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. (

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 …

The Mekong: Grounds of Plenty

Documentary (DVD), 47 min., in English w. subtitles in four Mekong region languages, 2011.

For about a year from mid-2010 to early 2011, my friend Carl Middleton and I travelled across the countries of the Mekong region with a video camera. Our objective was to film the extraordinary fish biodiversity of the Mekong River and its ecosystems not only through the eyes of the fishers who depend on the fishing but also those who make their livelihoods from selling and processing as well as those who cook and eat the fish as part of their daily meals.

We filmed fishers and fish sellers near rivers, streams, canals and wetlands, and talked to them about their relationship to the river, its fish and to markets near and far. We marvelled at the incredible number of ways that the fish catch is processed: fermented, smoked or dried, salted or marinated in spices. We ate many kinds of fish preparations in homes, markets and restaurants and talked to cooks and chefs and fish sellers about their favourite recipes and fish dishes.

At the end of a year we had about 50 hours of tapes that we edited into this 47 minute movie called …

“The Mekong: Grounds of Plenty”

A film about how the plentiful fisheries of the Mekong River and its tributary ecosystems provides a web of connections across livelihoods, food and culture in the Mekong region and beyond.  

A healthy Mekong River is central to mainland Southeast Asia’s food security.

The rich fisheries and ecosystems of the Mekong River not only feed people living alongside the river but are crucial for the livelihoods of millions of people across mainland Southeast Asia.

The film shows how the fish from the Mekong River and its tributaries are caught and sold, cooked and consumed, by the people in the Mekong region.

Caught using an array of nets, baskets and traps, and cooked in many amazing ways, the wild fish catch provides protein and essential nutrients. Yet, the interconnection between the Mekong River’s well-being and the fish on a family’s plate is not so apparent in the urban centers. The film shows the Mekong River’s wild fish being caught and processed, and its passage through networks of trade as people work through the night and day to transport the catch to villages and towns, to markets, homes and restaurants (read more).

Filmed in over 30 locations across the Mekong region from Cambodia and Laos to Thailand and Vietnam.

Camera, Script and Producer: Rajesh Daniel

Executive Producer: Carl Middleton

Editor: Plengvut Plengplang

Produced by: Mekong Program on Water, Environment and Resilience (M-POWER), Unit for Social and Environmental Research (USER) and International Rivers

Available for onscreen viewing at:—Grounds-of-Plenty.

The film was screened at:

Siirretyt (Displaced)” film festival organized by the Siemenpuu Foundation on 10-12 October 2011.

Lifescapes Southeast Asian Film Festival in Chiang Mai on 2-5 February 2012.

Doing documentary films in social science research

Explorations on using video for improving research and communication in resource governance by Rajesh Daniel. Paper presented at the panel session on Filmed Ecologies: Possibilities and Challenges in Environmental Communication at the 11th International Conference on Thai Studies – Visions of the Future, held in Siam City Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand on July 26-28, 2011.


In recent years, it has become increasingly common to take cameras and videos to meetings, interviews and for fieldwork. In my research work in Thailand and the Mekong region, video was frequently used to complement a research project.

The use of video in social research has become more widespread and my own work and that of colleagues has evolved and benefited from learning about similar efforts in various fields. For example, Bateson and Mead (1942) were the pioneers in using visual image observation in the field of anthropology.[2] Later the term “visual anthropology” gained wider use after Collier and Collier (1986) [3] who wrote a practical guide for using photography as a research method.

My primary use of video has been as a research tool in interviewing people and filming where and how they live and practice their livelihoods. One of the positives of video is it clearly communicates who and what we see, who we choose to listen, and to reach our conclusions. At the same time, the interviewees also grasp not only their own but also other’s viewpoints especially when put next to each other in an edited film.

Filming interviews and watching the recorded footage of seminars, as people’s perspectives were shown side by side on film, often helps to better understand the issues and people’s views, afford new insights into local resource or governance politics, and act as a more direct format for communicating ‘ethnography’.

