23 April 2013

A Buddhist View of Human Rights and Development

            Our group had the honor of meeting with Sulak Sivaraksa, one of Thailand’s leading thinkers, academics and activists who has been repeatedly arrested for his activism, particularly speaking out against the Thai government. Sulak helped us connect the Western concept of Human Rights with Buddhist ideas of how to treat people and the environment. He explained that Western education teaches students to think, over-emphasizing science and rationality in a way that leads to arrogance rather than humility. This intellectually centered approach also ignores other important realms such as spirituality and emotional well-being that are essential to both human rights and development. In contrast, Buddhism’s fundamental teaching is not how to think or even pray but how to breathe. Sulak emphasized that just by learning to breathe calmly and slowly, with awareness of each moment, we can change our mindset from being dominated by greed, hatred and delusion to being humble, peaceful and compassionate because we realize the interconnectedness of all beings.
When we understand and start to feel interconnectedness, we can break down the barriers between others and ourselves, and we can stop seeing people as “friends” or “enemies.” Instead we can embrace everyone’s common humanity and realize that to hurt another is ultimately to hurt oneself. This idea manifests in terms of development and environmental issues in many ways. For instance, when we consider putting poisonous chemicals on the plants that become our food, we can see the connections between the insects that will ingest that poison, the plants that will absorb the poison, the water supplies and earth that will absorb the poison, and realize that eventually the poison will work its way back to us. When contemplating an economic development plan, rather than measure its effectiveness in terms of the amount of buildings it will build or dollars by which it will increase GDP, or we can evaluate its effect on human lives. This can be measured in terms of community structures, ability to be self-sufficient and the degree to which the plan supports traditional ways of life. With a Buddhist perspective we can recognize that when development benefits a few and harms many it will lead to overpopulation, mass migration to cities, unemployment, crime and other problems, therefore ultimately harming everyone.
With this Buddhist framework of Human Rights in mind, it is possible to conceptualize development that does not harm people or the environment. Sulak reminded us, “we cannot practice earth, animal and human rights without practicing generosity and meditation.” In his view, inner reflection and awareness are crucial first steps to peace. While it is easy to think on big scales, advocating systematic change, it is important to also remember that change comes from within and the best way to create a peaceful society is for its citizens to find peace within themselves. Only then can the society can truly work towards sustainable development. In as essay entitled, “Development as if People Mattered,” Sulak says alternative development would “consider the impact upon humans and the environment, taking into consideration spiritual and emotional effects as well as strictly monetary ones.” This form of development will not be easy, because it is based on more than clearly defined statistics and numbers, however Sulak emphasized that we can learn to be “skillful, meaning everything you do makes sense.” Development has the potential to be done mindfully and skillfully, but it will take political will and social pressure to make it so. In trying to change the minds of others, it is important to maintain friendship rather than seeing anyone as an enemy, because only together can we achieve social change. Friendship does not simply mean agreeing all the time. Sulak defined friends as “people who tell you what you don’t want to hear.” By both recognizing each person’s inherent worth and also challenging others to make choices that are in harmony with the well being of people and the environment, we can achieve sustainable development.

