The Mekong Region in Southeast Asia is seeing an unprecedented boom in hydropower development to support the emerging economies in China, Thailand, and Vietnam. In Laos alone, government officials are planning and rapidly moving forward with large-scale dam projects to provide electricity for export to neighboring Thailand.

Not only do large-scale dams cause significant social and ecological impacts, but these projects also require lengthy transmission lines to carry electricity through the region. One such corridor runs through the Udon Thani province in northeastern Thailand. Several years ago, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) proposed two 500-kV transmission lines to carry power from the Lao border to a substation within Thailand.

Although Thailand’s constitution guarantees the right of citizens to access information and participate in decisions that affect them, the government of Thailand approved the transmission line projects without the benefit of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and without consulting local communities. The project has generated considerable concern among local communities, where families grow rice and fruit for sustenance and income. Many people were unaware of the project until EGAT announced the final transmission line route.

Advocates at EnLAW in Thailand, a public-interest environmental law NGO and ELAW partner, are assisting community members who live and maintain farms in the path of the transmission lines. The electricity being generated in Laos and brought to Thailand is not destined for these rural communities, but for urban dwellers and large-scale development projects — like a nearby potash mine. Some families have refused to sell their land to EGAT because the company was not offering a fair price. Others do not want to leave land that has been in their family for generations and are concerned about farming directly beneath powerful electricity transmission lines.

On May 25th, Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission issued a resolution asking EGAT to pause construction to allow time to negotiate with affected landowners to reach an agreement over the fair value of their land. The Commission criticized EGAT for demolishing homes without prior permission and expressed concern that EGAT’s activities were inciting violence and conflict with landowners. EGAT ignored the resolution and, just a few days later, attempted to enter onto one family’s land with heavy machinery and equipment to begin constructing a transmission line tower in the family’s rice paddy. Over a dozen people, including the landowners and a group of visiting university students, gathered to block EGAT. Regrettably, EGAT called in local police to forcibly remove the peaceful protesters and many were arrested. EnLAW attorney Montana Daungprapa was visiting the community at the time and witnessed the violence committed against people who simply want to protect their land and livelihoods, and receive fair compensation for their land rights.

Montana and her colleagues at EnLAW are assisting these individuals with their defense and with efforts to help those who are being impacted by the transmission line project gain fair compensation. The National Commission on Human Rights is continuing to investigate the situation. EnLAW’s persistence in this case is providing justice to landowners. Their work is critical to promoting greater accountability and transparency on the part of the Thai government and to protecting the rights of rural and impoverished citizens.

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney