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“Globalization is killing poor people!”

That was one of the many protest banners in English held at the anti-Asian Development Bank rally in Chiang Mai, Thailand last weekend, though the use of Thai writing and Thai slogans apparently irritated some foreign dignitaries.

On May 7, about 4,000 protesters representing nongovernmental organizations and poor Thai villagers marched to the venue where ADB officials were meeting. Although there was pushing and shoving at police blockades, the protests were peaceful. Key topics included a call to drop irrigation taxes that will break the back of poor farmers, to stop supporting privatization of health and education that favors the rich, and to halt environmentally harmful dams and water-treatment projects.

Founded in 1966, the Manila-based ADB, an Asian cousin of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, has a record of funding big projects with dubious benefits to poor people and the environment. But in the eyes of some Thai bankers, the ADB is a welcome force because domestic banks are even worse.

Thailand has some of the most impressive and active nongovernmental organizations that can be found anywhere, with groups formed to defend the rights of the disenfranchised ranging from paddy farmers to prostitutes to AIDS patients.

The patient, peaceful struggle to root out social injustice, a glimpse of which is visible in spirited protests in Chiang Mai today, is alive and kicking. Many of the 38 organizations that gathered to oppose the pro-elite policies of the ADB have been quietly trying to make Thailand a better place despite the onslaught of global capitalism and domestic disparities in power and wealth. Educating ordinary folks about health, consumer issues, the protection of law and preservation of the environment is an uphill struggle in a political culture, not unlike that of Mexico, where power, abetted by violence, often rules.

Tokyo sent its A-team to Chiang Mai to persuade other Asian nations that the time for an Asian Monetary Fund has come, a move the United States thwarted in 1997 when the Asian financial crisis hit. On May 7, U.S. displeasure notwithstanding, the Chiang Mai Initiative was announced. This pan-Asian currency swap plan, heavily lobbied for by Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and Japan’s unsuccessful candidate for the IMF leadership, Eisuke Sakakibara, threatens U.S. hegemony and IMF clout in a way that no angry farmer or dispossessed fisher can.

This rift among the world’s big money elite was not lost on the protesters, who deftly captured the dance of big finance from Tokyo and Washington in a skit with Uncle Sam and a man in kimono engaged in a tug of war with three big letters reading ADB. They pulled back and forth to the roar of the crowd and then everyone fell down.

The alliance of protesters called on the ADB to reduce the indebtedness of poor nations, reduce support of governments that exploit the poor and halt the environmentally unsound Klongdan wastewater treatment project in Samut Prakan on the Gulf of Siam.

The 200-km Samut Prakan wastewater pipe funded by ADB before environmental laws were in effect will “serve” some 4,000 factories in the province by dumping the waste in the ocean near a mangrove swamp in Klongdan. Supporters of the project say it is too late to comply with new environmental regulations now that the plant is partly built and the land has been acquired. Asked about the environmental damage, Science and Technology Minister Athit Urairat said he had nothing to do with the deal and pled bureaucratic powerlessness saying, “I cannot get the money back.”

One serious concern is that even if wastewater is adequately treated for biological wastes, chemical and heavy metal pollutants will flow into the mangrove swamp and the sea unguarded. This is serious in a country with lax law enforcement and few consumer safeguards.

If ADB continues to fund this controversial project and give it its blessings of “foreign expert wisdom,” some 30,000 residents who depend on fishing for main and secondary income will see the fresh water channels and brackish waters teeming with shrimp, cockleshells, striped mussels, sea crabs and squid hit with 500,000 cubic meters of wastewater containing toxic sludge.

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