Sonja Favaloro 
Bates College

Red Shirts: Hypocrisy and a Muddled Message

Wearing a red shirt in Thailand is more than just a fashion statement—it’s a political affiliation. The Red Shirts are a political group that rose to prominence in 2006 as a response to the military coup of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin Shinawatra was accused by the military regime of corruption, lèse majesté (insulting the King), tax evasion, and selling Thai assets to foreign investors. Following the coup he underwent a self-imposed exile from Thailand in order to avoid his local charges of  imprisonment. To this day he remains in exile, even though his younger sister Yingluck Shinwatra was recently elected Prime Minister in 2011. Yingluck has been criticized (and hailed) as a puppet of Thaksin, who some claim is pulling strings from abroad.
The overthrow of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, following a democratic reelection, is one of many grievances the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorships (“Red Shirts”) has against the military junta. The Red Shirts also quietly criticize the role of the monarchy in Thaksin’s removal and are vocal advocates for a more democratic process in Thailand. Since the overthrow, Red Shirts have voiced their discontent through protest. Red Shirt protests began in 2009, gaining in momentum and popularity until April 2010, when the military cracked down on the protesters, killing 10 red shirts and one Japanese reporter. However, the Red Shirts continued to protest. They occupied Bangkok’s economic zone, pressuring the government for new elections, until on May 19th 2010, when the Thai military cracked down again, killing 70 to 80 protesters and injuring thousands. Media attention and international intervention heavily criticized then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, leading to his capitulation from office and the re-instantiation of democratic elections. 
In light of the historical background, the political turmoil, and the controversial nature of the Red Shirt group, it’s understandable that my peers and I were excited when we got the chance to interview representatives of the movement. However, the Red Shirts we met did not match our expectations.
The Red Shirt movement is portrayed as a people’s movement, headed by the poor disenfranchised people of Isaan, who are fighting for democracy. The reality was startlingly different. The Red Shirts we interviewed were from the Democratic Youth Alliance, and one of them, the leader, drove a brand new matte red Mercedes-Benz, and had a gold ring with an inlaid stone the size of a pistachio on his finger. Another had perfectly quaffed hair and wore his shoes inside (in Thai culture that is a big no-no), his face was carefully made-up, did he have on lipstick? It was hard to tell. But the glittering diamond ring on his finger was unmistakable. This may seem hypercritical and unnecessary to point out, but when these are the most vocal Thaksin supporters, and they claim that Thaksin is “of the people and for the people,” especially the poor, I start finding it hard to believe. We questioned them about this, asking how Thaksin can be a voice for the poor despite his fabulous wealth. The Red Shirt representative with the quaffed hair responded that “poor people are everywhere, so everyone is close to the poor.”
Admittedly, the Red Shirt representatives had some compelling points. They whole-heartedly support a democratic system, wish to take away some of the monarchy’s un-checked power, advocate for decentralization of the Thai government, and their three principles focus on educating the youth about constitutional rights. They claim that these are the central tenets of the Red Shirt movement and that Red Shirts are “over Thaksin.” If this were true, the Red Shirt movement would be very strong, garnering the support of the rural Thai people of Isaan, who reject the movement for its Thaksin-deification
But it’s not true. The Red Shirts we interviewed spent at least an hour building a beautiful image of Thaksin The Beneficent, ignoring the fact that many Thai are wary of this incredibly rich and controversial figure. I realize the power of a figurehead for a political movement—Che Guevara and Aung San Sui Kyi come to mind—but there are also limitations. It would be better for the Red Shirts to find, or create, a new figurehead, one that embodies their goals in reality, who isn’t clouded by charges of corruption[1]. Until then, there will not be enough popular support to bring about the social and political change the red shirts claim to want. 

Nelson Falkenburg
Whitman College

[1] Ironically, there is no word in the Thai language for “corruption.” It is said just like the English word with a Thai accent.

Long Tail Tribulation

Koh Phi Phi Don - Once I am sure this place was one of the most beautiful islands on earth. The craggy cliffs rise like fingers grasping up through the sea. In the middle of the hand is this little plot of an island, where jungles ride over hills and waves caress endless white beaches.

Or that’s what it once was.

Here, now, the beaches are crowded and overflowing with boats, ropes, bars and wonderers. Finding an empty, beautiful beach here is like finding a tiny piece of glass in a handful of sand.  Every beach is littered with trash, and the boats are constantly pulling in and out, unloading their tourists, and loading up more to take to some other island.

One of my first thoughts when landing on this island was that it severely needed a limitation on the number of people allowed to visit. But that kind of regulation is of course impossible, seeing as the people living off of koh phi phi Don and Leh would be put out of work.

Would they be able to make a living? Probably yes, in some other way. But whose right is it to regulate how much money someone should attempt to make?

One thing is certain; if the islands of Thailand’s south don not begin to regulate tourism, they face destruction, disasters for both Thailand’s environment and culture.

The environment of the south of Thailand is precious. It hosts some of the world’s most divine marine structures and habitats. The island formations themselves are awe-inspiring, otherworldly creations, rising out of the water with jagged cliffs and narrow, rugged caves.

It is no wonder that tourism has hit this area of the world with fury. Being so beautiful has been southern Thailand’s downfall. Since tourism started really picking up in the 70’s and 80’s in Thailand, the toll on the environment has been growing and growing.

In one documentary, a group of students traveling in Thailand in the 1990’s search for a clean, beautiful, un-occupied beach one day. They rent a water polluting long-tail (water taxi), thereby spurring the tourism economy, and proving the point of the devastation that tourists have brought to the islands all in a few minutes of film.

Every beach they find has seen some touch of human occupation, whether in the form of huts or just trash washed up on shore. Distraught and a little depressed, the party seekers “settle” for a beach where they can sit and relax, taking drugs, drinking and doing what westerners do best.

