The Voice of the Poor

Vanida Tantiwitthayaphithak

Having read newspaper reports and watched TV news programs about a recent seminar on poverty alleviation strategies organized by the Thailand Research Development Institute (TDRI), as well as having heard Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra discuss the problem in his “Meet the People” weekly radio address, I would like to share my opinion.

I heard and read former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, also president of TDRI, quoted as saying that a key strategy in poverty alleviation was to listen to poor people. Meanwhile, Thaksin asked the Thai people through his radio address for an opportunity to work in his capacity as Prime Minister. One of his three major strategies for governing the country was to tackle poverty. He said he would take a problem-centered approach and amend any necessary laws and regulations for the purpose.

Just before his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party-led government assumed power, Thaksin showed he was a man of the people by visiting and having a meal of sticky rice and somtam (papaya salad) with protesting villagers of the Assembly of the Poor (AOP) at their rally site in front of the Government House, where they had been camping since the previous Democrat Party-led administration. The problem-solving process began when the premier gave his word and the government then issued a cabinet resolution on 17 April 2001 creating a mechanism comprising several committees, sub-committees, and working groups to tackle their problems.

Since then, however, the only thing the government has achieved was to order (or compel) the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) to open the sluice gates of the Pak Mun Dam for four months to carry out a study of the rehabilitation process of the Mun River. Apart from that, other parts of the mechanism set up to tackle as many as 205 development problems have become paralysed or have progressed at a snail’s pace.

The AOP, an umbrella group of six networks of organized villagers and factory workers who have been adversely affected by development policy during the past few decades, raised these 205 problems on their behalf. They mainly concern the impact of dam projects, forest and land conflicts, sickness related to unhealthy working conditions, and the rights of urban slum dwellers.

While the government issued a cabinet resolution on 3 April 2001 to tackle the problems, the bureaucrats who were supposed to implement it adhered instead to various “dinosaur” regulations and other cabinet resolutions that had been adopted on their own agencies’ recommendation. The 3 April 2001 cabinet resolution was thus completely ignored in practice, as if it had been passed just to appease the AOP demonstrators into abandoning their protest in front of the Government House. This is because the control mechanism that was set up to ensure that various government agencies did indeed solve the problems has been completely paralyzed.

May I ask whether Your Excellencies the Ministers who are involved in solving the villagers’ problems have read this cabinet resolution? How much and how clearly do you understand it? Are you capable of exercising your authority to ensure its implementation?

Let me cite just a few examples. Five hundred households in Chaiyaphum province have suffered ten years of having their farmland inundated by the construction of the Lam Khan Chu and Huay Sai Dams. These people have been waiting for compensatory allocation of new plots of land from the Community Self-Reliance Project. And yet, from the beginning of this year’s rainy season to its end, nothing happened. The Royal Forestry Department and the Agricultural Land Reform Office, charged with surveying and measuring land for the villagers, just passed the buck back and forth. Being landless, many villagers have been driven into vagrancy.

Another group of villagers has suffered damage for twenty-three years from the small Huay Lahar Dam in Ubon Ratchathani. The government had already resolved to investigate the damage caused by the dam and pay any due compensation. The investigation found that the damage was real, yet the government agencies concerned said they could not pay compensation for fear of setting an improper, counter-regulation precedent for similar cases involving small dams. The agencies also referred to the 26 July 2000 cabinet resolution issued by the previous government that no retroactive compensation be paid to those affected by dams that had already been built. Bureaucrats at all levels, from district officials up to the provincial governor of Ubon Ratchathani, agreed that no payment should be made.

In conflicts related to farmland in forest areas, the Director General of the Royal Forestry Department has forcibly evicted one group of villagers after another from their land, invoking the authority of the 30 June 1999 cabinet resolution also issued by the previous government. This is seen as a direct challenge to Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Co-operatives Mr. Prapat Panyachatraksa, who could do nothing because no one follows his verbal or written orders. We all know that the Director General in question is actually more powerful than this Deputy Minister.

Meanwhile, the proposed Work Place Safety and Pollution Control Bill has seen little progress. The government agencies concerned have procrastinated while the responsible minister and his deputy gaze off in different directions as though wishing on different stars. This is similar to the problem of Rasi Salai Dam in which bureaucrats have the ear of the responsible minister. The lack of progress has forced affected villagers to set up protest camp time and again in front of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment building. They could not camp out in front of the Government House this time because Prime Minister Thaksin does not want them there.


With all due respect to the Prime Minister, have you ever looked at the 205 problems gathering frost in your freezer? Well, if 205 problems appear too many, the fact is that not a single case has gone anywhere. Before assuming power, you seemed to have had time to listen to us, but now you no longer do. You passed the AOP issue on to your close aides, who passed it on to their close aides ad infinitum until no one knows where it is now. You may think your One Million Baht Village Fund Project would tackle the problem of poor and landless villagers but, being landless, what could those 10 million households do with your money except spend it all on daily necessities? In the end, dissipating the money in the market system may temporarily benefit small contractors and tradesmen, but it will definitely add to the debt burden of the villagers.

