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Thai parliament dissolved

20. March 2023

The Thai parliament has been dissolved, according to a decree published in the Royal Gazette today (20 March), three days before the end of parliament’s term on Thursday (23 March).

The parliament complex at Kiakkai Intersection (File photo)

The decree announcing the dissolution of parliament was published in the Royal Gazette today (20 March) and is effective immediately after publication, but was signed by King Vajiralongkorn last Friday (17 March).

A general election will take place no earlier than 45 days but within 60 days, instead of within 45 days if parliament completed its term. The election commission must announce a date for the election within 5 days.

Without the dissolution, the parliament’s 4-year term would have ended on Thursday (23 March).

The legal watchdog NGO iLaw, who is now running an election observation campaign, noted that the dissolution means that anyone who wants to run as MP candidate is required to be a member of a political party for 30 days before the election, whereas the time period would have been 90 days if parliament completed its term. This means that MPs who wish to join another party can do so after the dissolution, instead of having to resign from their party while still an MP, which would mean they also lose their MP status.

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Cartoon by Stephff: Prayut's campaign for United Thai Party

20. March 2023

Cartoon by Stephff: Prayut's campaign for United Thai Party

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Civic space in Thailand still rated as ‘repressed’ in new report

17. March 2023

A new report by the CIVICUS Monitor rates civic space in Thailand as 'repressed,' as the royal defamation law continues to be used to criminalise dissent and spyware has been used against activists. Protesters were also prosecuted and faced excessive force while concerns remain about a restrictive NGO bill.

Dinso Road being blocked by crowd control police and a row of shipping containers during a protest march on 18 November 2022 (Photo by Ginger Cat)

Restrictions and attacks on activists and civil society have persisted across the Asian region according to a new report released by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration that that rates and tracks fundamental freedoms in 197 countries and territories. The report, People Power Under Attack 2022, shows that out of 26 countries or territories in Asia, seven – China, Laos, North Korea, Vietnam and now Afghanistan, Myanmar and Hong Kong – are rated as ‘closed’. Eight are rated as ‘repressed’ and seven as ‘obstructed’. Civic space in Japan, Mongolia and South Korea is rated narrowed, while Taiwan remains the only country rated as ‘open’.

 In reality, this means that the freedoms of speech, peaceful assembly and association are not being respected in most countries in this region. 2022 is the year with more people living in countries with closed civic space ever documented by the CIVICUS Monitor. Twenty-eight per cent of the world population - approximately 2 billion people - experienced extreme levels of repression.

In Thailand, where civic space is rated ‘repressed,’ the CIVICUS Monitor documented in 2022, the ongoing use of royal defamation laws used to criminalize dissent while spyware was found on the phones of activists. Protesters were also prosecuted and faced excessive force while concerns remain about a restrictive NGO bill. 

Our findings show that the authorities have continued to arrest and prosecute activists and critics for royal defamation (lese majeste). In March 2022, a man was sentenced to two years in jail for lese majeste for putting a sticker bearing the name of a satirical Facebook page on a portrait of the Thai King outside the Supreme Court during a pro-democracy rally in September 2020. In April 2022, a lecturer at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology, was charged with royal defamation and violation of the Computer Crimes Act over a post he made on Twitter in May 2021 that was deemed an insult and a threat against the King. In September 2022, an activist was jailed for two years after a court found she had insulted the monarchy by dressing like the Thai queen.  In November 2022, an LGBTQI+ activist, was sentenced lèse-majesté to two years jail for giving a speech that allegedly defamed the royal family. 

report  in July 2022 found the use of Pegasus spyware on the phones of dozens of Thai activists, including many who have repeatedly faced arrest, harassment, and physical attacks by Thai authorities. Other targeted persons include academics and human rights defenders who have publicly criticised the Thai government.

Protesters have also been targeted. In January 2022, police in Thailand filed criminal charges against two union officials and four other labour activists after speaking at a protest, demanding that the Thai government and brands pay salaries owed in the lingerie sector. In July 2022, activists from the pro-democracy group Thalufah who were involved in a 2021 protest were indicted. In November 2022, at a demonstration against the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok, Thai police used violent tactics to disperse peaceful protesters, including firing rubber bullets and beating people with batons. Police shot Phayu Bunsophon, from the Dao Din democracy group, in the right eye with a rubber bullet, permanently blinding him According to reports, at least 33 people were injured and 25 protesters were taken into police custody.  Riot police also attacked journalists at the scene.

Human rights groups have raised concerns over a draft law to regulate non-profit groups, which could be used to muzzle civil society groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The Draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organisations contains numerous provisions that would subject organisations and their members to restrictive measures, thus curtailing their rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and other human rights, including the possibility of violations of the right to privacy. 

