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(en) PGA* report from SE Asia Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sat, 11 Dec 2004 10:54:37 +0100 (CET)

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A series of very constructive meetings took place between Lek (Thai
Labour Campaign, PGA Asia support group),P.(PGA Asia support group)
and members of the Assembly of the Poor. All of the meetings discussed
below were organized by Lek, through her long-term association with
Assembly of the Poor and the Thai Labour movement. These consisted of:
(i) a meeting of 70 leaders and activists from the Assembly of the Poor
(AoP) network, which consists of 10 movements/networks that comprise
(the urban poor [slum dwellers]; the environment; women; alternative
agriculture; dams; land; farmers; forests; indigenous; fisherfolk). AoP
has 2 million members, of whom about 100,000 are active, and 20,000 of
whom can be mobilized at any one time.P.explained the history and
workings of PGA and discussed the outcomes from the PGA Asian and Gender
conference in Dhaka. The ‘Dhaka Declaration’ was translated into Thai by
Lek for distribution and discussion. The meeting formally agreed for the
Assembly of the Poor to act as the SE Asia convenor for PGA Asia, this
ratifying the preliminary decision that was taken at the Dhaka conference.

(ii) a three day trip to NE Thailand to meet with migrant workers and
record their testimonies;

(iii) interviews with Nusser Yeemah (Friends of the Poor) and Kanjana
Malaihom (Slum dwellers network) (both involved in Assembly of the Poor)
about the Dhaka conference and discussions about setting up the PGA Asia
website. All three agreed that the conference had been important in
bringing the AoP into the PGA process, and for (a) learning about other
struggles in other countries; (b) communicating with other activists
from other countries to enable increased knowledge of tactics and
strategies (i.e. what works where etc). (c) exchanging views with other
activists; (d) learning about the globalization process and the role of
institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, WTO etc. As Kanjana noted:
“There was a real chance for exchange between activists. We usually
stereotype people by nation but when we meet face to face it breaks down
the borders between us, and generates collective strength to make
change”. All agreed that language and translation problems had been a
real difficulty at the conference, as Kanjana noted: “Language was an
obstacle, and because the full experience of activists was unable to be
communicated it was frustrating”.

(iv) a two day workshop in Bangkok, given byP.on grassroots
globalization networks, power and organizational logics within the
anti-capitalist ‘movement of movements’. This was attended by
representatives of: Railway Worker’s Union; Postal Unions; Tobacco
Union; Credit Union; Plywood Union; State Enterprise Federation; Port
Authroity Union; Garment Worker’s Union; Bottling Union; Writer’s Union;
Jewellery Workers Union; Thai Labour Campaign. What emerged from this
meeting was that Thai unions are dominated by a leadership that acts
unilaterally, in a patron-client relationship with its members. However,
representatives were enthusiastic about learning from other resistances
around the world, including PGA. In particular they articulated the need
for specific information on: legal issues; alternative media; other
movement experiences; alternative means of survival and
self-sufficiency; what alliances exist beyond Thailand; and support and
advisory groups and organizations.

(v) A two day visit to Nong Khai (N Thailand) in order to discuss
resistance initiatives around the world and their organizational logics,
with Assembly of the Poor (AoP) activists. These activists were
attending the education workshops of the Education Development for
People’s Organizations (EDPO), organized through AoP. An exposure trip
was organized to the communities of Udon Thani district which are in
struggle against a projected Potash mine. Over 10,000 acres of land
would be affected, and 20,000 families. The Canadian multinational, the
Asia Pacific Potash Corporation(APPC), has a trade agreement with the
Thai government to export potash from Thailand and then import processed
fertilizer to the country. If the mine does not go ahead, APPC has
threatened to sue the Thai government for 6 billion Baht for damages
against lost profits. There has been no adequate environmental impact
assessment carried out, although the mine, will create vast deposits of
toxic waste (potash being 100 times more saline than common salt). The
resistance to the mine began in 2002, and now has 25,000 signatories
opposing the mine and 1,000 activists involved in the struggle. While in
Udon Thani district, Lek andP.gave interviews on a community radio
station concerning issues of mining, neoliberalism, and resistance
networks such as PGA. Concerning the Global conference to be held in
Kathmandu next year, Thai activists at the workshops expressed the idea
of maybe participating in the South Asia caravan before the conference
if it was logistically possible.

