“Simcity” – A visit to Nay Pyi Taw

Imagine you were playing Simcity. Large swathes of grassland. Every now and then you plonked a massive building, moved on, then plonked another … etc. That’s how Nay Pyi Taw, the capital of Myanmar (Burma) looks like.

Supported supposedly with China’s aid of about US$10 billion, the Myanmar government built its parliament, official buildings for its bureaucracy, and a series of massive hotels for visiting tourists. Except that tourists hardly ever think of Nay Pyi Taw for a visit, and the few times the hotels do get full is when they have large conferences. Once the conference is done, the local staff are sent back and hotels close down sometimes for several months at a time.

The hotel staff are mainly brought in from the nearby villages and work on a variety of jobs from kitchen to garden tasks. “They have to multitask since there’s a shortage of labour”, said one of the hotel managers.


The highways in Nay Pyi Taw have up to six or eight lanes but look deserted except for the occasional motorcycle or minivan.

“Xayaburi and Pöyry: What Lies Behind”

“Xayaburi and Pöyry: What Lies Behind” (41 mins. in English, August 2013).

Watch it on Youtube: http://youtu.be/vSKZTYIY-ho

The documentary film provides critical perspectives on the decision-making, scientific studies and planning of the Xayaburi dam being built in Lao PDR. It highlights the role of the Finnish company Pöyry who did the study used by Laos to justify the project.

Xayaburi is the first dam being built on the main stream of the Lower Mekong River. Since its inception, the dam has proved controversial for many social and ecological reasons but most importantly for its potential effects on the wild capture fisheries of the Mekong River that thousands of people depend upon for food, trade and livelihoods.

Pöyry was hired by Laos in May 2011 to evaluate the project’s compliance with the requirements of the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

Pöyry downplayed the project’s environmental and social impacts. Although identifying that over 40 additional studies were still needed to understand the project’s impacts, Pöyry recommended that construction continue. In November 2012, Pöyry was appointed the Lao government’s chief engineer for the project.

The film interviews a range of local people and fishers, the region’s leading scientists, civil society representatives, and the media to explore the dubious politics, bad science and conflict of interest behind engineering the Xayaburi dam.

Script, camera and direction: Rajesh Daniel
Editor: Plengvut Plengplang
Produced by: Siemenpuu Foundation

DVD cover_Xayaburi film


The Hindu, 14 July 2013. The Ministry of Telecommunications will disconnect telegram services from Monday.

“For decades, they delivered news to people across the country. But with the advent of technology and newer means of telecommunication, they will be edged out in a couple of days as the Ministry of Telecommunications has decided to disconnect telegram services from July 15.” http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Hyderabad/good-old-telegram-nears-its-end/article4912708.ece?homepage=true

The end of the telegraph service. The end of one more era that resonates in my memory as part of my growing up, and as part of my family and an older generation.

The telegram was always part of my childhood. It signaled big events and brought joy or grief to our family. But the nature of the telegram was to anticipate bad news since the telegram more often brought news of the passing away of a relative. Whenever the postman shouted “telegram” at our front door, especially if it was late in the evening, there was always a feeling of dread. My father would always be the first to rush out and he would even ask the postman what the news was before signing for the telegram, to reassure himself that it wasn’t bad news. Then the postman would curve open the telegram to peek inside, and tell us it was not anything dreadful.

When my father passed away, I took the task of going to the Mylapore telegraph office and sending telegrams to inform my sisters and others. It was one of the most heart wrenching moments of my life. Until then, occupied with a number of tasks that morning like visiting my close relatives, informing the parish priest, etc. I had been composed, my grief quite well-hidden among the funeral chores. But as I stood at the telegraph counter and wrote up the forms for sending the telegrams, I could not help but break down. The realization that my father was no more with us finally hit me when I wrote the message of his passing away and the addresses of those in my family and handed them across the counter, as grief along with a thousand memories passed through me.

