Alumni Learn Legal Tools to Strengthen Campaigns

We witnessed an effective integration of ERI’s legal and training programs as two Mekong School alumni participated in the MLAI public interest legal training program from April 18 to May 2, 2012 in Chiang Mai. Both experienced in using legal tools to strengthen grassroots campaigns, Lao Zhang (China, 2007) and Laofang (Thailand, 2010) joined lawyers and legal activists from the region to share experiences and practical strategies, with the aim to strengthen public interest advocacy for environmental and human rights justice.

Lao Zhang is a farmer and doesn’t have a law degree, but he has always been eager to use the law in his community work. He is from a remote village in Yunnan Province, settled on abundant valleys of the Tibetan plateau where three mighty rivers originate and feed millions of lives in the region, namely the Mekong (Lanchang), the Salween (Nujiang) and the Yanze (Yellow river).

The great natural backdrop that provides rich resources for human beings to rely on has also created inspiring stories of people who have used their lives to pay gratitude. In his forties, Lao Zhang has dedicated his life to advocating for environmental sustainability in his hometown, where he has seen extractive projects turning free-flowing rivers into enormous concrete reservoirs and where thousands of people have either drowned or been relocated to “new” land where life is harder and poorer; clearing forests and destroying fertile soil for huge coal mines; and causing people to suffer from pollution and poor land, air and water quality.

During MLAI, Lao Zhang shared about the Ludila dam project on the great Yanze River near his hometown. He gave it as an example of a project that is unfriendly to the environment and to communities. The project was found to be illegal under Chinese law as some construction work started without an Environmental Impact Assessment approval. In April 2012, villagers in the area filed a complaint before the local government to stop the dam project. They protested 7 straight days in front of the governmental office. This was known as the 823 event. The mass gathering turned violent. There were serious fights between policemen and villagers. Many villagers were beaten up and arrested. It resulted to one villager being killed. A policeman was also injured.

According to Lao Zhang, the experiences he’s learned from the MLAI sessions reminds him of how the law is a useful tool to help people claim justice, especially when people actually understand the law clearly.  

“I enjoy many sessions in the MLAI and have more friends. This helps me to increase confidence. I learn legal knowledge and gain skills to be able to analyze laws and plan for strategy to help me deal with situations back home. Skills, knowledge and strategies I have gained are tools. It is like a bridge sending you from one side to another side.” He added that working with a network to support one another makes a stronger effort to end human rights abuses. “Thank you EarthRights Mekong School to give me opportunity to come and learn here again. Before, I am just a farmer, but now I engage with people in international network. We meet each other and will cooperate with one another. I believe we are able to defend rights from the opponent who abuses it. We will win.” said Lao Zhang.

Laofang is a graduate law student. He belongs to the Hmong ethic group from Mae Hong Son province, in a highland hometown located near the Thailand-Burma border along the Salween River. For several years, he has been serving as a lawyer assisting communities on the Thai side that have been settled in this area for generations. He helps them claim their right to citizenship. He explained that a large number of settlers from old and young generations have been neglected by the Thai government census because of limitations of access to remote villagers for government officers.

The Salween originates its flow from Tibet in Yunnan, China, and flows through Burma and Thailand. It is the only international river in the Mekong region that is still undammed at the moment. However, many dam projects are being planned on its stretch from upstream to downstream, especially in extremely vulnerable areas along the borderline -- where intensive conflict between ethnic groups and Burmese central military troops have not been stopped, and an unknown number of landmines on the Burma side are still active.

Lao Fang considers his time with lawyers from various countries, sharing on their legal cases, to be a fruitful experience. He said it has helped him figure out various effective ways of applying principles of national and international law in grassroots campaign work, where many of the issues are trans-boundary and where domestic laws alone are not enough to help local communities find solutions.

As an example, he cites the fact that some of the Salween dam projects are being planned to span across Thailand and Burma, and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) is involved as buyer of the electricity. Though the dam projects have not officially started, there have been many survey activities being done in the proposed dam site involving EGAT. There is a need to review the Burma EIA law relating to the dam project. At the same time, grassroots campaigns on the Thai side can lead to a court case against EGAT before the administrative court, as such dam projects are likely to cause human rights and environment problems across the border without any public consultation with affected Thai communities.

“I learned about limitation of law enforcement in different country contexts. For example, in Burma, the judge doesn’t have real power to make a decision because they are under government control. While in Thailand, many existing laws are tend to facilitate benefit to capitalist and powerful people than hold justice to ordinary people. For the Salween dam case, I think we can use possible means of legal process from both countries to support campaign to stop the dam project. It is not an easy thing to do, but it is worth to make use of the law to support the community campaign,” Lao Fang concluded.