Three countries or territories have been downgraded from ‘repressed’ to ‘closed’ – which is the worst rating. Afghanistan has been downgraded due to the severe restrictions on civic space by the Taliban following their takeover in 2021. Activists and journalists have been arrested, detained and even tortured. Women rights activists protesting discriminatory policies around education and employment have been met by restrictions and violence. The Taliban has also clamped down on civil society organisations. Another country that has been downgraded is Myanmar. Two years on from the coup, thousands of activists and anti-coup protesters have been jailed by the military junta’s secret military tribunals on fabricated charges. The junta has continued to torture detainees with impunity and four activists were executed in July 2022. Scores of journalists have also been detained while media outlets have been banned. In October 2022, the junta enacted a new NGO law that will further shackle what is left of civil society.

Hong Kong has also been downgraded due to the systematic crackdown on dissent following the passage of the draconian National Security Law in 2020. More than 200 individuals have been arrested under the security law and dozens of civil society groups and trade unions have disbanded or relocated since the law came into place. Activists have also been criminalised on sedition charges. Independent media outlets have also been targeted with raids and forced to close and journalists have been criminalised.

“The regression of civic space across the Asia region is reaching alarming levels. Most people in the region are living in countries with closed or repressed civic space where their freedoms to speak up, organise or mobilise are under attack on a daily basis. The downgrading of Afghanistan, Myanmar and Hong Kong’s civic space rating this year to ‘closed’, highlights how authoritarian states are increasingly gaining ground and the critical need to support activists and civil society from these countries who are pushing back again these repressive regimes” said Josef Benedict, Asia Pacific researcher for CIVICUS.

In Asia, the top civic violation documented in 2022 is the use and enactment of restrictive legislation in 23 countries, as governments used the criminal justice system to muzzle dissent. Among the legislation most often used to stifle dissent include laws related to national security and anti-terrorism, public order and criminal defamation. Human rights defenders were prosecuted in at least 17 countries in the region.

As President Xi Jinping sought an unprecedented third term in office, China detained and prosecuted scores of human rights defenders in 2022 for broadly defined and vaguely worded offences such as ‘subverting state power’, ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ or ‘disturbing public order’. Restrictive laws such as ‘abusing democratic freedoms’ or ‘spreading materials against the State’ were also used in Vietnam to keep more than a hundred activists in jail.  In Cambodia, ‘incitement’ provisions were used to criminalise activists and union leaders. In Indonesia, the Electronic Information and Transactions Law (ITE Law) was weaponised to silence online dissent. In India, anti-terror laws such as the repressive Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) have been systematically used by the Modi government to keep activists in detention. In Pakistan, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, was used against journalists and critics to criminalise online defamation.

Another top violation in Asia was the disruption of protests which occurred in 20 countries. In at least 18 countries, the CIVICUS Monitor documented the detention of protesters.

Unprecedented protests that erupted across China in December 2022, due to widespread public frustration with the “zero-COVID” policy, lockdowns and other issues, were met with restrictions, arrests and excessive force. In Cambodia, striking unionists from the NagaWorld Casino that held regular protests were detained  while Riot police also used violent tactics in Thailand to disperse peaceful protesters including around the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit In Indonesia, mass protests by Papuans against the central government’s policies and in support of independence were forcibly dispersed with unnecessary use of force. In Sri Lanka there was a crackdown on mass protests in the country, as the country suffered its worst economic crisis in decades. The authorities used sweeping emergency powers to curtail protests, make arrests and shut down social media networks. Human rights groups documented the use of excessive force by the police against protesters, with the use of water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets.

The authorities also deployed various other tactics to silence dissent in the region. In at least 17 countries in Asia the harassment of activists, journalists and critics was reported. In the Philippines, activists continue to be red-tagged and then arrested on fabricated charges. Activists and lawyers in Singapore faced police harassment for their activism against the death penalty. In India, the government sought to block activists and journalists from travelling abroad

“As authoritarian states sought to stay in power and silence all forms of dissent it weaponised an array of restrictive laws to persecute activists. When people began to mobilise on the streets against repression they were met with excessive and even deadly force. Government also resorted to other extra-legal tactics to harass activists including digital attacks, smear campaigns or travel bans. Despite this, civil society in many part of the region have continued to flight back and used innovative ways to demand their rights” added Benedict

Countries of concern in the region include Bangladesh and Cambodia. In Cambodia, repressive laws are routinely misused to restrict civic freedoms and criminalise critical voices. Prime Minister Hun Sen has also intensified his crackdown on the political opposition ahead of elections in July 2023.

Despite these threats to civic freedoms, there are some positive developments. In Thailand, after many years of campaigning, the authorities formally charged a former senior park ranger and three subordinates suspected of killing an ethnic Karen activist, while In Indonesia, after years of advocacy by activists and victims groups, the government finally acknowledged serious human rights violations from the past. In India, the Supreme Court ordered the suspension of the use of the sedition law which has been used as a tool to silence dissent while in Sri Lanka, mass protests led to the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who oversaw a climate of repression against activists, journalists and critics..

Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor, providing evidence and research that help us target countries where civic freedoms are at risk. The Monitor has posted more than 490 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2022.

