EVENT REPORT: Knowing the Salween River: Resource Politics of a Contested Transboundary River [Bangkok, 7 September 2019]

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The Salween River, shared by China, Myanmar, and Thailand, is increasingly at the heart of pressing regional development debates. The basin supports the livelihoods of over 10 million people, and within it there is great socioeconomic, cultural and political diversity. The basin is witnessing intensifying dynamics of resource extraction, alongside large dam construction, conservation and development intervention that is unfolding within a complex terrain of local, national and transnational governance.

With a focus on the contested politics of water and associated resources in the Salween basin, on September 7, 2019, Center for Social Development Studies organized a seminar on "Knowing the Salween River: Resource Politics of a Contested Transboundary River". The seminar explored the possible futures of the Salween basin through the lens of: resource politics; politics of knowledge making; and reconciling knowledge across divides. The seminar also launched the new book: “Knowing the Salween River: Resource Politics of a Contested Transboundary River”.

The Dean of the Faculty of Political Science, Asst. Prof. Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana, welcomed the participants by reflecting how the Salween River basin is at the cross-roads of a major political and development transition. Within the basin, there is intensifying resource extraction alongside dam construction, conservation projects and other forms of development intervention. He also highlighted the important contribution that research can make toeards ensuring inclusive, sustainable and fair development within the Salween basin.

The first session, chaired by Vanessa Lamb from the University of Melbourne, explored the theme around resource politics and Salween River. Carl Middleton from the Center for Social Development Studies, Chulalongkorn University explored the many possible alternatives for the Nu River, from hydropower construction to national park creation, but not every pathway has been given equal consideration, concluding that decision-making about which development pathway is chosen for the future for the Nu River, should be inclusive, informed and accountable with the rights of ethnic communities recognized. Alec Scott from Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) talked about hydropower politics and conflict on the Salween River, explaining how Civil Society Organisations have been working across multiple scales. He also explained how collaborations between local communities, CSOs and Ethnic Armed Organisations have reconceptualized and decentralized water governance in the context of unresolved armed conflict.  Laofang Bundidterdsakul from Legal Advocacy Center for Indigenous Communities (LACIC) reflected on the ongoing conflict between the national forest law and community livelihood in Thailand, and how the community were criminalized for using land and forest resources using the preservation areas declaration. He highlighted how the community should have the legal rights to get compensation from the products from the land and forest, as well as being involved in decision making since they should be regarded as affected people.

The second session, chaired by Professor Saw Win, retired Rector of Maubin University in Myanmar, explored the theme around the politics of knowledge making. Mar Mar Aye from Lashio University presented on the importance of understanding the traditional knowledge and practice in the Salween River basin especially on the use of the diverse plants by indigenous communities. These practice are being threatened by a range of factors including deforestation and agricultural expansion. Paiboon Hengsuwan from Chiang Mai University, explained the simplistic rendering of complex Salween Communities in their negotiation for development in Thailand. Saw Tha Poe, also from KESAN, presented on the lessons learned from Daw La Lake and Kaw Ku Island, Karen State, in regards to community-based water governance.  He also gave recommendation for the government to prioritize peace and political settlement as well as to prioritize trans-boundary river management.

The third session, chaired by John Dore, Lead Water Specialist from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia, explored the theme around reconciling knowledge across divides. Vanessa Lamb presented on the effort to think about the Salween across knowledge divides. The key messages from the presentation includes a different approach on state of knowledge, recognizing history and contributions across knowledge divides, values in addition to threats and maintain room for critique and collaboration. Cherry Aung from Pathein University provided information on current situation of governance and fisheries of the Salween River estuary with the focus on the community fishery livelihoods and the socio-economic change in the villages. She also highlighted how the Salween River estuary is facing pressures from a number of ecological and anthropogenic stressors. Khin Sandar Aye from Loikaw University shared key finding from her study in Bawlakhe District, Kayah State, Myanmar, that forest depletion and changes in land utilization have caused changes in the local economy. Her recommendation is that the government should promote community-based natural resource management in villages.

The fourth session, chaired by Carl Middleton, explored the theme around the future of the Salween River from the policy, politics, and practice. Khin Maung Lwin, advisor to the National Water Resources Committee, Myanmar, presented the various ways of advocacy on positioning the Salween River in Myanmar’s river politics. He shared his ideas on water governance in Salween River and also the importance of dialogues with relevant stakeholders including governments, armed groups, developers and business sectors. Nang Shining from Weaving Bonds across Borders and Mong Pan Youth Association explained her work on collaborating with partner organisations to empower the women and youth to have a more active role in sustainable development. She highlighted how ethnic groups should have a primary role in water management across different scales, and also women, children and vulnerable group should be the major concerns in the decision-making processes, and should be involved as part of accountable and transparent decision-making processes. Youth should have the opportunity to be involved in all the above processes and activities. Pianporn Deetes from International Rivers presented on local community activism on transboundary river protection under military control in Thailand and her concern for justice and peace in the Salween River. She highlighted that on moving forward, ensuring a peaceful existence of ethnic peoples in the basin and clear pathway for justice must come first.

