Crowd at Mae Chaem

Even as the political tussle in Bangkok plays out in the streets and media, the junta is moving swiftly, placing a water-management scheme once ruled unconstitutional back on the drawing board. This comes on the heels of a new economic roadmap, announced late last month, that firmly reinstates the 350 billion Bt water-management scheme governing more than a dozen projects.

This scheme was first proposed as a governmental response to the floods in Bangkok in 2011, but is largely seen as a paper solution with greater human and environmental costs than economic benefit.

The government’s move contradicts early promises to take a more consultative approach, but is largely unsurprising. Villagers in Mae Chaem district, Chiang Mai province, first heard about the Yingluck Shinawatra government’s plans for a dam in October last year, two years after it was first proposed. Since then, an inter-village Anti-Mae Chaem Dam Committee has been formed with representatives from the affected villages.

Dams in Thailand have gained notoriety for their repercussions on relocated communities and the communities that remain behind. As a case in point, the Pak Mun dam in Northeast Thailand elicited widespread outrage and opposition amongst the working and middle classes, with over 180,000 members from a peoples’ collective calling themselves samatcha khon chon (in English, the Assembly of the Poor) participating in a 99-day sit-in protest rally outside Government House in January 1997. Government reports prepared for the project projected a total of 241 households of displaced people; in reality, as the World Commission on Dams later found, it displaced 1,700 and became mired in a protracted process of conflict between villagers, project developers and the government.1

The current situation in Mae Chaem is different for a few key reasons, and I mention three which should provoke some thought concerning the structure of collective organization and popular mobilization in Thailand.

First, Pak Mun dam was a mega-scale development project that garnered a high level of media attention because of its geographic location, sponsoring organization and funding cost. Its impact on an entire downstream ecosystem of fishers and people living off the river and the opportunity it gave to cast the spotlight on World Bank oversight came at a time when development projects were being heavily criticized. Attention was quickly paid to the massive investment cost ($24 million USD), consequent disenfranchisement, and the lack of consultation with the displaced populations.

In contrast, the Mae Chaem dam has a much smaller budget of 2.35 billion Bt, is located in more remote highlands of the north, directly impacts only 9 villages and sits on a tributary of the Mae Chaem river that contributes only 16% of the water flow to the Chao Phraya river. Unlike the Pak Mun dam, the number of disenfranchised is smaller, making it much harder to mobilise support against the dam.

Second, opposition to the Pak Mun dam grew over time, and the Assembly of the Poor swelled in strength because of the observable consequences of the dam after it had been built. Its impact on fisheries and water resources downstream mobilized support from both the poorest and the middle class, and made it easier to establish an effective call for action amongst middle class Thai NGOs.

Mae Chaem dam on the other hand is a Design-and-Build project, with no concrete plan for the project or construction design. There is likewise no planned compensation for villages and no plans for relocation. The project is, from start to end, mired in uncertainty for both its project developers and the affected communities. The uncertainty surrounding the project arises from both its incomplete design and the government’s lack of communication with regards to the project’s stops and starts. This demands constant vigilance from the affected communities and efforts to keep the anti-dam momentum going.

Third, the villagers facing the proposed Mae Chaem dam are ethnic minorities living on highland territory miles from the Mae Chaem district office. They have no land rights or title deeds to the land they live on, whereas the Pak Mun dam primarily affected lowland people with legal claims to the land. Travel out of Mae Chaem to attend protest rallies in Chiangmai or Bangkok is financially burdensome, requiring the pooled resources of the village, and the political tools that the communities can use to defend themselves are elusive. In today’s political climate, this is clearly more pertinent than ever.

These reasons reflect the social pathologies facing Thailand’s democratic process, recently discussed by Rick Doner. The proposed Mae Chaem dam is exactly the kind of top-down, project-based, rural development project about which Andrew Walker has covered extensively in his book, Thailand’s Political Peasants.2 Doner suggests this project-based approach constrains resistance efforts to an overly localized focus on reclaiming particular state resources, and dissuades the formation of broader, intra-regional interest groups. It undercuts, as Doner makes clear for us, the growth of “stable organizational forms designed to make broad claims on policies and to bargain with other interest groups over these claims.” The communities in Mae Chaem are perfect examples of political subjects living on the periphery, and dealing with practical and legal difficulties that prevent their voice from being heard.