(vi) A four day visit to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to visit the
Northern Farmer’s Alliance (NFA) and Northern Farmer’s Network (NFN).
The Northern Farmer’s Federation – part of AoP - is an umbrella
organization which includes the NFA (lowland farmers) and the NFN (Karen
farmers).While there,P.and Lek visited land occupations in the
Lamphun area, Mae Khapu village (in the Karen hill tribe area), and Ban
Pong village. In Ban Pong, Direk explained how, since 2002, 77 families
have occupied 300 rai (120 acres) of land where they cooperatively grow
vegetables for the market. This land has been abandoned by companies who
had bought the land during the land boom of the late 1980’s.

In the Lamphun area, Sukaew (the Paetai village-head) explained the
occupations. In 1989 the government began issuing land titles to
companies which encroached upon land for which villagers had been
granted cultivation rights by the government since 1965. Land
occupations began in 1997, and now comprise15,000 rai (7,000 acres),
where people grow longon, jackfruit, papaya and vegetables. Over 3,000
families are involved, from 7 villages, and they now operate a community
radio station. They are occupying land controlled by 7 companies who are
building tourist resorts, and establishing teak and eucalyptus
plantations, and cattle ranches. The villagers believe that there should
be no titles to the land, only cultivation rights for villagers (who
have lived from the land in the area for generations), and are currently
awaiting a government committee report into the land disputes. Sukaew,
who is a member of that committee, is one of many villagers facing 43
separate court cases for the occupying the land.

In Makhapu, Pati, the Karen village head, explained how 100 local
villagers had been occupying land in 2003 which had been sold to private
companies for strawberry plantations. The Karen had traditionally held
cultivation rights to this land. The chemical pesticides used in
strawberry cultivation had polluted both the environment and damaged the
health of the villagers who live around the plantations - recent
research having found high levels of toxins in their blood. In this part
of Thailand, the Karen are known as ‘pakayor’ (the human beings), and
Mae Khapu is one of 107 tribal villages (mostly Karen and some Lahu) who
are involved in the Northern Farmer’s Network (NFN). Pati took a group
of us through the jungle surrounding his village, pointing out medicinal
herbs, and edible plants and fruits (such as passion fruits, guavas,
cinnamon). The Karen grow rice, corn, peanuts, vegetables and fruits. As
we walked, Pati explained the Karen’s worldview: “we believe that human
beings are the decoration of the earth” he said.

P.gave a workshop (with Lek translating into Thai) to 80-90
activists from the Northern Farmer’s Alliance (NFA, part of the AoP
network) at their training school, about grassroots struggles around the
world, PGA, and nonviolent direct action.P.also gave a talk about
PGA to NGO activists who are doing support work for the NFA.

(vii)P.gave a workshop on grassroots globalisation (with Lek
translating into Thai) to 20 workers of the ‘Solidarity Group’
worker-owned garment factory.

(viii) Discussions were held about setting up a PGA Asia website
(www.pgaasia.org). To fund the domain and server for a year costs US$
180. The Thai Labour Campaign (in Bangkok) would be willing to fund the
website for the first year. The website would include information about
PGA Asia; links to the PGA main website; an automatic update web-board;
etc. This can be organized through the Thai Labour Campaign office
(Bangkok: contact Lek).