The presentations from this public forum can be accessed here. All of the sessions were broadcast on Facebook Live and can also be viewed on the above link.

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EVENT [RESOURCES]: Knowing the Salween River: Resource Politics of a Contested Transboundary River [Bangkok, 7 September 2019]

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On September 7, 2019, Center for Social Development Studies organized a seminar on "Knowing the Salween River: Resource Politics of a Contested Transboundary River". The seminar also launched the new book: “Knowing the Salween River: Resource Politics of a Contested Transboundary River”.

The seminar discussed how Salween River, shared by China, Myanmar, and Thailand, is increasingly at the heart of pressing regional development debates. The basin supports the livelihoods of over 10 million people, and within it there is great socioeconomic, cultural and political diversity. The basin is witnessing intensifying dynamics of resource extraction, alongside large dam construction, conservation and development intervention, that is unfolding within a complex terrain of local, national and transnational governance. With a focus on the contested politics of water and associated resources in the Salween basin, the seminar explored the possible futures of the Salween basin through the lens of: resource politics; politics of knowledge making; and reconciling knowledge across divides.

Presentations file:

Panel 1: Resource politics and the Salween River

Chair: Vanessa Lamb, University of Melbourne

Panel 2: Politics of knowledge making

Chair: Professor Saw Win, Retired Rector of Maubin University

Panel 3: Reconciling knowledge across divides

Chair: John Dore, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia

Panel 4: The future of the Salween River: Policy, politics, and practice

Chair: Carl Middleton, Chulalongkorn University

Facebook Live Feed:

EVENT [REPORT]: Disaster and Displacement - A Human Rights Perspective [Bangkok, 28-29 November 2018]

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On 29 November 2018, the Center for Social Development Studies (CSDS) hosted a workshop led and coordinated by our partner the Raoul Wallenberg Institute, to discuss about disaster and displacement in Asia Pacific. The discussion is part of a ten-country study on a range of types of disaster and displacement scenarios understood through a human rights perspective. The overall study examines how state actors fulfill their obligations to prevent displacement, conduct evacuation, protect people during displacement, and facilitate durable solutions in the aftermath. Aspects of the ongoing research were presented during the workshop by the researchers involved.

Regarding the prevention of displacement, the experience of Thailand and the Philippines were shared. For Thailand, Dr. Carl Middleton from Center for Social Development Studies (CSDS), Chulalongkorn University, presented on the 'Hat Yai Model', which is an effort to develop ‘soft infrastructure’ in the form of improved flood warning, and the strengthening of local government, community, civil society and local business capacity and collaboration to live with floods over the several days when it occurs. While it still has room for improvement, the researchers propose that the ‘Hat Yai Model’ as a preventative measure should be widely promoted in Thailand and beyond as a means to promote constructive state and non-state cooperation, enhance community empowerment and awareness, as well as to reduce the community’s vulnerability to flood disaster. Ryan Jeremiah D. Quan from Ateneo de Manila University School of Law presented the research on displacement prevention effort in the Philippines, particularly during the Typhoon Haiyan, which revealed that even though there is a disaster prevention system in place, there is a gap between the guidelines that are implemented by the government agencies on the national and provincial level and the experience and needs of the local government personnel in the field.

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The studies from Indonesia and Vanuatu provided insights about the evacuation process, especially for vulnerable groups. The study on Indonesia was presented by Andika Putra from ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM). The study, which focused on recurrent eruptions of Mount Sinabung and how it affected persons with disabilities, revealed how the disaster management system and the rights of persons with disabilities are managed under two different legal frameworks, which are yet to be synchronized at both national and local level. It is also noted that when the government doesn't present itself, non-government actors such as religious groups played an important role in supporting people with disability.

Lack of representation from vulnerable groups was also found in the case of Vanuatu, which was struck by Cyclone Pam in 2015. Tess Van Geelen in her presentation showed how there is no permanent position within government institution to consistently represent these groups. Such a condition led to the lack of protection provisions in government policies and effective approach in responding to disasters. International assistance has supported the development of many exemplary protection policies, however, the government staff is presently not equipped with the skill to implement the protection policies.