There are also experiments using the video filming as a “process” and not just documentary film as a “product” that is obtained after hours of filming and editing. It seemed that the process of interviewing people and watching/listening to them on film by itself often helped break through difficult research situations such as when ethnic language was a barrier. The process of filming helped improve understanding of resource conflicts and sometimes even facilitated dialogue meetings on resource management.

This paper explores some experiences with video in Thailand and the Mekong region to draw lessons and reflections on the use of video in social science research and, in particular, in resource governance. It also poses some questions and ethical concerns about video technology as the format can lend itself to abuse. With digital video, it is as easy to show genuine scenes, as it is to move content and people out of context to serve certain interests and agendas.

The paper is structured in five parts. After this section one, the introduction, section two provides a brief background and literature review of the use of video in social science especially in the fields of anthropology and sociology. Section three briefly explains the use of video and some ideas about visual research, and why I think it’s useful to incorporate video, in particular as complementary to research.

Section four illustrates some of my video experiences from Thailand and the Mekong region, with some lessons and reflections as well as questions. For example, can video/visual research improve resource governance? Can the process of filming foster empowerment and participation? Or improve efforts to raise awareness on health and ecosystem related issues?  It also looks at some of the challenges both technological and practical. The last section five is on video politics and ethical concerns related to the use of video in research that explores how video is not a neutral technology and there are significant questions of simplification, power and control when used in research.[4]

For the full paper, please contact the author.

Thailand’s floods … aftermath

The floods are over. We have lived through Thailand’s worst floods in almost half a century. All of Oct and Nov we waited tensely for the floods to descend on our home on Bangkok. We bought and stocked up on provisions, moved things to the 2nd floor, sealed the house and moved to Rawin’s grandparents on 22 Oct. A few days later, the floods peaked and hit the outlying areas of Bangkok. In Nov, our house and surrounding areas were considered at risk.

After weeks of tense waiting, by mid-November, the waters finally came around and flooded the nearby roads and some of the streets of our house in Bangkok. It was perversely a relief to know that the waters were finally all around us. Our house remained dry. We have been more fortunate than most people in central Thailand and Bangkok. We are totally grateful for this.

Now the floodwaters have finally decreased in many areas and people have been returning to their homes and fields to assess and repair the damage and try to return their lives to some semblance of normalcy.

Now, a look at what happened. Granted Bangkok and most of the central Thailand provinces that form a large floodplain do receive northern run-offs every year. As an ecological activist pointed out recently in a detailed presentation in Chiang Mai, floods happen every year. A number of provinces in the lower north and central Thailand suffer damage to crops, orchards and rice fields as well as homes and property. On occasion, some people are also swept away by fast-flowing rivers and lives are lost. And every year, the government doles out compensation to farmers and families. And life goes on … until the next year’s floods.

So in 2011 what was different? At least three major factors. One, the sheer volume of water was a lot higher than in the previous years. Two, this was because of a lot more rain: the 2nd monsoon rains usually lasts for several weeks in July/Aug but this year continued all throughout Sept aided by a couple of tropical storms. Last, the large volume of water did not all come from the rains, but 4 dams in the lower northern region stored then released their “excess storage” water around the same time that the northern run-off was reaching the central plains.

In a rare moment of political candour, the Agriculture Minister admitted that he had ordered the dams in the lower north to store water despite being in “excess” of capacity for irrigating rice fields in the central plains. When the rains did not stop, the 4 dams were forced to release a large volume of water suddenly and very late in Sept, rather than releasing smaller volumes starting from Aug, making the entire situation far worse than it could have been.

Then when the flood situation worsened, there came the complete and gross mismanagement of the disaster relief operations mainly featuring misleading information (and cover-up of the extent of flooding) and administrative quarrels and cock-ups.

Infighting among bureaucracies, and between the ruling Pheu Thai Party government’s Ministers and the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (headed by an elected Governor from the opposition Democrat Party) – Petty quarrels continued on whether a letter had reached the relevant minister’s office or not, or about borders and administrative jurisdictions.

