Tide turning for Mekong protesters
Civic groups and conservationists opposed to massive river development are raising the stakes and involving Western nations
CHIANG RAI: After almost two decades of campaigning against hydro-dams and water projects built on the Mekong River, local civic groups and conservationists finally launched the "Mekong People's Forum," with the hope of moving their campaign to a policy level.
The forum was held on Dec 1–2 in Chiang Khong district, and attended by 200 people including local villagers, conservationists, journalists, and the US and Australian embassies in Bangkok.
The Mekong People's forum is the name not just of the event held last week but also a movement of civic groups located in eight provinces. In the past, these groups had no name but they have now come together under the general name "Mekong People's Forum."
The organiser also had extended an invitation to the China embassy in Bangkok, as the country also built 11 dams on the upper stretch of the Mekong River, and the Lancang River in Chinese territory.
The Chinese embassy, however, did not send anyone to attend the event, according to Niwat Roikaew, the head of a local conservation group known as Rak Chiang Khong and one of the activists who spearheaded the founding of the forum.
"Local communities in eight provinces have campaigned against development schemes in the Mekong River for almost two decades," Mr Niwat said.
"Those campaigns somehow went in different directions. The Mekong People's Forum will hopefully make campaigns move in a united direction and also leverage bargaining power with the authorities."
There are eight Thai provinces located by the Mekong River. They are Chiang Rai, Loei, Nong Khai, Bueng Kan, Mukdahan, Amnat Charoen, Nakhon Phanom and Ubon Ratchathani.
The resistance against infrastructure projects in the river started almost two decades ago when the Chinese government began blasting rapids in the upper Mekong River from Yunnan to Myanmar and Laos to clear the way for large commercial vessels.
A protest campaign was started by Mr Niwat and another Chiang Rai conservationist, Somkiat Kuenwongsa.
As the blasting got under way, the campaign ignited questions on the impact of projects on the river, and the movement snowballed into a bigger local campaign as more dams were built. China has built 11 dams on the upper Mekong River in its territory to generate power and Laos has built two hydro-dams and plans to develop several more on the Mekong.
Over the past decade, local civic groups in eight provinces have campaigned against dam projects. Protest campaigns came in many forms including organising street protests, submitting petition letters, and raising local awareness, to systematic campaigns including filing lawsuits to the Administrative Court against the Thai government for buying power from dam projects.
Early this year, the civic groups sent a proposal to the Bank of Thailand, asking it to impose tough regulations on Thai commercial banks that are now major creditors for dam projects in Laos.
Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, an anthropologist from Faculty of Social Sciences at Chiang Mai University, said the movement of Mekong People's Forum could add more positive changes to the local conservation movement for the Mekong River. "The Mekong People's Forum group create a new platform that can put local people on the negotiation table with international organisations or even super power countries that play a major role in the Mekong Region, like the US and China," Mr Chayan said.
He explained the hydro-dams and development projects on the river are the outcome of unchecked capitalism and academic experts must play a role in helping society check these developments and fostering constructive dialogues.
Kanokwan Manorom, director of the Mekong Sub-Region Social Research Centre (MSSRC) at Ubon Ratchathani University, urged the Mekong People's Forum to negotiate for public participation in the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), a voluntary environmental impact assessment procedure for projects on the Mekong.
PNPCA is an environmental impact hearing process used by the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Under this process, riparian countries are asked to review trans-boundary impacts yet any decision is not binding. Laos reportedly continued building the Xayaburi dam and Don Sahong dam despite criticism.
Foreign ambassadors from countries located an ocean away from the Mekong River region also voiced their concerns at the forum. Michael G Heath, deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Bangkok, said the US was worried about the environmental impact of projects on the river because, in terms of policy, the US has a partnership with Asean.
"So the Mekong River matters for us in terms of protecting natural resources," he said, adding during the past 11 years the US has provided financial assistance to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam for fair water resource sharing.
David Braun, first secretary for the political and economic section at the Australian embassy in Bangkok, agreed with the villagers that the ecology of the Mekong River had been affected. He said the Australian government is worried about the issue as the country has a bilateral and regional partnership with countries in the Mekong River region on food security, water management and energy.