Corporations divide villages

Corporations divide villages

Pitak Siam's call to bring down the government has stoked the fire of political polarisation to new heights.

It has heightened fears of a possible confrontation between red shirts and anti-Pheu Thai supporters that could lead to a new round of violence, pushing the country to breaking point.

The fear of a red-yellow divide becoming a permanent feature of Thai society is real enough for everyone to see.

But there are ominous signs that an even more sinister social division is percolating under the surface, ready to tear at the fabric of Thai society just as viciously as the red-yellow divide.

A little while ago, I visited Ban Haeng, a small village in Ngao district of Lampang. It was after dark when I drove into the village; all was quiet and dark except for one house, where lights were shining brightly and a number of people were sitting around.

I was taken by surprise when my host informed me that a funeral was being held at the house. It was uncharacteristic in a small rural village, where everyone knows each other, for a funeral to be so quiet with so few people in attendance.

Sensing my bewilderment, my host told me that the deceased, when he was alive, was shunned by most of the villagers because he not only sold his land to a large mining company, but had also "gone over to the company's side".

Ban Haeng villagers have been embroiled in a conflict with Khiew Luang Company for several years. The firm wants to open a lignite mine in the village.

The company bought several plots of land from locals. But many of those who sold claim they were conned by the company - they allege they were told the land would be used for a eucalyptus plantation, not a mine.

When they later learned of the plans for the lignite mine, the villagers became upset and protested against the company's actions.

They are not demanding their land back - they say they just don't want a lignite mine in their backyard.

Unsurprisingly, having invested time and money in the project, the mining company has refused to back out. Instead, it has tried to win the hearts and minds of locals. The company has gone on a campaign of befriending local leaders, organising activities like "study trips", and handing out gifts.

Public hearings on the project were held, but the villagers say they were not told when the hearings were taking place. Complaints were also filed with local and national authorities against the project.

Meanwhile, the community has been split in two. Neighbours have stopped talking to one another or attending the same functions.

Hostilities may not yet be out in the open, but the seeds of distrust have been planted.

The alarming thing is that stories like this are not uncommon. Similar scenarios are being played out in communities across the country _ in Nakhon Si Thammarat, where residents are fighting a large number of massive private and state projects; in Loei, where a gold mine has applied for an expansion permit.

The list goes on.

Wherever major development projects are planned or take place, conflicts inevitably arise, upsetting the social order and way of life in those communities that are affected.

In the past, developers used legal means or coercion to get their way.

But people are now wiser and stronger; they realise that when they stand as one, they pose a formidable challenge.

For the agencies or companies behind the development projects, this calls for a different strategy.

For them, what would be better than using their financial strength to overcome resistance?

Thus, "community development funds" have sprung up and villagers are showered with attractive new incentives to coax them into complicity.

It is no coincidence that many companies have allocated large chunks of their budget to so-called corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. The CSR concept is a perfect vehicle for corporations to polish their public image, helping to make their various projects more publicly acceptable.

It would be irresponsible, however, to say that all corporations embrace CSR with an ulterior motive. But a number of them surely see it as a useful tool in furthering their own interests.

Whether they intended it or not, the effect of this change of strategy has been to create a chasm in the communities targeted for development.

The incentive programmes have been able to lure away certain community members, putting them at odds with those directly affected by large-scale infrastructure projects.

Without the financial resources to match the developers', opponents often seek out activist groups to help them with organising and planning.

Unfortunately, financing is not their only disadvantage. A greater hurdle is the political and legal systems that tilt in favour of big business and state developers.

Fighting state-supported projects, you can never really win. Legal mechanisms that were devised purportedly to screen out harmful projects _ environmental and health impact assessment study processes, for example _ often prove entirely ineffective as a legal defence.

These legal requirements may be annoying, time-consuming and even costly, but in the end such studies are likely to be glossed over and given the tick of approval if the project is deemed to be responsive to government policies.

What's more, state projects have no expiry date. They are like vampires; they never die. A project that fails to pass public muster can lie dormant for a year or even a decade and be resuscitated when the conditions are right.

Take the Kaeng Sua Ten dam and Phu Kadung cable car projects. It doesn't matter that study after study by reputable institutions have, in the case of Kaeng Sua Ten, given it a failing grade _ the project keeps coming back to life whenever drought or flood hit Phichit or Sukhothai provinces, which is every year, twice a year.

This kind of systemic unfairness leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of people already unhappy with development projects. The now-ubiquitous "community development programmes" that pit neighbours against neighbours only make it worse.

If these conditions persist, it could lead to radicalisation, and any talk about peaceful resolution will be meaningless.

Wasant Techawongtham was formerly a news editor at the Bangkok Post. Now a freelance writer, he also serves as editorial director of Milky Way Press, a publishing house.

Wasant Techawongtham

Freelance Reporter

Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.

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