Spirit of the Mekong: A Big Day for the Future of the River

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Last week Bobbie and I had the opportunity to observe the filing of a case in the Administrative Court of Thailand by affected villagers downstream from the Xayaburi dam in Laos. We were informed by the villagers’ lawyer, Ms. Sor. Rattanamanee Polkla, that there would be 80 villagers submitting the lawsuit, travelling to Bangkok from the eight Mekong River provinces of Thailand. These 80 villagers were armed with a further 1,000 signatures of Thai villagers supporting the case. Last year the Save the Mekong Coalition submitted a petition, signed by over 20,000 people against the damming of the Mekong, to the Thai Prime Minister (Thailand will purchase 95% of the electricity produced by the dam). The villagers’ case will challenge the decision of the National Energy Policy Council and Thai Cabinet to approve the Power Purchase Agreement between the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and the Xayaburi Power Company Limited, the project’s operator. The villagers argue that this approval was given without conducting an environmental and health impact assessment of the dam in Thailand along with public consultation, both of which are required under the Thai Constitution for activities that will significantly affect a community’s natural environment.

The villagers started their campaign with a walking rally to the Administrative court at 10 in the morning. During the march, they carried placards with strong anti-dam messages. They also loudly called for justice from the Government. The march was conducted peacefully, and in fact staff and security helped the villagers find space in front of the court to worship the spirits of the Mekong before filing.

There was a moment of silence to start the worship ceremony. The villagers kneeled down; paid their respects to the Mekong and chanted together. The words of the chant were about how the “Mother River” played a vital role in their lives and this is why they respected the Mekong. At the end, they cast a fishing net in front of the court, a symbol of their traditional livelihoods that depend on fish, which are at risk with the construction of the dam.

Messages from the grassroots to the government and public

This court filing has drawn a lot of attention from national and international media, and some affected villagers were asked about their purpose in filing the case. “EGAT signed a contract without the process of consulting or giving information to stakeholders,” said Teerapong Pomun, a member of Living Rivers Siam. Mr. Pomun continued “I don’t think Vietnam or China want to buy power from Xayaburi dam because it’s too far and it would cost a lot to build a power line. Thailand is the only country that would be a buyer.”

Niwat, one of the leaders of the Thai People’s Network in Eight Mekong Provinces, a grassroots group supporting the suit, also said “we have done everything to make the parties concerned aware of the issues but so far none of the departments or organizations we have appealed to has addressed the issue by suspending the project in order to avoid its impact. For this reason we … are seeking justice from the court.”

Pianporn Deetes, campaigner with International Rivers, an environmental activist group, says villagers have already complained of adverse affects from upstream dams in China. Ms. Deetes said they worry about further damage if dams are built on the lower Mekong in Laos. “Villagers have experienced negative impacts such as the change of ecosystem, unusual water fluctuations, flash flooding or flash drought, that is not natural anymore,” Ms. Deetes explained. “And, this adversely affected fish migration patterns.”

“There are lots of Thai companies investing in neighboring countries, particularly Laos, Cambodia, and Burma, without any standards,” Ms. Deetes said. “They do not have to follow with Thai laws. We would like to see that this lawsuit would set a new standard with Thai overseas investment that at least they have to follow or respect the law in their home country.”

Filing Procedure

Ms. Polkla said the affected villagers’ lawyer came to the court with a  big pile of documents supporting the court complaint. She filed the documents with the court, each document having been certified by the villagers and her. Meanwhile Bobbie and I watched the villagers giving public speeches explaining the rationale of the case. Thailand currently does not need to produce more electricity, they said, as there is already excess generating capacity in the system. Also, there are cheaper, more secure and less destructive ways of generating electricity more in line with Thailand’s energy efficiency and renewable energy policies. Finally, the villagers passionately explained the dam would very likely affect their livelihoods and they have not been meaningfully consulted. As national authorities have ignored the voice of the people, villagers have taken matters into their own hands with the lawsuit. They hope that by challenging the dam’s power purchase agreement in Thailand, the Xayaburi dam in Laos will be forced to stop.

The complaint was accepted by the court as case file no. 493/2555 on a preliminary basis pending the parties’ arguments. The court will set a date for the first hearing, where the villagers will make their argument for why the court should officially accept their case. If the case is accepted it will make history as the first Administrative court case relating to cross-border projects that would have impacts in Thailand.

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