Young Mekong advocates with the Thai National Human Rights Commissioner, Tuanjai Deetes. Credit: Hsu Wan

You do not inherit the river from ancestors, you borrow it from your children.

Under the April heat, I sat on the bank of the Mekong river in Chiang Khong, a fast growing border town in the north of Thailand and just across from Laos. I hoped to see islands in the middle of the river and perhaps even walk to them. Unfortunately, this was just wishful thinking. Water released from upstream hydropower dams in China had completely changed the natural fluctuation of the river. Now, those islands were underwater. This was one of many negative and unusual changes that millions of Mekong citizens have witnessed in the past few years. As the saying goes, “no man ever steps in the same river twice” but neither should anyone own or commercialize the river.

“For us, rivers are not just water that is flowing. It’s the flow of our history, our culture, our ancestors’ stories and memories.” said Mr.Niwat Roykaew, former teacher, local activist and the director of Mekong School in Chiang Khong. He was speaking to a group of 100 young activists who had travelled all the way from China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand to participate in a campaign organized by the Mekong Youth Assembly, International Accountability Project, The Center for ASEAN Studies, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Khong Mekong School on Local Knowledge and iMekong titled “The Youth’s Dream for Future Mekong.” The activity marked the beginning of a joint campaign to reclaim development in the Mekong region so that it may prioritize the wellbeing of the next generation.

As one of our first activities, we drew a picture of the Mekong River and described what was happening to our respective homes, communities and countries. We learned about a number of projects including dams, mining, properties development, etc. that were threatening the future of the river. Most projects appeared to have numerous impacts on locals, especially children and youth who have little say over what is going on.

“As a young person from Myanmar, we need justice, freedom of expression, especially when it comes to rivers. I’m glad to meet everybody and to start building our relationship. Although we still don’t have full freedom, we will work together to get it.” said Ko Thaike, a young activist who is working actively with local communities to stop a series of proposed dams on the Salween river, the sister of the Mekong, on the border of Thailand and Myanmar.

People in Myanmar have experienced long years of conflicts and oppression under the military regime. As the new civilian government emerges, through their strong, continuous activism, our Myanmar friends show us that there is a brighter future if we have hope and work for it.

A young woman from Laos, a country with the smallest population in the region but one of the richest in resources, added “It was difficult for ordinary people to be a part of the decision-making in Laos but I want to express my opinion about development in my country. I want to see sustainable development that allows communities to participate and acknowledges them as equals.”

A Thai youth representative shared his experience working with different organizations that tended to limit the participation of young people because they underestimated the capacity of the youth. He said “I hope organizations out there would give opportunities to the youth. I hope our voices will be heard by governments and other organizations and I wish they will listen to what their children want to say.”

In Cambodia, where children and youth make up 50 % of the population, young people cannot ignore the destruction of their future in the name of development. Phin Savey, The Cambodian Youth Network representative spoke of dams being built in Cambodia that were displacing indigenous people. He noted that “If you want to build dams, you have to consult with affected people and ask them whether they want it or not. I’d like to work with all the youth to stop the Mekong dams.”

Vietnam, at the mouth of the Mekong, is a country that is extremely vulnerable to ecological changes. The Vietnamese youth spoke about the Mekong delta, which is the country’s biggest producer of rice for both domestic consumption and foreign exports. The delta is suffering from the impacts of hydropower dams, causing difficulties to millions of local rice farmers. Their troubles are further compounded by rising sea levels as a result of climate change. “Development on the upstream countries have created huge problems to Vietnam. We have to help one another to find solution. In Vietnam, we say a tree cannot make a mountain but many trees would become a mountain. I hope everybody will cooperate to save the Mekong river.” He added.

Following this activity, we were honored to welcome Ms.Tuanjai Deetes, the National Human Rights Commissioner of Thailand. Over lunch, she met with youth representatives and heard what they had to say about development and the rights of young people. It was a great opportunity for everyone involved. We learned about human rights mechanisms that are relevant to young people and the commissioner also learned how children and youth rights in the region are being harmed by development. She expressed her hope to see youth representatives at an upcoming consultation on human rights.

After hearing each other’s stories and aspirations, we drafted a statement to capture the ideas and dreams of the future generation. The statement has been translated into local Mekong languages including Tibetan, Burmese, Lao, Khmer, Vietnamese and Thai.

As a final activity, everyone went out into an open field. We formed a circle and read the statement in our respective languages. It was a powerful message, composed by the younger generation calling for the right to secure our future. Each of us then dug a hole in the ground and planted a sapling, symbolizing the solidarity that would grow bigger and stronger over time. We poured soil and water that we had brought from homes to fill each tree plot.

Please take a minute now to read our statement.

Statement on The Youth’s Dream for Future Mekong

We, The Mekong Youth Assembly, a network of young environmental advocate groups and individuals from six Mekong countries, get together beside the Mekong River today. We witness challenges and difficulties our fellow youth advocates are facing to protect the environment and our beloved communities. We seek for like-minded friends to join the journey of the following dreams to reality:

1. We dream that we are encouraged to express our opinions freely in all aspects of any given development project. Our movement to stand up for responsible development, justice, non-discrimination, peace and equality are protected by law.

2. We dream that our right to participation in any decision making toward the fate of our rivers, our communities and our future must be respected.

3. We dream that today’s adults, especially those in power, would bear in mind that “you do not inherit the Earth from ancestors, you borrow it from us, your children”. Make sure our mother earth shall be returned to us with prosperous life elements. In this regard, always respectfully consider our lives.

We will put all efforts to protect the Mekong River which unites us here today spiritually and physically. We will continue on this journey together until our dreams come true.

In solidarity,

The Mekong Youth Assembly

March 31, 2016

This campaign was featured on Thai national television, Thai PBS in April. To quote one youth representative featured in the video “Young people can do everything. With their potential and creativity, they can do everything.”

— — -

Tom Weerachat is a native of Chiang Mai, Thailand where he currently works as IAP’s program staff. Tom is a community trainer, a teacher, a traveler, and a Mekong activist. Tom previously worked with EarthRights International Mekong Program as the Mekong Alumni Campaign Coordinator. Tom is also a volunteer of the Mekong Youth Assembly promoting and strengthening environmental youth networks in Mekong countries. Tom received his bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Chiang Mai University.

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.