Civic freedoms in 197 countries and territories are categorised as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology that combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

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Student sentenced to 2 years in prison for royal defamation

17. March 2023

A 23-year-old student has been sentenced to 2 years in prison for royal defamation and violation of the Computer Crimes Act, after the Criminal Court ruled that although the royal defamation law does not explicitly state that it covers only the current king, defaming King Bhumibol is still an offence under the law as it affects King Vajiralongkorn.

“Jai,” (pseudonym), a 23-year-old university student, was charged in February 2021 with royal defamation and violation of the Computer Crimes Act for tweeting a picture of the late King Bhumibol and the message “You don’t have to remember who I am. Just remember what I did,” along with a hashtag about King Bhumibol.

The complaint against Jai was filed by Aree Jiworarak, who was acting for the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society. She was indicted in November 2021, after the public prosecutor ruled that her tweet meant that King Bhumibol was a murderer, and that monarchs are a waste or should not exist in Thai society.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) reported that, on Tuesday (14 March), Jai was found guilty of royal defamation and violation of the Computer Crimes Act, after the Criminal Court ruled that the tweet violates King Bhumibol, since it can be taken to mean that he was a murderer, and even though the royal defamation law does not explicitly state that it covers only the reigning king, the tweet still constitutes an offence under the law because it affects his son King Vajiralongkorn.

Jai was sentenced to 3 years in prison. However, the Court ruled that, since Jai was only 19 years old in 2020 when the tweet was made, it reduced her sentence to 2 years.

She was later granted bail to appeal her case using a security of 100,000 baht, in addition to the 10,000 baht placed when she was indicted, covered by the Will of the People bail fund. The court did not set any additional conditions.

Jai told TLHR in an interview before she was sentenced that she felt the process was unfair. She said that the royal defamation law has been so widely interpreted that anyone can be charged with it, and anyone can file a complaint. Meanwhile, several political parties have yet to answer the demand to repeal the law.

Jai said that even prosecution witnesses who testified in her case didn’t agree on who is covered by the royal defamation law, and that it needs to be made clear who can use it. She also asked why this law cannot be criticized.

Despite the charges against her, Jai said she still supports the call for the royal defamation law to be repealed or amended.

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Past, Present, But No Future: Mekong People’s Poverty in the Shadow of the Dams

16. March 2023

No government has ever admitted that the building of dams is the cause of “poverty” among the people of the Mekong River. The fish of the river and their economic value have been taken away in the name of development that comes with the construction of dams.  Mekong people have seen their options for survival restricted and narrowed. The poverty of their lives is not something that has just appeared out of the blue. Their fate lies entirely in political decisions, despite the government’s attempts to make the issue apolitical.

Along its 4,909-km-long course flowing through six countries, the Mekong River has a total of 24 dam projects that have either been completed or are being built. No government has ever admitted that the building of dams is the cause of “poverty” among the local people. While dams have become the symbol of development decreed by government policy, they have brought loss to those who once depended on the river, and destroyed the resources, homes, livelihoods, ecosystems, and traditional ways of life of people from the source of the river to its mouth.

Map showing dams on the Mekong River

Today, the Mekong River is contested, negotiated over, and subject to construction by many groups of actors, leaving the river almost powerless and giving rise to poverty among the groups depending on its resources. Actors like governments and institutions with influence over the direction of development including the World Bank and investors, do not admit that dam construction is one key cause of the impoverishment of a large number of Mekong people.

Examples of people who have become impoverished after the construction of dams in the Mekong basin can be observed from the past to the present.

Past: Pak Mun Dam: When the Dam Gates Opened, Fish Disappeared and People Became Poor.

One of the water management policies that inflicted inescapable harm and poverty on people in the northeastern is the Pak Mun Dam project in the Mun River basin at Ban Hua Heo, Khong Chiam District, Ubon Ratchathani Province. Construction of the Pak Mun Dam by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) with an installed capacity of 136 megawatts was approved in 1990 under the Chatichai Choonhavan government. Construction started in 1991, operations began in 1994. Out of the total construction budget of 3,880 million baht, 1,940 million was borrowed from the World Bank by the Thai government.

The Pak Mun Dam was part of the government’s “Green Esan” Project aimed to create energy security and develop the rural areas in the northeast.

Before construction of the dam, the Mun River was one of the key fertile rivers of the northeast since it was the largest tributary to the Mekong. It was home to over 265 fish species. This ecosystem earned it the name “fish city” among villagers. Ban Hua Heo villagers depended on the resources from the river for food and as a source of income. 

As soon as EGAT began the construction of the Pak Mun Dam, the “fish city” was destroyed by the blowing up of natural rock islets, which are used by fish to spawn and live. A report said that after Pak Mun Dam began operations in 1994, only 96 fish species remained above the dam. A number of fish species disappeared after the construction of the dam. The “fish ladders” built by EGAT did nothing really to facilitate fish migration from the Mekong to the Mun River. Over 7,000 fisher households lost their livelihood and so got together to demand that the dam gates be permanently opened.

