Another dam, another dollar
Last 9 November, officials led a group of 300 people to villages protesting against the Pong Khun Petch (PKP) dam project in Chaiyaphum. According to the official account, this was a “fact-finding mission”. According to local accounts, it was an armed invasion. The group came in a cavalcade of 33 vehicles led by the provincial governor. An army GMC crashed open the gate. Weapons were waved about, abuse shouted, villagers intimidated. In the aftermath, the protesters have laid charges against the governor for infringing human rights and official practice. In turn, officials have accused the villagers of mounting a rebellion and trying to secede from Thailand.
PKP is a small project – a 24-metre high earth dam which will flood 12,000 rai of land. The total cost is 300 million baht. The irrigation department claims it will improve irrigation on 100,000 rai. How does such a small project provoke such a big conflict?
The project was first planned in 1990, when things were much simpler. There was no need for an environmental impact assessment. The land was officially “forest” so government expected the 6-700 villagers affected would not make trouble, even though they had been there for 30 years. The irrigation department could rightly claim that the project would improve the water supply in an especially dry and precarious zone. Farmers and businessmen wanted the project.
But since then, the politics of such projects have totally changed. Dam projects now come under scrutiny in three ways. Local villagers resist being moved out of the way without consultation or compensation. Environmentalists question whether projects are desirable or profitable once the environmental impact is studied and costed. And democracy activists challenge the process whereby officials plan and implement projects with as little public review as possible.
With these changes, PKP ceased to be a small, simple project and became an issue. The affected villages began to resist in 1993-4. In 1995-6, they got help from farmers organisations and the Assembly of the Poor. The government’s own environmental watchdog raised doubts about flooding yet another tract of forest. The Chavalit government agreed to halt the project and hold a review.
But officialdom has responded badly to this growing opposition. At the local level, officials first tried to ignore protests, and then to stifle them. Irrigation officials tried to hustle villagers off the land without compensation on grounds they had no land rights. Then professional land speculators appeared, bought land off the villagers for peanuts, and made a large profit from the subsequent forced sale to government. The officials then had to offer compensation at 8000 baht per rai. When some villagers still resisted (partly because the officials asked for backhanders on the compensation), the local authorities used siege tactics. They blockaded food supplies to the village and persuaded local merchants not to buy forest produce which the villagers collected for sale.
At the national level, officials tried to evade opposition by managing information. After the Environmental Protection Act was passed, the irrigation department downsized the project so it was just smaller than the minimum size to trigger a compulsory environmental impact assessment. The department also reworked the costing so the project’s rate of return jumped from 11 percent to 18 percent, exceeding the 12 percent minimum required for go-ahead.
All this is part of a broader trend. Officials have met growing opposition to such projects by becoming more politically aggressive - mob against mob. A year ago, officials, NGOs and academics met to exchange technical information reviewing another dam project (Kaeng Sua Ten). Although it was termed a “technical meeting”, officials turned it into a political confrontation. They packed the meeting with local politicians and dam supporters. Speeches were made. No technical discussion was held. Over the Yadana pipeline and the Prachuab power stations, senior officials have been involved in organising demonstrations in support. Since the Chuan government declared its opposition to the Assembly of the Poor earlier this year, this official aggression has increased. The agriculture ministry resurrected the PKP project in mid-1998 even though the Chavalit cabinet resolution suspending the project is still in force.
Since the November fracas, the war of words has grown more violent. The villagers’ side describes the invasion as “the governor’s army”, staffed by police, soldiers, officials and “local gangsters”. They claim this mob acted “as if Thailand was a jungle”. The official side claim the villagers recently and deliberately moved into the dam’s flood zone to obstruct the project. There they barricaded the entrance to the village and posted notices excluding outsiders and officials. Officials claim this amounted to establishing “a free village, a free state (rat issara), above the law”. In other words, this was a rebellion. They also accuse the Assembly of the Poor of “opposing democratic principles, fomenting disunity among the people, stirring up resistance continually and everywhere in Thailand according to an ideology that has never been changed”. In other words, the Assembly is a communist plot.
At base, this issue illustrates a growing gap of credibility and trust. PKP may very well be a good project. But more and more people refuse to accept the officials’ word in such cases. The track record shows that many people profit from dams and similar big projects. Contractors make big profits. Officials get backhanders. Land speculators make a killing (see the Prachuab land scandal). VIPs get special privileges (see the Sri Nakarin dam land scandal). Politicians gain prestige. These interests can be strong enough to drive a project whether it is good or not. Too often in the past, the real benefits have been below projections, and the social and environmental costs much higher. So projects now get challenged.
But the official mind does not know how to respond to this challenge. Rather, it tends to compound its record of bad faith by juggling the figures, hiding information, resisting scrutiny, and portraying opponents as trouble-makers, rebels and unreformed communists. More and more too, it now brings out the mob kharachakan, the official mob, to enforce its will.