By Marwaan Macan-Markar
Bangkok, March 26, 2018
Rural communities in Thailand have been challenging Chinese companies with street protests, court petitions, and occasionally sorcery, to block environmentally-damaging projects in their back yards — and their call to action is being taken up across mainland Southeast Asia.
Grassroots activists in the northern province of Chiang Rai have successfully lobbied the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), a state power utility, to suspend its decision to purchase electricity from a controversial hydropower dam proposed by China’s Datong Corporation on the Lao side of the Mekong river, Southeast Asia’s longest body of water.
Villagers have rallied against the feared impact of the Pak Beng dam on both sides of the huge river. “Local communities sent a letter to EGAT questioning its power-purchasing agreement,” said Piaporn Detees, the Thailand campaign director for International Rivers, a global environmental group. “They said the Pak Beng dam will affect their lives, and they also have a case against the dam in the Supreme Court.”
Two other Chinese ventures face similar uncertainties. China Communications Construction Company Second Harbor Consultants has been forced to put its plans to blast stretches of the Mekong on hold. It had won a contract to clear islands and reefs to create channels for 500-ton cargo ships connecting China and Laos.
Beijing has a five-year action plan to open up the Mekong, which has its headwaters in China, as a waterway. Discussions between Thai diplomats and their Chinese counterparts led to the suspension of the project for now. Bangkok reportedly took note of the hostile groundswell.