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In memory of "Mod" Wanida Tantiwittayapitak':‘Why do we have to help the poor?'


In memory of "Mod" Wanida Tantiwittayapitak'


Wanida Tantiwittayapitak, aka "Mod", was a fighter for justice and a prominent leader of people's movements. The following lecture delivered at the 1997 vividly explains her feelings and deep commitment toward the causes of the poor.




Why do we have to help the poor?'

by Wanida Tantiwittayapitak


1997 Komol Keemthong Annual Lecture

Arts and Culture Hall, Thammasat University, Bangkok, Thailand

20 February 1997



My deep respects to Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa, Ajahn Prawase Wasi and good afternoon all distinguished guests who sacrificed your time to be here today, and thanks to Charnwit Aramrit for the introduction about me. I always take him as my life long brother and I thank the Komol Keemthong Foundation for organizing this event.


I feel humbly honoured for being given this opportunity to speak today. Part of what I will say comes from my heart, the other from the voices of the poor, the voices of the anonymous heroes and heroines who have fought for the poor, for social justice, but whose names are hardly mentioned.


Many may ask why do we have to help the poor. Why don't we just help ourselves first? Why on earth do we have to get involved in other people's business? And so on and so on. Underlying these questions is sometimes concern, sometimes rage.


Distinguished guests, all people loathe poverty and try to run away from it. Some took their own lives to escape poverty, and some took others' lives just to get away from poverty, too. Throughout my life, I could say I have lived somewhat like a poor person at times, but it was never so bad that I had to live from hand to mouth or live without a home. If 20% of people in this country are poor, my life is many times better than theirs.


But for me, I do not find poverty disgusting because it is just physical scarcity, or a lack of fame or reputation. That kind of poverty allows me to enjoy a simple life being self-contented and deeply joyful.


I used to run a business and was once so engrossed in figures, calculations, hoarding, deceiving people, and I found myself somewhat successful in that. But somehow that kind of success did not make me happy. In a world of competition, we cannot be ourselves. We have to become hunters looking for prey. I find people in society can be both predators and prey at the same time. Shockingly, all living beings learn instinctively to ensure their survival at the cost of others' lives.


Many a time I failed and was broke. But in that very moment, I often found my true friends - those who cared and helped me without expecting anything in return.


I used to walk into a slum where I was greeted by people there, even though they knew nothing about me. Yet, they bestowed on me the best treat they had managed to find.


I have visited the houses of poor people in India near the Himalaya Mountains. They greeted me as if I were part of their family. Under the ripped clothing and smudgy faces, I found enormous sincerity. I want to share with you that amidst poverty, we can find much beauty. Of course, I am not saying that poverty is good, or that being wealthy is bad. The crux of the matter is you can always find some light in the dark. Vice versa, in the radiant sunshine, you can still find a dark spot, namely the black hole. Therefore, whether rich or not poor, we can equally enjoy our lives. It depends on our hearts.


What is poverty? Even those who have barely passed primary education can tell instantly. But I tend to think that poverty is caused by exploitation, abuse and a lack of opportunity. Somebody said there would not be any poverty if one was happy with what one has. I want to add that there would not be suffering if there was justice. Why did I use the term "suffering"? Because in some circumstances, poverty does not equate with suffering. Not having a beautiful dress may not cause us suffering. But if we have nothing to eat, no place to live, then that is suffering.


These sufferings do not stem from the previous karma. We are all born equal, with nothing on our bodies. But why do some people enjoy such a comfortable life and do not have to work hard at all, and then some people have to work so hard just to have enough for this meal and the next? The story must be more complicated than this.


Five years ago, I went to Ubon Ratchathani province. Local people still lived a traditional way of life through fishing. They eked out just enough to send their children to school, have some time to rest, have enough to get by when they got ill. For centuries, these people have lived this life. We can still find large communities situated by the Mun River. Even though the soil is not so good, the river is. The last stretch of the Mun River in Ubon Ratchathani boasts more than 30 rapids. People lived off these rapids. In the morning, they went down to the rapids with fishing rods, nets and other gear to fish. Women and older people went to collect food and firewood from inside the forests. If they caught too many fish, they traded them for rice. Due to the poor soil, rice does not grow well there.