Nonetheless, there are clear reasons why the construction of the dam will impact communities beyond those directly affected. Orphya, a local NGO working with the communities, recently released a detailed 30-page report in Thai regarding information on the dam.3 Aside from the 3,584 people most directly impacted, roads to four villages would be inundated, and schools and healthcare facilities would be flooded, including a health station at Mae Sa village that serves 15 villages within and beyond Mae Chaem district.

Further, in a people’s statement4jointly submitted by the affected villages, considerations raised included the project’s unreliable Environment Impact Assessments (EIA) and Environmental-Health Impact Assessments (EHIA), the complete lack of planned compensation for the affected communities, the use of a Design-and-Build plan, and the choice of dam site: a well-known earthquake faultline.

Collective action once made a huge change in influencing political decision-making. Some lessons from history may guide us here. In 1997, the anti-dam efforts of the Assembly of the Poor resulted in the Chavalit Yongchaiyudh government’s approval of compensation for over 5000 families affected by two dams, and cancellation of construction of the Kaeng Suea Ten dam. But these concessions came to naught when the Chavalit government resigned at the height of the Asian Financial Crisis.

Yet the protest, writes Bruce Missingham in his book, The Assembly of the Poor in Thailand5, created a new intellectual and emotional space for people to speak about their grievances. With the establishment of a transient School of Politics, the Assembly of the Poor facilitated training and mass participation in politics, which resulted in direct negotiation between affected villagers and members of the Chavalit Yongchaiyudh government, and the drafting of the 1997 Constitution, popularly known as the People’s Constitution. It was a new political strategy, a new platform, and a legitimate one at that. It clarified the issues that people were fighting for and legitimized their form of organizing as a people’s movement, with a cultural identity and a people’s mandate. These were crucial things that the movement enabled, even if it seemed like the fight was lost. It should continue to inspire similar efforts towards the creation of a public, democratic political space.

Mae Chaem dam is just one of many more dams under the government’s ill-informed water-management scheme. The military’s move to reopen negotiations for the Mae Chaem dam comes amidst jittery unease amongst South Korean and Chinese investors. The communities in Mae Chaem know they are in for a protracted, uphill task. Although they are supported by NGO personnel with experience from the Kaeng Suea Ten dam and Pak Mun dam, they lack the capacity to raise public awareness of the issue. Short of starting a protest like the Assembly of the Poor did almost two decades ago, the communities and its allies may need the political support of the middle class in Bangkok in order to alter the military’s plans to reaffirm its Chinese and Korean investors’ interests.

What is most needed now is greater media attention, greater pressure on dam developers and the junta, the coordination of support networks between NGOs in Bangkok and the existing dam activist network, including local NGOs Orphya and Raks Thai, and a show of support for the villagers to prepare them for the long-term grind.

Huiying is a student at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and University Scholars Programme. She is currently writing her undergraduate Honours thesis at the Department of Psychology, and recently worked with fellow undergraduates from Chiang Mai University and the NUS to produce a documentary and online resources concerning the Mae Chaem dam.


1. In a report released November 2000, the Commission found that households that were not relocated were affected by declining fish yields at levels wholly unpredicted by the EIA. Although 6,202 households were compensated over the 3-year construction period, there was–and has been– no compensation for the permanent loss of the fisheries. Weighing the benefits drawn from irrigation and fisheries against the actual loss of fisheries, fish diversity and migration routes, as well as impact on people’s livelihoods and the compensation made to villages, the Commission concluded that the project had never been economically viable and did not adhere to contemporary standards for dam construction projects.

2. Walker, Andrew. Thailand’s political peasants: Power in the modern rural economy. University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.

3 and 4. English translations have been uploaded here.

5. Missingham, Bruce. The assembly of the poor in Thailand: From local struggles to national protest movement. Silkworm Books, 2003.