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Demystifying the Pak Mool imbroglio

The Nation, July 3, 2000.

"Fighting to let the river run free", is a euphemism frequently used by those protesting against the Pak Mool Dam. Many shy away from openly discussing the internal conflict taking place among local villagers, the authorities and non-governmental organisations involved. Pongsak Bai-ngern visits the dam site to try and fathom the causes of the dispute.

On the afternoon of May 15 three village headmen led more than 1,000 local people to the controversial site of Pak Mool Dam and temporarily established Mae Mool Maan Yuen 7 village.

In the villagers' latest move in their 10-year struggle against the dam, they declared they would occupy the area until the government responded to their demands.

The dam protest has consisted mainly of public speeches attacking the government and criticising local authorities for failing to adequately address their problems.

Responding to the villagers' move, the local authorities, led by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) spread rumours they would send in police to disperse the protesters by force.

The villagers want the government to reverse the adverse affects the dam has had on their communities, restore the river's ecology to enable it to serve as a natural habitat for fish once more and open the dam's eight sluice gates to allow fish to swim upstream to their natural spawning grounds.

One of the strongest points raised by the villagers highlighting the dam's failure attacked its central purpose. They said the dam actually produced less than 40 megawatts of power, well below its expected capacity of 136Mw.

Another point raised by villagers was the failure of fish-ladder technology to minimise the dam's impact on local fisheries. Egat had said the ladder would help fish climb upstream for spawning. But the villagers said it had since proven to be a failure and demanded that the electricity board take responsibility for it.

They said the dam had also led to reservoir water in the area becoming polluted.

"These impacts are ignored by Egat, but we are all affected. Most of all, the government has always ignored our complaint. It forces us to gather here to make them listen," village headman Thongcharoen Sihatham said.

The atmosphere became increasingly tense when the Pak Mool Dam's electricity generators were shut down on May 31. Egat claimed this was because the protesters were preventing its workers from doing the maintenance work it had requested permission to carry out a few days after the villagers occupied the site.

Egat officials heightened the tension further when they declared "war" on the protesters through the media. The authority warned that if the protest did not cease mass flooding and an electricity blackout in five nearby Northeastern provinces would occur. Egat claimed the latter would force Thailand to import power from neighbouring Laos. As a result of these knock-on effects, Egat claimed, the occupation is costing it about Bt12 million a day.

Contention between the villagers and authorities revolves largely around the issue of compensation.

"We sympathise with the villagers and understand their suffering. But we insist that we have already compensated them," said Suwich Phumwiangsri, chief of Pak Mool-Sirinthorn power station.

Suwich declined to furnish details of compensation but said villagers should be satisfied because they had already received relatively high compensation from Egat since the dam's construction. In total Egat has paid Bt232 million to afflicted villagers from 36 villages, he said.

But the villagers said compensation failed to cover all the damage, such as the dam's impact on local fisheries. Before the advent of the dam they were able to feed their entire families on the proceeds of fishing, they said, and. Egat's compensation, which actually broke down to Bt90,000 for each family for the rest of their lives, was not enough to live on.

Khamphui Sanohwathee from Phiboon Mangsaharn district, whose 10-rai rice farm was inundated by floods caused by the dam, said the Bt30,000 compensation she had received from Egat had all gone into paying off debts. "All I want is a natural river so my family can survive," she said.

But Ta Malimas of Khong Chiam district's Ban Tunglung, whose farm was partly inundated by the floods and who received huge amounts of compensation from Egat as a result, said he disagreed with the protest.

"Some of the protesters have not been affected by the dam's construction," he added.

The protest continues with no end in sight. The villagers are refusing to budge and demand the relevant authorities witness the damage for which they claim they are responsible.

"Come and see for yourself how high the fish ladder is, and then you will realised why the fish cannot climb upstream and why we have been short of food for years," said the protesters in a statement.

Groups comprising academics and senators visited the protest site earlier and agreed with the points raised by protesters.

Through media reports, Egat has attacked the protesters for frequently changing their demands.

"One day they demand 15 rai of land or Bt35,000 in compensation for each family. Another day they ask for the dam gates to be opened," said one Egat official.

The protesters argued that local authorities misunderstood the real point of the problem.

"The Mool River has provided all of us along the river with sufficient food for generations. We have disagreed with the dam's construction since it began. But Egat promised our lives would be better, or at least no worse than before. While we were debating, the dam's construction began," said Thongcharoen.

"During construction we began realising the vast impact, the large-scale destruction of natural rapids along the river. We tried to stop it, but we couldn't.

"Today we find the promises have been broken. What we ask for now is just a chance to survive, just open the dam's gates and let the fish go upstream."As debate continued to rage, Egat and the protesters released press statements attacking each other every day.

The protesters gradually gained more support from academics and environmentalists. Egat filed a police complaint consisting of seven serious accusations about 14 protest leaders, including well-known non-governmental organisation official Wanida Tantiwittayaphitak.

"We don't want practices such as this to set a social standard. It must not happen again. They intruded on Egat's property. It is like someone intruding in your house and driving you out of it. Are you going to allow them to?" said Amnart Chotechuang, chief of Egat's Public Relations Department.

The protesters fought back. They filed a police complaint of their own against Egat and the government, accusing them of violating human rights.

"Think again, who intrudes in whose house? Egat comes and builds a dam in the middle of our communities, damages our river and now accuses us of intruding on its property," said Boonmee Khamruang, one of leaders accused by Egat.

After that, a new element was introduced to the conflict when supporters of the dam from the local area became involved. The dam's opponents accused these new protagonists of being paid by Egat for their support.

As well as local Interior Ministry officials, kamnan and village headmen, groups of villagers supporting Egat also included former leaders of the dam's opposition such as Thiang Banthao, who left after previous disputes with the present group of protest leaders.

Together with its new supporters, Egat accused NGOs involved in the protest of manipulating villagers for their own ends.

"The villagers themselves could not protest for 10 days without support from the NGOs. I have long been suspicious of their [the NGOs'] intentions. The villagers are blind and are being used," Thiang said.

Amnart alleged the protesters each had to pay Bt1 every day to the protest's organisers. He claimed this was then paid to the NGOs involved, netting them Bt30,000 a month.

"I disagree with the tripartite neutral committee for the Pak Mool case because its president, Dr Banthorn Ondam, used to be the protesters' advisor," Thiang said.

But Thiang's comment will carry little weight with the protesters given his personal standing with the villagers. They claim his leadership of the dam protest came to an undignified end after it was discovered he was having an affair with another villager's wife, who was also one of the

leaders. Both of them were thrown out of the group after this, and Thiang joined Egat, according to the protesters.

A number of Egat supporters have addressed the public through the media.

Sophon Bannongsa, vice head of a new cooperation established by Egat as part of the compensation package to afflicted villagers, alleged the protesters were being used by NGOs who received foreign money to oppose the government. He also claimed they were supported by opposition politicians.

"Thongcharoen is a former communist. Both he and Wanida should be jailed," said Prasartphorn Rimthong, another Egat supporter.Boonmee said it was true Bt1 each was levied from the protesters. However, he claimed this was to fund construction schools, meeting places and traditional herbal saunas for the protesters. Donations ceased after they began receiving money from academics and villagers affiliated to the Assembly of the Poor, he said.

"The role of the NGOs is fading day by day. The protest is run by villagers," Boonmee said. "Wanida is the one who pushed for the conflict to cease by proposing that a tripartite committee approved by the Interior Minister be set up. Who is destroying our society, those who try to stop the conflict or those who try to organise another group to continue it?"


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