I went there when local people rose up against the construction project for the Pak Mun Dam. Approved during the Gen. Chatichai Choonhavan government in 1990, construction commenced a year later during the NPKC (National Peace Keeping Council), the coup group. I learned afterward that there was no discussion in the cabinet on the impacts of the dam when the decision was made to build it. Approval was based on the claims of the power that would be generated by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT). That shocked me. The downstream stretch of the Mun River was the last remaining and most abundant ecosystem in the Northeast. It was the channel through which fish from the Mekong came to feed Northeasterners in the 11 provinces that the Mun River flows through.


Why did I join with the Pak Mun people? I did not know much then, and could hardly eat sticky rice. Though I had seen it in some dishes and heard about it, I did not really know pla ra (fermented fish). I knew next to zero about the way of life of the Isaan people. Joining the Pak Mun folk gave me the first glimpse of how intricately their livelihood depended upon nature.


The rural people have no banks, and no money to deposit there. They have no malls to shop in and they have no money to shop anyway. But how do they live? They live with nature. The abundance of nature enables them to raise their children until they become big communities in the districts of Khong Chiam, Sirindhorn, and Phibun Mangsahan. The name "Phibun Mangsahan" means a "vast food supply".


An elderly woman led the protest by the Pak Mun villagers. Barely able to speak Thai, she asked me in the Northeastern dialect how would I feel if someone just came up my house and told me to remove all the house pillars? Those were the words of Maeyai Tao Nachan, who passed away while the struggle of the Pak Mun folk went on.


Sisters and brothers, right now the Pak Mun people barely have anything left in their lives. They never deposited money in the banks, as they had no idea that one day the government would come to build a dam which would make their fishing economy impossible. The Mun River, the natural environment of the Mun River, was their commercial bank. So they never thought about amassing money. When they needed to spend money, they went to fish. They were never so greedy as to fish as much as they could and convert themselves into merchants putting fish in cold storage for massive sales. They never thought that way. The fish traders in the village were people who looked for fish and sold it just to eke out their living. Life had been like that until 1991. Meanwhile, we in the capital city had started to learn use credit cards, punching buttons for money from the ATM, and learning to use mobile phones.


I have no idea how big is the claimed capacity, 136 megawatts, of the Pak Mun Dam. Some people told me it was enough to run 10-20 shopping malls at best. But we generate electricity at the expense of the last and most abundant ecosystem in Ubon Ratchathani or in the entire Northeast. A lesson like this is what I try to tell people who are not aware of it.


Pak Mun Dam is ten kilometres away from Sirindhorn Dam. This was built during the rule of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat and Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, the two dictators who shared the goal of building the dam to strengthen border security. More than 30,000 hectares of the best paddy fields alongside the Dom Noi River were submerged after the dam was built. Situated about 10-20 kilometres north of Pak Mun Dam, the Dom Noi River feeds into the Mun River. The dam was built right there just to suppress communism, to prevent people from becoming communists. They just wanted to drown all those communist comrades.


Right where the most lush and green forests of Ubon Ratchathani province were made picturesque by one of the most gorgeous rivers and waterfalls of that time, the dictators built the dam. Folk from many villages had to migrate to Laos as they were provided with no land of equal fertility. Many became beggars in various places where they tried to beg for rice. Our sisters and brothers suffering because of the Sirindhorn Dam are demonstrating in front of Government House as a result of the sacrifice that they made 20 years ago. Their children had to take construction work, to risk working abroad. Nowadays, thousands of families around Sirindhorn Dam live their lives below what we call a "poverty line". Last year, the Prime Minister, Banharn Silpa-archa, visited the area himself and admitted that the land assigned by the state as compensation for the villagers was not good for growing food.


The Sirindhorn Dam folk had to bear their sufferings for more than two decades. Don't ask why the Pak Mun folk had to protest time after time, as they had witnessed with their own eyes the suffering that the folk at Sirindhorn Dam had to endure every day. They knew too well the consequences of dam construction. You might be somewhat disturbed when hearing news about the protests. "Ah...these people come here to protest again, all these Pak Mun folk again. Why did their struggle never end?" But if you were a Pak Mun villager, I bet you would do the same. It was like, we enjoyed our fine salaries, and one day, they were forever taken away from us. Or we were preparing to build a house for our son, but when it was announced that the dam would be built, everything just got stopped.


