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Local protest, global solidarity: why is Ban Mae Ngud's Karen community restive?

Youth demonstration. Courtesy: Mekong Youth Voice
By Camellia Biswas* 
As part of the "Indigenous and More Than Human Relationships" workshop, I took a short field trip to Ban Mae Ngud, a village in Thailand—not even marked correctly on Google maps — is on the verge of flooding, and the locals will have to relocate if the Yuam-Salween-water-diversion project goes ahead.
Interactions with the local ethnic group reminded me of Narmada Bachao Andolan and Tehri Dam Andolan. I realized their protest, dissent, loss, and sorrow are not dissimilar to what has been happening in my own country, India, or even worldwide, particularly in the global South.
Ban Mae Ngud is inhabited by the Karen Pow ethnic community of Thailand, and the main river utilized for farming is now clogged with heavy siltation by sand due to the Bhumibol Dam built in 1964. The continuous protests didn't stop the state from executing the project. In a few years, it flooded the Mae Ngud neighbourhoods. The administrative authorities assigned new sites to the people in a different sub-district of Ban An. However, the Karens refused to move there because of the dense jungle, which would completely change their livelihood options. Due to excessive flooding, the villagers had to relocate to a nearby area, around 200 meters away from their native settlement. The relocation was full of struggle—rebuilding their houses. Their rice farms got destroyed due to flooding and changes in soil composition, which led them to think of alternatives and other sources of income.
Using their traditional ecological knowledge, the locals now have found water flowing under the sand, which they pump to water their longan plantation—their primary income source, followed by cattle rearing.
However, this won't continue for long if the 70 Billion Baht (1.85 Billion USD) Yuam-Salween-Water Diversion Project goes forward. The project claims to have numerous advantages, including an increase in water supply, extensively irrigated areas along the Chao Phraya and Ping Rivers, and an increase in the Bhumibol Dam's capacity to generate electricity. A tunnel will be built 300 to 1000 meters below, cutting across mountains and forests to transport water to major cities in Thailand. The EIA report claimed that only 25 households would be affected, which the locals countered by calling it flawed, incomplete, and socio-ecologically destructive for various reasons[i]. For example, it is expected to disrupt local ecosystems and destroy around 3,641 rai of the forest [ii], and a total area of soil dirt of 444.51 rai (mentioned in the EIA) will become habitable. That includes most of the residential areas of Ban Mae Ngud village. They are worried about another displacement since their current hamlet is at the end of the water tunnel used by the Diversion Project and will soon be affected by the dirt piling and toxicity of the environment.
The locals first agreed to this project unknowingly when the officials misrepresented several facts, like the fact that the Mae Ngud residents would receive additional water for agricultural purposes. Whereas the headman learnt about the Yuam Diversion Project much later when the EIA was already completed in 2021. As they discovered more about the project's problems, like repeated flooding, displacement, and no compensation, they decided to oppose it.
Karen women are also acquainted with their impending precarity and discrimination, having followed the Diversion Project. With the worry of being homeless, they feel the settlement won't have potable water or fertile land to produce because flooding and harmful pollutant releases will "destroy the ecology." The village youth are also active participants in the protest because if relocated, there will be no school for them to attend, and they will also be unable to afford a quality health facility.
Participatory map of the Ban Mae Ngud
The headman in the interview says they fear powerful outsiders who misrepresent them on local and national platforms (newspapers and television) as "anti-development" people. They have accepted their fate of fighting their battle in loneliness without support from other ethnic communities, not even Karen Pows from different regions of Thailand. Though frazzled with uncertainty, the Mae Ngud locals have declared they will continue their protest[iii] and keep fighting for land entitlement with little help and guidance.
"All we need is to be heard and supported, not just nationally but internationally. So that more and more people start to believe us."
They are not just protesting the project's dreadful consequences but also claiming meaningful participation in development processes and engagement with project proponents. Most indigenous communities fighting against similar development-induced displacement projects demand recognition, representation through their protests, less obvious and "slower" forms of mobilization, and contestation over scientific knowledge.
Social scientists and activists like Prof. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, and others from different universities have been organizing discussions and academic demonstrations with human rights activists and reporters[vi]. They have collaborated with the Karens to bring socio-environmental injustice to the national stage, hoping that public confrontations and contestations will impede the Diversion Project. And as for the international community, we must express our solidarity with the Karens because it indicates the shared suffering and vulnerabilities of what is happening to them, which has happened to many socially disadvantaged groups worldwide. This camaraderie should be a reminder of the state's socio-political and ecological injustice that has destroyed many local communities' lives and livelihoods and caused irreparable damage to their centuries-old socio-cultural identities.

ADDITIONAL REFERENCES

[i] Refer the media activist Apinya Wipatayotin link to his article:https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/2183075/villagers-slam-eia-report-on-yuam-water-project.
[ii] Rai. means a unit of measurement of land in Thailand. A unit of surface expressed in Rai is equal to 1600 square meters in metric measurement, 1 acre is approx 2,5 Rai.
[iii] To know more about the protest, visit https://www.mymekong.org/document/salween-basin-villagers-letters-to-thai-minister-of-agriculture-re-water-diversion-scheme-from-the-salween-to-chao-praya-basin/
[iv] McDuie-Ra, D. (2011). The dilemmas of pro-development actors: viewing state–ethnic minority relations and intra-ethnic dynamics through contentious development projects. Asian Ethnicity, 12(1), 77-100
[v] Hengsuwan, P. (2019). Not only anti-dam: Simplistic rendering of complex Salween communities in their negotiation for development in Thailand. Knowing the Salween River: Resource politics of a contested transboundary river, 181.
[vi] Refer to Demanding for suspension the cabinet’s review of the Yuam/Salween Water Diversion Project to Bhumibol Dam, villagers -academics-MPs-conservationists voicing their opposition https://transbordernews.in.th/home/?p=28887
[vii] Vaddhanaphuti, C., Lwin, K. M., Shining, N., Deetes, P., & Edward Grumbine, R. (2019). Future Trajectories: Five Short Concluding Reflections. In Knowing the Salween River: Resource Politics of a Contested Transboundary River (pp. 279-303). Springer, Cham.
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Camellia is a PhD Candidate in the Humanities and Social Sciences discipline of IIT Gandhinagar, Gujarat India, majoring in Ecological Anthropology. Her major research interests are: Political and Cultural Ecology, Disaster studies and Decolonial research methodologies. She is a British Council Women leadership Fellow, 2022 and a Inlaks-RS conservation Grantee for 2021-22

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