In terms of protection of affected people during disaster, researchers looked at the experience from the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, and flooding in Bangladesh and Cambodia. The study in Nepal by Dr. Bala Raju Nikku highlighted the limited access to basic necessities and services, as well as mental health issues that became very common among displaced persons. Currently, there is limited capacity in the government to address this issue, and therefore mental health issue is not included in the protection planning. In the future, the researcher argued that it is very important to psychosocial assistance as the first aid for people facing the issue of displacement, especially for vulnerable groups such as women, children, and persons with disabilities.

The displacement scenario was revealed to be different in Bangladesh. MD Abdul Awal Khan from the Law Department of Independent University, Bangladesh, said on his presentation that currently there is no systemic plan on displacement organized by the government, causing people to move haphazardly. There is an existing policy with statutory provisions regarding disaster management, but the lack of implementation mechanism and strategies made it inadequate to mitigate when disaster happens. The lack of coordination between concerned government agencies is particularly affecting persons with disabilities, because there is no existing plan to handle such situation.

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Ratana Ly from Cambodia on her research examined how people who live with annual flooding experience displacement. People in area that flood has been living there for generations; they are tied to the land and are unwilling to move away to other areas, even though disaster may happen every year. From the Cambodia research, it was shown that disaster management-related policies need to address the local knowledge, so that policy can reflect local values.

The final two studies presented were on China and Myanmar examining durable solutions to the aforementioned issues. In China, Tang Yixia found on her research that the legal framework for disaster relief had encompassed various aspects from the prevention measures before disasters, emergency rescue measures at the time of disasters, coping strategies after disasters, as well as incorporating special provisions on the rights of women and minors. However, in implementation, human rights and gender perspective are still being left behind, which makes the protection of displaced persons’ rights not fully effective.

Myanmar, which has ratified various international human rights treaties, also has existing national laws and policies which promote protection of the human rights of displaced persons in the context of disaster. Prof. Dr. Khin Chit Chit of Yangon University revealed in her presentation that there is even a provision within the national law that require the government to prioritize children, women, and persons with disabilities. However, a more detailed regulation is needed to ensure that the government has a long-term plan to manage risks within these vulnerable groups. Harmonization between the disaster management laws with other related laws is also needed to ensure the substantial protection.

The feedback gathered during the consultation workshop, with valuable inputs from international organisations and experts in regards to internally displaced persons in the context of disaster, will be incorporated into these ongoing studies, will be incorporated into the finalization of the research projects.

For the research in Thailand and about the wider project, please visit our project page here, for updates.

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EVENT: Panel Presentation at Social and Sustainability Science in ASEAN Conference

"Water (In)security and Development in Southeast Asia: Inclusions, Exclusions and Transformations"

local researcher roundtable discussion (Credit: R. Irven)

local researcher roundtable discussion (Credit: R. Irven)

On the first day of the Social and Sustainability Science in ASEAN International Conference 2018: Agri-Food Systems, Rural Sustainability and Socioeconomic Transformations in South-east Asia, CSDS organized and presented on a panel centered on conflicts over access to, control over and use of water and natural resources at scales ranging from the interstate to the individual. Four panelists presented their most recent research which focused on case studies from around the region, in Myanmar, Thailand and Lao PDR. The panel was comprised of Dr. Soimart Rungmanee (Puay Ungpakorn School of Development Studies, Thammasart University), Assoc. Prof. Dr. Kanokwan Manorom (Department of Social Science, Faculty of Liberal Arts, Ubon Ratchathani University), Saw John Bright (Karen Environmental and Social Action Network - KESAN) and Asst. Prof. Dr. Carl Middleton (Center for Social Development Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University). For more details on the conference please visit our post here or download the official program here

To download the full presentations from the panel, please visit the links below:

EVENT: The Political Economy of New Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia

Session organized at the 10th International Convention of Asian Scholars

11:30-13:15, 22nd July 2017, Chiang Mai International Exhibition and Convention Center

Session convened by the Center for Social Development Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

Political authoritarianism is strengthening across Southeast Asia, mirroring a noted trend globally. This panel explored the politics, processes, and implications of the (re)assertion of authoritarianism, focusing on its political-economic regimes, but also including its ideologies and discourses. The panel engaged in a long-standing debate that globalisation and economic liberalism goes hand in hand with liberalisation and democratization in the political sphere. This association goes back to Lipset’s Modernisation Theory. Refuted by many and of fading interest by the 1970s, it came back into fashion in the 1990s with the spread of neoliberal capitalism and the so-called “third wave” of democratization.

