Aging as a problem…

By Saowanee T. Alexander, Surasom Krinachuta, Pinwadee Srisupan and Thitarat Panchana

When we set out to conduct this research at Nong Ong village, Si Saket province, Thailand, we did not enter the field with any thought at all about aging and its relationship with women’s participation in post-dam rehabilitation projects. As we interviewed more and more participants, especially older women who used to play a key role in protesting against the Hua Na Dam 20 years ago, we came to realize that most of these women have moved towards the periphery. Either they became “burnt out” by repeated disappointments or they became trapped in the web of household demands reserved for elderly women.

In this blog we tell a story from the field addressing the problem of aging—a stage in our life cycle, faced by women who used to be in the forefront of the protests against the construction of the dam in the 80s and 90s.

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Picture 1: Hua Na Dam

It was in the middle of a hot day in July 2016 when we arrived at a small house located about 2 kilometers away from the center of the village. To get there we headed east and took a dirt road running parallel to the Mun River. The house sat in a large plot of land filled with a line of lush green trees around the back of the house. On the other side of the dirt road in front of the house, there was a bamboo farm, beyond which was the river. It was just a typical house with little to offer in a way of comfort. Waiting for us in a grass-roofed makeshift shelter by the bamboo gate was a woman in her late 60s. She looked much older than her age, say 70s. Years of hard work in the heat of the sun left lines and marks of her skin—it’s a given for farmers to look like this; they age faster than those who have better jobs working in offices or shades. To protect her privacy, we call her here by Ma Uma (Ma as in Mother—a 2nd person address term used to show respect to an elderly woman). Ma Uma greeted us with a big smile and motioned us to have a seat in the shelter with her, which we did.

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Picture 2: Bamboo farm across from Ma Uma’s house

We started asking about her role in the protests against the dam. She said she was one of the local leaders. She joined the anti-dam movement out of fear the dam would flood her large plot of land (over 10 rai), which sat near the river. Reflecting on her protest days in Bangkok, she spoke with pride of how fearless she and her fellow villager protesters were back then. She said it was pretty crazy for chao ban (ordinary villagers) to have gone to Bangkok and staged a long protest (she was talking about big protests held by the Assembly of the Poor). She stressed several times that they were not scared. She spoke of the adventure of several trips back and forth, of how people were so determined to make sure the dam would not cause any problems to their village. She recalled those memories with bright eyes. But once we asked about things that happened in recent years and if she heard of any rehabilitation projects, her mood changed. She said she became “buea nai” [tired, burnt out] with the never-ending fight. Her house is still standing. There was no flood to her property. She thought she wasted too much money and energy in the fight but received nothing in return. In recent years, she became disenchanted and has already sold part of the land to investors. She remarked that she earned more money selling some of her land than what she would have got if the financial compensation ever arrived. She criticized one of the rehabilitation projects for hiring only certain groups of villagers to work while excluding others. She then complained of in-fighting among leaders and newer power holders of today.  She decided to distance herself from all village activity and stayed at home to care for her frail mother, who was not able to walk. We asked about a teenage boy taking a nap in the house. She said he was her grandchild. He had a form of disability. Out of respect we did not ask her further. In addition to the fact that she is too old to do labor work on the paddies, her mother and grandchild are another reason for her to stay at home. She could no longer leave the house for too long. Working in the rice paddies or tending cattle is mainly her husband’s duty. He too is in old age.

As we listened to her stories of the protest days, we noticed strength and determination in her voice. She had an air of leadership, which did not seem to leave her even when she is now confined to her house having to care for two dependents. Out of curiosity we asked if she had joined any protest in recent years, she said she went to Bangkok to protest in support of another cause—democracy. This was 7 years, but long after her fight against the dam. Asked if she would join any protest in the future should there be one, she said, “Probably not any more. I’m too old. Too tired.”  Life is hard enough as it is.

We came away from that interview feeling amazed by how life had changed for Ma Uma. She went from being powerful among her peers 20 years ago to being in the same position as many women her age. Gone were those days when she stood unafraid, face to face to police officers trying to disperse the protesting crowd. Today she is just an elderly woman confined to her house caring for her disabled family members, jaded.