Photo: Bangkok Tribune/ Sayan Chuenudomsavad

State-citizens relations and the (re)shaping of political spaces for engagement in Mekong hydropower planning

In Lao PDR, hydropower development is seen as a key means to generate revenue through electricity exports. The Government of Lao PDR (GoL) often portrays hydropower as benefiting the rural populations affected by dams as joint and equal beneficiaries in this national development project. In practice, however, in specific locales and for particular social groups, rural communities often bear more of the costs of hydropower development rather than getting its benefits

A comparison of hydropower planning and local communities’ responses in Laos and Thailand helps to better understand how state-citizen relations shape the political spaces of engagement. It also sheds more light on not only the dynamic and contested nature of state power and state-citizen relations, but also the importance of understanding multi-scale power dynamics in explaining local communities’ responses to state power.

How do we come to understand these responses to planned hydropower projects? As reflections of broader state-citizen relations, or as products of local conditions? How do villagers themselves view the state’s development authority with regard to hydropower decision making and how does this create different notions of political rights and authority? How does this, in turn, affect local communities’ ability to convey, represent and negotiate their needs vis-à-vis the hydropower company? While hydropower development may be a regional enterprise, it takes shape in very different ways.

State power and collective (in)action

Looking across our case study villages in Laos and Thailand, it is clear that the creation of political spaces of engagement and institutional emergence are not only closely linked with a community’s ability to act collectively, but most importantly also by how villagers view the dangers as well as the opportunities for such collective action.

In the Thai case, local communities’ responses were strongly rooted in their strategic alliances with Civil Society Organization (CSO) networks. CSOs and local communities in Thailand are adept, willing, and able to challenge the Thai state, the court system, and the Mekong River Commission through the Procedures for Notification Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) processes.

Local communities employ networked resistance strategies to contest existing power asymmetries and top-down hydropower decision-making, even if they are not able to contest the power of the state. They can, as it were, nibble at the edges ensuring as best they can that national development initiatives have local resonance.

Thai villagers acted collectively because they accepted that they had more power to make positive change by working together, rather than separately. The Lao communities, by contrast, viewed collective action as potentially inimical to their interests, as it could be seen as challenging the state, inviting repercussions.

In Laos, local communities did not challenge existing power asymmetries in hydropower decision-making because this would challenge the state’s authority to direct development in the nation’s interest.

Institutional challenges in the transboundary Pak Beng dam

This stark difference between local communities’ responses in Thailand and Laos can be understood by drawing on the notion of ‘institutional bricolage’: how people use institutional arrangements, formal and informal, consciously and unconsciously, to meet the challenges they face – in this instance, the challenge of how to deal with the impacts of hydropower development.

The Pak Beng transboundary dam project, affected communities in Laos and Thailand responded differently to the institutional challenges. In Thailand, communities drew on networks of civil society organizations, national and international; in Laos, institutional bricolage involved village and household-based ‘institutions’, less visible and more informal.

The way local communities and individual farm households adapted their responses and strategies across these two countries illustrates that development projects like the Pak Beng Dam generate patterns of institutional bricolage that are not just tactical responses to local, short-term challenges but reflective of broader political histories and realities.

Local community responses, national histories, and political power

This comparative analysis of local communities’ responses to top-down hydropower planning in Laos and Thailand illustrates the dynamic and contested nature of state power and state-citizen relations. Actors (re)shape their views and (often pragmatic) notions of political rights and authority.

The result is that singular mega-projects like dams, underpinned by modernist understandings of development and the power of technologies to make life better, never materialize in a singular manner. Political spaces of engagement are created, sustained, and reproduced in different localities in particular ways.

In Thailand, local communities formed inter-village alliances with the support of CSO networks and pushed back at top-down hydropower planning approaches, albeit with limited leverage to influence the project’s actual outcome. This rippled up from the local context – reversing the directionality of command – to exert pressure for more open and inclusive regional consultations regarding the Pak Beng Dam.

By contrast, local communities and households in Laos pursued strategies that relied on their individual skills of negotiation, as they sought to extract concessions from the company. They actively avoided working with other villages, even other households. These patterns of response between Thailand and Laos are rooted less in differences between villages as differences in state-citizen relations, the status and authority of the state in the village, and the differing relations between villagers and the hydropower company.

Through protests, lawsuits, dialogues, and the formation of the Mekong People’s Forum, local communities in Thailand created a political space of engagement and contestation through collective action and social movements.

In Laos, discussions focused mostly on compensation and resettlement, as local communities became fragmented into individual households while negotiating with the company. These different approaches can be understood against the distinct political economy of hydropower in each country and the authority that this bestows on the project.

The Pak Beng hydropower project in Laos is a projection of the state’s ambition and therefore carries the imprimatur of the state; in Thailand, it is a transboundary project that needs to be assessed and justified on its merits, and therefore open and subject to contestation from below.

Read the full article “Institutional bricolage (re)shaping the different manifestations of state-citizens relations in Mekong hydropower”.

This piece is based on findings from the research project “Strengthening pathways for rights-based approaches in Mekong hydropower”, funded by the Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET) and led by International Water Management Institute (IWMI).