The recent rise of authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia and globally seems to be a sustained trend that may be connected to economic projects associated with a specific stage of capitalist development (crisis driven late capitalism), and that also mirror the interests of the elite in power. This can be analysed through what Poulantzas, in the 1970s, called authoritarian statism, whereby a growing role of the state seeks to ensure economic growth under conditions of capitalist crisis tendencies.

In this panel, we situated the new authoritarianism of contemporary Southeast Asia within a post-Washington and post-aid era of globalization. The region’s new authoritarianism builds upon legacies of past authoritarianism, in particular the various guises of developmental states - both capitalist and socialist - since the 1950s. Even if authoritarian statism receded in the 1990s and 2000s, it never fully ended. Now, the region is increasingly under the political and economic sway of China, but also subject to intensified attention of the United States. Some countries have visibly becoming more authoritarian in recent years, including by military coup (Thailand) or strong-handed leaders (the Philippines; Cambodia), whilst others apparently less so, in particular Myanmar.  Vietnam and Laos, meanwhile, have stated themselves as socialist-orientated market economies. Trends towards regional economic integration, market expansion and intensification, meanwhile, add a regional-scaled dynamic to political authoritarianism.

The panel sought to address the following conceptual and empirical questions:

  • How can we conceptualize the connection between the trend of authoritarianism and the current state of capitalist development in Southeast Asia?

  • What are the characteristics of the authoritarian states in Southeast Asia? What economic models of development are being proposed by these states?

  • What are the implications for civil society, social movements, democracy and human rights?

The following papers were presented :

  • The One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative and its influence on the political situation of China's neighbouring countries, by Dr. Wolfram Schaffar, University of Vienna

  • Thailand 4.0: the Rise of Neo-authoritarian Developmental State, by Dr. Naruemon Thabchumpon, Chulalongkorn University

  • 'Ephemeral transnational' and 'authoritarian domestic' public spheres in Laos hydropower dams, Dr. Carl Middleton, Chulalongkorn University

  • Authoritarian development, frontier capitalism and indigenous counter-movements in Myanmar Rainer Einzenberger, University of Vienna

The panel was chaired by Dr. Chantana Banpasirichote Wungaeo of Chulalongkorn University.

The papers presented on the panel are part of a forthcoming Special Issue to be published in the Austrian Journal of Southeast Asia Studies in mid-2018.

WORKSHOP: The Second Workshop on Data collection and Methodology, Ubon Ratchathani, 4-6 August 2015

The second  Field Study Workshop in Ubon Ratchathani, Rasi Salai,

August 2015

The Second Workshop on Data Collection and Methodology, Ubon Ratchathani and Sri Saket, 4-6 August 2015

             In this second workshop, we focus on the principles and best practices of undertaking fieldwork, and how to document and analyze the findings. This workshop, hosted by the MSSRC, Faculty of Liberal Arts, Ubon Ratchathani University, will entail workshop based discussion and practical experience in the field. Workshop objectives The workshop objectives are for research fellows to: learn about social-science research methods and how to apply them in field work, consider how to incorporate these research methods into their own fieldwork, practice these research methods in the field, and reflect critically on their use, learn how to undertake basic data analysis of qualitative and quantitative field data, continue to build relationships between one another across the river basins.

            The workshop involved field visit to rural villages along the Mun river basin in Sri Saket Province. The fellows had an opportunities to practice their obtained research skills through observations, interviews with the locals, and group work. By the end of the workshop, each group of fellow represented the gained data in the form of PPT presentation based on their assigned topic. The results are as follow;

Group 1 - Role of Women

Group 2 - Role of Government

Group 3 - Role of Civil Society

Group 4 - Traditional Water Management

Group 5 - Local Livelihoods

Field study tools' presentation by Carl Middleton

Experience of past fellow on data collection tools by Dr.Watcharee Srikham

A Glimpse of Rural Wet Land, The Mun River Basin, Sri Saket Province

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WORKSHOP: Naga Fellows’ Field Research Training: A Journey to the Rasi Salai Dam, Thailand

By Alayna Ynacay-Nye and Kyle Ojima

On 4 to 6th August 2015, the Naga fellows from the Mekong, Red and Salween river basins traveled to Ubon Ratchathani province in Thailand for an intensive course in field research methods and to study the impacts of the Rasi Salai dam on local livelihoods.  The event was hosted by the Mekong Sub-Region Social Research Center (MSSRC), Ubon Ratchathani University.