The villagers affected by the dam collectively opposed the project since the beginning. In 1994, the villagers seized the machines used to drill into rock layers and the tools used to blow up the islets, and sat on the spots where dynamite had been planted under the rock islets. They organized a big demonstration in front of the provincial hall. In 1995, the affected villagers formed the “Pak Mun Dam Assembly of the Poor”. In 1998, Pak Mun villagers staged a 99-day rally together with the Assembly of the Poor in front of Government House in order to present their demands . One of the key demands was for all the eight dam gates to be opened to allow the ecological system and endangered fish species to recover. At the same time, the government and relevant agencies were also pressured to provide fair compensation to affected individuals.

The poverty resulting from the loss of resources and livelihood compelled the affected villagers to relocate elsewhere. Almost 30 years after its construction, the impacts of the Pak Mun Dam are felt today and some villagers are still fighting for accountability and compensation from EGAT.

Present: Xayaburi Dam, an Empty Net and Emerging Poverty

“My most recent catch was one fish”

On an early morning in late December 2022 with mist hovering over the Mekong, Sutta Insamran, a middle-aged fisher from Sangkhom District, Nong Khai Province, talked about the last Mekong fish he caught three months ago. The fish weighed about 10 kg. and was sold for 2,000 baht, a now rare income from fishery. Since the Xayaburi Dam began operations in 2019, the level of the Mekong has decreased significantly. The fish that Sutta used to catch daily since he was young have almost completely vanished.

Sutta, a fisherman from Sangkhom District, Nong Khai Province

The Xayaburi Dam is located in Sainyabuli (Xayaburi) Province in Lao PDR, about 200 km from the Thai-Lao border district of Chiang Khan in Loei Province. Construction began in 2012 with an installed capacity of 1,285 megawatts involving an investment of over 150 billion baht by CH Karnchang PCL, a Thai company and a shareholder in Xayaburi Power PCL. The project received loans from the Siam Commercial Bank, Krungthai Bank, Kasikornbank, Export–Import Bank of Thailand, Bangkok Bank, and Tisco Bank. The Xayaburi Dam officially started to sell electricity on 29 October 2019. More than 95% of the power generated was supplied to Thailand under a 31-year electricity purchase contract with EGAT.

The Xayaburi is the first dam ever built on the Lower Mekong River. Already during its test run in July 2019, the water level below the dam decreased by 3-4 meters within one week despite it being the rainy season. The change caused fish and small animals to die along the river banks. More importantly, villagers also observed that since the dam went into full operation, sediments, that are signs of fertility, have disappeared. The Mekong’s muddy water has now turned “clear”, a phenomenon referred to by academics as a ‘hungry river’.

Sutta’s family had earned a living by catching fish in the Mekong River since his parents’ generation. Sutta was raised by the river and started fishing when he was 18. Currently 47 years old, Sutta has witnessed many changes on the stretch of the river in Sangkhom District. The striped barb or the black-eared catfish that used to be caught and sold daily are now a less and less frequent sight.

Sutta had laid fishing nets in three spots in the Mekong. Before he pulled each of them up, he would pray “Let there be big ones!” However, at the end of the 50-meter-long large nets used to capture only big fish, he found only tufts of weed. No single trace of fish.

“Back then, the fish were so abundant that we could exchange it for rice, share it with family, or ferment it for later. There would be fish hanging to dry in front of every house. We were able to earn 20,000-30,000 baht from fishing every month. There was a lot of money to be made from catching Mekong fish. I used to earn as much as 140,000 baht in a year. We used to be able to catch fish all the time. In 2019, it was still alright. After 2019, even 10,000 baht is not possible. Sometimes two months would pass without finding any fish at all. Nowadays, there is no dried fish to eat. It is difficult to catch anything. We need to rely on fish in the market”, said Sutta.

The Mekong fish serve as one important source of capital in Sutta’s life. “The more fish we can sell, the more capital we have. We can use it to repair nets. Today, no fish, no capital”.

Before the Xayaburi Dam, Sutta used to be able to catch at least two fish of 10 kg. each per day and earn at least 4,000 baht a day. “10,000 baht could be earned in 2-3 days. It’s not the case anymore today. It doesn’t even cover the fuel cost.”

Today, Sutta has to take on an extra job doing general labouring for hire. “I get by on a daily basis. You cannot depend too much on the Mekong anymore. There is no fish. Only loss and loss, no gain”. Though not anticipating a catch, Sutta insists on making the trip every day. “The reason I go out every day is the feeling of attachment. If I don’t go, I will be worried that fish would just rot in the net. Some people say if you cannot catch fish, why don’t you go do something else? I can do something else but catching fish is my life”.

“Today, it seems as if the Mekong is in the terminal stage of cancer. In a coma. No one can catch any fish. Fishers here all complain about it. No fish, big or small, none. The water level rises and falls and the water is contaminated. Fish cannot survive in it. Fish lay eggs in small pools. The water will rise before the baby fish could grow into adults. Earlier, we were able to catch lots of fish because the water level went up and down consistently according to nature. Fish could spawn. Nowadays, the fish are tricked by the water level. Now it rises and falls, now it dries up. The roots of water crotons used by fish as a place to sleep and feed are also gone”, explained Sutta about the changes on the Mekong through a fisher’s perspective.

