Cablegate: Thailand: Update On Controversial Pak Mun Dam

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) Summary: On June 15, Poloffs visited Ubon
Ratchathani province, where the controversial Pak Mun Dam is
located. Representatives of an NGO alleged that the Pak Mun
Dam has disrupted local fishing and farming communities,
without producing anticipated levels of electricity and
water. They have called for the Royal Thai Government (RTG)
to keep the dam gates open all year round so that their
communities can return "almost to normal." At Pak Mun Dam
itself, however, a small group of demonstrators was asking
that the dam gates be closed most of the year so they could
grow plants and farm fish. Gates are currently scheduled to
be opened four months per year, during the rainy season.
Assembly of the Poor (AOP) representatives concerned with the
dam alleged they are victims of government harassment and
intimidation, and that fourteen of their members have been
charged with "treason" for their peaceful protest activities.
A reporter from the pro-government Thai Rath newspaper
expressed little sympathy for the group, alleging they had
threatened her in the past. End Summary.


2. (U) First approved by the Thai Cabinet in 1989, the Pak
Mun Dam has been a source of controversy since its inception.
Initial concerns focused on the plight of local farmers and
fishermen whose lands and livelihoods would be threatened by
the construction of the dam. The aggrieved villagers founded
The Assembly of the Poor (AOP) in 1995. In the name of
national development, the dam was built anyway, (with
financial support from the World Bank) and was completed in
1994. Since then, a series of ecological setbacks, including
the disappearance of dozens of fish species from waters
around the dam, and the failure of the dam to realize many of
its production targets have led many to question whether or
not the project had been worth all the trouble. The
Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) continues
to vociferously defend the project, and is also involved in
numerous other "mega-projects" throughout Thailand, including
other dams.


3. (U) On June 15, 2005 Poloffs met with three
representatives of AOP, who complained that the Pak Mun dam
had destroyed their traditional way of life, and caused the
social and economic breakdown of their local communities.
Although the government promised monetary compensation, AOP
complained they had to "fight to get it". Each affected
family was allotted a total of 90,000 baht (about $US 2250)
over a period of three years, with 30,000 baht (about $US
750) going directly to the family and 60,000 baht (about $US
1500) going to each family,s village cooperative. AOP
asserts the affected families were also promised plots of
land, but only a few families ever received them.

4. (U) AOP members vehemently denied RTG allegations that
overfishing by local villagers was to blame for the sudden
disappearance of the fish population. They pointed out that
the fish population only began decreasing once the dam was
built. They noted that efforts by the Department of Fisheries
to reintroduce fish into parts of the river from which they
had disappeared were unsuccessful.

5. (U) Poloffs observed a $1 million "fish ladder", which
EGAT and the World Bank built after realizing the dam was
impeding the natural migration of the fish. Villagers
complained that the "ladder", which is supposed to aid fish
in passing over the dam, has been entirely unsuccessful.
(Note: A 2000 report by the World Commission on Dams reported
that the fish ladder was too steep for most local species to
negotiate. End Note.)


6. (U) With the dam already built, the main bone of
contention now is to determine how many months per year to
keep the dam's eight sluice gates open. AOP is fighting for
the gates to remain open year-round, rendering the dam
essentially useless. By keeping the gates open all year
round, AOP argues that local communities could return "almost
to normal." (Note: A 2001 Ubon Ratchathani University study
concurred; See below. End Note.)

7. (U) At Pak Mun Dam, Poloffs encountered a rival group of
about thirty people, mostly women and children, who said they
had camped out at the dam for several weeks to protest the
fact that the gates were currently open. This group
represented fishermen and farmers who wanted the gates to be
closed most of the year, so that they could use the higher
water levels around the dam for fish farming, and to grow
plants. Poloffs are unaware of exactly how much support this
group enjoys. Pak Mun gates are currently open on a loosely
regulated 4-month per year timetable, scheduled during the
annual rainy season.