The telegram was a part of my summer holidays especially those I spent away from Chennai (or Madras as it was still then called). My eldest brother-in-law J. John Vincent worked in the telegraph office in Palani. During my summer holidays, ‘Vincent Mama’, as we used to call him, would come to Madras to accompany me (and also sometimes my other elder sister) back to Palani to stay for a few weeks with my  sister’s family. Some evenings, after about dinner at nine, mama would head to his office for the night shift, his house being located very conveniently right across the street from his office. Often I would walk with him, as he prepared his “vethalae-pakku” (betel leaf and areca nuts) and then lit a post-dinner cigarette.

I would sit with him in the telegraph office, with the rest of the building dark and quiet, as the two telegraph rooms were the only one open at that time of the evening. He would take forms from people and send telegrams, tapping on the morse key. He would joke to me, “ta, tada, tada da, …” imitating the dot, dash, dot, stutter of the morse keys. I was impressed when he explained how he had memorized all the different words in morse code. Often people would tell him in Tamil the news they wished to send. He not only needed to translate but brevity was all important: he had to string together the fewest words possible as every word cost the person money.

When things were quiet, and most nights they were, we would adjourn to a nearby room with a carrom board, and he and his colleague would smoke and play carrom and which I occasionally was asked to join as well.

Vincent Mama passed away some years ago, the result of too many years of smoking “wills plain” cigarettes, the non-filtered strong-smelling cigarette that he loved. He passed away almost as soon as he retired, leaving my sister in a great deal of shock as they both had plans to do many things together including travelling once he had retired.

Those long summer evenings of my school days are filled with memories of the telegraph office where he worked, where I would sit and watch, fascinated by not just the machine and its morse code, but also the people who came to send telegrams.

Vincent Mama’s birthday was on 19 July, in just a few days from today when India is shutting down its telegraph services. Its fittingly so, as we always remember Mama and his work in the post and telegraph services (often saying proudly that he had  a “central government” job), and helped people to send their family news through the telegram.

Ta, tada, ta da da.

My new book … is out

Governing the Mekong: Engaging in the Politics of Knowledge

Editors: Rajesh Daniel, Louis Lebel, Kanokwan Manorom

Governing the Mekong_CoverThis book is an edited volume of case studies exploring the knowledge-engagement efforts on water governance in the Mekong region. It is the fourth volume in the M-POWER book series.

Publisher: SIRD, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (June 2013)

Download book flyer Governing Mekong Flyer_with TOC.

Stop the Noise of TV Ads: In All BTS Stations and Inside Trains

The petition to BTS to stop noisy TV ads is out. As of 1st April, there are 137 supporters.


Petitioning Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTSC)

Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTSC): Stop the Noise of TV Ads – In All BTS Stations and Inside Trains


Petition by Ayoungman Wholikesavacadu Thailand

The constant and loud noise of TV ads is disturbing, and poses long-term health risks to daily commuters, and in particular, young school-going children

Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTSC), Bangkok Mass Transit System Public Company Limited
Stop the Noise of TV Ads: In All BTS Stations and Inside Trains

[Your name]

My next documentary film … started production

Xayaburi Dam: What Lies Behind

June 2012

20-25 mins. (DVD) with English language narration and subtitles

Final film scheduled for release: April 2013


The US$3.5 billion (107 billion baht) Xayaburi Dam along the Lower Mekong, if built, would irreversibly change the ecology of the Mekong River, and threaten the fisheries and food security of millions of people in the Mekong region and beyond.

The first of a planned series of mainstream dams on the Mekong River, the dam is a joint development between the Government of Laos (GoL) and Thailand’s construction company Ch. Karnchang. Thailand’s Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) has agreed to purchase 1,220 MW of electricity at a cost of 2.159 Baht per kilowatt-hour.

The Finnish Pöyry PLC  (Publicly Listed Company) and its subsidiary Poyry Energy AG, one of the leading international consultant firms is involved as a consultant hired to do the impact assessment. Poyry has portrayed itself as a pioneer of green and sustainable economy with a slogan “Preparing the Plant”.

Although the social and ecological impacts of the dam could be huge and extending all the way to the Vietnam delta, the information and decision-making process appears less than transparent and the centralized energy-planning model is a point of controversy. Even before discussions went underway, Laos had started extensive construction work in preparation for building the dam.