The lack of up-to-date information on the volume and timing of the flood waters and what often seemed to be a “people will cope with it as best as they can” attitude – Sometimes communities were assured they were completely safe, then suddenly given orders to “evacuate within 2-3 hours”.

Misleading official proclamations (more often soundbites) that only made situations worse – For instance the Science and Technology Minister Plodprasop Surasawadi (who gave us the infamous Night Safari and the Salween timber logging scandals) telling a press conference not to worry, he will use 1,000 speedboats to propel the floods into the sea through the Chao Phraya River.

But then at least he was around albeit either being really useless or at best providing tragi-comic relief. But some other politicians went completely missing from the action not giving a rat’s arse whether the rest of the country was drowning or not. Most notable was deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung (he later popped up along with a secret decree to sneak the fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra back to Thailand), who disappeared from the public eye for almost the entire month of October when the flood disaster was at its peak.

Flood relief was not always reaching everywhere and everyone on time, leaving large areas of people waiting and waiting – Many supply trucks were hastily covered in banners and signs by opportunistic politicians more interested in advertising their names and getting political mileage out of relief efforts.

Among these watery ruins, bickering and political delinquency, the newly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra ran around in boats and helicopters, giving out relief packages, holding meetings and trying to secure some vestige of leadership but often giving the impression of someone not fully able to cope.

But there were also some very good things. The Thai media has been doing a great job, especially television, taking up the slack and providing updated information and analysis. Many TV reporters went everywhere, working from 6 am to midnight, getting interviews, doing analysis back at the studio, providing maps and data, taking calls from people who were stranded without food or water, and TV channels even rushing their own relief supplies to many areas. Many newspaper reporters wrote heart-wrenching stories about farmers and communities, and a few even about their own experiences in evacuating from their flooded home.

And of course, many newspaper cartoonists had a great time.

For once, the Thai army was a big help to people rather than relying on its usual method of staging coups or shooting civilians. The army’s large cadre of young soldiers often waded neck-deep in waters pulling and pushing boatloads of people, distributing supplies using trucks and helicopters and providing technical know-how in building sandbag barriers.

Then there were the hundreds of people helping each other, friends and neighbours and students and many others who took boats and distributed food and water or volunteered to put up sandbags or repair flood barriers through the night.

So what happens now? The clean-up after the flood waters has begun.

And the clean-up in terms of governance and accountability? Well, a few things that could take place (in a perfect world probably) where decision-makers would show or take accountability for their mistakes, lessons would be learned, and preparations put in for the next potential natural disaster.

At least one official, the Agriculture Minister, would be asked to resign. Or even better, is it possible to charge him with criminal negligence causing several billion baht damage to crops, industry and property, and culpable homicide for the loss of more than 500 lives in the floods? The many politicians who went missing in what was arguably one of the worst flooding disasters in Thailand’s recent history would have to explain where they were and why they did not help, and be penalised for their truancy.

A complete stock-taking of dam operations would begin, especially their water storage and release plans, and how these decisions are now made given that the period and duration of the monsoon rains are not as predictable as before.

Another stock-taking would begin of the infrastructure development, both past and planned, especially construction of large industrial estates that are situated right in the flood plain channels and that have drained wetlands and swamps, and blocked canals and natural river run-offs.

Also a closer look at what works and doesn’t (and why) in disaster prevention and mitigation, and how these can be improved.

None of this has happened so far.

No one is holding their breath.

Siemenpuu International Film Festival – “Siirretyt – Displaced”


During 1-10 October 2011, Siemenpuu Foundation organized activities including seminars on minority and indigenous peoples’ rights, displaced people and Mekong region energy issues as well as an International Film Festival “Siirretyt-Displaced” (6-9 October) in Kino Engel (Sofiankatu 4), Helsinki, Finland. It was attended by many film makers from Asia and Europe. We also had panel discussions including a beers-round table in a pub.

My film “The Mekong – Grounds of Plenty” was screened at the festival.

About 1000 people attended the film festival and some 200 participated in the seminars and activities. More information is available at