bank.

My driver, his three-year-old son and I entered the secured protest area with the minimum of fuss. I pulled out my little camera, explaining that I wanted to take pictures and write a story, and was told that that would be fine. We are permitted to walk around the occupied dam site and even the Egat (Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand) control room which looks like an American suburban house dropped by helicopter next to the nicely landscaped dam. A road runs across the dam although the only traffic proceeds on foot. Numerous tents and lean-to shacks clutter the area around a concrete tower. On the north side of the river, stands a small refreshment stall which, I was told, predates the sit-in.

The sound of water pouring through the metal gates of the dam was deafening. Not far downstream, villagers, bracing themselves on the rocky riverbank, were washing clothes. On the stopped-up side of the dam, I saw young people swimming and some old women bathing, fully clothed. So what is the dam good for besides laundry and swimming?

"It's a good place for the officials to drink whiskey and have barbecues," was the answer I liked best.

Good, I thought. These protesters have a sense of humour, a rare quality in political activists. And there was irony too. For while Egat officials were nowhere in sight, here were hundreds of villagers camped out on top of the dam, overlooking a wide, man-made lake, enjoying a non-stop barbecue of grilled fish, roast chicken, somtam and sticky rice.

If a political protest goes on long enough, it becomes a celebration of everyday life. I had experienced this first-hand at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in May 1989 when the Chinese student movement was in its Woodstock phase. Protests are a lot of fun until someone comes along to ruin the party.

I saw both kinds of protest at Rasi Salai. I liked the people who had the courage to camp out on the dam itself. I liked their tents, their make-shift kitchens, their music, their laughter. The Assembly of the Poor campsite is especially nice at sunset since the lake is to the west of the dam and reflects the sky brilliantly.

There was another protest site just a few hundred metres away. Situated in a depression alongside the river is the camp run by a group which calls itself the Assembly of the Mool River Basin. I spotted a poster outside claiming that these protesters had been here for a year already. It must have irked them to have been upstaged, literally, by the newcomers who arrived in May and staked out the high ground. And the River Basin folk did seem a tad grouchy, as I discovered when I tried to enter their camp via a break in the barbed wire and thick hedges which surround it. I was shooed away and told to enter by the main gate.

"What's your business here?" The challenge came from an unsmiling woman at the gate who looked as bored as a toll-booth attendant.

"I'd like to go in and take some pictures."

"You can't come in."


"You need permission."

"Well, who do I need permission from?"

"That person is not here now. There's nothing I can do for you."

A tense silence followed. My Thai friend indicated that it was time to leave but I lingered to get a better look at the shanty town. In the middle of the cluster of huts stood a colourful stage.

"What's that for?" I gestured in the direction of the stage.

"That's where we put on political theatre," the gatekeeper answered smartly. "That's where we educate the masses."

Feeling as if I'd accidentally stumbled across the border into a Khmer Rouge stronghold, I left and meandered back to the "friendly" side.

The dam at Rasi Salai does not produce electricity which raises the question: Why can't the floodgates be opened as the villagers have demanded? If I understand the spirit of the Mool protesters correctly, this is really a struggle to regain a lost way of life; a militant stand justified by the belief that access to natural resources is a right - a human right. Sure, there are those seeking compensation but they are not the cutting-edge of the movement. The real movers and shakers want something much more important than money: they want to get back in harmony with nature.

The stopped-up waters spook some of the local people. I took a swim in the man-made lake but felt uneasy about not being able to gauge the depth or the currents. Later, on the south side of the dam, I came across a shrine. A plaster bust on a flower-dotted altar. It was a memorial to a protester who had drowned. A few days afterwards, a 15-year old girl drowned at the same spot.

A bridge over the river would be one thing, it was explained. But blocking the river with a dam and then pretending it's a bridge by putting a road on top goes against the local reverence for nature. That's why some of the Rasi Salai protesters have taken the provocative step of chipping away at the dam, bit by bit. Said one: "We want the flood waters to run off our rice fields so that we can make a living and let nature go back to the way it was."


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