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

Synopsis

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

Bangkok

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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.