A tyle of algae known locally as "gai" is often caught on fishing nets

Sutta believes that if dams continue to be built on the Upper and Lower Mekong, it will be difficult for the fish to return. As someone who has spent his whole life by the Mekong River, Sutta could hardly believe that one day fish would disappear. But it did. He is convinced that the dam is to blame.

Sutta has joined several protests against dams, even though he is aware that as villagers it is difficult to go against the government’s multinational projects.

“There is nothing we can do. The dam is already built. We cannot destroy it. But there is this one dam that is going to be built in nearby Pak Chom District, Loei Province. We have to stop them. When they were going to build the [Xayaburi] dam, they never asked [the villagers]. The Thai and Lao government had already talked to each other. I used to think that the cause was the Xayaburi Dam only. In fact, the problem is larger. It already began with the dams in China”, said Sutta.

Poster of the Fish of the Lower Mekong at Sutta’s house.

Sutta and his mother, who used to fish in the Mekong

While Mekong fish can demand high prices today and are in demand by restaurant owners who are found waiting on the river bank eager to pay for them, the fishers do not have any fish to sell. “Joi” [tiny], the word Sutta says each time he pulls up a net that has no fish, perfectly sums up the lives of Mekong fishers. In spite of his dream of generous income from Mekong fish, the truth is it may never happen now or in the future as long as the dams are standing across the Mekong.

A man drying fish next to the banks of the Mekong

No Future for the Old Way of Life

Kanokwan Manorom

Today’s Mekong leaves no future for the old way of life. Kanokwan Manorom, a lecturer in social sciences and development at Ubon Ratchathani University and researcher on the impacts of Mekong dams, explains that “poverty has been constructed” by the dams in the name of development. The Mekong people living along the river banks used to live securely in terms of food and income through their reliance on the resources of the fertile Mekong.

Kanokwan further explains that poverty has been constructed socially and economically. “Dams are a tool of development which the state believes will bring happiness, prosperity, and overall structural improvement to the country. Both the Thai and Lao governments believe that. Development is driven by the mindset that dams are a tool of modernization which can liberate people from poverty. Lao especially is still actively using dams as a tool of poverty reduction. The way of life of people has always depended on the resources of the Mekong River to create food and income security, as well as to form relationships with other users of the Mekong. The economic history of people in the basin was like this. With the dams, the resources which people on the banks of the Mekong once benefitted from have been divided up, have been seized in the name of development to solve the problem of  poverty. It is an irony because development was supposed to reduce poverty, but it has turned out instead that the dams create a problem of poverty".

The resources of the Mekong River are an important determinant of the quality of life of the Mekong people. The resource grabbing has created uncertainty and destabilized their income. Without fish to catch, villagers are left with no tools to make a living for themselves. The dams have been constructed for the purpose of development, but on the contrary:

“Dams have not generated genuine development for the local people. For the state, probably, because it can collect taxes from electricity trading. But for the local people who depend on its resources, it has created problems, has had impacts, and has made life precarious. It is impossible for them to predict what their lives or their future are going to be. And compensation has not yet arrived. This issue goes beyond poverty and becomes a matter of injustice. It is about pushing people away from the resources they have used and neglecting people’s right to use the river”, said Kanokwan.

Kanokwan adds that in case of Sutta and the Mekong villagers, the fact that they still go out to fish knowing that will be none reflects that their options for a livelihood have been restricted and narrowed. The have to use the old ways and think that with luck they’ll catch fish because Mekong fish have high economic value.

“Their life options have become limited, because they themselves have no other form of capital to switch to another profession or no knowledge of anything else. They have no options in life other than fishing. This is especially true for middled-aged and elderly people. They grew up fishing. It is not that easy for them to create new skills to earn a living. They have limited options in life and they are attached to the river. It is a matter of the culture of humans and fish. It is their worldview and the river”.

The next generation that is born and raised amid limited resources in the Mekong will be able to adapt better than the older generation, as they are accustomed in their lives to the ever-increasing scarcity.

Kanokwan proposes that the state must take people affected by the dam construction seriously, as well as place importance on the issue of water governance. The Thai state must apply the PNPCA (Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement) process as part of its “water diplomacy” tools with other countries through its position in the Mekong Commission in order to raise standards, not just meet the minimum requirements, and solve the Mekong crisis.

“Whether the Mekong will face a crisis or not depends on political decisions”, said Kanokwan.

At the end of the day, no government of any Mekong country has ever come out and admitted that the poverty among the Mekong people is a result of dam construction. All they ever did was claim that poverty was caused by other factors, such as climate change.

“Since the poverty reduction mechanism has been designed that way, states cannot come out and say that dams make people poor," said Kanokwan. 

"Otherwise, the state will no longer have the legitimacy to look for vast budgets or investment loans. It makes them avoid saying that the impacts are both positive and negative. They cannot say frankly what has been positive and what has been negative. It is a technical design not to say that dams are a political matter."