Many areas are tipped to be the sites of dam construction, i.e., Pong Khun Phet Dam, Kaeng Sue Ten Dam, etc., where people have been living for a long time. Once it is announced that the dams will be built, the government stops all development work. There will be no more roads, electricity, water, etc, since people at the dam sites would supposedly be unable to use them anyway. People in Kaeng Sue Ten Dam lived in such a condition for more than a decade and kept worrying if the dam would be built. They had to think hard even about planting a tamarind tree, since they might get nothing in return from planting the tree there if the land got flooded. They were concerned about how their children would survive. The Pak Mun folk struggled hard to protest against the dam construction and had to face brutal suppression by officials. Many sustained injuries, others were arrested. But eventually, the dam was built. Right now, many children of the Pak Mun people have had to quit school. Instead of going on to high school, many children ended up as construction workers. That explains why they need to be in front of the Government House. If you want to know this fact, just go there and ask them.


A few days ago, while riding in a taxi, the driver screamed at me "Why don't these poor folk go back home? Are they here to beg for government money?" Of course, they are not beggars, but what drove them into begging from people, then? Mistakes of development in the past have made them into beggars. Ask those people who live on the street what happened to them. They might have come from a village where a dam had been built without considering the impacts.


Let's look at another angle. I went to Kamphaeng Phet province, to villages of the Hmong and Karen. They lived in a National Park in the province. Due to the relocation policy of the Royal Forest Department, they had been moved down from the mountains in various provinces, hundreds of districts in the North.


What were their crimes? They were accused of encroaching on the forest. Although they had just a couple of blankets to get by with, they may have enjoyed so much having a small piece of land to grow rice, some food and vegetables, bathing in the waters from the mountains, having time to sing and have fun, etc. They had been living this life for centuries. Now, they had to face the charge of deforestation, and it was not clear who really were the culprits. Without any further explanation, I am sure all of you here know well the reasons for the vanishing forests in this country.


All these sisters and brothers from the mountains are facing charges of deforestation and will be relocated from Kamphaeng Phet. Several thousand families have been relocated to live on flat land near the road. If they were rich people, they would certainly know how to make themselves rich from living by the road. But since the government prepared no houses to accommodate them, all these hill people had to collect bamboo to build their own. All the houses by the highway contained just children and older persons. Young people left for jobs in the city. Some of them had to sneak to take hired work since they had no Thai ID cards.


I can assure you of what I saw with my own eyes; the mountain people had nothing to do with the denuding of the mountains. If they had cut down those trees, they would have had enough to live in condominiums in the city. Deforestation is very complicated and is driven by the excessive desire to consume. The rich and the politicians sitting in parliament now use money they earned from logging concessions to campaign for their seats. After using up the remaining natural resources, they set innocent people up to face charges.


Many of you might have heard that the village folk at Ban Pho Khiao are the real genuine blood of Suphanburi. They just grow rice. The livelihood of people like them in the Central Plains is so dependent on natural abundance. Unfortunately for the Pho Khiao folk, they happened to live in area which is part of an urbanization plan. Some new government complex is going to be constructed there plus some new health facilities, new schools, and other things to give people a comfortable life. As a result, these peasants are charged with trespassing on public land. Having tilled the land for several centuries, they were informed for the first time that they were farming on public land. No one had told them this fact before. The Governor of Suphanburi also helped to fill the paddy fields with dirt without knowing how such action pains rice growers. The rice that was forming grains was buried under the soil right before the harvest. The problem has happened for 4-5 years.


Our sisters and brothers in Buriram province also face the charge of trespassing on public land. A state order was made to declare the land state property. While some pieces of land belonging to Members of Parliament were properly registered, land belonging to the villagers in Ban Thung Don Kaew, Nang Rong district, was declared public land, state property. And the land was going to become a government complex, with court buildings and prisons. Even construction of court buildings and prisons can infringe upon the rights of villagers, similar to land confiscation.


Another similar case is the Genco waste treatment plant. Our sisters and brothers in Pluak Daeng district, Rayong province, grow rubber, durian and rambutan. One day, the Eastern Seaboard authority wanted to expand their area to make way for a gigantic industrial complex - it was not just big, but indeed gigantic. But in my opinion, the private sector's investment in our country tends to be driven by greed. As a result, the installation of a waste treatment plant was something to be built at a later stage, with no proper planning. In order to acquire cheap land, they had to target the villagers' land. And the plant needed to be situated by a water supply consumed by people all over the district. Thus, local people in Pluak Daeng came out against it. The case is pending at the Ministry of Industry, and it is not clear if a new site for construction of the waste treatment plant could finally be located.


