Bprayee was born in the forest, that’s how he got his name. The Cambodian forest by the Mekong River was his home, the only home he ever had. His mother would recount the day that she gave birth to him. It was when the Mekong River reversed its flow due to the start of the monsoon rains. The forests were flooded and the fishermen were happy. It was the season that meant everyone had dinner to eat and enough fish to sell at the market. The fishermen would go out in the flooded forests, and catch tons of fish. If they ever happen to catch the giant catfish, the women would sprinkle it with perfume to pay respect before releasing it to the wild river. Usually, that family would be blessed with a prosperous catch that season. One day, his mother was angry with his father and decided to paddle the boat into the forest. It was there that Bprayee wanted to be born and she gave birth to him all by herself. She was in so much pain but so proud of herself at the same time.
The days when the nearby forest was flooded and fish could be caught on tree branches no longer exist. The elders of the village would talk about the days when the Naga fireballs would rise out of the river during the full moon in October. Foreigners and city folks would come to the river and watch the fireballs. Locals would make money from selling local foods and handicrafts to the tourists. Those days were long gone. The elders watched the forests that they once lived off destroyed and reminisced about the past.
Bprayee was a tree-logger. He and his father had many quarrels over his profession.
“How can you destroy your own home?” yelled his father. “Without the forests, where would we fish? What will you eat?”
“You can still fish in the river if you really want to,” argued Bprayee. “The days of fishing are over. There’s hardly any fish left. The good business is in tree-logging.”
“What will you do when the trees are all gone? Where will we live?”
“We can work in the rice paddies. We can live there with the rest of the villagers.”
“You can do that. I will not be confined to some rice paddy.” His father hardly spoke to Bprayee. Even during dinnertime, the two would not look at each other. His mother would try to strike up conversation but it always ends in silence.
The village was dwindling. The young had left their families to find work in the city. The old fishermen only fished to feed themselves. There were no more fish markets. The tree-loggers were the only ones making money. Every day, Bprayee would cut down about ten trees, which was quite impressive for a sixteen-year-old with an ax. The company provided his lunch and he got paid every day. This is a good business. My dad should be proud of me, Bprayee thought.
One day, his parents left for a one-week fishing journey to one of the few flooded forests left. When they came back home after dark, Bprayee surprised them with a well-lit house.
“What is this? What’s going on here?” asked his mother.
“I made enough money to get electricity for the house,” answered Bprayee. “We can now see at night.”
“Oh Bprayee, we were okay with using the candles and lanterns. There’s nothing to do at night except sleep anyway,” said his mother. “But thank you. This was quite a surprise.”
His father did not say a word. He looked at the light bulbs and the radio that was softly playing folk music before heading to his bedroom. His father walked past without even turning his head to look at his son.
“Don’t worry, Bprayee,” said his mother. “He’s just not used to having so much light at night. We had a long journey and we’re quite tired. Get some sleep, son.” She patted him on the shoulder as she left for her bedroom. Bprayee looked at the house with a smile on his face. He would be the talk of the village tomorrow. It’s the first house to have electricity.
What a buzz it was! All day, Bprayee was asked by his friends, women, and children about the electricity in his house. How was it made? Where did it come from? How could he afford it? What does he do at night with all that light? In the evening, neighbors would come by to see the house. There were whispers of curiosity and wide-eyed children who enjoyed the sound of the radio. Bprayee would greet them warmly as his mother served them hot tea. His father stayed in the bedroom.
* * * * *
A few years passed. The forests were now rice paddies. Bprayee and his mother left to work in one of the fields and lived in the compound. His father refused to follow and left to live by the river. The owner of the rice paddy tore down Bprayee’s house. Apparently, that land was never officially bought by his great-grandfather. His family just settled there and assumed that as long as their house was there, it was their land. The rice paddy owner bought the land and made a deal with Bprayee. He and his family could work on the field as long as they left their home peacefully. It was hard for Bprayee to see his house torn down. All that work to bring electricity to the place was gone in seconds. His mother cried for days. It was more than just a house. It was her sanctuary. It was where she got married, where she raised her child.
Bprayee and his mother would work the field from morning until dusk. Ever since his father left, his mother lived in silence. Then, it just seemed that she decided to give up.
He waited outside for his mother. It was part of their routine to walk to the field together. He didn’t have a watch, but he knew that too much time had gone by. She should have met him by now. Bprayee walked towards the house that she was living with the other female workers and knocked on the door. A worker answered.
“Bprayee,” said the worker. “Good you are here. Your mother is sick.”
Bprayee removed his shoes before entering the house. His mother was lying on the mat with a thick blanket over her.
“Don’t worry, Bprayee” feebly spoke his mother. “It’s just a fever. I’ll feel better in no time. You should go to work, you’ll get in trouble.”
