Mae Jaem dam suicide threat must be heard

Mae Jaem dam suicide threat must be heard

The name Mae Jaem evokes a romantic Shangri-La like image in many Thais' minds.

There are reasons for this. One is geography. The other is its lively traditional culture that seems to be almost frozen in time, thanks to its long isolation from modern influence.

Mae Jaem is nestled in a lush green valley surrounded by high mountains and evergreen forests on Doi Inthanon, the country's highest mountain in Chiang Mai province.

The rugged terrain and difficulty in reaching Mae Jaem have until recently protected its traditional way of life. It is where women still decorate their buns with orchids and wear the hand-woven Mae Jaem pasin _ a traditional wrap-around _ with distinct embroidery to make merit at the temples.

The isolation itself also contributes to strong community ties that operate like a grassroots democracy, close relationships between the villagers and monks, an active role for animism in regulating the villagers' moral behaviour, and the existence of many religious rituals and craftsmanship that have long been lost elsewhere.

Add the year-round cold weather and the various hilltribes that co-exist with the Mae Jaem valley farmers and it's easy to understand why the fog-shrouded Mae Jaem is often thought of as a distant paradise.

I first went to Mae Jaem over a decade ago for a feature series on how this traditional community was coping with the bombardment of development that came along with better transport and a firmer grip exercised by the central government.

Back then, I found much of what I had heard about Mae Jaem was true. The flowers in women's hair. The beautiful temple parades. The rolling hills. The golden rice fields. The Himalayan-like temperate forests, the craftspeople, the spirit medium, the dyke master, the medicine man, the sorcerer who was a former monk.

In the fresh markets, the Karen, the Lua, the Akha and the Hmong mixed freely in the fresh markets with the lowland farmers. It was an exotic sight.

The visits to their homes on the hills, however, told me of their constant fear of forest eviction and a lack of access to health care.

Meanwhile, many of them turned to cash crops to meet financial pressures and fell sick from exposure to chemical pesticides.

All of them, both the lowland villagers and the hillpeoples, complained of how "development" stole their children from families. All feared for the future, lamenting that the worst may be yet to come.

It now has.

Last week, a group of Karen villagers in Mae Jaem promised to commit mass suicide if the government went ahead with the construction of the Mae Jaem dam.

"We'd rather die a quick death than suffer a slow one," a Karen mother was quoted as saying.

Mae Jaem is one of the 21 dams _ called reservoirs by the Yingluck Shinawatra government _ in the 350-billion-baht water management scheme which is intended to prevent flooding downstream.

Wait a minute. What is this flood gibberish?

This is what forest authorities classify as a top-class rain catchment area.

If anything, Mae Jaem should fit the bill under government schemes to rehabilitate rain catchment forests to prevent flash floods and soil erosion. Why cut down a precious forest?

Also, the proposed dam will receive water from only three of the 12 tributaries of the Mae Jaem River.

Little rain falls in this area. Holding the water flow will only cause a drought downstream, especially in the dry season.

But the water which this dam holds will be enough to drown three whole villages, while partially inundating the farmland and roads in three other adjacent villages.

Over 3,500 villagers will be affected. So will the annexed Inthanon evergreen areas, along with their flora and fauna.

The 1.4-billion-baht dam _ if it goes ahead _ also sits on an active earthquake fault.

What are the dam makers thinking?

Just as it has for other 20 dams, the court has told the government to get an environmental impact assessment done before construction goes ahead.

But there are always "academics" ready to cash in on the EIA game. That's why the Mae Jaem villagers feel they have to tell the facts themselves.

All they wish now is to be heard, to see reason prevail so they don't have to attempt mass suicide as a last resort to protect their children's future.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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