For instance, the Pöyry study gave the green light for the project. But the Mekong River Commission (MRC) panel of experts declared in their Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) that the dam would disrupt the flow and likely affect fish habitats and life cycles. More than 200 species are found in this part of the river and the catch is estimated at 40,000 to 60,000 tonnes per year.

The SEA panel specifically recommended that a “10-year deferral be placed for mainstream hydropower development … to ensure that the necessary conditions to strengthen understanding of the natural systems as well as management and regulatory processes are conducted effectively”.

The film aims to:

1) give a human face for the project and its impacts so that people in different countries  could relate to it and understand its importance

2) enable people to be heard that are normally less visible and/or underrepresented in the decision making

3) examine the international global linkages (Laos-Thailand-Finland) and the role and responsibilities of international actors such as consultant companies.

The film will highlight five critical questions and issues:

1)    How transparent is the decision-making over the dam? What kinds of information are used to justify (consultants reports) and what is being missed (perspectives of fishers and others dependent on the river).

2)    Is this dam necessary for electricity; whom does the hydropower benefit? Do Thailand’s existing energy plans mostly serve the interests of the state-owned electricity utility, energy companies, and the construction industry, rather than the needs of the regions’ electricity consumers?

3)    What is the role and responsibilities of international actors/global linkages such as consultant companies in the region? For example: Pöyry is a company of significant national importance to Finland and it has portrayed itself as the pioneer of green and sustainable economy. How does this image match with its role in the Mekong dam projects (Xayaburi also Nam Ngum 2 and Yali)?

4)    How sound is the energy planning of EGAT (Thailand) and Laos? Is EGAT’s energy planning part of the problem as it heavily promotes the development of new large-scale electricity generation plants, such as fossil-fuel fired power stations and hydropower dams, increasingly locking Thailand and the region into a “centralized electricity supply model”.

5)    The impacts of the dam on the Mekong fisheries and the importance of capture fish to the people in the region.

Rajesh Daniel

March 2012


Sexism and paternalism among Thai NGOs

Sexism, also known as gender discrimination or sex discrimination, is defined as prejudice or discrimination based on sex; or conditions or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.[1] Sexist attitudes are frequently based on beliefs in traditional stereotypes of gender roles. Sexism is not just a matter of individual attitudes, but is built into many societal institutions.[2] The term sexism is most often used in relation to discrimination against women,[3][4][5][6][7] in the context of patriarchy. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexism.)

A few weeks ago, my former colleague in a Bangkok-based Thai nongovernmental organization (NGO) resigned. The reason was that she was warned by the NGO’s committee after she was found having an affair with a married man in another province. The committee members who talked to her, asked her to stop the affair. They ignored the response of my colleague that the man had promised to end his relationship with his wife within a year.

One member demanded that she stay put in the Bangkok office and stop visiting the provinces. Another senior member criticized her for violating the Buddhist precept forbidding alcohol consumption saying that by drinking alcohol she was leaving herself vulnerable to affairs with men.

Her behaviour, said the committee, was giving a bad image to the NGO (which by the way claims to be one of the more radical environmental groups in Thailand). The committee comprised 5 males out of a total 6 members, with at least two aged above 50 years.

My colleague was a senior staff who had worked in this NGO for the last 25 years; in fact it was the only job she had done ever since her graduation. One would think she would have been treated with a little respect at least for all her years of work.

Why does an NGO organization think it has the right to decide what a woman staff does or does not do in her private, personal life. Did my colleague’s behavior in any way affect her work or activities? Did she, in having her affair, take extended vacations or go on beach jaunts forgetting her office meetings or campaigns.

Actually not. In fact, as far as I know, she has always given her full attention to the work. She is still considered one of the best researchers and activists who has very detailed knowledge of forest and land management issues especially at the grassroots in Thailand and Laos.