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All of the research fellows and staff from the Mekong, Red and Salween river basins who attended the training at UbonRatachathani University. (Photo by Kyle Ojima)

The first day of the training, held at UbonRatchathani University, readied the fellows for their field work, providing an orientation to field research methods. Techniques and approaches were provided by invited speakers, but benefited greatly from the combined experience of the fellows themselves, many of who have experience conducting field research already.  The fellows were then separated into five thematic groups that would be their research focus for the following two days:

  • Roles of women in wetland management

  • Roles of government and local authority in irrigation management

  • Civil society and people organization in wetland recovery

  • Traditional water management

  • Local Livelihoods and change of wetland resources and utilization.

By the early evening, the fellows had relocated from the university to Si Sa Khet province, and were settling into their home stays in villages within the area affected by the dam.

Construction and impact of the Rasi Salai Dam

In the 1990s, the Thai government constructed the Rasi Salai dam on the Mun River in Si Sa Khet Province, inundating a large swathe of wetland, proposed to irrigate the surrounding areas. The impacted wetland was referred to by the locals as their ‘supermarket’ due to the invaluable resources it provided and that supported the community. The dam had a severe impact on many people’s livelihoods, with prolonged flooding and the loss of river and wetland biodiversity reducing fishing yields, wetland rice farm production, and farmers’ ability to raise cattle and to collect valuable products from the wetlands, such as mushrooms, medicinal herbs, red ant eggs, and fire wood.

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The Rasi Salai Dam in Si Sa Khet province, Thailand, which caused serious impacts to local communities. (Photo by Kyle Ojima)

When the government approved the construction of the Rasi Salai Dam, it did not conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or consult local villagers. When construction began in 1992, villagers were initially told that a 4.5 meter rubber weir was being built to solve the problem of water scarcity. However, after the construction the villagers found that instead of a small rubber weir it was a 9 meter concrete dam. Whilst there have been many impacts, relatively few villagers of the region have actually received the promised irrigation benefits.

Fellows learn about the Rasi Salai Dam

On Wednesday August 5th, the fellows and staff woke up in their local villages, and began to explore their allocated themes. Most of the groups started out with interviews a range of people, from local government organizations to farmers living off the land. The fellows learned that some villagers who once relied on the wetlands for food, were no longer able to grow crops because the flood regime had changed; it had led to water logging creating soils that could no longer sustain rice fields and other plant life. Villagers said that traditionally in the area there were 13 varieties of rice grown for generations, but now there are only 3. The river’s migratory fish species were also in decline.

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Meeting 2 Ubon

A meeting with retired local officials and farmers to discuss the effects of the RasiSalai dam on local livelihoods (Photo by Alayna Ynacay-Nye)

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There were once many cattle in the Rasi Salai area, but the loss of grazing land following the dam significantly reduced the number (Photo by Kyle Ojima)

The fellows heard from the villagers interviewed that they are no longer able to depend solely on the land for food and economic security, and must seek alternative solutions. This has resulted in villagers migrating to big cities such as Bangkok in pursuit of low paying labor jobs, leaving their traditional agrarian way of life and weakening their ties to family, culture and their neighbors. For those who chose to stay in RasiSalai, the land is no longer able to provide the variety and quantity of foods it previously could, forcing people to purchase low quality products in the market which further increases their expenses and debt. The creation of the dam sparked social movements advocating for villagers’ rights and compensation. The Royal Irrigation Department (RID) is currently negotiating with the Taam Mun Association, which represents the villagers, for compensation and livelihood recovery programs. This has created a stronger trust and communication between the RID and the villagers that in the past.

Presenting research findings

Finally on Thursday August 4th, the groups left the villages and arrived at the Lower Mun Irrigation Office for a wrap up of the workshop. The fellows were able to present what they had learned in the villages using the research tools studied on the first day of the workshop. A local village leader and a representative from the Royal Irrigation Department also joined the meeting to provide their perspectives on the Rasi Salai Dam and its benefits and impacts.

Overall, the fellows had a valuable opportunity to build relationships amongst each other and therefore across the Mekong, Red and Salween basins. The fellows also learned various techniques for fieldwork and had the chance to actively apply them in the field. In addition, the fellows were able to learn from the local situation at the RasiSalai dam, and to contrast it with the experience in their own countries. The fellows are now looking forward to meeting again and sharing the progress of their research at the “2015 Greater Mekong Forum on Water, Food, and Energy” on 21-23 October in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Meeting Ubon

Meeting Ubon

All of the fellows gathered at the Lower Mun Royal Irrigation Department office to present what they learned from their field work.  (Photo by Kyle Ojima)

Further information

Please see the blog titled “Finding Common Ground: Co-produced Wetland Zoning in Northeast Thailand”(12 August 2015) produced for the Recovering and valuing wetland agro-ecological systems and local knowledge for water security and community resilience in the Mekong region(RECOVER) project.

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