She turned and closed her eyes. Bprayee said his goodbyes and left for work.
That evening, he visited his mother again. The fever had not broken yet. She tried to sit up, but could not do it on her own. He had to lift her up and held her so that she would not fall. For the first time in years, they had a long talk.
“I had the oddest dream,” began his mother. “I was in the Mekong River, swimming. I was so fast. I think I was an Irrawaddy dolphin. ” She smiled.
“A dolphin!” Bprayee laughed. “Those are extinct.”
“Foreigners say that they died a long time ago, around the same time those dams were built upriver. Around the same time the Naga fireballs stopped appearing.” Her eyes twinkled as she remembered. “Oh Bprayee, I wished you could have seen the Naga fireballs. Your father and I would go to see it every year before you were born. We would pray and make a wish for every fireball that we saw.” His mother put a hand on her forehead. “Anyway, in my dream, I looked out of the water and saw you and your father on the shore. You were both smiling.”
“How are you feeling?” Bprayee asked.
“Oh,” sighed his mother. “Just a headache and my muscles and joints hurt. It’s just my old age, I suppose. My body can’t handle hard work anymore.” She gave out a short laugh before she started to cough violently.
“Just rest mother,” said Bprayee as he helped her to lie down. “I’ll come by to visit tomorrow.” She nodded and patted his back.
For three days, Bprayee worked and visited his mother in the evenings. During those visits, his mother would tell him of how their village used to be before he was born.
“There was plenty of water in the river, and plenty of fish,” she would tell him. “There was also plenty of rain. Remember the big water urns that we had in our backyard? We would store rainwater in those urns and used it to cook and drink. Rainwater tasted sweet. And the sweetness lingers in your mouth and throat. You can’t get the same experience drinking these tapped water.” She coughed.
“I don’t remember the water urns being filled,” said Bprayee. “Sometimes, you made me walk all the way to the river to get water.”
“Well, that was when it stopped raining. The world has changed much. It doesn’t rain so much anymore. The river is not as wide and deep as it used to be. The elders say that it was all the dams that they built. Not just here, but all the way in China. For every dam built, there is less water coming to us.”
“I remember the elders used to say that someone should just blow up the dams,” recounted Bprayee. “And then there was one time that someone did do just that. The elders said that it was a disgruntled fisherman who went to one of the dams and blew himself and the dam up. It created such chaos. Rice paddies were flooded, landslides destroyed homes, the officials were left in fear and confusion.”
His mother nodded. “I remember that. For a month, the fishermen fought with the government. There were protests at every dam, all the way to China even. The fishermen also fought with rice paddy owners. So many lives were lost, all because they just wanted their river back.”
By the fourth day, his mother was too weak to speak. Bprayee called for a doctor.
He waited outside, pacing impatiently.
“Will she be all right?” asked Bprayee when the doctor opened the door.
With a concerned look, the doctor cleared his throat.
“Bprayee, your mother is old and she’s lived a hard life.” He cleared his throat again. “She has Dengue fever.” Bprayee gasped. Dengue fever was common around the village. The mosquitoes are vicious and would infect children, adults, and elderly with the virus. Hospitalization is necessary to ensure the survival of its victims.
“What should we do?” asked Bprayee.
“I recommend taking her to the hospital.”
“But we don’t have money. And it will take a full day for her to get to the hospital.”
“I don’t know how else I can help, Bprayee. Give her plenty of water and let her rest. I gave her medicine to relieve the pain, but that’s not enough. She should go to the hospital. But, I will be frank with you. The virus has taken a toll on your mother, and I’m not sure if she will survive even if she gets to the hospital.”
As the doctor left, Bprayee’s mind was spinning. His heart raced and it suddenly felt cold. He did not want to believe that his mother was dying.
“Bprayee,” whispered his mother. “I know that I don’t have much time here.”
“Mother,” Bprayee said, “I’ll take you to the hospital tomorrow. I’ll ask the boss for some money. I can pay him back later.”
“Don’t waste your money on me,” she replied. “I’m too old to fight this. The doctor said that I might already have some internal bleeding.”
Silence fell upon them. Bprayee had always remembered his mother being strong. She was a woman that could command a whole army if she wanted to, could strike fear in enemies’ hearts. At the same time, she could be so kind and caring that makes any son feel comforted and safe.
“What can I do?” Bprayee asked.
“Please get your father tomorrow. I want to see him,” his mother replied.