P.visited the offices of the Vietnam Farmer’s Union (VNFU) and met
briefly with Vu Le Y Voan (who attended the Dhaka conference), and a few
of the 10,000 staff employed by this government affiliated, communist
party organization. After over a week of trying to arrange an interview
with Vu Le, Lek andP.finally met her over lunch on the day that
they returned to Thailand. Vu Le, who is in the international department
of the VNFU, analyses trade policy, market dynamics, and competitiveness
for the farmers in VNFU.

VNFU has 8 million members (60% of whom are men). Seventy per cent of
Vietnam’s population - approximately 82 million - are farmers. Vu Le
explained how the VNFU was working on providing support to farmers when
Vietnam joins the WTO in 2005. She explained that there were currently
three kinds of loans provided to farmers to help them develop products
and outputs, improve their access to markets, and increase their
competitiveness for export: (i) VNFU loans; (ii) Government loans; and
(iii) private Vietnam and international company loans. The rate of
interest varies according to whether the loan is to small, medium, or
big farmers. Vu Le was unaware of the huge Cargill factory thatP.
noticed on the outskirts of Hanoi, but she believed that: “Government
policy can make a difference to lives of farmers, when we are in WTO”.

Concerning the PGA conference in Dhaka, Vu Le thought that not enough
‘big’ issues were discussed, that the PGA gender workshops were too
conceptual, and there was too much local/community experiences shared,
rather than discussion of the big issues. As she commented “We already
know about the gender issue”. (She then went on to explain how it is
often the men who join VNFU because the women like to stay at home).
When asked about the usefulness of PGA to the VNFU, Vu Le replied:
“Vietnam farmers are not so interested in movements (like PGA), they are
more interested in access to markets, how to sell their products, and
access to technology”.

Malaysia (Sarawak, Borneo)

P.had meetings with members of the Borneo Indigenous Peoples’ and
Peasants Union (Panggau).P.had meetings with Ahmad bin Awang Ali,
Secretary General of Panggau (who attended the Dhaka conference), and
Professor Razali Bolhi, Panggau’s President.

Panggau, formed in 1986, is a social movement that represents, promotes
and protects the interests of indigenous people in Sarawak in a
continuous struggle to improve farming conditions, living standards,
community solidarity and national unity of marginalized indigenous
people. Panggau works with the Dayak indigenous communities which
comprise three groups: Iban (‘sea dayak’); Bidayuh (‘land dayak’); and
Orang Ulu (‘hill’ or ‘upstream dayak’) (65% of Sarawak’s population);
and the Malay Muslim peasant farmers and fisherfolk (15% of Sarawak’s
population). Most of the remaining 20% of the population are Chinese.
Panggau operates through a secretariat (president, secretary general,
executive secretary and 5 others; elected every two years at the Panggau
national conference), and a ‘core catalyst’ group of between 20-30
people, who organize local communities throughout the state. Each group
has either 3 or 5 activists who retain mobility in operation in the
event of government repression. Panggau has approximately 6,000 active
‘members’ who can be mobilized, and who pay 24 Ringgit (US$ 6) per year
subscription. Some lawyers and academics give their services free to the

The core issue of the struggle concerns rights to land. The legal
designation of land in Sarawak has increasingly changed from “Native
Customary Rights” (where farmers had a legal right to own, plough and
develop the land) to “ Native Customary Land” (where the government of
the day has the right to the land and can therefore develop it however
it chose, irrespective of the wishes of local communities). While in
Sarawak, I visited three communities, each involved in a land struggle.

