'Son of a commoner' faces the Assembly of the Poor

by Wipaphan Korkeatkachorn*

On the night of the Buddhist Lent on July 16 and in the afternoon of the following day, 223 villagers including the elderly, women and a child were arrested at Government House in Bangkok.

These people have been adversely affected by the Pak Mun dam. They are also members of the Assembly of the Poor, the strongest people's organization in Thailand that advocates the plight of desperate people affected by the so-called "development" policies. Before the arrest, the police beat several of the people and all of them were accused of trespassing on government property by climbing into Government House. Although representatives of the Assembly of the Poor have camped in front of Government House time and again to demand their constitutional rights, their demands have fallen on deaf ears.

For Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, a lawyer who always calls himself a son of a commoner, a Buddhist Lent was no occasion to refrain from dealing strictly with those who didn't follow his "principle" and obey the "rules of law".

"I sympathise with the police, they (the villagers) have the right to demonstrate outside, but they should not enter Government House.... The intrusion into the compound is illegal," said Chuan. While the Prime Minister regarded the villagers' intrusion into Government House as illegal, Dr Prawes Wasi, a prominent senior citizen, saw the incident differently. The villagers' trespass, in his opinion, was a very minor issue compared with the Government' s intrusion - through its top-down development projects -- into the villagers' lives nationwide. Such intrusion of the state has brought about the villagers' poverty, desperation, illness, family disintegration and the selling of their daughters into prostitution.

Professor Nidhi Iawsriwong, Thailand's well-known historian, pointed out that the well-to-do Thai Chamber of Commerce was very welcome to use the government's compound to bargain for their interests with the Ministry of Commerce, but when the poor villagers attempted to do likewise they were manhandled. He added that a violent act includes not only hitting villagers with batons, but also means the refusal of their rights, wrenching their chances to make a living, and refusing to take one's responsibility to help solve other people's problems.

"The present situation is as worse as that of the May event (in 1991). We have a tyrant government that is arrogant and not accountable for the public. This is dangerous because the government still sees itself as legitimate and claims that it is democratic. In fact, it is as violent as a military government," said Nidhi.

Why did the villagers come back? The villagers climbed into the government house because they wanted to put pressure on the government to solve their problems according to the recommendations made by the ad hoc committee appointed by the government on June 2, 2000.

On May 15, 2000 the Pak Mun villagers blocked the turbine engine to stop the operation of Pak Mun dam, which is managed by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT). They demanded that the government open the dam gates for four months to allow fish to swim up river to spawn, as fish species have been disappearing ever since the completion of the dam in 1994.

The siege of the dam lasted for two weeks until, on June 2, the Chuan- led coalition government decided to set up a neutral committee to study and offer solutions to the problems. The committee consisted of ten members: five from the nominations of the Assembly of the Poor and the remaining five from the nominations of the government.

During one month, the committee looked into two main and pressing problems of the Assembly of the Poor; the dams (both already constructed and on-going projects) and forest and land problems. Their major and short-term recommendations were: to open the gates both at Pak Mun and Rasi Salai dams; to stick to the implementation process of the cabinet's resolutions made previously by General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh's administration; to stop all on-going dam projects and conduct environmental impact assessments (EIAs); to pay compensation to villagers affected by Sirindhorn Dam and to review the present cabinet's resolution dated June 30, 1998 which will result in an eviction of many villagers living in forest areas. The committee handed its recommendations to the government on July 7, but there was no action.

On July 25, nine days after the beating and arrests of the villagers, the cabinet agreed to open the gates of Pak Mun and Rasi Salai dams but refused to pay compensation to more than 2,000 families affected by Sirindhorn Dam which was completed in 1972 nor did it review the June 30 cabinet resolution which has been used as a guideline in demarcating forest boundaries. While the government claimed they agreed to about 75 per cent of the recommendations, the Assembly of the Poor argued that only one has been fully implemented by the government.

Two days after the cabinet's response, more than 30 men and women started fasting to express their dissatisfaction. The number has now reached 300 and the hunger strike continues.

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Chuan and the Poor

After the financial crisis, the policies and measures used by the Chuan government "recover" Thailand's economy have become known as "catering for the rich and neglecting the poor". Moreover, his government's relationship with the poor is best described by a saying "Chuan comes, farmers die". During Chuan's two years and eight months in power, his government has a record of 50 lawsuits against the poor and 14 crackdowns of demonstrators.

Some analysts would rather describe Chuan's "principle" as "his own personal principle". There is a lot of evidence showing that he and his government are only accountable to international financial institutions, foreign investors, business sector and not the poor. While his government fast-tracked the process to pass 11 laws which benefit foreign investors by privatizing Thailand's last resources and nationalizing private sector debt to meet the IMF's conditions, he has never shown any interest in solving poor people's problems. And even when he does, he tackles them within the scope of existing laws and bureaucracy. Chuan's response to the Assembly of the Poor's demands this time shows, once again, how staunchly his policies "cater for the rich and neglect the poor".

Now, the Chuan government is being challenged not only by the Assembly of the Poor but also the pro-democracy movements. The boomerang is now turning. Almost three years ago, on Silom Road in the heart of Bangkok the middle-class people gathered to call for the dissolution of General Chavalit's government. Now it's Chuan's turn. The democracy groups, the Assembly of the Poor, NGOs and their sympathizers started their rally to call for Chuan government's dissolution on July 29. The call has already sparked responses in some of the provinces and likely to spread nationwide.

Time will tell whether the "principles" of the "son of a commoner" will stand the test of the people's power.

* Wipaphan Korkeatkachorn is coordinator of the Thai Development Support Committee