Bprayee nodded. “I will”
Meeting his father was not an easy task. They did not see each other for three years. Bprayee arrived at his father’s makeshift bungalow by the river late morning. It was empty. He’s probably out fishing, thought Bprayee as he waited by the dock. It had been a long time since he had seen the Mekong River. When he was a child, he would swim in it during the hot season. His father would join him, as his mother sat on the dock and weaved the flowers she collected into a wreath. Things were peaceful and happier back then. They didn’t have to worry about money. They lived off of the river and the forest. When the forest flooded, they would eat fish. When the flood was gone, his father would still bring home fish from the river. On occasions, his mother would catch pheasants in the forest. Almost year round, they could collect enough fruits and vegetables to feed the family and even guests. The world has indeed changed. The mighty river rarely roared anymore and trees had fallen. Bprayee felt guilt weighing on his shoulders and in his stomach. His father was right. He helped destroyed his own home.
Sounds of oars rhythmically splashing in the water interrupted Bprayee’s thoughts. His father was approaching the dock. From what he could tell, it was a bad fishing day. There were only two small fish lying by his father’s feet.
“What are you doing here?” asked his father in a harsh tone. He tied the canoe and hoisted himself up onto the dock.
“Father,” said Bprayee, “I came here with some bad news.”
His father looked into Bprayee’s eyes. Bprayee couldn’t remember when was the last time his father had looked him straight in the eyes.
“It’s Mother,” Bprayee began, “she’s ill.”
“What does she have?” asked his father, still piercing Bprayee with his cold stare.
“Dengue fever. The doctor says that Mother might not make it. She already has internal bleeding,” Bprayee swallowed hard. “She asked me to come to you today. She wants to see you.”
Bprayee wasn’t sure, but he thought that his father’s eyes became softer, gentler.
“Let me change out of these clothes and grab some money. We’ll leave soon.” Bprayee nodded as his father ran towards the house. While waiting, a mountain dove perched on a rock nearby. It let out a soft and pleasing chirp. He remembered the days when he would be woken up by the sounds of the mountain doves. He used to hate them, because it meant that he had to get up and start his chores. But this time, he was in awe. Ever since the forests fell, he hardly heard them anymore. How this one survived, he didn’t know.
“All right, let’s go,” announced his father as he swiftly walked past Bprayee.
It was late afternoon when they arrived. His father went into the house as Bprayee waited outside, pacing. Hours drifted by. The sun had set and the stars were coming out. Bprayee was getting hungry, but then he remembered that his father must be starving. His father had left the fish he caught on the dock and that was supposed to be his breakfast. The hawks probably stole them already.
“Bprayee,” his father called. “Your mother wants to see you.”
Bprayee removed his shoes and entered the house with his father.
His mother’s voice was quivering as she reached her hand to give him a pat on the shoulder, “Bprayee, you’re a good son.” She gave a weak smile. “Don’t be sad. I lived a full life and am ready to go. I won’t be in pain anymore. You’re a strong man now, ready to take on the world. You will always have my blessing.” She patted him before letting out a violent cough.
He and his father sat by his mother throughout the night. His father recited some prayers as his mother listened to him with her eyes closed. She passed away peacefully in the early morning hours. As the women workers cried over her body and wrapped her in a white blanket, Bprayee ran out of the house and into the field. He did not want anyone to see the tears streaming down his face. He fell down to his knees and sobbed. As he looked up at the orange sky and he thought he heard a mountain dove singing a song nearby.
* * * * *
Another year passed by. Bprayee worked in silence and kept to himself. His father returned to the river. They hadn’t seen each other since the day his mother’s body was incinerated in a nearby temple. It seemed that a curse fell on the land. The rains should have arrived a month ago, but not a single drop fell from the sky. Villagers were talking about how the Mekong is nothing but a mere stream. Rice paddies dried up and the workers migrated to the city. One day, Bprayee and fifty other workers were told to leave the compound. There was not enough work for them. Bprayee left, knowing of only one place to go to.
When he arrived at his father’s house, the river was indeed just a stream. The dock sat on dry land surrounded by grass. Like every morning, his father went fishing. His father’s canoe came into view and Bprayee stood up. Bprayee couldn’t muster up the courage to look at his father.
“What are you doing here,” asked his father. His voice quivered and his eyes were hallowed. Deep wrinkles shaped his darkly tanned face.
“I,” Bprayee took a swallow and paused. “Um, I lost my job.”
“And?” said his father.
“I was hoping to stay here for a while until I can get a new one.”
“What job are you thinking of? Tree-logging? There are no more trees. Work in another rice paddy? It’s all dried up. Fish? The fish are gone. What’s next? Convert the fields into townhouses so the rich city folks can have vacation homes?” His father laughed disdainfully.
“I don’t know,” replied Bprayee. “I’ll talk to the villagers tomorrow and see what they know.”
“Fine,” his father stepped closer to Bprayee. “You can stay here. But there’s no electricity. I can’t afford it and I don’t want it anyways. Electricity can’t put food on the table or give you fresh water to drink.”
