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Huay Laha dam makes paupers of well-off villagers

Old woman and daughter demand redress

SANITSUDA EKACHAI,  Bangkok Post, 13 Aug 2000

Petch Khanjanta was only four years old when all her family farmland disappeared under the waters of Huay Laha dam in Ubon Ratchathani.But she still remembers vividly how the dam turned her life upside down."From a well-to-do family in the village, we suddenly became paupers," she said.Her mother, Hai Khanjanta, had to forage for fish or clams in swamps and walk kilometres to exchange them for rice in nearby villages to feed her 10 children."As her youngest daughter, I followed my mother, walking barefoot along hot dirt roads. Often, she carried me or put me in the baskets on her trips."Twenty years on, Petch is still following her mother's footsteps.Mrs Hai, now 71, is among the oldest grassroots leaders in the the Assembly of the Poor.Petch, 27, is among the younger ones in the people's movement."My mother is getting old now. I have to continue her dreams," said Petch, now eight months pregnant with her first child."Our goal is the same-to fight for justice."Before the dam, Mrs Hai and her husband owned hundreds of rai of ricefields which they inherited from both sides of the family."We got everything we needed from our land, be it food, herbal medicine, firewood, building materials," recalled Mrs Hai."We thought our land would be enough to support our 10 children. The dam stole everything from us."To survive, all her children had to drop out of school, and left home at a young age to work in Bangkok."With our former family background, I could have easily got a university education," said Petch. "Because of the dam, I became a child worker in a sweatshop, a servant, a factory worker, and now a jobless mother."Petch's last job in a dusty textile factory has left her with breathing problems. As Petch recounted her life story, Mrs Hai's eyes reflected the silent agony of a mother unable to alleviate her child's suffering.Huay Laha, as a small dam project for farm irrigation, is not required by law to give affected villagers any compensation.Petch argued, however, that such projects are legally required to be on public land or must receive approval from affected villagers.Mrs Hai and her relatives never gave any such permission.Instead, she has been fighting the dam from day one.Her struggle dates back to the Prem Tinsulanonda administration and it has never stopped.She was asking for compensation back then.But not any more."I want my farmland back," she said firmly.The still water in the reservoir, she explained, has become putrid and was no longer usable."It's better to open the waterways and drain the area to return it to the way it used to be."When we have our good land back, we will never have to fear hunger. I don't want my grandchildren to suffer like my children have."The struggle is not over yet, and I definitely won't give up," Mrs Hai said.Petch said she wants her child to inherit the same determination of her mother."She has fought hard for us and our rights. I'm proud to be her daughter," said the young mother-to-be, her voice trembling with emotion.In silence, their eyes met.Mrs Hai's wrinkled, tired face gave her daughter a gentle smile.The Banthorn Commission's recommendations: Compensation for villagers who can prove their land rights to a joint committee with representatives from the Assembly of the Poor.

The Chuan government's resolution: No. The government has never paid compensation for small dam projects and does not want to set a precedent.

 

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