Another group are workers who have been working in factories for 30 years. Due to cotton dust, parts of their lungs have been damaged by an accumulation of dust. They were then fired by the plant owners for being unable to carry out their duties. And the state paid no attention to the problem. In the past three decades, Thailand has developed at the expense of the lives, the flesh and blood and the future of these workers. But when they get ill, no one comes to help them fight.


I am inclined to think that poverty has been caused by injustice and discrimination. While some people can live a comfortable life, the majority have to suffer or be subject to exploitation. The current system tends to discriminate against those who are weaker, have fewer opportunities, and less education.


Another thing I want to touch on is why do we need to help the poor?


None of you here grow rice, weave your own clothes, or pave the road. Even the herbal medicines you use are made in rural areas. They come from the mountains. The street sweepers, sewage pipe dredgers, all domestic workers are poor people. Without them, how can we live? The rice we eat is grown by peasants, the fish is caught by fisher folk. Who made you these big buildings? Who made the ancient pyramids? Who made the Great Wall of China? Were they not the poor, the destitute who were forced to do so? All civilizations have been built by the poor, all progress has been made by them. But as we progress, these poor folk are pushed aside and do not benefit from the process.


For the past three decades, our Sirindhorn Dam sisters and brothers lived with no electricity. When did we in Bangkok first have electricity? We have had it for 40 years, but people who live around the Sirindhorn Dam just got it a few years ago. Similarly, those who live around Bhumipol Dam, Sirikit Dam, etc., just got have electricity a few years ago. The benefits of all this progress have been drawn to those who are wealthier, leaving others to make the sacrifice.


In modern society, everything is measured in monetary terms. Even humanity is subject to such measurement. I want to ask who controls the exchange rate. Do the poor folk have a say in it? If they did, why is paddy sold so cheaply, while rice is expensive? Why are wages kept so low whereas the price of products is so high? Because in modern society the poor produce all these products and services, yet they have no say in determining their prices, and thus are subject to exploitation.


I tend to think that poverty does not stem from their previous karma, but injustice.


Let's take a look at natural resource conservation. W are urban people. Many are in private business; many are government officers belonging to the middle class. But all people should realize that all resources are in rural areas. Things that enable us to live a comfortable life come entirely from nature, i.e., raw materials, or processed goods. All of them are sent from rural areas. And the rural people are the producers, creators, and sustainers. Without these rural folk, who will look after the environment?


In my conversation with villagers living in a National Park in Ubon Ratchathani, one of them told me he wanted to conserve the forest, but when he saw rich people taking the logs past his home, he did not know what to do. He is not authorized by law to deal with these people. The rich people have cut down trees for decades, until they are all gone. Then, the government declares it a National Park and wants to remove local people, claiming they are the ones who did the logging.


The rural folk can take care of their own resources. Forests and mountains are their life without which they cannot survive. Without them, where can they find herbs, without forests, where can they collect mushrooms, bamboo shoots? None of this produce can be made in factories. It is kindly provided by the abundance of nature and if they fail to preserve the forest, they are doomed.


Similarly, our Pak Mun sisters and brothers who mostly fish from the river are not greedy. They know too well that if they overfish, their children will have nothing to eat. They fish a fair amount needed for their use and leave enough for their children. This is commonly practiced in other rural areas as well.


I think the rural folk have the potential to preserve nature. Previously, it was the government that handled the job. Natural resource management has been centralized by the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives. Forests are handled by Royal Forest Department, water by the Royal Irrigation Department, etc. But their water and forest management has failed in the past one hundred years because we have never let people living there to take an adequate role in determining if it is suitable to build a dam at the expense of the forest.


A number of people in the Northeast have been forced to relocate to pave the way for government reforestation. The government attempts to increase forest coverage claiming that if we fail to reach 20% coverage, there will not be ecological stability. They even touted that there should be 50% coverage, and thus became interested in reforestation. But they maintain that this should be done by rich people. They claim that if we let the villagers grow the forest, the rate of increase will not be satisfactory. But to have rich people grow forests, they must be paid. In return, they ask for growing fast growing trees, mostly eucalyptus. All of us here should realize how detrimental eucalyptus is to the environment. I was told by villagers that even some lizards dare not perch on eucalyptus trees as its leaves are toxic. Rice grown under eucalyptus will soon die. Water supplies can be completely depleted just in a few years.


