“It’s now our responsibility to make sure that the government is acting in the interests of the people.”
Seng Kwanyeun speaks to a gathering of anti-dam activists from across Thailand and Southeast Asia inside a sepia-toned two-storey temple built from some of the last natural golden teak trees ever logged in Thailand. Pah Seng, as Kwanyeun is known, is the former head of Sa-iab Village, a town of a few thousand people sitting in the highlands of northern Thailand. Its rice paddies stretch along the Yom river basin between rocky hills and Thailand’s last remaining golden teak forest.
For 30 years, this village has campaigned to stop the construction of the Kaeng Suea Ten dam, a 72-metre-tall structure planned for the Yom river, a tributary of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river.
The name Kaeng Suea Ten means “Leaping Tiger Rapids”, and if built, the dam would flood 65 square-kilometres, forcing four towns to relocate. Local residents and academics say the flooding could inundate more than 8,000 hectares of forest, including at least 3,800 hectares of golden teak that would be worth millions of dollars if logged.
“You look at bees, building a hive and working to protect one another. People are like that too”Pah Seng, former head of Sa-iab Village
Over the years, the villagers have embraced a range of campaign strategies including ordaining the teak trees with monk’s cloth so no one will destroy the forest, setting up roadblocks to control access to the village and creating their own forest management policies. They’ve even taken to burning effigies of politicians and pro-dam officials, invoking curses on those who threaten their land.
To date, the anti-dam stalwarts of Sa-iab have been successful, and as a result of the campaign the village has taken control of their land and their future, providing hope for other communities facing similar threats across Southeast Asia.
Pah Seng is over 60 years old. He speaks like a firm uncle, not a headstrong or reckless activist. On a weekend in early November, he and the other Sa-iab veteran community organisers put out the call to their network of allies across Thailand, rallying them to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their campaign against the dam that began in 1989.
Marking the anniversary, Sa-iab residents and their supporters gathered in the forest to ask for spirits to bless the river and the trees, with hundreds of people sitting on mats in the shade of the forest, silently receiving prayers from the town’s monks. Orange monk’s cloth adorned teak trees surrounding the gathering and stretching on into the forest.
When the prayers finished, the group gathered their anti-dam banners and signs and circled up around a small wooden pyre, a scarecrow-esque figure built from sticks resting on top. A portrait of Thailand’s Minister of Justice, Somsak Thepsutin, sat nearby and the effigy burned quickly.
Burning effigies of dam proponents like Thepsutin has become a regular tactic for the Kaeng Suea Ten activists. Many residents credit the success of their campaign in part to these rituals, with one government official targeted by the residents reportedly coming to the village to ask the activists to remove the curse.
“You look at bees, building a hive and working to protect one another. People are like that too,” Pah Seng tells the group at the celebrations. “If someone comes and tries to build a dam, we respond the same way as those bees if someone disturbs their nest.”
When the fire from the effigy died down, the crowd spread out into the woods. They carried more strips of orange cloth, the same material as the monks’ robes. Gathering around the teak trees, people conducted tree ordination ceremonies, blessing the trees and wrapping them in the cloth.
The genesis of the Kaeng Suea Ten dam began in the mid-1980s. It started as a 50-megawatt hydropower project but soon, the dam design was adapted by the Thai Royal Irrigation Department (RID) to support irrigation and control flooding across the Yom and Chao Phraya river basins. The dam’s reservoir was designed to hold almost 1.2 billion cubic metres of water.
Slowly, the residents of Sa-iab began to learn about the dam. In 1987, after the plans were announced, the government suspended most public funding for villages that would be displaced by the project.
The residents started resisting the dam’s construction and organising demonstrations, targeting public meetings with the government and dam planners, and emphasising the importance of their teak forest.
In the late 1980s, they established a community group, Rassadorn Rak Pa, to protect and manage the forest. The community pledged to end logging, agreeing that anyone who cuts a teak tree in the community forest would be cursed, fined and ostracised.
They’ve spray-painted signs all over the village with the slogan “We will not evacuate” (mai-opayohp), as well as lobbied the government to help them develop the village’s renowned rice whiskey distilleries, building the town’s economy on liquor instead of teak.
“There used to be wild tigers and elephants, bears and buffalo here. When the logging companies came, they scared the wildlife away”Wichai Luksaphon, prominent Sa-iab campaigner
“The value of the teak is higher than the budget of the dam,” said Wichai Luksaphon, a prominent voice among the Sa-iab campaigners, standing on a dirt road in the woods, teak trees towering above him. “The golden teak is inside the government’s Mae Yom National Forest. The forest officials respect that the community and the villagers were here first.”
Logging in the forest began back in the early 1900s, with the first companies coming from Britain. The local population had no history of logging teak trees before this, but when they saw the lumber was highly valuable and good for building, they quickly learned the trade.
