Villagers returned to their old livelihood when the dam gates open
By Subhatra Bhumiprabhas
Published on July 16,2007
If you were passing Government House on Tuesday evening you could have spotted as many as 70 villagers waiting there.
They were from Pak Mun and all members of Assembly of the Poor. They travelled to Bangkok to hear a military junta-appointed Cabinet decision in their fate.
But, a few hours earlier they had been forcibly removed from inside the grounds by police and told the Cabinet was not scheduled tom discuss their plight.
"I have been hearing about Pak Mun people for a very long time. I have sympathy for them because no one wants to leave home for these conditions. But, I've forgotten why they are protesting. Are they still around? Why is it not over yet?" one person asked.
Villagers themselves have lost count of the times since 1989 they have travelled to the capital to demonstrate first against the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) removing them from their land to make way for a new dam and then over the flow of the river.
The latest trip was made after a June 12 Cabinet decision decided to close the dam's sluice gates forever. Two weeks earlier the Cabinet agreed Pak Mun Dam could open its gates four months a year.
The group came from Ubon Ratchathani province to demand the opening of the gates as promised.
Sompong Wiengchan, 56, tells how the villagers have made the long journey numerous times to battle for their existence and livings.
"We don't want to come but we have to come because our problems have never been solved," said Sompong, a 20-year veteran of this contest.
The Cabinet of late prime minister Chatichai Choonhavan approved the dam back in 1989. The dam was built between 1991 and 1994.
It destroyed the livelihoods and way of life of about 6,000 families that relied on the Mun River. These villages were no longer able to earn livings from fishing. They demanded compensation.
In 1994 Egat paid each family Bt90,000. Of this amount Bt30,000 went directly to people and Bt60,000 went to the community's cooperative.
But, problems did not end there.
The community's way of life has been changed because of the drastic reduction in fish numbers in the river. The dam blocks the upstream migration of fish from the Mekong.
Thousands of fishermen have left home to take jobs as labourers. Many work on construction sites in far-away provinces. Some of the elderly came to Bangkok where they collect and sell junk.
"My three children left home to work in the city," Sompong said.
Those who remained scratch out a living making brooms to sell at markets.
For almost two decades the villagers have been demanding justice. The governments of Chatichai, AnandPanyarachun, Banharn Silapa-archa, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, Chuan Leekpai and Thaksin Shinawatra have come and gone without a resolution.
"It seems the problem will be settled but it never is," Sompong
said. She has been involved in negotiations since she was a young woman.
In 1997 the Chavalit Cabinet agreed to compensate the villagers with land - 15 rai for each displaced family - or Bt500,000.
Nothing was ever received following the cancellation of this deal by the Chuan administration in 1999. It said the Pak Mun problem was created by earlier administrations and no more compensation would be paid.
"We returned home empty handed," Sompong recalled.
The dam-gate saga
Between 2001 and 2002 the government asked Egat to keep the dam gates open the year round following Ubon
Ratchathani University research showing this would allow the villagers to return to their old livelihoods.
"I earned about Bt20,000 from fishing that year," Sompong recalled.
The study found when the river flowed freely year round families could earn more than Bt10,000 from fishing. When the gates were shut that fell to just Bt3,000 a year.
The study suggested the dam gates should be opened all year, or at least for five months in the wet season between July and
November. This allowed fish to migrate upstream and breed.
But, in 2004 the Thaksin government decided on a four- month opening. While this did not entirely please the villagers it was a compromise and their protests ended.
"At least we still could catch fish and exchange them for rice," Sompong said.
Three years later they are back
The current government ordered the gates opened on June 7. They remained closed.
Sompong and 70 others packed their bags and made the familiar trip to Government House. They were determined to find out why.
They were puzzled when Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont told them the four- month opening had been reversed and the decision was based on recommendations by the Internal Security Operations Command.
It claimed more than 21,000 villagers had signed an agreement that the gates be kept shut.
"Villagers knew nothing about this 'referendum'. We asked the government to show us the names of those who had agreed to this move. It refused," Sompong said.
Members of the Surayud executive declined to meet with the villagers. Pak Mun people still know nothing of their fate. They believe this government is perpetrating their despair.
The dam ruined their lives but governments have since ignored them, Sompong said.
"We have to continue fighting."
Violence at Pak Mun
March 1993: Hooded men attack villagers protesting at the dam site injuring 33.
December 1993: Clashes between dam supporters and protesters at a Baan Hua Haew construction site. One protester is seriously injured after being shot.
July 2000: Special police disperse Pak Mun villagers protesting at Government House. More than 200 are arrested and charged withtrespass.
December 2002: Hooded men raid, demolish and burn shelters at Moo Baan Mae Mun Yangyuen and another location constructed by dam protesters.
January 2003: Bangkok Governor Samak Sundaravej orders 1,000 city officials to tear down a protest site at Government House.
Belongings were confiscated and disposed of.
July 10, 2007: 70 villagers forced to leave the Government
House by 300 police. Four protesters are injured.