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“The Mekong is a mother giving her generosity; embrace and good things to people, this mother is therefore the most essential. Everybody has a mother and in people’s point of view, the Mekong River is considered alive and spiritual. But the violence happened to it is because some groups of people look at the river as a tool or mechanism. In the past, when we look at the river, we will see life; way of living and culture, looking at it without seeing life or considering (the Mekong River) as a waterway is a selfish way of looking”.
The above remarks of Niwat Roikaew, the head of Rak Chiang Khong conservation group, well reflects the relationship between the Mekong people and the Mekong River. They never look at the river as just a resource; a shipping canal or a sewage pipe, but rather a living creature connecting other little things throughout the river basin.
Within the length of nearly 5,000 kilometers from its origin on the Tibetan Plateau to the Mekong Delta out to the South China Sea, the Mekong River embraces more than 60 million people. Over a hundred ethnic groups in six countries from southern China in Yunnan; Myanmar; Laos; Thailand; Cambodia and Vietnam depend on more than 900 fish species as well as hundreds of other aquatic species. The Mekong people also live with more than 20,000 plant species, these living creatures are interdependent and human beings are the ones most dependent on others. But over three recent decades, a barrier constructed to block the river like dam was created by human beings, dam builders hoped to control water for their own economic benefits. In company with the worldwide inevitable climate change, the entire population of people; animals and plants along the Mekong River got thoroughly affected.
On 1-2 December 2020 in Chiang Khong district, Chiang Rai province, almost 200 people of Thai Mekong People’s Network from Eight Provinces together with people’s networks from the Mekong tributaries such as People’s Network of Ing River Basin; Loei River Network and Songkhram River Basin Network as well as Academic Network for the Mekong Basin from different institutions including various NGOs have gathered to discuss an important agenda in integrating the Mekong Basin networks in Thailand and setting up a wider, more diverse and reliable negotiation platform through a mechanism called the Mekong People’s Forum (Thailand).
Pushing towards the Mekong People’s Forum
The idea of establishing the Mekong People’s Forum did not just happen, but it has been crystallized during more than two decades of battle. Many people have joined in since the upper Mekong dam project in China as well as the Lancang-Mekong Navigation Channel Improvement or rapids blasting project initially happened. Considering the history of the recent battle in the Mekong Basin, a significant mark was about 10 years ago where people along the Mekong began to more clearly see the changes of the Mekong River. There was an anomalous situation of unseasonal Mekong River flow, particularly the unusual flood in 2008 and the severe drought in 2010 due to the opening and closing of the upper Mekong dams in China. There was also a proposal to construct the first of 11 dams, Xayaburi dam, on the mainstream lower Mekong, despite its location in Laos, this project was developed by a Thai construction company together with six Thai banks as financial supporters. Moreover, electricity generated by the Xayaburi dam will have Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) as a purchaser, the gathering of the Mekong people and the relevant CSOs then became more visible after the construction of this dam.
These Mekong Basin networks have crystallized their thoughts and found that, in the past, they used three models of movement. Firstly, campaigning through several activities in forms of submitting claim/objection letters to those involved in the project development: the embassy of the dam-building country like China; the project development company as well as the financial institutions or lenders and organizing events or exhibitions to educate the general public both in the Mekong riverside provinces and in the heart of Bangkok, including protesting in different locations.
Secondly, practicing legal and juridical actions, the Thai Mekong People’s Network from Eight Provinces used this method in the case of Xayaburi and Pak Beng dams. As for the Xayaburi dam, the network has filed a lawsuit to the Administrative Court against five Thai state agencies involved in purchasing electricity from the Xayaburi dam project. The Administrative Court at first dismissed the complaint using less than five minutes in reading the verdict that made the plaintiffs really disappointed. The network after that appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court and the court finally agreed to rule on the case, it is now being considered by the court and the Mekong people as plaintiffs are still waiting for the decision. While in the case of the Pak Beng dam, the court remains silent without any appointments for the plaintiff and the defendant to hear the ruling.
Thirdly, negotiating with stakeholders which are both Thai and Lao government agencies and directly discussing with the dam construction company in particular. According to the Pak Beng dam, the representatives of the Rak Chiang Khong group had an opportunity to have a dialogue with those from Datang International Group as the project developer presenting the shortcomings in terms of the impact study that was not approved by other relevant sectors and lacked of acceptable credibility. Such dialogue was an innovation enhancing the direct conversation between the dam project developer and those affected by the project without any mediators, it was an equal talk of the two parties.