The NGO reaction although distasteful, is not surprising. Most of Thailand’s NGOs are ruled by a coterie of males often around 40-60 years of age and in many cases very ultra-conservative in their views about the rights or the roles of women in NGOs. Gender is at best a token lip service that often serves to highlight sections in annual reports to donors who can tick off the “development” boxes. In many Thai NGO conversations, the term can also be referred to mockingly as “gen-duhhh” in a rising Thai tone, as if the whole thing is some kind of inside joke.

Most young women who join Thai NGOs do it out of a sense of making society better. That’s all that’s left anyway as the pay and benefits are almost always next to nothing. But these young people are willing to give it a try as they feel that NGOs offer a space for activism, to right the wrongs, to fight injustice and discrimination and to improve the lives of those more marginalised. (And to be fair, in some cases, this can be true.) But often, the irony between their noble intention and the reality of the system soon becomes apparent to them.

The reality that hits them first is that as younger women who are junior staff, they face the system of “poo yai” or “pii” or elders, those who sit above them in the NGO hierarchy, and are always invariably male. This system is both one of patronage as it helps them to learn how to deal with their work, but also one that is patronising since it usually never allows a woman to actually grow in the job and say, one day, that she is the equal of her peers. However, many years she has worked, or papers she has presented, or meetings she may have chaired, the prevalent attitude among the elders is that she is always a “nong” (younger sibling) who is under them, who needs to be guided and sometimes tolerated.

The woman who works in a Thai NGO soon finds that she can never become an equal as it’s always a case of her male peers being more equal than her. (I write this piece to illustrate instances like that of my former colleague. Of course I also know of exceptional women colleagues who have both challenged this system as also turned it upside down in many cases by starting their own NGO and creating a different intellectual and activist space where younger people don’t always have to defer blindly to their elders. )

The problem in the case of my colleague was that the committee members especially the males thought that they knew and would decide what was best for her not in her work but in her private life. Never mind that she had worked almost as many years if not more, and in my view, maybe was even more active, than some of them. To tell someone with her experience, knowledge and work background that she was breaking the Buddhist precepts and hence has to reform or leave, displays a typical male chauvinist arrogance, and at its worst, is downright patronizing and sexist.

She has since resigned her job, forced out by some feudal sense of outrage displayed by a group of so-called moral guardians.

In the larger picture, this was probably for the best as who in their right mind would want to continue working in an environment like that. But more tragic is that such an environment exists and that these kinds of decisions are considered the norm within NGOs in Thailand whose supposed rationale for existing and being paid salaries by public tax money is to make society better.

I guess my colleague’s case is not going to figure in the section on “gen-duhhh” in the NGO’s next annual report to their foreign donors.

Arsenal on 3rd … with eight games to go. Lets rub our eyes in disbelief

I was an Arsenal fan from about 1996-97-98.

Around 2006-2007, my faith began to erode.

Around 2009, I quit the fan’dom in disgust. I declared “I’m no longer an Arsenal fan”. I said “I don’t anymore want to see Wenger in agony as another 16th placed team wins against us.”

But now, deep into the 2011-2012 season, I am (as any dysfunctional fan/addict) hoping (again!) for a turnaround … and willing to make amends.

How did it come to this?

I initially became an Arsenal fan mainly because I couldn’t get enough of that genius Dutchman … football artist … incredible forward … da dude … the one and only … Bergkamp. He killed me with his passing, his goals, his genius on the pitch (and his gentlemanliness off it). He was my Rahul Dravid in the football field. I loved Bergkamp. And by association, I began to love Arsenal for giving him the canvas to paint his footballing vision.

In the 1999-2000 season, Thierry Henry joined Arsenal.  The rest as they say was history. They even finished a season 2003-2004 unbeaten. Unbeaten! No one won against them. To flog the delicious point – they were unbeaten in all 38 games. 38! Hah! Take that … u Manchester u … n Chelsea … and all your Rooneys and Tevezezesss and Russian mafioso and that Beckfess (or whoever that dude with a tattoo who married that Spice Girl) … would never get anything close to it. (I also then read Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch” and was totally hooked … on both Hornby and Arsenal.)