First, I visited the village of Paridan Tingiri, a Bidayuh Dayak
community where I stayed for two nights in a traditional longhouse. My
host, Nyopen, explained the struggle to me. Since 2000 the community has
been defending their land against the increasing encroachment by the
Tatanga Akrab company (Chinese, based in Kuala Lumpur) which has been
deforesting the jungle in order to establish oil palm plantations. Over
50 families have been displaced and only 22 families remain in the
forest that remains (which comprises 400 acres, or 10% of the original
land area). Although they all have homes in another kampong (town) they
have farmed this area for 30 years. The land was partially degraded
during by logging companies who removed certain hardwood and softwood
trees from the area. However, the contrast between what jungle remains
(with mixed forests (durian, papaya, sago etc) and Bidayuh farming (e.g.
rice), and the monoculture plantation was really dramatic. In addition,
many of the wild animals that used to live in the forest (e.g. wild
boar, monkeys) have departed. Migrant labourers (from India, Bangladesh,
Indonesia, China, and the Philippines) work on the plantation, have
poisoned the rivers, hunt the few remaining wild animals such as the
moss deer, and stolen crops from the community land. Although the
villagers have lodged complaints with the police nothing has been done
about this encroachment. The community has fought off the plantation
workers several times and had several confrontations with the police.
Currently a court case is pending concerning who has legal right to the
remaining Bidayuh land. Panggau has been working with the community both
with their court case, and have also helped the community construct a
small gravity feed dam that provides running water to the village.

Second, I visited the kampong of Tambirat where Malaya Muslim farmers
recently won a court case against the government over ownership of land
that had been leased to Chinese entrepreneurs 60 years ago. The struggle
had been waged since 1996, and involved the farmer’s blockading the
land, and being arrested. At this meeting I discussed with farmers about

Third, I visited the Iban Pagan village of Naga Jagin. Ahmad and I
traveled by bus, car and then longboat to reach the village, perched on
the banks of the Lamanak river. We passed giant trees overhanging the
river, Iban graveyards hidden among the trees, and arrived at dusk as a
crescent moon rose above the rainforest. Here 130 Iban Pagan (i.e.
animist) indigenous people live in 26 longhouses. They are one of 27
villages (which house approximately 3000 Iban) who are facing government
attempts to erase the jungle to develop an oil palm plantation. The size
of the threatened area is huge since each family ‘farms’ an area of
forest approximately 10 acres in size. The government wants the Iban to
lease them the land for 60 years, so that they can attract foreign
investors to develop the land. The idea would be that the Iban would
become wage labourers on the plantation (for 12 Ringgit a day), and,
after 60 years, the monocultured, poisoned land would be returned to
them. By trying to get the Iban to lease them the land, the government
is exempted from paying the Iban any compensation. The struggle is just
beginning here, and the community has already been involved in resisting
logging activities in the area through constructing road blocks. Ahmad
and I stayed in the longhouse of the village headman, where we had a
long meeting with 23 villagers, during which we discussed the struggle,
and I gave a talk about PGA. As the meeting developed into a social
gathering, the Tuak (local rice wine) was brought out and I enjoyed
several glasses of the strong fiery brew to the Iban toast of Ho-Ha!

I discussed the Dhaka conference with Ahmad bin Awang Ali. He thought
that the conference was well organized, although more time could have
been allotted for the sharing of movement experiences. Also there was a
need to ensure more thorough participation of people in future meetings
again this was partly due to translation issues). He stressed the
importance for movements like Panggau to establish more linkages with
other movements, through the exchange of regular information, and
through visits between PGA members to exchange views and tactics etc. he
also suggested that PGA movements could alleviate the burden of
fundraising from the support group by asking for the funds themselves
(after having been passed the contact information by the support group).

I also discussed PGA matters with Razali Bolhi. He thought that
demonstrations were not sustainable forms of resistance for communities
like the Iban, because they are artificial forms of resistance,
inappropriate to their culture and their communities’ local realities.
Symbolic demonstrations may get into the press for a day, but afterwards
little will change, and these communities are only left with memories.
In Sarawak, he believed that Panggau needed to develop consciousness
(e.g. through educational trainings) about legal rights, and how to
develop sustainable economies and sustainable forms of resistance. Also,
he thought that in the PGA global conference in Kathmandu, rather than
more workshops on how the WTO works, we need to discuss ways that
movements can meaningfully support one another, beyond symbolic global
days of action.
* [Ed. Note: PGA is the international network of antiauthoritarian
andicapitalist direct action social struggle movements.]

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