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 “For me, development is not about modernization. It is not about new technologies and modern materials. For me, development comes from inside the heart—what I call moral development.”

These words, along with the beautiful smile of Mother Somboun, came to my mind while reflecting on my recent visit to the Rasi Salai community in Sisaket Province with the EarthRights School Mekong.

Mae (‘Mother’) Somboun has lived in the Rasi Salai community for a long time. Mae Somboun is just a regular woman, but the people of Rasi Salai call her ‘Mother’ to show the deep respect they have for her and her role within the community.

Mother Somboun is critical of the government’s approach to development and the harms of focusing only on economic growth. The government did not even ask people what they thought or if they even wanted that kind of development in their communities. She told us that the development the government provided for her community was not real development because the benefits were not going to the community; the benefits were only for the authorities and for the people living in the city. The villagers in Rasi Salai gained nothing but the loss of their land and the disappearance of their rich food source. She added, “If the government says what they do is development, what kind of development is it? And for whom?”

Mae Somboun is what many people call a ‘long-life fighter’. In addition to being a first generation campaigner against the Rasi Salai Dam, she is also well known for her involvement in the Assembly of the Poor’s 99-day sit-in protest in front of the Government House in Bangkok in 1997. She is currently one of leaders in the Rasi Salai Learning Center.  It is no wonder that many people from both old and young generations respect her tremendously.

Even though I stayed in Rasi Salai just a short time, every day I saw Mother Somboun get up very early to start work. She always did this with a smile on her face. When I asked her why she was happy, she said to me, “I am happy because I can do something useful for my family and for my community.” When the community was faced with problems caused by the dam, Mother Somboun began campaigning. She did this not because of money but in order to protect her happiness and the happiness of the next generation.

For 30 long years, the villagers in Rasi Salai have faced many problems because of the Rasi Salai Dam, which has done nothing but threaten their livelihoods, environment, and culture. It has shaken their lifestyles and led to a decrease in their food source, especially in the wetland called “PaTham” which acts like a bank of food for the community. Since the dam was built, almost all of the villagers have had to find other ways to provide for their families.  Many have been forced to leave the village and their families to find jobs in the city. This threatens the existence of local knowledge as well as the important role of women within the family and the community, which is strongly related to food and protection of the Moun River.

Development has to have value for the community. Does the community really want things like modern materials, new technologies, and lots of money? Or do communities want a good environment and for people to have their rights as human beings respected? I asked Mae Somboun what kind of development she desires. She answered me clearly and confidently,

“Moral development is the development that I want. I feel happy when my family lives together happily and when the people in the community are united and understand and respect each other. Respect for our rights is real development. It is the kind of development that helps people lead happy lives.”

I hope that people in power can learn from Mother Somboun and consider deeply what kind of development will truly bring happiness to people. As Mother Somboun said to me the morning we packed up to go home, “If the government understands and knows what we really need, problems might not happen.”