Bprayee nodded and followed his father to the house. The days passed by with awkwardness. Bprayee would go into the village and ask for jobs. His father would go out fishing in the morning. When they returned, they both bore heavy burdens on their shoulders. His father had not caught a single fish in weeks. Instead, he had gone fruit picking and bird hunting in an orchard some distance down the river. He knew that it was illegal and that he could be thrown in jail if he was caught, but luckily, the orchard was big and there wasn’t any security. Bprayee would sometimes find day jobs hauling sacks of rice unto pick-up trucks so that it could be shipped and sold overseas. It doesn’t make sense, Bprayee thought, we barely have anything to eat. Yet we’re shipping rice to foreigners.
The young villagers had much anger and discontent in their hearts. One of them was Rithisak. Bprayee never met him, but heard rumors. Rithisak was the son of the man who blew himself up on a dam. The villagers would tell the story:
The day before Niran went north, he caught a giant catfish. It was so big and strong that it dragged his boat upriver for days. Niran tried to cut the net and even stab the fish, but nothing worked. When the catfish stopped, it was in front of the newly built dam. The catfish surfaced and looked Niran straight in the eyes. It was told that the catfish talked. “My home is upriver. My family is upriver. I can’t get past this barrier. If I don’t go home, there will be no more fish for you or your children. The river was meant to run wild, so were our kind. This is not your river, you can’t keep us from swimming freely.” Somehow, the catfish got out of the net and disappeared. When Niran got home, he grabbed whatever money he had and left. He did not say his goodbyes, he just left, and blew himself and the dam up.
One day, Bprayee was invited to his coworker’s house. To his surprise, he was joined by ten other men and women. They were sitting in a crowded circle. One of the men was Rithisak.
“The time to act is now,” said Rithisak. “The Chinese are pressuring the Burmese government to build another dam on the Mekong. My contacts in China and Myanmar said that the dam would bring electricity to a new industrial town. Both countries will share the profits. Now, I’m not against these countries’ plans to build a strong economy, but I am against them selfishly building a dam without considering what will happen to the countries down river. If another dam is built, our Mekong will be nothing but dry mud.”
“What about our government? What are they doing to stop them?” asked a young girl with a long scar on her neck. Bprayee had heard of her too. Chantrea was born to a wealthy family. Her father worked for the government. One day, he didn’t come home. Her uncle came to the house and told her mother to hide. His father had stumbled upon a conspiracy plan plotted by someone within the government. He was captured and possibly killed. While Chantrea and her mother escaped from the house, a group of armed men attacked them. She was cut on the neck and her mother was stabbed. Chantrea ran into the woods and fell into a gorge. An elderly man found her body and brought her to his house. Ever since then, his family took care of her like one of their own daughters.
“The government said that they’ve talked to the Chinese and Burmese,” answered Rithisak, “but those governments refuse to back down. They said that we have no say on what they do to their part of the river. I think that we’re left on our own. The government doesn’t care about us. There’s hardly any fishing villages left along the river and the rice paddies are drying up. They want us to abandon our land.”
“What should we do?” asked Chantrea.
“We bring down the dam,” Rithisak said. The room broke out into a commotion of cheers and jeers. Some men and women were shaking their heads, while others clapped.
“Are you crazy?” cried out a man from the crowd. “They’ll kill all of us. We don’t have an army like they do.”
“Yeah!” Cried out another man. “And we’re not crazy like your father to go and blow ourselves up!”
Rithisak and Chantrea gave a cold stare to the men who yelled. He backed towards the wall, hoping that he could somehow just melt through.
“Listen!” Rithisak’s booming voice hushed the crowd. “I won’t lie to you. This is a dangerous task. Some of you will not survive. But if we don’t do anything, we will lose our village, our land. Without the river, we cannot survive.”
Four or five men and women snorted out a laugh before standing up and leaving the house. Others sat uncomfortably, deciding whether or not to stay.
“We will need all the help we can get,” continued Rithisak. “I want all of us to gather as many men and women as possible. Talk to your parents, your brothers, your sisters. Encourage them to join the fight with us. We will all march north towards the dam. My contacts will lay out the safe trails for us and meet us along the way. We will start in three days.”
Rithisak stood up and thanked everyone for coming. The rest of the audience made their way out the door. Bprayee left along with the crowd. He and his friend walked in silence for a while until they came to a fork in the road.
“See you in three days, Bprayee.” Before Bprayee could have said anything, his friend walked away.
Three days? Thought Bprayee. Why does he think that I’m going with him on this crazy fight? Bprayee shook his head and walked home.
His father was sitting on the porch, with his feet dangling from the edge. He was smoking a pipe.
“I haven’t seen you smoke since I was a child,” Bprayee said to his father.
“I found the pipe and some tobacco in your mother’s box,” he chuckled. “She must have taken these and hid them from me when she told me that I was smoking too much. If I remember correctly, that was the day she stole my boat and went into the flooded forest. She gave birth to you all by herself.” His eyes looked up at the darkened skies that were paved with stars.