“Villagers would take the teak that the companies left behind. But there used to be wild tigers and elephants, bears and buffalo here. When the logging companies came, they cut down the big trees and scared the wildlife away. Since we began to manage the forest as a community, they are starting to come back,” said Wichai.
Residents have reported seeing some animals return, but they add that many are unable to cross the new highways in the area.
At first, the Kaeng Suea Ten dam had the backing of the World Bank – which sponsored a series of community studies in the 1980s and early 1990s into the project.
As the anti-dam campaigners tell it, on one trip in 1994 the officials visited with a translator and began talking with local residents about their opinions on the dam. The Sa-iab community voiced their strong opposition to the project and the translator appeared to communicate the message to the World Bank officials.
But local residents learned after the visit that the translator had intentionally mistranslated their answers, telling the World Bank officials the community was in favour of the dam. As a result, the villagers told the officials they were no longer welcome in their community.
“The translator hired by the government said that the community supported the dam. So we told the World Bank that if they came back, we can’t guarantee their safety,” recalled one activist who requested not to be named.
But the translator refused to communicate their message to the officials, and the World Bank car soon returned to the village, unaware of the warning.
“Everyone came out and threw stones and stopped the car in the middle of the road. They surrounded the car and one World Bank woman came out and was hit in the head with a stone,” said Pah Seng. “That’s when the World Bank officials learned villagers were opposed to the dam. When the World Bank understood that they were opposed to the dam, the villagers helped the officials and took them to the hospital.”
The Thai government, unhappy about the incident, attempted to arrest those responsible. But when officials came to Sa-iab, the villagers insisted that the movement’s leaders were outside the village at the time and that everyone had taken part in the rock throwing. If the police wanted to arrest anyone, they said, they had to arrest all of them. The Sa-iab residents eventually reached a compromise with the authorities and a small group served a short prison sentence.
The World Bank soon decided not to fund the dam, saying that its benefits were uncertain and did not outweigh the likely negative impacts of the project. This win galvanised the anti-dam movement and the campaign soon began working with the Assembly of the Poor, a venerated network of seasoned activists in Thailand.
In 1997, the Chavalit Yongchaiyudh government finally agreed to suspend the project in order to conduct further studies, before reinstating public funding to villages around Sa-iab following a petition by the activists.
“We don’t want to fight with people who live in Kaeng Suea Ten. They have the right to protect their own resources”Plodprasop Suraswadi, Thai deputy prime minister
Despite this victory, the Thai government periodically revives plans for the dam as part of various flood management schemes. After the country saw major flooding in 2011, the Thai government once again raised the possibility of developing the dam, but it was met with massive popular resistance.
After two years of back-and-forth, deputy prime minister Plodprasop Suraswadi, also head of the Water and Flood Management Commission, said in 2013 that the dam was dead for good. “We don’t want to fight with people who live in Kaeng Suea Ten. They have the right to protect their own resources,” he told newspaper The Nation at the time.
But the dam isn’t dead, and the anti-dam campaign continues to this day. As recently as mid-2018, then-Deputy Prime Minister Thepsutin asked head of state Prayuth Chan-ocha to consider building the dam once again.
Today, the community forestry group still patrols the forest. If they see any violations of the law or the community’s rules, they immediately tell the village and broadcast the announcement over the town’s speakers.
Local residents proudly tell a story about how, a few years ago, the forestry group came across a convoy of illegal loggers. The foresters saw the loggers were armed and realised they were affiliated with a criminal organisation based in nearby Lampang province.
The villagers themselves were armed, but only with old, single-shot rifles, so they got in touch with the local branch of the Thai military and asked for reinforcements. The military brought help and a firefight ensued, with the loggers eventually fleeing – though two of them were reportedly shot during the incident.
Over 200 large dams (taller than 15 metres) have already been built in Thailand, with the Rasi Salai and the Pak Mun dams, built in 1992 and 1994 respectively, both causing major controversy over their negative impacts on local communities.
The issues are similar across the Mekong river basin, with local-level groups raising objections to large hydropower projects that critics say would displace thousands, destroy fisheries and cripple the region’s food supply.
The controversial 1.2-gigawatt Xayaburi dam on the mainstream of the Mekong river in Laos came online in late October this year despite major objections from anti-dam groups, including an ongoing court case. Laos also announced plans in September to build the Luang Prabang dam, the eleventh hydropower dam planned for the lower Mekong river.
Cambodia’s plans for the Sambor megadam in Kratie province, according to one report, could literally “kill the Mekong”, while China has already built 11 dams on its portion of the Mekong river. Even Vietnam, long opposed to dams, has stepped in to back Laos’ Luang Prabang project.
However, the success of the Kaeng Suea Ten dam campaign offers a model for local communities across the Mekong region, as the threats facing Sa-iab are far from unique.
On the way out of town in their pickups and vans following the 30th anniversary celebration, loaded down with bottles of the community’s locally-produced rice whiskey, the campaigners all passed the same spray painted signs featuring a slogan that has come to symbolise their struggle: mai-opayohp – we will not evacuate.