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Abandoned fermented fish jars along the Mekong River tell a story of change

16. March 2023

Fermented fish jars, once a sign of prosperity in Thailand's northeast, are now a grim reminder of a culinary tradition threatened by the construction of dams on the Mekong River.

“Paddy fields full of rice, jars full of fish” is a proverb that reflects the richness of the land in Thailand. Rice, fish, and salt - three simple ingredients that form the backbone of one of Southeast Asia's most cherished food preservation techniques: fermented fish. This culinary tradition has been an integral part of the region's culture since prehistoric times and to this day is still practiced, particularly by the inhabitants of Thailand's northeast.

In a region with ancient sites dedicated to rock salt production and vast expanses of paddy fields, it is no surprise that the people of Thailand's northeast have perfected the art of fermented fish. After utilising fish for household cooking, selling, and gifting, villagers in the region will take the remaining fish and use a combination of salt and rice - or simply salt in some areas - to ferment the fish in jars for future consumption. These jars were previously symbols of well-being, particularly in areas with an excessive amount of fish.

As a result, it is not uncommon to find households with numerous jars of this treasured food preserve. The Mekong River, a sprawling freshwater fish habitat, has given rise to a multitude of fermented fish production stores which dot both banks of the river. For centuries, the process of fermenting fish has been an integral part of the daily lives of communities dwelling along the fertile river's shores.

However, the construction of numerous dams on the Mekong River has brought about significant changes to the ecosystem and the way of life along the river. Nowadays, in many communities along the Mekong, abandoned empty fermented fish jars can be found, a sign of the changes in the lifestyles of people living beside an altered river.

No fish, no jars

Kankong Junlong

Kankong Junlong, a resident of Ban Muang sub-district, Sangkhom district, Nong Khai province, pointed to a water jar in front of her house that was once used for fermenting fish. She then took us on a survey around her house to see other fish jars, some now used for decoration and some for storing miscellaneous items. 

Kankong recalls that she once had over ten jars, all that were passed down from her parents. Now, like other households in Ban Muang and other communities along the Mekong, fermented fish jars are increasingly being used for other functions.

"Catching even a single fish can be difficult. Even if we were to come across one, we wouldn't dare consume it, given its high price. We now only sell our catch. And as for making fermented fish, well, that's out of the question," Kankong said. 

The reason for this, Kankong explained, is the construction of dams in China and Laos which have led to a significant decrease in the number of fish in the river.  As a result, the production of fermented fish, part of village life for generations, has come to a halt. 

Currently, there are as many as eleven Mekong dams, nine in China and two in Laos. The Xayaburi dam in Laos, located less than 100 kilometers from Sangkhom district, disrupts the Mekong river's natural water level, affecting the river ecosystem. Many reports confirm that after the construction of the dams, there was a considerable reduction in river fish varieties and numbers.

The impact is palpable in Ban Muang village, Moo 2, Ban Muang sub-district, Sangkhom district.  Previously more than 20 villagers made a living from fishing but now only five do. The only ‘good’ news is that as a result of dwindling fish populations, the price of fish has skyrocketed and fishermen who manage to catch a few can sell them for a premium price.

In the face of these changes, the art of making fermented fish has all but disappeared from the communities that once relied on it. Fishing tools such as the "Toom," which were designed to catch a variety of fish including catfish, Java barb, and Siamese mud carp, have disappeared from the community as those species are no longer found in the river. Instead, fishermen have been forced to use nets to catch smaller, more abundant fish.

In the past, the stretch of river near the Sangkhom district was teeming with fish year-round. The rapids were particularly abundant during the dry season from December to April, with fish laying eggs around the area more frequently than at other times of the year. 

"The Mekong was like a market. It was our food source, our home," said Kankong, recalling the traditional way of life in the region. During the fishing season, men would abandon their fields and venture to the river in search of fish, which would then be handled by women, either by giving them to family and friends or using them to feed their own households. The remaining fish would be fermented and stored, to be consumed throughout one year and into the next. 
"We lived our lives relying on the river. When the river changed, the way of life and everything else changed," Kankong lamented.

Food insecurity

“We never had to buy this in the past," Kankong said, holding a plastic bottle of fermented fish. Only people who traveled away from home and did not have time to make their own fermented fish, would buy pre-made fermented fish. However, as fewer people are making the product at home, villagers are turning to the convenience of bottled products.

This change is indicative of the broader challenges facing communities along the Mekong river as their traditional food sources and ways of life are disrupted. As resources such as natural vegetables and fish become scarcer, households must turn to purchasing their food, leading to higher living costs and decreased food security.

A research project conducted by Malee Sitthikriengkrai of Chiang Mai University, in collaboration with members of the Ban Muang community, found that before the construction of two large dams in China on the Mekong river in 2014, villagers relied on the river for their income and food source. They would fish, collect vegetables, and grow their own food on the riverbank. However, after the dams were built, food sources in the river became scarce, leading to a decline in villager incomes.