Then in 2005 they won the FA Cup beating Man U 5-4 on penalties. The year 2005 was the last year they won a major or any trophy. It was the nadir of a long slide downhill. Although we of course had no clue about this decline at that time. Then the  “dream team” – The Invincibles – broke up as players like Bergkamp, Henry and Viera retired/left, even as Wenger asked us to keep the faith with a bunch of callow young “talent”.

But this new bunch just didn’t win anything of anything of anything at all. But even worse, except for a few, they rest didn’t “get it”. They just didn’t seem to know how to play the beautiful football that Arsenal played. They scrapped, they ran around, they skied the ball, they whined and whinged … and got yellow cards, they slipped and fell, they hoicked the ball from the wings or out of the corner flag straight to the other goalie. And generally behaved as if they were a ragged bunch of school boys (which they were, going by their average age) … and left me in tears of frustration.

During this “drought” of beauty hence there was much sadness (sorry Kawabata).

My faith in the great Wenger slipped. I had started to become a fan of Arsenal because of a few players I loved who then happened to play for Arsenal. Then I had got hooked on their entire free-flowing playing style and thus their manager. Then I was a full Arsenal fan during King Henry’s pomp. All this meant I was used to seeing them not just win but win beautifully. With style. With panache. Like Rajinikanth tossing a cigarette while threading the ball across a line of defenders. To see a red and white mass streaming forward as they broke out of their own goal area, splitting passes and the opposition defence was a glorious thing to watch.

Then suddenly, they didn’t do that anymore.

In the last few years, that beautiful part of their game seemed to have gone missing. And that is the most crunching blow for a fan. I really couldn’t care if they lost trophies – cups and that silly shoulder-clutching-men hopping-up and down-in the tinsel-with loud Mahler music be damned. But now it seemed they had even lost their art of playing their mesmerizing, beautiful football.

What happened? Why? Is this the end of the world? Has the era of nihilism set in? Are we forever doomed to watch people with money (and terrible shite haircuts) win?

Being an Arsenal fan meant in this world you could get away with not being filthy rich but just having art. It not only seemed meaningful in some old-fashioned way, but it was the essence of everything Arsenal, it was why their football mattered. Other teams could go and buy players for stinking bags of euro millions but Wenger’s team would pass you to death and score when they wanted and make you wish you hadn’t.  But then, this was not anymore the case. After 2005, they seemed to have lost it. Slowly. Agonisingly.

This season (2011-2012), Arsenal started with what seemed a continuation of their last 3-4 years. So I said, ho-hum .. what’s new, I’m SO glad I’m no longer a fan. (And I cried on the inside. Why Arsenal, why have you done this to me?).

Yet of course I kept an eye on their results. Moreover, this season they were also missing the extraordinary Cesc who finally (yes, finally after a sad yet wearisome transfer saga) left to Barca. Who was there now? Van Persie … who although extraordinary was also called “glass ankles” for never having finished a season without a serious injury (mainly to the ankle).  Wenger went out on the last few hours of the transfer deadline, in what The Guardian called a “last-minute trolley dash”, to buy Arteta,  Perstalker or Permstaster or whatever … a German defender, and a few others. I was as befuddled as were surely the majority of the fans. Arteta was a great buy, I’ve always liked him when watching him at Everton. But the others?

No one knew what this team was all about anymore. And they continued slipping downhill as the season went on.

But by December, some signs of progress were there.

Now we are here, in end March. They have left the Champions League but not without a fight while showing some of that old Arsenal panache by coming back within a goal (after a 4-0 deficit in their 1st leg to AC Milan) of making it. Then they demolished the ol’ enemy Spurs 5-2. That game suddenly brought me alive, it was the Old Arsenal. It was all slick, passing moves and blurring movement. There was spirit. There seemed to be … gasp … a team. They were playing together … as they once used to and had forgotten. And more importantly, they were also scoring goals. It was … sigh … again a pleasure to watch them.

Now we have eight games to go. And they are in 3rd.

Huh? Shouldnt they be in 11th? Or 16th?

So … are they still good after all? Was it really just those early season injuries? Is this Arsenal reborn?

Let’s see.

To be continued …