The following essay was written by “Karine,” a Vietnamese student at the EarthRights School Mekong, following a class trip to Tha Ta Fang, a small village on the Thai side of the Salween River (map), on the Thai-Burma border. The Salween is the longest dam-free river in mainland Southeast Asia, but is threatened by a number of proposed dam projects.


There is a little girl in Tha Ta Fang village. Her name is Chokkobe. She is four years old, and her family was my host family during the 4 days I stayed in the village. Chokkobe is the cutest child I’ve ever met. She has a bright face with wide-open eyes. She loves to take photos and always ask to look at them after. She loves to play hide and seek with me. She can say “Hello, good night, and thank you” in English, and she says “good bye” with a kiss. Chokkobe wakes up early every morning and goes to school without crying. I can say that many children in Tha Ta Fang village really enjoy studying like Chokkobe.

ERSM students near the Salween RiverFortunately, Chokkobe is luckier than most of her friends in the village because she’s got Thai citizenship. Her father has Thai citizenship, but her mother does not. Some people will ask me why I say “fortunately,” because having citizenship is her right as a human being? But many children in Tha Ta Fang village don’t have Thai citizenship. It means that they cannot go to secondary school or any other schools outside their villages. They cannot have support from the Thai government. Moreover, when it comes to adulthood, those children don’t have any choice for jobs or working as a labor or worker in big cities. Without citizenship, for some household there, means they have no solar panel for electricity, no chance for education, and no choice for work.

But the Tha Ta Fang villagers are facing a bigger problem: a large dam that will be built right in their village. For those who don’t have citizenship, they will lose their land and their house without a penny in compensation. For those who do have citizenship, they will be torn apart from their community. I asked Chokkobe’s father, if they fail in protesting the dam project, what would they do? “We will move to the forest,” he replied. In that case, Chokkobe will have to live in a dormitory or move to the forest with her family. For me, both of those choices are very terrible. It means little Chokkobe cannot play with her friends any more. It means that she will lose her culture. She will grow up far from her fatherland. It reminds me a lullaby my mom used to sing when I was a child “Your fatherland, if you forget it, you will never grow up completely”. Definitely, that’s a huge damage that cannot be compensated by any amount of money.

Many dictatorships have reasons to start a war, many governments have reasons to refuse refugees. However, there’s no reason to refuse human rights. Chokkobe – in Karen – means butterfly. She is the most beautiful butterfly and I want her to  live her life happily and freely. I hope Chokkobe and all of children in Tha Ta Fang village can go to any schools they want. Moreover, I hope that when they grow up they will have choice for jobs and they will enjoy their lives completely. As my friend said at the farewall party, “Hopefully, you can maintain your lives and your village because you all deserve that. Once people come and visit your village, they won’t want to take it away from you.”