BANGKOK — The Moon River is the lifeline of Isan, bringing sustenance to the poorest, most populous part of Thailand. The World Bank identified the Moon, the greatest of the Mekong River’s tributaries, as a suitable location for a giant dam, and proceeded to fund a hydropower project that is destroying the traditional way of life in a picturesque river basin of self-sufficient villages.

The Pak Moon Dam is a concrete monstrosity 300 meters wide and 17 meters high. The World Bank provided technical support and loans, which will cost the people of Thailand over $223 million. The electricity-generating facility blocks and regulates the natural flow of the Moon, but it’s not been working as well as proponents claimed it would and economists reckon it won’t pay for itself, let alone contribute meaningfully or profitably to Thailand’s electricity grid (its 1995 output was 0.04 percent of the total).

Failure to deliver what it was supposed to deliver is reason enough to question the wisdom of the bankers and technocrats, since it is ordinary Thai citizens who will eventually have to pick up the tab. But the precipitous decline in fish populations and growing poverty of villagers along the banks of the river is stirring angry protest. By some estimates, the Moon has lost 90 percent of the fish that used to spawn here and once enriched the Mekong downstream in Laos and Cambodia.

Peasant folk, with a deep and abiding respect for their river of life, opposed the dam early on, as did numerous nongovernmental organizations and technical experts. But it’s not easy standing in front of the steamroller of progress, especially when funded by a prestigious U.S.-based institution such as the World Bank. Early protests against the project were blithely ignored by contemptuous yet insecure Bangkok politicians suffering from development envy.

“We are the authorities, we have the law, we have the right to develop,” said an official from the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand. “We have to have power.

Power indeed. The powerless and impoverished who have borne the brunt of EGAT’s power plunders are getting more and more people to listen. For one, the World Commission on Dams published a study critical of the Pak Moon project in February. Furthermore, the Isan peasants, some of them in their 10th year of protest, have upped the stakes: They are no longer asking for compensation — they want the river back.

The Pak Moon dam and Rasi Salai dam are both occupied around the clock by angry peasants and no one steps near either site — especially the edgy authoritarians at EGAT — without the protesters’ permission.

It’s psychological warfare at the moment, with radical supporters of the largely silent peasants countering the noisy, defensive claims of EGAT on behalf of the largely silent state. EGAT Assistant Gov. Subhin Panyamags says it’s too late to do anything about the dam, echoing remarks made by Science Minister Athit Urairat. “Compensation has been paid,” he recently announced. “This business is finished.”

But according to an American fisheries expert, the peasants are right. “Dams kill rivers,” explains Tyson Roberts of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. A burly, cheerful man, whose 30 years in Thailand lead him to say “our” river instead of “their” river. Tyson says “the fish have to be able to go up and down, and most can’t scale the ladders. Fish ladders,” he said, “are an afterthought, put in to counter ecological criticism but actually ineffective.” Social and environmental considerations should be given equal weight to financial considerations he says, adding, “hydropower threatens to destroy 20 percent of our fresh water fish. Damaging the river ecology in turn impacts fish populations in the gulf and the sea.”

The seasoned protesters, wary of the quick-fix solutions that EGAT technocrats have come up with, such as stocking the Moon with new kinds of fish and generous offers of cash compensation, are calling for something less definable but more valuable: the autonomy to preserve a way of life that has served them for centuries, even millennia.

The Moon river is blocked by a smaller dam at Rasi Salai, where fisherman joined by rice farmers have taken over the facility and have threatened to tear it apart in a sympathetic protest. The rice farmers not only complain about flooding, but say their fields suffer increased salinity due to the backed-up waters and flooded forests. The protest at Rasi Salai has gotten less attention in the press but is worth taking note of for several reasons. Being smaller in size and having earthen ramparts filled with stone, it can be, and is, at least symbolically at the moment, being torn down brick by brick.

During the height of the Cold War, this stretch of the Moon River was “infested” with communist insurgents, some loyal to Hanoi, but mostly under the command of the China-dependent Communist Party of Thailand. Many of these former rebels are still around, now advanced in years, seamlessly blending into the social fabric as rice farmers, teachers and even policemen. In fact, the notorious village of Ku Sot, considered so red it was burned to the ground during the heyday of Vietnam war era counterinsurgency, is not far from the banks of the Moon. The above-average political awareness of peasants in this area is in part the legacy of communism that flourished underground in northeast Thailand in the 1960s and ’70s.

The strident dream of changing Thailand by revolution was undone long ago, not so much by the effectiveness of U.S.-backed counter insurgency, (which tended to radicalize people and produce more rebels) but because of the generally easy going, happy-go-lucky nature of the village folk, who don’t take well to regimentation or dictatorship of any sort. Nearby towns, such as Bungbun, are pleasant villages composed of small merchants and small landholders who strive more for self-sufficiency than integration with the distant Bangkok government.

The politically savvy villagers here are not asking for handouts, just a chance to be self-sufficient. Benign neglect serves the region better than meddling from Bangkok, abetted by the World Bank and other global organizations that are loyal to no one in particular. Villagers here grow only one rice crop a year, like other parts of dry, impoverished Isan, but they have been diligent and industrious in building up cottage industries such as silk weaving, and under nearly every wooden house on stilts, can be heard the clackety-clack rhythms of spindles and heavy looms.

News about the Pak Moon Dam has been steady fare in Thai papers, with constant hints of violence keeping readers on edge.

Writer Sulak Sivarak has dedicated much of his work to improving the lives of the meek and abused. He says the government must take rural villagers seriously, as they represent 85 percent of the nation. “Talk to them as equals.” He criticizes the EGAT fat cats and World Bank experts for their five-star hotel lifestyle, divorced from the reality of the countryside. He acknowledges that it is not easy for the government to admit it is wrong, but said, “if the government doesn’t lose face, the people will suffer.”

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