The AOP has long proposed land reform to many past governments. Have you heard about it, Mr. Prime Minister? If so, what kind of plan do you have for it? What about the mega-projects that would affect local natural resources upon which the livelihood of local people depends? What is your principle and strategy for solving such conflicts? How will you implement your policy of promoting people’s participation in the management of natural resources? While you are still bogged down in conflicts over the Bor Nok and Ban Krud coal-powered electricity-generating plants and the Thai-Malaysian gas pipeline, other mega-projects are going ahead, creating conflicts all over the place. Do you have any plan for their solution? Have you ever organized a workshop on the problem of poverty? Or do you have a fixed formula in hand?

For the past eight months, AOP representatives have repeatedly sought to meet with responsible political authorities to discuss the obstacles we have faced in dealing with the problems. But no one ever has time to listen to us, and we never know who has the last word on any given matter. People we contact pass the buck to one another, bureaucrats saying they have received no order from ministers, ministers and their deputies insisting that orders have already been issued. We have thus been pushed round and round from the provincial hall to the district office and back to the Government House ad infinitum. (And by the way, some bureaucrat whose rank was below C5 once dismissively said that the minister was not his dad, and that since the Thaksin government’s cabinet resolution went against official rules and regulations, it was not practicable.)

Yesterday, former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun talked about the problem of landlessness and the consequent helplessness and dependency of landless villagers. Yet when the AOP submitted a land reform proposal to the TRT government, or called upon it to permanently open the Pak Mun Dam’s sluice gates so the villagers there could make use of available natural resources to earn their living by fishing and rice farming, Thaksin said more study was needed before doing so. Therefore, after being open for the past four months, the dam’s gates will be closed again for one year pending further study. But sir, what do you want the villagers to do while waiting for the study? Go begging, robbing, and stealing, sell methamphetamines, or simply hang themselves (as one Pak Mun villager did last week due to poverty)?

Dr. Ammar Siamwalla, a respected economist of TDRI, who once did a study of the Pak Mun Dam, has proposed that it be demolished. But instead of listening, you will probably wait for one new study after another until the last day of your government. In the meantime, you have allowed Egat to waste a huge amount of public money on mass media advertising about the alleged benefits of the dam. The Egat advertisements say that there would be no fish even if the dam’s gates were opened, so it’s better to close the gates for electricity generation. However, when the Pak Mun villagers launched a long-march style campaign to publicize facts to the contrary, you accused them of breaking the agreement with the government to wait for the result of studies before taking any action. You said they did this at the instigation of some showcase-seeking NGOs.

Thanksin, ‘a self-proclaimed CEO-style Prime Minister’

Mr. Self-proclaimed CEO-style Prime Minister, don’t you know that you are just a lame duck administrator? Those government agencies and departments in various ministries are the real rulers of this country. Likewise, the CEO provincial governors whom you appoint might appear tame cats in front of you but they turn readily into cunning foxes behind your back, scheming and maneuvering for day-to-day survival in office.

Do you really plan to reform economy and society by relying on a handful of your own people, daydreaming of cooperation from government agencies who jealously guard their own turf? Or would you consider relying on the power of the people sector?

In any case, you don’t seem to have much time left to accomplish the task. Within this limited time, do take some to listen to the poor. How about another frank and informal heart-to-heart like the one we had upon your assumption of the premiership? And please don’t delegate someone else to listen to us on your behalf. If you yourself will neither listen nor understand, how can you expect your people to do so?

No matter how disappointed we have been at your problem-solving method so far, we, the poor people, are still ready to cooperate with you in your work. And please rest assured that your poor brethren still love and wish you well as always.

Editor’s Postscript: In the early morning of 19 March 2002, more than 300 AOP villagers from northeastern provinces arrived at the Government House in Bangkok to press for action to resolve their problems. They set up camp to signify their intent to stay until their plight is addressed. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra came to meet them in person almost a week later. He again promised to do his best, but the villagers, increasingly skeptical, said they would not be convinced by lip service this time. They would believe the premier only when his words were translated into concrete action.

Vanida Tantiwitthayaphithak
Vanida Tantiwitthayaphithak was a student activist and communist guerrilla in the 1970s. She has persisted with political activism for the poor since then, becoming the best-known leader of the Assembly of the Poor during the 1990s. This piece appeared in Matichon Daily on 30 November 2001. It was translated by Nantiya Tangwisutijit, an environmental journalist at The Nation, a leading English newspaper in Bangkok, with editorial assistance from Kasian Tejapira.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 1 (March 2002). Power and Politics