Academics must stand with the people through multidisciplinary strategies to create the sustainability of the Mekong River
The Mekong River is now facing several large-scale development projects both in its mainstream and tributaries such as dams; water diversion projects as well as reservoirs, these projects allowed many unexpected actors both from national and international organizations to be involved.
Apart from Mekong River Commission (MRC) which has government agencies of four member countries: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam along with superpowers on behalf of donors being involved and seems to be a rubber stamp for constructing dams on the mainstream of the lower Mekong River through the 1995 Mekong Agreement, there is also the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) mechanism with China as an upstream country to drive the developments in the Mekong region.
Furthermore in Thailand, there is a water management project, the Khong-Chi-Mun water diversion project (now becomes the Khong-Loei-Chi-Mun project), which has been awaiting to be built for almost three decades. Such project was pushed by Capt. Thammanat Prompao, the Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Cooperative through the water system management commission which appears to be a solidarity platform among the members of the House of Representatives. As both government and some of the opposition parties have been pushing to have water management projects for irrigation reasons tackling drought and flood problems, they still however ignore many problems that will come after such as environmental impacts; ecological destruction; changing of water flow direction as well as soil salinity problem in the Northeast.
The combination of these characters with academic knowledge for serving dam building companies and water management projects, regardless of the ecology of water bodies and the relationships between living creatures and people, finally becomes a laboratory of the need to conquer nature. It is therefore really necessary to form a people’s forum with academic knowledge having different stand point compared to those of the dam builders, but provable; independent and true. Bringing various river basin networks to work together will lead to the creation of power for fighting against the power of Thai state as well as other organizations at higher level.
Dr. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti from Chiang Mai University, one of the scholars from the Academic Network for the Mekong Basin, proposed that the academics have to apply cross-disciplinary knowledge to overcome the limits of inseparable regard leading to the Sustainable Development Goals which stand with the people who have always been underprivileged or in a secondary position when determining the development direction. The knowledge for creating the sustainability of the Mekong River must come from two systems:
The first system is the knowledge that the scholars have studied in different disciplines which is scientific and theoretical. The second system is the knowledge originated from villagers or communities that has not much been published. Although the villagers are the owners of this knowledge, it is very essential that the academics standing with them need to combine these two systems and make them widely endorsed.
“Although there is only a handful of the academics who are with the people, it is a good start to move forward the sustainable development of the Mekong River”, said Dr. Chayan.
How are the concept and goal of the People’s Forum different from those of the network?
During this meeting, there was a debate and question regarding the differences between the of Thai Mekong People’s Network from Eight Provinces and the Mekong People’s Forum. Kru Tee or Niwat Roikaew, principal of the Chiang Khong Mekong School, interestingly mentioned about breaking through the ceiling of the battle and the movement from being the People’s Network to the People’s Forum that
“The People’s Network that we have always driven together in many campaigns; exchanges of impact information and experiences; many legal actions and lately in the negotiation with the dam builder, we were both successful and unsuccessful. Even though, we have been able to randomly solve many problems, but we could neither raise our voices nor reach any policy revisions or something bigger. Having the Mekong People’s Forum will therefore strengthen and unite our bargaining power as well as our voices and will be an area of diversity for various parties: government sector; academics including NGOs to participate and make it more credible”.
So, “the Mekong People’s Forum is not a knock-down house, we need to build it together. Today is a groundbreaking day that will lead to the promotion of our demands to become a policy proposal. The People’s Forum will be a platform for addressing problematic issues that will lead to larger policy advocacy, this will be more powerful than working as a specific network or area”.
Despite of using the word ‘Forum’, it seems that its definition and characteristics are not the same as the general understanding which is rigid; inflexible; from people’s general election or even a vertical organization with top-down chain of command, it is rather a forum that was created by a common understanding of the Mekong Basin and tributary networks. They consider it as an open space where their voices from different areas and basins related to the Mekong River get stronger and accepted leading to more credible policy demands, it is also a place to fulfil their dream and imagination of the Mekong River as they wanted to see.
Dr. Kanokwan Manorom, from Ubon Ratchathani University, one of the academics from the Academic Network for the Mekong Basin, has concisely and comprehensively summarized the definition of the Mekong People’s Forum that
“People’s Forum is people’s institution. It does not mean having an office or a building, but a space for managing and designing the Mekong River without any monopolies whether it is the state or capital. The Mekong People’s Forum will take part in proposing the management of the Mekong River based on scientific knowledge supplemented by the people’s knowledge in order to sustainably create the Mekong River”.