Bprayee sat next to his father, also dangling his feet from the porch. They sat in silence for a while until his father broke the silence.
“What’s on your mind?”
“I,” started Bprayee. “I was just thinking about what I heard tonight. Father, I saw Rithisak tonight.”
“Hmmm,” responded his father. “What did he say?”
“He said that a new dam was being built upriver. He wants to bring it down. He wants all of us to join him and fight.”
“Hmmm.” His father blew a puff of smoke into the darkness.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Bprayee.
“Him wanting to travel all the way to another country to blow up a dam. Him expecting the village to support him.” Bprayee was feeling his heart beating faster. He wasn’t sure what he was feeling. Bprayee thought that it was a lofty idea to fight but at the same time, it was an exciting thought.
“When people are desperate and have nothing to lose, they are most courageous then.” His father blew another cloud. “Tell me Bprayee, when they build that dam and Rithisak’s mission fails and when the Mekong dries up, what will you do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, think about it.” A short silence separated them for a moment. “When will Rithisak begin his journey?”
“Three days from now.”
“Well, Bprayee, I don’t know about you, but I know that I have no where else to go. This is my home and it’s being taken away from me.” His father stood up and looked down at his son. “I’ve led a full life. I am no longer a fisherman and I lost my house and my wife. I have to steal fruits and birds from an orchard in order to have something to eat. I am a desperate man, with nothing to lose. What do you have to lose? What is life, without a home?”
His father walked away, leaving Bprayee to the darkness of the night and his thoughts.
* * * * *
Bprayee did not expect to find himself standing in a crowd of twenty-three men and women by Rithisak’s house. But seeing how determined his father was and thinking about what he said convinced Bprayee that engaging in the fight is better than staying home and stealing food from orchards and begging for jobs. It was midnight. Rithisak said that it would be safer if they traveled at night.
Everyone had a bag tied to their backs. Rithisak had instructed them to carry as much food, water, and clothes as they could. Bprayee brought dried fruits, dried fish, a small blanket, and a change of clothes. With the forests that once spread along both sides of the Mekong gone, it would be hard to find food. Bprayee’s father was not the only elderly person there. There were men and women in their late sixties that carried canes and heavy bags. One man showed Bprayee a knife that was concealed in his cane. They were all ready to fight.
During the first couple of days, the travelers were filled with excitement. For most, this was their first time leaving their village. The idea of entering another country was exhilarating. Most were in good spirit, striking up conversations that had to be carried out in silence. Rithisak and Chantrea were the quiet ones. They did not speak unless to tell the travelers to hush, take a rest, or sleep (which they did during the middle of the day). During the long night hikes, Bprayee would stay close to his father. They would sometimes talk, mostly about their past. His father liked to think about how things were before Bprayee was born and what their family did when Bprayee was still a child. They would sometimes laugh and sometimes fall quiet whenever a story came out about his mother. Bprayee was deeply grateful to have come on this journey. It was the chance for him to get closer to his father and to find out that his father had forgiven him for abandoning the fishing business a long time ago.
“You know that word, ‘sustainability?’” asked his father.
“Yeah, I heard some city folks in town use it often. I don’t know what it means though.”
“You may not know what it means, but we’ve practiced it for generations. It’s the
balance between what we take from the land and what we give back. Before the dams, before the tree logging, and before the rice paddies, we took only what we needed and only what the land had to spare. We fished to survive and to make some money. We cut down trees to build modest but comfortable homes. But things changed. People became greedy and they wanted more than what nature could spare. During my lifetime, I saw my childhood forests flattened and my clean streams polluted. People demanded electricity even though they don’t need it to survive. That’s why so many dams were built.”
“Is that why you didn’t like it when there was electricity at our house?” asked Bprayee. His father gave a slight smirk.
“Life changes every day. You never know what’s going to happen. You did what you had to do in order to survive in this modern world. Your mother and I were just old folks hoping that our simple lives would last forever.” His father quickened his pace. Destroying the dam would be his way of rebalancing nature.
Two weeks passed by and the travelers were exhausted. Their food supplies have dwindled and their clothes were wet. The rain came without any warning and did not stop for four days. Many developed coughs and some had fevers. Two lives were lost. Hansa, a lady in her late fifties died in her sleep. Everyone suspected that it was Yellow Fever on account that wherever they went, there were swarms of mosquitoes. Daeng, only fourteen, broke his leg on one of the rainy days. It was so slippery that he tumbled down a hill and hit a tree. One of the men bandaged his leg up and carried him for days, but Daeng died anyway.