8. (U) AOP representatives told Poloffs that in 2001, the RTG
allowed a team from Ubon Ratchathani University (URU) to
conduct a one-year study on the economic and environmental
costs and benefits of the dam. AOP asserts that the RTG
agreed to abide by the team,s recommendations. The URU study
found that the dam,s ability to generate electricity and
supply water for irrigation was lower than originally
projected, and grossly insufficient to justify the negative
impact on fisheries, the river environment and the local
community. The study also concluded that much of the
ecological damage could be undone by keeping the gates of the
dam open, recommending that this be done for a period of five
years. Instead of abiding by the committee,s recommendation,
the RTG asked the National Statistics Office to conduct its
own study (over a period of three days), which recommended
that the dam gates be opened for about four months per year.


9. (SBU) Mrs. Lamduan Silathong, a member of AOP, told
Poloffs that several years before, she had applied for a
passport to attend a meeting overseas. To her surprise,
authorities told her they could not issue a passport because
there was a warrant out for her arrest. She went to her local
police precinct, where she learned that she had been charged
with "treason" several months before. Although never jailed,
she and thirteen other AOP members are "out on bail", and
have been told by the police that they risk being taken to
task for their "crimes" if they continued with their
anti-government activities.

10. (SBU) In addition to the charges of treason, AOP said
their work had also been hampered by the use of the local and
national media to discredit their organization and its
activities. They also asserted that local leaders, including
village headmen, have tried to intimidate AOP members and
suppress the organization,s anti-dam activities. Mrs.
Lamduan felt these local officials were presumably taking
orders from above.

11. (SBU) Dr. Kanokwan Manorom of Ubon Ratchatani University
told Poloffs that organizations like AOP had become much
weaker under the Thaksin administration because of increased
government pressure. She pointed out that Thailand,s
Northeastern Isan region had traditionally been a hotbed of
political activism. However, most of the local population was
content with their improved quality of life under the Thaksin
administration, leading most people to shrug off the fact
that civil liberties have been decreased.


13. (SBU) Ms. Venus Iamsa'at, a newspaper reporter for the
pro-government daily Thai Rath (circulation:
800,000-1,000,000), also acknowledged that AOP had slowed
down its activities in recent years, though she credits their
lowered profile to threats from the government to expose
internal corruption by its leaders. Ms. Iamsa'at also claimed
that she had been physically threatened by members of AOP in
the past for writing stories critical of the movement. She
felt that more and more people seemed to appear each year to
collect "compensation", and that enough was enough. (COMMENT:
Although AOP is well-known for its non-violent resistance
efforts, it would not be surprising if certain radical
elements within the organization were involved in some of the
unsavory activities reported by the TR reporter. END COMMENT)

14. (U) Although the Thai Rak Thai Party of PM Thaksin
Shinawatra is extremely popular with Thailand's rural poor,
Mrs. Lamduan repeatedly stressed that the Thai government
"doesn't understand the problems of the poor". Using somewhat
leftist jargon, Ms. Somphan Khuendi argued that the
"capitalist" government in Bangkok just uses money to solve
all of its problems and Mrs. Lamduan said she believes the
government "undervalues people", since there had never been
any public hearings regarding the dam, and local people had
never been consulted about the project. They pointed out that
there were victims of similar government projects throughout
Thailand, and that their organization now included members
whose lives had been disrupted by thirty different dams all
over the country.

15. (SBU) COMMENT. After fifteen years of protesting, it
appears that the Pak Mun villagers are no closer to reaching
their ultimate goal of getting back their land. Although many
sources (including a report published by the World Commission
of Dams) agree that the Pak Mun dam has been more trouble
than it's worth, it seems that RTG and EGAT are reluctant to
broach dissent for fear that doing so would jeopardize future
dams and "mega-development projects." As time goes by and
residents leave the area, it will become more and more
difficult for Pak Mun villagers to resuurect their lost
communities. The overreaction of the RTG to this kind of
grass-roots activism, (particularly with regard to charges of
treason) is a worrying example of how this government
perceives civil society groups that don,t toe the government

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