Passion and people’s power defend free-flowing Salween

Participatory research methods enhance people's power over their resources.

Legal powers threaten people’s power

When Laofang was just a child living in a Hmong indigenous community in Mae Hong Son province on the mountainous border with Myanmar he first experienced the unjust use of legal power by authorities to take away people’s access to their resources. He witnessed his family and neighbours being threatened and arrested, and their access to use the forest blocked, by national conservation forest police who accused the Hmong community of deforestation when they practiced their subsistence-oriented livelihood and traditional upland farming methods. Laofang felt that the Hmong villagers, as well as many other upland indigenous groups in the area, had been making their livelihood from the forest sustainably for generations, and had a right to use its products as well as a mandate to protect it. Yet, a process of national conservation forest zoning had declared that people who had previously been living with the forest were now no longer permitted to be there.

The Salween River, which flows through Mae Hong Son province, defines the modern-day border between Thailand and Myanmar. In practice, however, for Laofang and many others, family and friends span the river, even as they remain separated by nation state. Whilst some of those who were residing in Thailand at the time of the household census about 50 years ago were recognized with a form of Thai identity card, others were not and thus rendered stateless. Laofang recognizes himself as lucky as his family was listed in Thailand’s census, and thus he himself is registered as a Thai citizen by birth. He witnessed, however, how those who remained stateless struggled to access their right to public education, healthcare and other public services in Thailand, as well as had no right to vote, travel, and work. He believed procedures to identify the nationality to which people belong, or want to be, could have been done better to ensure recognition of everybody’s full rights to citizenship and that everybody be equally treated regardless and without discrimination of their backgrounds.

Participatory research to increase people's power

Salween youths learn about participatory research methods. (Photo by Laofang Bundidterdsakul.)

Laofang’s childhood experience influenced his decision to first pursue a law degree and then to continue on in a career as a human rights lawyer. He says: “I decided to study law because I wanted to understand how different principles of justice are used and justified in response to different problems. I received a scholarship for upland ethnic students from Chiang Mai University and the Ministry of Interior. At the time, though, I was not yet sure what I would do with the degree.”

Legal power becomes people’s power

Whilst Laofang’s law degree focused on public law and business law, he instead became engaged in working with communities on the Salween River after graduating in 2006. Laofang said “When I joined student activities and did fieldwork in the villages, I found a reality to which I could apply the legal knowledge and skills that I had learned.”

On graduation, Laofang became a volunteer at the Development Center for Children and Community Network (DCCN) based in Sob Moei district in his home province of Mae Hong Son with support from the Thai Volunteer Service Foundation. With DCCN, he provided legal advice to villagers at the Salween River border area on two issues that were very familiar to him: land and natural forest resources management, and citizenship rights.

Laofang’s one-year internship as a human rights lawyer volunteer exposed to him a greater depth of understanding about the challenges faced by communities on the Salween River. This experience also fueled his passion to support them. In 2011, Laofang initiated the Salween Youth Research Project to teach human rights law and provide trainings in participatory action research to youths. The project started with 25 youth participants. He encouraged them to study about their own communities, livelihood and to be aware of how current circumstances could impact their lives. He also worked to strengthen leadership skills among the youths, helped them to build a community knowledge base to support community-led planning that was also contesting plans for dams on the Salween River, and to defend access to the community’s farmland that has been recently zoned within the national park.

Nowadays, many youths from the Salween communities have gone away to study in towns and cities. This has raised both new opportunities for these young people, but also new challenges in terms of community stability. Laofang believes, however, that the long-term outcomes can be beneficial when these young people are supported.

He says: “The Salween Youth Research Project offers some space for young people to speak and express their ideas on issues that they think are important or that may have an impact to their lives and their communities. Young people have great potential. Many of them have better school education nowadays. They can help their communities to collect information and do research, as communities here still lack these skills. And, even if they don’t come back to live in the village, as their families and relatives are here who would have to deal with [the dam’s] impacts, they may become a teacher or government official in the future and can then find ways to help their communities.”

As many as six dams are planned on the Salween River’s mainstream, with a further 13 dams upstream in China where the river is called the Nu Jiang. The Hat Gyi Dam is at the most advanced stage of planning, and is located in Burma in Karen State, although it’s reservoir would extend up to the border. Now, 3 years since the Salween Youth Research Project was initiated, the group has started to review the Hat Gyi dam’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report and decision-making process. The project aims to support both the youth and older generations of the Salween communities to monitor transparency and accountability of the EIA process and to ensure community-centered decision-making.

Laofang considers that there are better ways to meet Thailand’s energy needs than building dams on the Salween River. He argues that: “We live in an era where there is a global awareness about the need for clean and renewable energy. Therefore, instead of spending money building dams we should use the money to invest in better technologies such as solar and wind energy that is better for the environment.”

Community mapping

Salween youths present a community map detailing their research findings. (Photo by Laofang Bundidterdsakul.)

Laofang’s work, including his Salween Youth Research Project, was inspired by his commitment to supporting the communities of the Salween River. He concludes: “It’s hard to say how I feel toward the Salween River. I grew up in the mountains which is quite a long way from the river, and so my relationship to the river is different to people who live there. But to me, its ecosystem is fragile, and its protection relates directly to people’s livelihood in Thailand and across the border. Therefore, any project that could affect a community’s livelihood and the environment – either by the state or by corporations – must be transparent and comply with national and international law.”

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