Another week passed by. Hardly anyone spoke since Daeng’s death. Bprayee could feel that his clothes were much loser on his body than when he had started the journey. His food was all gone, so was all the food that other people brought. Everyone’s pace was slower, and their eyes were fixed to the ground. One morning, Rithisak stopped and told everyone to find food and rest up. He expected to reach the meeting point by early tomorrow morning and wanted everyone to feel rested for the meeting.
The travelers dispersed in the forest in search for food. Bprayee and his father ate handfuls of termites that they found in a rotting log. They ate unripened rose apples and mangoes. They didn’t care about the taste of their food, as long as there was food to be eaten, they were happy. The feast ended when noon came around and the travelers settled for their sleep. With aching limbs and back, the cool soft dirt had never felt so comfortable to Bprayee.
The sun made its journey to the horizon as the travelers packed their things and moved forward. Bprayee could sense a bit of excitement from his father, considering that he was talking again.
“Never been to another country before,” whispered his father. “Wonder what it will be like. Wonder if there’s still fish in their rivers.”
“After all these years of eating fish, don’t you want to try something new?” joked Bprayee.
“I tried bird and they had no meat,” answered his father, “fish meat is sweat and it’s good for you. How come you think I haven’t keeled over yet? It’s because I’ve been eating fish all my life!”
Bprayee and his father shared a laugh. Like his father, Bprayee too wonders what lies beyond the forest. Are the people that much different from him? Are the girls pretty?
It’s a good thing that Rithisak did not hear Bprayee’s thoughts. Every second since they’ve left the village, Rithisak’s mind was focused on the mission. He had gone over the plan hundreds of times in his head. This will not fail, he thought. His pace quickened.
Rithisak raised his arms.
“Sshhh,” Chantrea commanded.
Everyone stopped in their tracks and tried to peer through the darkness. A barn swallow made a soft call. Rithisak cupped his hand to the side of his mouth and answered with another barn swallow call. Within moments, footsteps were heard coming through the trees. They were getting closer.
A young man approached Rithisak. He was holding a long rifle, pointing at the group. The travelers were getting weary since none of them had a gun. Rithisak held his hand up as if to say “hi.” The young man dropped his rifle to his side and a big smile appeared on his face. Rithisak smiled back. The young man spoke in a language that Bprayee and his father did not understand. However, Rithisak was well versed in the language and translated everything to the travelers.
“Our camp is just a few miles away,” Rithisak whispered to the crowd. “We will eat and rest there.”
The young man led the group to the camp. Coming into a clearing, Bprayee could see tents, fire pits, and clean laundry hanging on tree branches. There were fifty other people at the camp and they seemed to have just started breakfast. The young man gestured to Rithisak and the travelers to put down their bags and join the crowd. The campers had been waiting for them for a week and prepared breakfast in their honor.
It was the best breakfast that the travelers had in weeks. There were dried fish, grilled chicken, rice, and sweet fruits. The campers came from all over the region. There were the Chinese who found new homes in Thailand and Cambodia. There were Burmese, Laotians, Vietnamese, Thais, and Cambodians that camped and worked together. They arrived at different times during the month. Rithisak and his group were the last ones to arrive.
“This is bigger than I thought,” murmured Bprayee’s father.
“Yeah, I didn’t expect this many people from so many countries to be here,” said Bprayee.
“These people were affected by the dams like we were,” interrupted Chantrea. Bprayee was surprised to see her standing right behind him. “The Mekong is a long river, and has been the livelihoods of so many people in six countries. When the dams were built, the people suffered the same way like we did. We’re all here with one purpose. To stop the new dam.”
“Why are the Chinese and Burmese here?” asked Bprayee. “I thought that they wanted the dam to be built.”
“These are farmers and fishermen,” answered Chantrea looking straight into Bprayee’s eyes which sent chills down his back. “Their livelihoods depend on the river. They have no intention to join the industrial workforce, and that’s why they are here.”
Bprayee swallowed and averted his eyes from her glare.
“Bprayee,” Chantrea still had her eyes piercing into his. Bprayee was surprised that she knew his name and could feel his heart racing. “These will be your brothers and sisters for the rest of the fight. If you want to survive and if you want this mission to be successful, you must work with them. Where they come from does not matter.”
Three days passed by and the campers were well fed and well rested. The leaders of each group met during the three days, updating each other on new developments on the dam and finalizing their plans. The dam was near completion and much of the workforce had left. There was a tight security at the dam, but nothing that should hinder the plan. It was after an early dinner when Rithisak and the other leaders stood up and called for silence.
It was apparent that the young man that came to meet Rithisak and his group was the mastermind behind the whole plan. He stood in the middle, had a straight posture, and the only person to have a rifle dangling from his shoulders. He spoke, as the others translated.