Kankong, a researcher who worked on the project, reflected on how rapidly the changes affected his community. "As we collected the data, we felt regret since our lives did not used to be like this," she said. "Before the dams, we had the river to rely on.” 

The impact of dam construction on the river goes far beyond its ecosystem. Villagers like Kankong have been forced to shift to other economic activities, such as growing rubber trees, to make ends meet. The loss of food security has also been a major concern. "The impact is not only on the river," Kankong said. "It can be seen clearly in our lives, something the dam builders never thought of."

Dried-up culture

In Nakhon Phanom province’s Samphong sub-district, located on the banks of the Songkhram River, the art of making fermented fish has been practiced for generations. The Pak Yam Community Economy Group has for many years been producing high-quality fermented fish, which has become a well-known product throughout the region. Now, due to the dwindling fish population, the group has been forced to stop production.

On a recent visit to the community, Cha-ngon Bongbut, the head of the group, led us to their office, where over 100 empty fermented fish jars were on display. "When there are no fish in the Mekong River, fish in the tributaries also disappear," Cha-ngon explained. He went on to say that the decrease in the fish population is due to a variety of factors, including agricultural contamination and illegal fishing during spawning season. But the construction of dams on the Mekong River is the biggest culprit, he said, since the river's ecological systems are all connected. When the number of fish in the Mekong decreases, so does the number in the Songkhram River.

The Songkhram, one of the 37 Mekong tributaries, flows through five provinces in Isaan before emptying into the Mekong in the Tha Uthen District of Nakhon Phanom province. The lower Songkhram basin has been registered by the United Nations as an important wetland area with a high level of biodiversity.  It was a habitat, spawning ground, and nursery for over 124 species of fish but over the past decade, fish populations have decreased dramatically, affecting the livelihood of communities like Pak Yam.

According to Cha-ngon, the community has been making fermented fish for household consumption for generations. It wasn't until 40 years ago, when his father Hanuman Bongbut sold their land and bought 200 fermented fish jars, that the group began exporting the product outside the community. The villagers then pooled their resources and established the Pak Yam Community Economy Group. Their fermented fish was selected as the product for "One Tambon (sub-district) One Product," or OTOP of Samphong sub-district, and became famous throughout the region.

The decline in fish population has had a significant impact on the group's business. Over the past three to five years, the number of fish in the Songkhram River has decreased by more than 70%, forcing the group to stop production for the past two years. Today, the empty fermented jars of Hanuman, who has since passed away, are a stark reminder of how the disappearing fish have changed the community's way of life.

"Fish that live in flowing rivers have a better fragrance when fermented.  They don’t smell fishy like fish raised in ponds or brackish water areas," Cha-ngon explained.  Taken from different water sources, the same species of fish have a different taste, too. The decrease in fish population is not only a threat to the community's way of life but has also changed the unique flavour and quality of their fermented fish.

Cha-ngon first started to notice the decrease in Songkhram fish populations about ten years ago. In the past three to five years, the situation has become dire: the number of fish has plummeted by more than 70 percent, a trend that has hit the community's fermented fish business hard.

The Pak Yam Community Economy Group has had to reduce its output significantly in response to the shortage. In fact, the group has not made any fermented fish for the past two years, and the office is now filled with empty jars that once contained the product.

Cha-ngon, who is 50 years old and was born near the river, has seen firsthand the various factors that have contributed to the decline in fish populations. Among these are agricultural chemical contamination, illegal fishing during the spawning season, and most notably, the construction of dams on the Mekong River.  According to Cha-ngon, the ecological systems of the two rivers are interconnected, and when the number of fish in the Mekong River decreases, it also affects the Songkhram River, which many fish migrate up from.

This impact is most pronounced during the flooding season, which lasts from June to October every year. The Mekong's water mass pushes upstream along the Songkhram River for over 200 kilometers, flooding the plains and wetlands alongside the river and providing vital nutrients and sediments for plants. However, the disruption of water levels during this season has prevented water from flowing upstream to the wetlands, destroying food sources and spawning areas for both local and migrating fish.

A way forward

Cha-ngon led us to another community enterprise, located a kilometer from Pak Yam.  There, his older brother sells jars that were once used for fermenting fish as decorative items to people from Bangkok. These jars are ancient, passed down for generations.  Made using traditional  potting and stone-working methods, they have shapes that differ from jars made more recently. The jars are valuable and prices range from 2,000 to 20,000 baht.

Cha-ngon said that he wants to pass his father's jars on to future generations.  However, many families have run into problems with members of the younger generation secretly selling jars off. To address this issue, the Pak Yam Community Economy Group is considering letting community members take their jars home on the condition that they do not sell them.

While preserving old fish jars is a priority, the Pak Yam Community Economy Group is also adapting and making fermented fish again. The group has purchased hundreds of kilograms of fish from a farm in Lampao Dam, Kalasin Province. Farm-raised fish have different properties from river fish so they are working on improving their fermenting method. If restoration goes well, the group plans to have members run fish farms for the group to make fermented fish.

