Pollution victims' photos tell tales of misery
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Pollution victims' photos tell tales of misery

Photos of the victims of the Mae Moh lignite coal mine are being shown at the
Photos of the victims of the Mae Moh lignite coal mine are being shown at the "Dark Side of the City" exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre. (Photo by Wasant Techawongtham)

I looked at their faces and they looked at mine. I gazed into their haunting eyes, trying to feel what they felt.

I could sense apprehension, fear, and hopelessness. On some of the faces there appeared a faint sign of a smile, the corners of the mouth lifting but not enough to form a natural smile.

But some of them exhibited defiance, exuding an inner strength that was extraordinary under the circumstances.

It was difficult to look at some of the faces, knowing the victims are living lives of suffering possibly until the last day of their lives. Some of them, it is almost certain, will not have long to live.

I was at the "Dark Side of the City" photo exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre (BACC) by Roengrit and Roengchai Kongmuang, organised by Thai Climate Justice and on display until July 26. 

The black and white photos capture the faces of villagers from Lampang's Mae Moh district whose lives have been shattered as a result of a massive power plant complex nearby.

The subjects wore no special attire for the photo shoot, just their everyday work clothes, and certainly no make-up. What you see is what you get.

The photo chosen for the event's announcement poster was particularly telling. It was of an old woman sitting with her back against a wooden wall of her dilapidated house. A tube connected her nose to a large oxygen tank that stood close by.

Roengchai Kongmuang, one of the twin brothers who took the pictures, told me the photo was unplanned. As they went about their work in the village, they chanced upon the old woman who was walking back to her house from her field work.

The reason soon became obvious. She needed to take a periodic rest and replenish the oxygen in her body that her damaged lungs could not supply.

Another photo was of a bed-ridden man who died a week after the photo was taken.

But it's not just the old who suffer. Young children, too, have been afflicted.

In 1978, the first generator at the Mae Moh lignite-fuelled power plant was brought on line. Altogether 13 generators were installed from 1978 to 1995.

The power plant operation led to numerous cases of sickness and eventually the deaths of both humans and local animals. In addition, toxic rain brought on by sulphur dioxide emissions caused widespread damage to plants.

In 1992 a report estimated that more than 1,000 people received hospital treatment as a result of exposure to pollution.

As pleas, demands and protests failed to persuade the Electricity Authority of Thailand (Egat) to amend the situation, the villagers and environmentalists took the agency to court.

Egat was accused of breaking environmental laws and a failure to implement mitigation measures as laid down in its environmental impact assessment study.

The court fights dragged on as Egat, with its financial might, exploited all available channels of appeal against earlier verdicts not in its favour, despite pleas from villagers for it to settle the cases.

After a decade of legal acrimony, the courts ordered Egat to implement various mitigation measures, including relocating several houses in close vicinity of the power plant.

Egat was also ordered to pay 25 million baht in compensation to 131 complainants for their suffering and illnesses.

It was a victory of sorts for the affected villagers. But for many of us who have been following the development at Mae Moh since initial complaints were aired more than two decades ago, the victory seemed hollow.

The greatest amount of compensation that a complainant received was about 200,000 baht and the least 20,000 baht. It was unfair, not just for time and energy wasted in court but for suffering from illnesses and emotional trauma by all villagers involved.

What's worse, by the time the verdicts were eventually announced, 15 of the original plaintiffs were dead.

And the compensation was only for those whose cases were accepted for hearings by the courts, leaving hundreds of others suffering in vain.

The perceived injustice of the legal system and Egat's arrogance have left an indelible mark in the minds of the villagers and sympathisers. That mark is made even more pronounced as Egat persists in its zeal to build more coal-fired power plants.

Its immediate plan is to ram through the project to build an 870MW plant in Krabi despite the locals' strenuous resistance.

For the past few days, two southern activists have put their lives on the line trying to draw public attention to their cause by staging a hunger strike on the footpath in front of the Ministry of Tourism and Sports.

Their desperate campaign so far has failed to attract notice from anyone in officialdom, which is no surprise as they are considered opponents of the state.

However, it is my fervent wish that the ministers of tourism and energy could be persuaded to spare an hour or so of their time to visit the photo exhibition.

There they can look at the faces on the walls and see if those eyes in the photographs can pull at their heartstrings.

Wasant Techawongtham is former news editor, Bangkok Post. 'Dark Side of the City', a photo exhibition by Roengrit and Roengchai Kongmuang, is at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre, organised by Thai Climate Justice.

Wasant Techawongtham

Freelance Reporter

Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.

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