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Thai villagers protest Pak Mun Dam, 1991-2001
The government began planning to build a hydroelectric dam on the Mun River (also called the Moon, Mul, and Mool River but referred to henceforth only as Mun) in the early 1980s. In 1989, the government approved the plans. In 1991, construction of the dam began and was completed four years later in January 1995. Not only did the dam cost almost twice as much money as the Thai government originally predicted, but it also resulted in substantially more damage to the ecosystem than early studies suggested.
Throughout the entirety of its production process, local villagers, fisherman, and farmers were protesting against the construction of the dam, but their protests fell on deaf ears. Although feigning openness to discussion, the Thai government largely ignored the protestors, refused to acknowledge studies done by third parties on the potential damage to the ecosystem, and continued construction unabated.
In March 1993, protestors clashed with police at the construction site of the dam. The police were brutal with the protestors and it is suggested that protestors were not entirely peaceful when the police appeared. Despite this, these protests led to the establishment of a plan by the government to compensate villagers that had already been displaced by the initial construction. At the time, this was considered a victory for the protestors.
As it became apparent to the villagers that the dam would drastically damage the fertility of the river and, consequently, their ability to make a living off of fishing, a small group of villagers went to Bangkok to protest the government directly in early 1994. Again, the government ignored them, instead relying on their own studies that showed that the villagers' fears were unfounded.
Shortly after completion of construction, the Khon Kaen University ran a study of the dam and found evidence that suggested that the fears of the protestors were justified. In 2000, the World Commission on Dams also ran a study that looked at the impact on the ecosystem and the overall effectiveness of the dam.
The villagers' major concern was the damage the dam had done to the ecosystem around their villages that resulted in the destruction of their means of livelihood. Studies suggest that the dam removed more than 250 species of fish from the Mun River by virtue of their inability to get through the dam and lessened fish inhabitants by 60-80% - a major problem for the fishing-based communities that surround the Mun River. Additionally, studies showed that the power produced by the dam is essentially negligible to the overall need of the country; it produced approximately 0.5% of the country's power, yet almost 20% of the power produced in the country was wasted.
In December 1995, some of the protestors created the Assembly for the Poor, a non-governmental organization created with the goal of opening the Pak Mun dam in December 1995. This organization became vital in organizing protests around the dam and in Bangkok. They used the studies by the university and the World Commission on dams to back up their claims.
In 2000, the Assembly for the Poor concerted a large, yet decentralized, series of protests that brought the issue of the dam to the world's attention. During this year, the protestors took over the dam and other area dams and built villages on them. They prevented dam workers from gaining access to the dam, effectively shutting it down for some time. In response, the government threatened to arrest the protestors. It is unclear how this particular action ended.
Around 150 village representatives participated in a long march (approximately 650 km or 400 miles) to Bangkok to garner support from the public and draw attention to the injustice of the dam. Simultaneously, protestors in Bangkok began a hunger strike outside of the Government House. Other protestors would later participate in a "die-in" on the streets outside of the Government House.
Perhaps the most important action was the creation of a mock village, which mimicked the villagers' lives, on the streets of Bangkok outside of the Government House for several months. The protestors essentially recreated their village on the streets by constructing makeshift houses, digging trenches and putting fish in them, and acting as if they were at home. This action was highly visible to the outside world, receiving a great deal of media attention. This protest also appears to be what drew the middle class of Thailand over to the villagers' side.
These protests ultimately led to a decision by the government in 2001 to open the gates of the dam for four months of each year with the goal of rebuilding the ecosystem of the river during that time and letting the villagers fish. This is viewed as only a partial victory by the protestors. However, the protests have also essentially prevented the construction of more dams in Thailand or in neighboring countries. Although the Thai government has not explicitly stated this, it has been suggested that the failure of the Pak Mun dam and the ensuing protests are the main reason for new dams not being constructed. Although this was not a goal of the protests, it can also be seen as a partial victory.
The Assembly for the Poor afterwards expanded to cover other poverty-related issues and continued to play a role in Thailand politics. They also continued to hold protests concerning the Pak Mun dam and, although these protests have been small and insignificant in comparison to the protests of 2000 and 2001, it is possible that the dam will still eventually be permanently opened.