The villagers in Samphong sub-district are optimistic that this adjustment will revive the fermented fish business and the economic culture of their group. By adapting to changing circumstances and persevering in the face of adversity, the Pak Yam Community Economy Group is setting an example for other communities facing similar challenges.

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Prosecutor must drop defamation charges against right defenders, says HRW

16. March 2023

Prosecutors in Thailand should immediately withdraw the criminal defamation cases brought by Thammakaset Company Ltd. against three prominent human rights defenders for their support of other activists facing criminal charges, Human Rights Watch said today (16 March). The Thai government should act to repeal criminal defamation provisions and introduce strong safeguards to prevent the use of frivolous, vexatious, or malicious legal actions that would have chilling effects on free speech.

From left: Thanaporn Saleephol, Ankhana Neelapaijit, and Puttanee Kangkun. 
The three human right defenders are facing criminal defamation charges brought against them by Thammakaset Company.

On March 14, 2023, the Bangkok South Criminal Court began the trial that involves 28 counts of alleged criminal defamation under Thailand’s Criminal Code sections 326 and 328. The charges stem from posts or re-posts on social media by Angkhana Neelapaijit, Puttanee Kangkun, and Thanaporn Saleephol expressing solidarity with other human rights defenders already facing lawsuits brought by Thammakaset for alleging labor rights abuses at the company’s chicken farm in Lopburi Province. The company has filed at least 37 civil and criminal cases against rights defenders, journalists, and workers since 2016.

“The Thai authorities should not help companies use criminal defamation or other legal avenues to silence workers from filing complaints about their working conditions or human rights defenders or journalists for reporting about alleged abuses at the company,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The charges against Angkhana, Puttanee, and Thanaporn should be immediately dropped, and Thai authorities should act to prevent similar cases from being filed in the future.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has stated in its General Comment No. 34 on freedom of expression that governments “should put in place effective measures to protect against attacks aimed at silencing those exercising their right to freedom of expression, including persons who engage in the gathering and analysis of information on the human rights situation who publish human rights-related reports.”

On December 16, 2022, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights urged Thai authorities to take action to stop the Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) lawsuits increasingly used by Thai companies to intimidate reporters and human rights advocates.

The Working Group specifically mentioned Thammakaset, stating that: “The cases filed by companies, such as Thammakaset Company Limited, against human rights defenders are a clear example of businesses abusing the legal system in order to censor, intimidate, and silence criticism through SLAPPs as a method of judicial harassment.”

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has repeatedly emphasized the importance of companies respecting human rights in their operations and upholding the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In October 2019, Thailand was the first country in Asia to announce a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, committing to protect human rights defenders and prevent judicial harassment. But the charges against Angkhana, Puttanee, and Thanaporn, as well as the failure to assist those still facing many of the other civil and criminal cases filed by Thammakaset, stand in stark contradiction to the Thai government’s pledges to take action to protect rights, Human Rights Watch said.

In 2018, the National Assembly amended the Criminal Procedure Code to prevent the misuse of criminal cases. While that is a useful step, the Thai government should repeal all criminal defamation provisions. Neither prosecutors nor courts in Thailand have actually carried out, much less considered, amended section 161/1, which allows judges to dismiss and forbid the refiling of a criminal complaint by a private individual if the complaint is filed “in bad faith or with misrepresentation of facts to harass or take advantage of a defendant.” Furthermore, section 165/2 allows the presentation of evidence to show that the complaint “lacks merit.”

These reform provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code remain unused and untested, though. It is also crucial to provide prosecutors with adequate resources and support to exercise their powers under section 21 of the 2010 Public Prosecutor Organ and Public Prosecutors Act to screen out frivolous cases.

Human Rights Watch, along with an increasing number of governments and international agencies, has consistently called for the repeal of criminal defamation laws because they are an inherently disproportionate punishment for expressions of speech judged to damage reputations. Civil defamation laws, when supplemented by strong anti-SLAPP safeguards, balance the need for fair reporting in the public interest with concerns about reputational harm to private actors. In addition, as the charges against Angkhana, Puttanee, and Thanaporn show, criminal defamation laws in Thailand are easily abused and can have adverse impacts on free expression in the public interest.

Thailand should enact comprehensive anti-SLAPP legislation to strengthen safeguards to protect freedom of speech and expression and prevent retaliation against workers, human rights defenders, and journalists, Human Rights Watch said.

The UN special rapporteur on rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and association recommended that “States should protect and facilitate the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association to ensure that these rights are enjoyed by everyone” including by “enacting anti-SLAPPs legislation, allowing an early dismissal (with an award of costs) of such suits and the use of measures to penalize abuse.”

“The UN and governments from around the world should share with Thailand their reform efforts to strengthen anti-SLAPP protections and point out that criminal defamation laws coupled with the absence of strong anti-SLAPP protections impede the ability of businesses to conduct essential human rights and environmental due diligence,” Pearson said. “Unless the Thai government moves now to protect Angkhana, Puttanee, and Thanaporn from retaliation, the promises that Thai officials made on business and human rights will ring hollow.”

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