Fellow Since 2006
This profile was prepared when Pianporn Deetes was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.
A pioneer in her work with Thai and Burmese ethnic grassroots organizations, Pianporn Deetes organizes river communities to slow down dam projects along the Salween River that threaten the local ecosystem and the livelihoods of those who depend on the river and its resources. She forms community action groups to push for long-term policy and legislation that includes their participation in risk analysis of development projects.
The New Idea
With a focus that combines cross-border environment and human rights issues, Pianporn is working with the communities who live in the Salween River watershed to become effective advocates for protection of the river that is the source of their livelihoods. The Salween, the largest free-flowing river in Southeast Asia, has drawn the gaze of three governments as a source for hydroelectric power, though they have excluded the local inhabitants from participation in the planning process. That exclusion is illegal. Technically, the legal status of many of the hill tribe people who constitute the population that would be displaced if the dams were built is also ambiguous because of ethnic discrimination and migration. Within this complex situation Pianporn is building the basis for improved justice and civic participation and also government’s accountability for consequences of mega-project development. New levels of citizenship grow from Pianporn’s strategies to educate and raise awareness of environmental and social impacts of dam construction on the Salween. Pianporn’s organization engages villagers at the local level to research, manage and document the many resources provided by the river and develop action plans to reform policy to exploit it. Her relationship with media from the local to the international has drawn in a larger citizen base while educating the press about the nuances of an important story. The process draws attention to laws that have not been implemented; providing a window that Pianporn is skillfully opening for increased use of due process both from citizen and governmental ends. The new skills that marginalized citizens acquire through Pianporn’s work apply to many situations with similar components. Pianporn and the local communities she is empowering disseminate their research and documentation to other minority groups in Thailand, Myanmar and China as well as to local authorities, policymakers and media sources.
The twentieth century was the era of dam construction, as cities and countries struggled to deal with the growing demand for food, fresh water, and electricity. Dams were built following a highly technocratic planning process, with little involvement of the local people that would be most affected by the projects, and with little concern for environmental impacts and population displacements. The governments of Myanmar, Thailand and China intend to build three dams on the 2,815 kilometer Salween River. In December of 2005, the Governor of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, announced plans to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Burmese military regime on joint investment in constructing a series of hydroelectric dams along the river. The Salween project will involve displacing tens of thousands of people in the area to generate electricity to be sold to Thailand. International financial institutions and energy companies have also become increasingly aggressive with the hope of exploiting Myanmar’s hydroelectric power generation.Dams bring sweeping ecological changes, affecting the livelihood of dependent communities, and endangering the natural abundance of the river basin and farming land. Traditionally, riverine people have depended on the Salween River to support them, using communal agreements to secure vital irrigation for agriculture and livestock, water, food, and transportation. Contrary to the 1997 Constitution and the 1997 Official Information Act of Thailand, local communities, internally displaced people, and refugees have not been granted the right to meaningful participation at all stages of the decision-making processes of planning the dam. Authorities have withheld vital information—details of the projects, impact assessments, and negotiations remain guarded secrets which the public cannot access. As a result, a ‘rights and risks’ analysis led by local communities as well as dam authorities, has not been conducted. Of particular concern in the disenfranchisement is the war waged by the Burmese regime against the ethnic people living near dam-construction sites. Military action has resulted in massive refugee flows with hundreds of thousands of internally displaced and often brutalized people. Many of these people come from areas that would be inundated by the dams and related infrastructure development.
After founding the Living River Siam project in 2005, Pianporn brought together organizations and academics with different expertise, based in northern Thailand, to consider the prevention of the construction of harmful hydroelectric power dams on the Salween River. Pianporn has a unique perspective on how political and economic decisions affect the rights of ethnic minority groups, particularly in the Shan State and Karen in Myanmar and Karen on the Salween banks in Thailand. The project works on three levels. At the community level she engages the people in researching and documenting the ecosystem, natural resources, and livelihoods in the river basin. Nationally, she brings the issue into the national discourse regarding cross-border livelihoods and human rights. At the policy level, she advocates for legislation that protects the rights of affected communities. Pianporn uses information very strategically. She and her group begin with research and surveys to identify villages that will be most severely affected by the dam construction. Several village-level meetings follow, facilitated by Pianporn, where people identify the substantial benefits of the river for the entire community. Essential to her strategy is drawing out the voices of the villagers to raise awareness and strengthen their community’s understanding of citizenship. With those new tools they have new potential to act, to protect their rights and natural resources. This promotes community ownership and empowers those with limited resources to participate in the preservation of their livelihoods. Pianporn and the communities gather data from the affected environment and people, and from the media and other credible sources. To date, Living River Siam and its partners have reached 83,000 local people directly, with 20,000 living on the Salween River in Thailand and the rest on the Salween River in Myanmar. While developing her model at the community level, Pianporn has also been networking to raise awareness of the issue and develop partnerships with those who will work with her to put it on the national agenda. There are no other groups working on environmental and human rights issues across Thai and Myanmar borders but she has tapped into the networks of citizen organizations working on rural empowerment issues and inserted dam damages and prevention in their plans. Although Living River Siam operates in a difficult environment in Myanmar where many of its members have illegal status in Thailand and land mines remain from previous war zones, she continues to venture across the border with journalists and documentary filmmakers to capture the stark realities. Pianporn has brought a wide array of media sources, including Bangkok Business review, Khao Sod—a leading Thai newspaper—the Bangkok Post, Al Jazeera, BBC World, Reuters, Le Figaro, and Swiss TV to the project sites to learn from victims about their problems. Well-attended meetings, speeches, photography exhibits, widely distributed informational brochures and booklets, organized workshops, and marketing resources such as T-shirts and stickers are examples of the tools used to inform the public, from the leaders of ethnic groups to government officials to journalists worldwide.Pianporn has taken initial steps to advocate for policy changes and legislation that would establish the people’s rights across the border. She is working at the national level through the National Human Rights commission and using much of her information to campaign for activities that alert key constituents of the regional and international community—connections able to further disseminate information and influence policy. Pianporn is also creating important links with academic institutions and international organizations like Thammasat University, and the U.S. Consulate in Chiang Mai.
Born and raised in a Lisu village, an ethnic tribe located in the hills of northern Thailand, Pianporn was exposed at an early age to capacity building and human rights issues through the work of her parents. While studying in Chiang Mai University, she regularly returned to the village, attending meetings and activities with her parents. During summers, she worked for the Hill Area Development Foundation, an organization led by Ashoka Fellow Tuenjai Deetes, who works to promote the rights, protection and sustainability of hill tribes. Determined to follow a career in social environmental justice, Pianporn joined protests against the construction of the Thai-Burmese pipeline and other large national projects. After graduation, she worked for an international organization focused on labor rights. A superficial approach to the issues led Pianporn to quit after 4 months and begin charity work with another international organization. This time, the lack of sustainability and local empowerment emanating from the organization’s project led her to quit again—bringing her to SEARIN as they recruited an English speaking staff. Her birthplace, childhood and work experience combined with her ability to communicate with local hill tribes and proficiency in English have given her the tools to further social environmental justice in Thailand and in neighboring countries.