The dream of our desirable Mekong River
It is certain in establishing some organizations or networks to have a common goal or purpose of various sectors who join in, the members of the Mekong People’s Forum from many provinces along the Mekong and its tributaries all agreed that the Mekong River should flow as free as it used to. As when the Mekong can flow free without any current barriers, the fertile ecosystem will recover itself.
“We would like to see the Mekong River and its tributaries having the same abundant ecosystem and freely flowing. If possible, we do not want any changes, we want water; fish; forest; traditions and cultures to be as they used to be”, an under-20-year-old youth from Tamui village, Ubon Ratchathani province told us.
To reach the aforementioned goal, they therefore find that the strategy of the Mekong People’s Forum must be a combination of different groups of the people, by the people and for the people. It is also needed to work with young generation in order to integrate the intentions of all parties and all ages.
It is not easy to reach the goal of having the same old fertile Mekong River amongst the waves of concrete barriers awaiting for rubber stamps through the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement or PNPCA under the 1995 Mekong Agreement which seem to be very challenging for the people to protect the Mekong River. Although the people living along the mainstream Mekong and its tributaries in different places are now creating a stronghold for food security by setting up Mekong Fish Conservation Zones in swamps; rapids and wells in the communities or temples to be a fish nursery as well as shelters for fish breeding and these fishes will become a spare food source of the Mekong people in the future, but the non-seasonal fluctuation of water flow (which is up to the need of the hydropower producer) made the guardians of the Mekong Fish Conservation Zones in need of a guarantee that not only the Mekong fishes, they will also have some fishes survived in the conservation zones. As a result, they have to coordinate with the relevant agency taking care of fish species like the Department of Fisheries in each province for help. “It is very sad as the fisheries department normally asks the villagers for the Mekong fish species for researching or breeding, but now we have to beg them for the Mekong fishes instead because it is really hard to find, very little left. The main reason is the abnormal tides, flood in dry season and dry in rainy season which confuse both fishes and humans. The fishes are almost unable to reproduce while humans live with more difficulties, these are unusual things that happened”. Such emotional message of Amnat Trichak, the member of the Mekong People’s Network from Eight Provinces, indicated the fast-paced vital sign of the Mekong River showing that it can no longer be a life base or create fishery/food productivity. This is probably an effect of paralysis spread from the upper half of the Mekong which is blocked by more than 11 upstream dams in China.
A step beyond the boundary of the Mekong People’s Forum
“We will not stop just in Thailand, the Mekong People’s Forum will connect people in the Mekong region. The people will participate in the Mekong River management through the Mekong People’s Forum of ASEAN”, Kru Tee’s declaration of intent showed that they intend to value the Mekong people in every areas regardless of nationality.
Although the Mekong People’s Forum has already been initiated and settled by the people from various river in the Mekong Basin in Thailand, their ideal image of the free-flowing Mekong River cannot yet be achieved only by Thai people. As the Mekong does not only flow through Thailand, but across the invisible nation state borders. It is therefore important that, in the future, the Mekong People’s Forum Thailand as the initiator has to promptly build an alliance of the people from six countries throughout the Mekong River. They might need to work harder against time while, on the other side, is being stalled by the government and the dam building groups. In the past ten years, although the people in at least three countries of the lower Mekong Basin like Thailand; Cambodia and Vietnam have expressed in many areas their opposition against dam constructions and other development projects on the mainstream Mekong as well as continuously forwarded information, but it was just a loose gathering amongst the CSOs. At the people level, however, there is still no solid cooperation due to a number of obstacles: language barriers; rights and liberty restrictions; nature of authoritarianism/dictatorship including human rights situation in each country. Particularly in Laos, we could scarcely see Lao people express their oppositions against neither their government nor dam constructions within their country under the government with heavy restrictions on political freedom as well as on people who want to address problems. But at least, there was a little online sign of dissatisfaction of Lao citizen regarding the collapse of the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy dam by which affected people have not yet received any fair and comprehensive remedies until now. This limited and suppressed environment is really challenging in expanding networks and members of the Mekong People’s Forum at ASEAN level, as even the cooperation at the state level itself seems to give very little importance to people’s gathering in the region as ASEAN community. Moreover, they are still ignoring the proposal of CSOs regarding the environmental pillar which will be the forth pillar in addition to the three existing pillars helping the regional environment not to collapse. At this moment, the impact is broadly happening regardless of borders as a result of various development projects such as dams; coal-fired power plants and monoculture. The establishment of the Mekong People’s Forum however becomes a key point in elevating the momentum of people movement to create the ideal borderless Mekong River as they wanted to see in the future. It shows that not only the capital that ignores the issue of border and nation state in implementing development projects, the people themselves also have a vision of building power regardless of nation state framework as well.