“In the morning, when it is dark still, we will go to the dam and plant explosives,” Rithisak translated. “Hong’s team and Noi’s team will be on the south side and create a distraction. The workers and the guards on the dam will be too distracted to see us come in from the North side. Ye’s team will plant the explosives as our team and Samnang’s team give them cover. When Ye’s team lights the explosives, that will give us only a few minutes to run for safety before the explosion. Run to high grounds. Since this camp will most likely be flooded, we will regroup fifty miles down the river. I will wait for you there for two days.”
Ye paused as he looked at the crowd. In a softer tone, he spoke and Rithisak translated.
“I know that many of you traveled a long way to be here. Some of you have lost your friends, your family on your journey. But this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. This is the time to take back our river. What we do today will determine whether or not our children will have the Mekong in their future. Please, get some rest. We will make history when the morning comes.”
Ye gave the crowd another look and a firm smile. He turned and walked into his tent. Bprayee and his father sat in silence, looking at the dirt.
“Well, son,” his father said, “I never told you this, but I’m darn proud of you. Your mother was too.”
Bprayee turned his head to look at his father. He wasn’t sure if his ears were fooling him. His father met his gaze and smiled.
“You were always a fighter, even if you didn’t realize it,” continued his father. “When you saw that the fishing business wasn’t going anywhere, you found new jobs to bring home the money. You always took care of me and your mother in whatever dire situation we were in. You made us into celebrities when you brought electricity into our house.” He smiled and gave Bprayee a firm pat on the shoulder. “Get some sleep. Big day tomorrow.” Bprayee nodded as his father stood up and walked away.
Bprayee continued to stare at the dirt. He couldn’t believe what he just heard. All this time, he thought his father never approved of him and his decisions. He looked up at the night sky and was greeted by millions of twinkling stars. Mother, if you could hear me, please watch over me and father. Let us be safe.
* * * * *
Morning came too soon. Bprayee was anxious and excited that he had not fallen asleep yet. But Rithisak came into the tent and ordered everyone up. As Bprayee stumbled out of the tent, he was awakened by what he saw. Rithisak, Hong, Ye, Noi, and Samnang were passing out rifles and guns to their teams. Bprayee had no idea where the weapons came from. Rithisak handed Bprayee a rifle.
“Do you know how to use this?” Rithisak asked.
“Yes,” replied Bprayee. He had used rifles to shoot birds and squirrels with his friends when he was thirteen years old. He felt horrible for killing those animals. His father once beat him up when he found out that Bprayee had been hunting for fun. He said that it was wrong to take any animals’ life away unless it was for food.
Bprayee walked towards his father who was also holding a rifle.
“Never thought I would have to fire one of these again,” his father said. “Be careful, son.”
“You too, Father”
When everyone had gotten their weapons, Rithisak instructed them to follow Ye to the north side of the dam. It took an hour for them to reach the dam. When they got there, Rithisak raised his arm and told everyone to be quiet. They were waiting for the signal.
A makeshift bomb made of kerosene, a beer bottle, and a lit cloth stuck in the bottle crashed onto one of the huts at the foot of the dam. The hut quickly caught fire as men ran out in their pajamas. More fired beer bottles crashed into the compound as security guards left their posts on the dam to hunt down the perpetrators.
Rithisak and Samnang waved their arms to signal their team to head for the dam. Ye’s team followed closely.
It all happened so quickly. Bprayee was standing on the east side of the dam when gunshots were heard beneath him. Hong and Noi’s team must have been discovered and were being shot at by the security guards. Bprayee had his rifle ready, aimed at the compound which was engulfed in flames. One of the security guards turned around, and Bprayee could have sworn that he looked straight into his eyes. The guard yelled and started firing at them. Bprayee and his father fired a couple of shots before having to duck down to reload.
“Back away!” yelled Rithisak. “Get to high ground!”
Bprayee and his father sprinted for the mountain that flanked the dam. Shots rang past his right ear and he could feel the wind of the bullet skimming his head. Ye shot a flare gun. Bprayee looked back and saw the orange flare flying casually in the dark sky. Ye and his team were now sprinting towards the mountain.
A series of explosions shook the still night’s air and the earth rumbled. Bprayee lost his balance and fell face-first into the muddy ground. He could feel a strong hand lifting his left arm.
“Run, son! Run!” His father yelled.
Bprayee obeyed. His calve muscles were burning but he kept on running. And then it seemed like the earth cracked open and gave way to gravity. The dam crashed into the earth as the pent up water rushed towards its new-found freedom. Trees fell mercilessly to the force of the mighty river and sides of the mountains were stripped away. The sounds of the rushing waters were so deafening that Bprayee could not hear the cries and of his fallen comrades.
