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Village of the dammed

 

By Southeast Asia Rivers Network
January 11, 2000

Visiting the protest village at Rasi Salai dam is truly a moving experience. Mae Mun Man Yuen Village #2 is located directly within the Rasi Salai reservoir, and the several bamboo houses that the villagers have built there stand on stilts to stay above the water. A meter stick is located in the center of the village to keep track of the water level. When The Department of Energy Development and Promotion (DEDP) closes the dams flood gates to store water in the reservoir, the villagers must use their boats to get anywhere. Even the toilet, which is on an island at the edge of the village, can only be reached by boat. At times when the water level rises high enough to inundate some of the houses, the villagers are forced to crowd into the few that stand higher than the rest. Despite the many hardships that they must face on a daily basis, the people at Rasi Salai are determined not to move until justice is served. Mr. Pijit Silalak, the villages leader said, we will stay here even if we must drown. This seems to be the last choice for those who have been fighting for their rights for more than 6 years.

DEDP began construction of the Rasi Salai dam in 1992, as part of the Khong-Chee-Mun Water Diversion Project. This is the largest water diversion project in NE Thailand and the Mekong Region. DEDP has planned 13 dams on the Chee and Mun Rivers, claiming that this will solve the water shortages in NE Thailand by diverting water from the Mekong into these two rivers.

As with many dams in the Khong-Chee-Mun project, the construction process of Rasi Salai dam was very deceitful. DEDP did not release any information to the public during construction, claiming that they were only installing a 4.5 meter rubber weir. This rubber weir is what the government approved for Rasi Salai, and they stated that the water level would not rise above the riverbank. Because DEDP proposed only a small-scale project, no Environmental Impact Assessment was ever conducted for Rasi Salai. The modified Environmental Act of 1992 states that any dam project with a reservoir over 15 square kms or more must have an EIA. In actuality however, DEDP built a 9 meter concrete dam that flooded over 100 square kms of farmland and freshwater swamp forest. This was in direct violation of the EA. DEDP is under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, who are responsible for the Environmental Act. So in a sense, this section of the government broke its own law. Once the people at Rasi Salai learned of DEDPs real plans they immediately began to demonstrate against the project.

Over 3,000 families lost their farmland to the reservoir. DEDP did not pay compensation to the villagers because they lacked baseline data about the affected people, but this was DEDPs own fault. Had they conducted an EIA report and field studies prior to construction, they would have established all the information needed to determine the number of families entitled to compensation. After a demonstration by the affected people, DEDP paid for private property only, giving no compensation for common lands. As a result of 18 demonstrations against Rasi Salai dam, Gen. Chawalits government finally paid compensation to 1154 out of over 3,000 affected families.


When Mr. Chuan became PM the new government accused the villagers who had been paid of being inauthentic, and making fraudulent claims to obtain the compensation money. They have even taken this issue to the courts, claiming that the villagers are trying to cheat the state out of its money. The Chuan government also uses the media to put the affected villagers in a bad light. One example is the Saaichol and Khon Thai television program, which uses advertising academics to accuse the villagers of unjustly obtaining compensation for public lands. In the years of protests against the dam, the Chuan government has used many tactics to avoid compensating the villagers. They have publicly discredited, with press releases, both the villagers and any politicians who take their side, in an attempt to weaken the opposition. All of the Chuan governments tactics in the Rasi Salai issue are nearly identical to those they have used at Pak Mun.

So there are two groups of people occupying the protest village at Rasi Salai. The first group is those that were initially compensated, then accused of making fraudulent claims to obtain the money. They demand that the government examine the land rights and see that they were truly affected by the flooding. They want their names cleared. The second group has never received any sort of compensation, and thats what they are demanding. The government has claimed that the area where these peoples farmland had stood is public property, so they are not entitled to compensation. However, independent studies have shown that several generations of villagers have been using the wetland forests along the Mun River because the soil is very fertile for farmland. In the political ecology concept this is known as customary land rights, but the Thai State does not understand or recognize this type of land rights. The State has also mistakenly labeled the concerned areas as public or state property, but in reality the villagers have customary land rights.

The protesters are demanding that all affected families receive compensation, but at the moment it seems highly unlikely that this will happen. The Chuan government has continually made the villagers scapegoats in their attempt to deny affected the families compensation. All the while, the protesting villagers have endured the most trying of circumstances in their struggle. They have resolved to demand compensation because theyve been left with no other options. If you ask the people, however, they will tell you that their long-term goal is removal of the dam. Too much has been lost because of the dam, and the negative impacts reach much further than the lost fisheries, farmland, and the horrible injustice.

The freshwater swamp forest that was destroyed by the reservoir was the largest of its kind in the Mun Basin. It was an excellent habitat for fish, had a high biodiversity value, and was useful for flood control. The area flooded by the reservoir also provided food, herbal medicines, and salt to the local people. The Rasi Salai reservoir sits directly on top of a large salt dome, which is the cause of the salination problems it now has. Before the dam, the villagers would collect salt from the area every year during the dry season. This salt was well known by people throughout the region because it contained naturally occurring iodine.

Many villagers from other areas would buy salt from Rasi Salai because of its high quality. They use salt for seasoning as well as to preserve fish. Because of the dam, this important source of salt has been lost. This is merely one example of how far-reaching the effects of the dam have been.

Rasi Salai was supposedly built to provide irrigation for the surrounding land, but even though it was completed in 1994, no irrigation system is operational yet. DEDP did not concern itself at all with the negative impacts the dam would have on the local people or the environment.

The people protesting at Rasi Salai are determined to remain there until the government meets their demands. You cant help admiring their courage when you see them all sitting in their shelters, talking or eating just inches above the water. They are setting a strong example to all people affected by development projects, whether they know it or not. Their village is very small and isolated, and it doesnt receive nearly the amount of visitors or exposure that Pak Mun does. But this doesnt discourage the villagers, they remain resolute in their struggle. These people have been demonstrating for over 6 years. They have staged rallies at the dam site, in local villages and in Bangkok, and still the government refuses to hear their demands. Establishing the village in the reservoir was the final step in a long, difficult struggle. There are no other options for these people, thats why they haven chosen not to move, even with the risk of being drowned.

On October 27 an open letter was sent to PM Chuan Leekpai concerning Rasi Salai dam. It was endorsed by 28 international organizations that support the protesting villagers, and it urged Mr. Chuan to direct DEDP to stop filling the reservoir and give due consideration to the peoples demands. Even with developments such as this, the Rasi Salai issue is still widely overlooked. The situation at Rasi Salai is extremely urgent, peoples lives are at stake. The public must be made aware of whats happening. We need to pressure the government to solve this problem by draining the reservoir, conducting ground surveys to realize the entirety of the villagers loss, and by paying compensation in a fair and personal manner. Not by distributing the money through complex, bureaucratic processes and making the villagers their scapegoats for accusations of fraudulent claims.

More info contact:
Southeast Asia Rivers Network (SEARIN)
Email: searin@chmai.loxinfo.co.th

 
 

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