If you visit Thailand anytime from May to October, you will fall in love with the white flowers with light yellow petals, which blossom proudly on green trees along roads. It is the Frangipani flower, which has a nickname “Egg Flower” in Chinese due to its colors. This pure flower reminds me of Wanida Tantiwittayapitak (Wanida), a low-profile but well-loved female social activist in Thailand.
Wanida was born on November, 7 1955 to a middle-class Chinese-Thai family in Bangkok, and passed away on December, 6 2007 because of breast cancer at the age of 52. What she missed was not only her birthday in the coming month, but more importantly, the 12th anniversary of the Assembly of the Poor, the highly recognized grass-roots movement that she co-founded, which was held only four days after her death.
Tens of thousands of villagers mourned Wanida while vowing to carry on the campaigns to which she devoted so much of her life. “Wanida is our hero and she will always stay in our hearts,” declared village leader Sompong Viengchan from Ubon Rachathani. Anand Panyarachun, former prime minister, said “Thai society today lost one of its greatest women,” at Wanida’s funeral.
Thailand is a country with many social classes and changing politics. How can Wanida, a middle-class women in Bangkok, lead a social movement of the poor, and win respect from tens of thousands people and even a top politician? What kind of person was Wanida and what did she experience in her life? With these questions in mind, I visited the Isaan region in North-eastern Thailand in early August 2015 and interviewed seven community members who have worked with Wanida in the Assembly of the Poor. The same open-ended question was asked: could you please tell me what you know about Wanida?
The first person I interviewed was Ms. Samlan Solaka, leader of the protests against the Hua Na Dam, which is located on the Mun River in Sisaket Province and is the largest dam in the Khong-Chi-Mun (KCM) water diversion project. Communities have had very little involvement in the case of the Hua Na Dam project. They were originally told a small, 4-meter-high rubber weir would be built, but instead a 17-meter-high cement dam with 14 gates was created. Salinity, destruction of traditional irrigation systems, flooding, and loss of farming, wetlands and fisheries stand to significantly impact the local lands and livelihoods.
Ms. Samlan Solaka, aged 43, was from Hua Na Village that has received direct impacts from the Hua Na Dam project. Like most traditional women in Asia, Ms. Samlan Solaka is kind-hearted and hardworking. Her life was not easy as her husband passed away twenty years ago, leaving a one-year old daughter to feed. The lost land from the dam project made life more miserable. She recalled:
Wanida came to our village in my most hopeless time. She encouraged us to defend our land rights and right to life. She showed me that I have every right and power to reclaim my own rights! I became very brave, and I not only joined in the protests but stood up for the first time to voice our dissatisfaction and pleas!
Motivated by Wanida, Samlan Solaka joined the Assembly of the Poor, and as one of the few female leaders, organized many activities including writing petition letters and peaceful protests. In 1994, Samlan Solaka and her fellow villagers assembled in Bangkok and had a milestone 99 days protest together with over 200,000 poor people.
Because of the villagers’ long-term struggle for human rights, resources and environmental justice, the government finally decided in 2000 to open the Pak Mun Dam gates in the rainy season for four months, so the fish could return to spawn. However, this decision was not fully enforced due to political changes, and Samlan Solaka has to lead villagers for a new round of protests. She said “I think about Wanida right before each protest. Thinking of her gives me power though she has already passed away.”
The second interviewee was Mae Pha, a 64-year old lady from Rasi Salai village, which is very close to Pak Mun Dam. She is one of the top leaders, and is widely respected for over 20 years of anti-dam struggles. The Rasi Salai Dam was built in 1993 for irrigation purposes. However, this area is a plateau with salt fields, and the reservoir water became salty due to the flooded salt fields. Therefore, the only contribution of this badly designed project was flooding of wetland and forests with rich resources, causing loss of the livelihoods of 17,000 villagers and the vanishing of dozens of fish species.
Mae Pha was dressed nicely and talked peacefully, which reminded me of my own grandmother. When the name of Wanida was mentioned, Mae Pha cast her eyes far into the distance as if the past had come back to her.“
I will never forget the first time I met her. It was 26 years ago. She was standing in front of tens of thousands of villagers and requested to meet the Minister.”She paused for a while and then continued, “Wanida thought me how to be a well-accepted leader. When I was under pressure, she taught me how to be a good listener and to understand people, and to have enough patience to build up solidarity. She also coached me on how to take peaceful approaches.