* * * * *
Bprayee and his father had been walking on the mountain’s ridge since the sun came up. They were alone. His father had stopped to rest while Bprayee went to look for fruits. Since dinner, they had not eaten anything. They were exhausted, but Bprayee knew that in order to make it to the meeting point in time, they had to keep on walking. Curious to see the river, Bprayee made his way to a ledge that extended from the mountain’s side. He could not believe what he saw. The Mekong River was gushing with turbulent water. The shorelines and once-dried rice paddies disappeared and the waves lapped up against the sides of the mountain. I can’t believe we did it. The Mekong is flowing again.
By late afternoon, Bprayee and his father came to the foot of the mountain. The water was flowing gently as if it had been doing so for years. As they walked by the shore, his father hummed a tune. Bprayee could not remember the last time he heard his father hum anything.
“What song is that?” Bprayee asked.
“It’s an old folk song, about the Mekong River. It praises her of her glories and warns people of her fierceness.”
“I never heard it before,” Bprayee said.
“I supposed you wouldn’t,” said his father. “it was popular when I was a teenager. I sang it to your mother when I first met her.” His father smiled and continued to hum. A splash interrupted his tune.
“Oh, how lucky we are,” whispered his father.
The Irrawaddy dolphin poked its head through the waters. It was smiling at them.
Behind the Story: The Fight for the Mekong River
Countries have gone to war over oil. Politicians are encouraging industries and people to use alternative energy so that we don’t need to be dependent on foreign oil reserves. Unlike oil, water has no substitute. What happens when we run out of water? Will we go to war in order to secure water from another country?
The Mekong River runs through six countries. Its water starts off at the Tibetan plateau and runs southward through Chinese provinces before making its way down to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam (Nguyen 3). For centuries, the people that lived along the Mekong thrived on fishery and rice cultivation. During the monsoon season, the rush of water added to the river floods its tributaries and reversed the flow on the Tonle Sap in Cambodia. The water spilled out of the river and the lake and into rainforests. For five months, these forests were fish nurseries until the river resumes its normal flow, flushing out the now fat fishes. For months, fishermen along the Mekong thrived (Pearce 95).
It wasn’t until the late twentieth century that hydropower dams were built along the Mekong. The dams disrupted the ecology along the river as well as the livelihoods of those dependent on the river. Giant catfish and Irrawaddy dolphin populations decreased. In 1993 and 2003, with the filling of the Manwan dam and the Dachaoshan dam in China, there were “unusually low flows on the Mekong all the way down to the Tonle Sap, and with poor fish catches” (Pearce 102). More dams are being built along the river. These would “change the river’s hydrology and ecology and block fish migrations, with repercussions for food security and livelihoods throughout the basin” (Middleton). There had been protests against building new dams and series of meetings between dignitaries. If tension continues to rise over the control of the Mekong River, who knows what can happen.
There are other rivers in the world that feed more than one country. The Jordan River is important to those in Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. In June 1967, Syria had started to dig a canal that would have diverted the waters away from Israel. Ariel Sharon, Israel’s former prime minister, wrote,
the Six-Day War really started on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan. While the border disputes were of great significance, the matter of water diversion was a stark issue of life and death. (Pearce 168)
This showed that water is a precious commodity and that battles will be fought if water sources should be taken away. There are other rivers which run through many countries. The Nile flows through nine countries, the Amazon through seven, and the Tigris-Euphrates through four countries (Bouguerra 72). In the United States, in the parched southwest, the Colorado River runs through seven states before ending in Mexico. By the time the Colorado River is tapped in by cities, suburban residences, and farmers in the southwestern states, there’s barely enough for the farmers of Mexico. With increasing development, flows to Mexico have been irregular (Pearce 196-197). The Rio Grande is also in trouble because it is drying up. Farmers are drilling wells to feed their crops (Pearce 9-13). But what will happen when the river stops flowing and the wells are dried up? Will wars break out? Or will the dire situations force countries to find a peaceful solution?
The word “sustainability” is being thrown around in the political and economic arena. It has various meanings, but the key idea is that there are perpetually enough natural resources for future generations. Water is an essential element to survival. By ensuring that there is enough clean water for generations, you are ensuring the survival of the human race. Conservation is key to water management. It is important that everyone conserves and be considerate of how much water is being used. Your actions will prevent future water conflicts in your town, city, and even nation. Simple acts of turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth can help ease the water burden. Talk to you local water department and politicians and see what is being done to ensure that future generations have enough clean water to use. Talk to your friends and family and educate them on water conservation and its role in alleviating water-related tensions. Take the opportunity to prevent water conflicts from forming by learning of current local water issues and exploring possible solutions.
Bouguerra, Larbi. Water Under Threat. New York: Zed Books, 2006.
Middleton, Carl. “A Healthy Mekong River is Priceless.” Imaging Our Mekong
30 Jan. 2009
Nguyen, Thi Dieu. The Mekong River and the Struggle for Indochina.Westport: Praeger, 1999.
Pearce, Fred. When The Rivers Run Dry. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.