Failures in natural resource management can be attributed to attempts to centralize and place all hopes with the government. But the government uses all these resources and corrupt means to convert them into money to feed politicians and government officers. Many of you know well how much you have to pay to get appointed as Director General of this and that Department. As far as I know, it costs more than a hundred million baht. Where do the Directors General turn to get the money? Ask yourself.


What I have been trying to say is that poverty does not just exist by itself. It is caused by injustice, unfair distribution, and a lack of sharing and mutual benefit. I think all poor people have the great potential to help society. Those of you who are merchants, investors, ask yourselves, "who do you produce for", if not the poor people who have the biggest purchasing power and yet are the weakest too.


I think all of us can live happily by extending our help to poor people, one way or another. We need to return to them. We do not need to grow rice, but if we fail to help farmers, our children will have no rice to eat in the future. As we do not weave, we need to help the workers, since they weave our clothing.


All the sisters and brothers from the Assembly of the Poor and all the people present here to support me, or to support indirectly the poor people who are demonstrating in front of Government House, I think it is time that, regardless of how poor or rich we are, we have to lend a hand to each other. This society will belong to our children in future and we have no rights to buy and sell or destroy natural resources which will be inherited by the next generation. People of the next generation should have the right to access equally abundant natural resources as we have now.


Now, our children are suffering from air pollution. Many children are born without parents, and instantly taken by some adoption systems. I read from newspapers that small children die everyday of preventable causes. They die because they are brought up far away from their parents; their parents have no chance to look after them. At two years of age, they are sent to nurseries, at three to kindergarten. Who can love children more than their parents? Who can take care of them every minute like their parents? But modern social management systems have brought about family breakdown and natural resource depletion. It makes people loathe each other, compete each other, kill each other. I have made friends with many people who have struggled with me, and we can die for each other. Yet, in this society, sometimes, we can be ready almost to kill each other for survival.


Distinguished guests, our joy is in helping each other to create peace in society. We cannot live well when our neighbour's house is on fire. We need to help put out the fire before it consumes us. Similarly, to help the poor is to put out the fire.


You must have heard in the news that about 20,000 members of the AOP have been demonstrating in front of the Government House for one month now. They struggle patiently trying to use our merit, non-violence, and the truth to convince government officers and politicians to come help us. But that is not enough. All of you here must help to give us moral support, voicing your concern and pushing the government to help these poor people. If these villagers are able to help themselves, there will be a lot of benefit for us. We are struggling to help villagers to preserve the forests. We are struggling to prove that man can live with forests, with nature, and those who can live best with nature are those in the rural areas, those who till the land. They help to preserve rivers and streams, mountains and forests. Do we want to continue leaving these natural resources under the sole responsibility of a handful of government officers? Do we still trust management as it has been? It is time to revisit the issues. The government does not heed the voice of the poor. But if the poor get your backing, they will turn to us. Therefore, to help those who become poor because of a lack of development by the state, not because of their previous karma, is to help ourselves in future.


Last but not least, I want to address the question why do we have to help the poor? I simply pray that the struggle of the poor will bear some fruit because the surrounding crises have become worse day by day. What will happen if tens or hundreds of thousands of families become landless, if tens or hundreds of thousands of people have nothing to feed their children? What will happen?


I want to conclude here and thank my own parents for giving me a fairly happy life, my friends who have been giving me kind support, and my poor sisters and brothers who make me feel warm at heart just like I was part of their families. And most importantly, we are here today to commemorate Mr. Komol Keemthong who set an example of a commoner and lived an exemplary life of a commoner. Let's all stand up in silence for one minute.


Thank you very much.




Response by Sulak Sivaraksa, President of the Komol Keemthong Foundation


"I trust you share with me that today's lecture is one among the best of the Komol Keemthong Annual Lectures. What Wanida has told us came straight, not from her mind, but her heart. She spoke from her heart, her whole life. ... And you may agree with me that she conveyed the feelings and needs of the poor in a way that captured the heart of all us in the middle class".



Translated by Pipob Udomittipong


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