Wanida’s words were taken to her heart just like rain moistens plants. Mae Pha kept practicing and learning until she developed herself into a well-recognized leader. She led Rasi Salai villagers in the 99-day protest in Bangkok, and organized over 9,000 villagers to occupy the Rasi Salai dam for 189 days with a demand for a careful environmental and social impact analysis. On the International Day of Action against Dams and for Rivers, Water and Life of 14 March 2000, she initiated another large-scale campaign which finally convinced the government to open the dam gates and to place the impact analysis on the government agenda.
From interviewing Ms. Samlan Solaka and Mae Pha, I got a better understanding of Wanida’s importance in the social movement of poor people. She has played a crucial role in building up women’s confidence and in fostering women’s leadership. What kind of person was she in her ordinary life? Mae Phet, anti-dam activist Grandma Hai’s tenth Child in Huay Ra Ha provided a good answer.
In the late 1970s, Grandma Hai family’s lands were flooded due to a reservoir built by the government. Seeing no progress in reclaiming lands from 26 years of protests, Grandma Hai’s family members, men and women, old and young, staved a hole in the dam in 2004 with the purpose of releasing the water to see their submerged lands. This four-day action was broadcasted live by Thai TV and the government decommissioned the dam and paid compensation five years later, which marked the end of the family’s 32-year struggle.
Mae Phet, 42 years old, is the youngest child in Grandma Hai family. She had to work in Bangkok as a maid at the age of 11 because the dam project caused the family to lose their livelihood. Having spent three-forth of her lifetime in fighting for family lands, Mae Phet learned to control her feelings, but when I mentioned the name of Wanida, she became emotional:
Wanida is a living Bodhisattva [Buddha] in my eyes! She appeared everywhere to help people. I met her in the 99-day protest in Bangkok and she started to seek resource to support us right after learning our story. She never forget us and asked her family to support us even when she was very sick.” Mae Phet sat upright and gestured emphatically, saying: “Did you know that? Wanida was from a well-off family with a high education, but she never disliked or discriminated against the poor people like us. She ate together with us and slept with us. She respected everyone and was ready to help everyone. We loved her so much from our hearts! We asked for her advice for each new plan and she was asked by villagers to help solve their family affairs! She even treated the spies sent by the government fairly. There were always secrete polices who tried to sneak in to our meetings and collect information, and we wanted to kick them out. Wanida stopped us every time and instead invited spies to sit with us. She said to us that if we thought of them as enemies then they would be enemies forever. But if we accepted them and invited them to learn more about us, they may start to understand us and bring the truth to their leaders. This sense of humanity and universal love was very inspiring.
Mae Phet lowered her voice and became upset when talking about Wanida’s life.“She cared for everyone very much except for herself. She devoted herself to supporting social movements in various regions and various activities, and left too little time to rest and relax, and this led to her death at a young age.” Mae Phet’s eyes blinked with the light of tears, and she mourned,“Wanida is my most beloved activist and I wish I could meet her again in the next life.”
The image of Wanida became increasingly clear after talking with a few villagers in Thailand, and it seemed that I’d found answers to my questions. Starting at the white Frangipani flowers on the tree, scenes from her short life flashed in my mind:
She was part of the democratic movement and environmentalism since she was a student at Secondary School. While in High School, she marched with demonstrators during the 14 October 1973 uprising to demand democracy. At the age of 19, she passed the entrance examination and enrolled as a student in the well-known Thammasat University and became part of the student movement to fight for democracy and social justice. On 6 October 1976, a student massacre erupted in which over 100 students were killed by the Thailand military. She was forced to flee to the jungle and join the communists. In 1981, she resumed her education and devoted herself to the farmers’ movement a few years later. She actively contributed to many Anti-dam activities such as Kaeng Krung Dam, Kaeng Sue Ten Dam and Pak Mun Dam. In 1995, she co-founded the Assembly of the Poor, and later initiated the 99-day protest in Bangkok, which became a spiritual symbol of social movements in Thailand. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, Wanida passed away on December 6, 2007 at the age of 52.
Wanida once gave a lecture entitled ‘Why do we have to help the poor?’ in 1997 at Thammasat University. In the lecture she addressed the poor people as ‘my sisters and brothers’, and emphasized that “Poverty does not just exist by itself. It is caused by injustice, unfair distribution, and a lack of sharing and mutual benefit”. She believed that “all poor people have the great potential to help society. ” and “all of us can live happily by extending our help to poor people, one way or another.” She said this and she kept doing this all through her lifetime.
Someone once said that “Solidarity means running the same risk” and Wanida rectified this belief with her whole life. Her persistence in fighting against injustice and strong spirit for protecting rights will motivate people to continue the struggle for equality and equity. The pure Frangipani flowers will blossom forever in the heart of millions people and will never fade.