Regulations on the islands are the trickiest part about conservation, but aren’t regulations usually the trickiest part. By combining human rights and rights of the environment, more oft than not, the human rights win out. Unless of course those human rights are actually economic rights or money’s rights. In that case, no one wins at all except Thai government.

From the devastation I saw on the islands, I propose a regulation on how many people can visit an island at one time. This could be raised and lowered according to holidays like Songkran, where the local businesses would gain the most benefit from tourists. But during other seasons, the amount could be seriously lowered to allow for the recovery of the environment. Certain times like these could be times for environmentalist groups to come in and clean up the area, recover certain flora and fauna and revive any destroyed habitats.

Ideal as it may seem, this tiny regulation might never be passed in Thai Law.

For a country that has development on its mind, bringing in as many tourists as possible, for as much of the year as possible, is ideal for the growth of the economy.

Let the Long Tails come. 

Avery Ches
Tulane University 

ASEAN and the AEC: Where do the people fit in?

Over the course of this semester, we’ve been learning about ASEAN and its main pillar, the AEC (ASEAN Economic Community), from the perspective of rural Thailand. ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, consists of 10 Southeast Asian countries, and was designed to promote economic, social, and political cooperation and growth between them. However, its top-down approach to economic development will continue to limit power and resources to leaders of corrupt governmental systems, and increasingly dominant trans- and multinational corporations.

While the three pillars of ASEAN are the AEC, security, and sociocultural integration, the fast-moving economic plan has received the most attention and has made the most progress. Originally planned to begin in 2020, the ASEAN summit pushed the date forward to 2015, and preparations are already in full force.

Railway slum communities in Khon Kaen are fighting for government leases to force legal accountability when, due to AEC railroad expansion plans, they are evicted from their land. Farmers have switched to cash crops like cassava and rubber in all corners of Thailand: all the better for international trade. Labor, already migrating from rural to urban sectors en masse, is primed to expand its exodus to other Southeast Asian countries.

The AEC’s mission is to promote trade within Southeast Asian countries by increasing the movement of goods and services across borders. It is feared that skilled labor including doctors, will leave Thailand’s already strained medical sector in favor of higher-paying countries. Large-scale corporations already hop borders to avoid strict environmental and social regulations; the AEC will make cross-border operations even easier, with no corresponding plans for accountability.

These problems are already seen in Southeast Asia, and all over the world. When a multinational corporation (mainly located in one country, but operating in at least one other country) violates human rights in one area, where should it be prosecuted? Transnational corporations, which have no ‘home base’ in one country and multiple administrative locations instead, make it more complicated. Add in limited liability and corporate personhood, and accountability seems nonexistent.

It is touted that increase in big business, big corporations, and big projects promise big benefits for Thailand: a growing economy, investments in neighboring countries, increase in tourism and money flowing into Thailand.

Of the 100 largest economies in the world, trans/multinational corporations make up 51 of them. The responsibility of government lies in providing services and protection for its citizens, while the legal responsibility of a corporation is to make a profit. When corporations have more power than an entire country, it is not hard to see how the interests of people – especially those who are poor and under- or un-represented – become marginalized in the name of development or international trade.

Thailand’s civil society is growing, as we’ve seen from the many organizations and leaders we’ve had the privilege of meeting this semester. NGO Cord in both Isaan and the North continue to actively fight human rights battles ranging from citizenship to land titles to sustainable agriculture. The ASEAN Youth Movement’s forums before each ASEAN summit incentivized ASEAN to set up its own Youth Forum (although it fell short of a space to voice concerns over ASEAN’s actions and policies). While Thailand’s justice system remains unscrupulous in many ways, human rights lawyers have detected the beginnings of a shift. There’s still a seemingly endless way to go, especially when decisions made by the ASEAN summit have no input from the people its plans will affect.  

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is being introduced into more companies’ policies, but like the green movement, actions behind the scenes don’t always match up with the public statements. While consumers’ demands for products, energy, and money continue to be separate from their realities and implications, corporations’ drive for profit above all else will continue to be the force behind development.

Melanie Medina
Whitman College

03 April 2013

Paradox of a Nation

            Summarizing my experiences in Thailand at this point in the journey is like trying to chew partially digested food- it’s too soon. As I attempt to reflect on my time here, however, I find myself both exhilarated and perplexed. Like many cultures around the world, what has been labeled as “Thai culture,” seems to me as diverse and contradictory as it is rich and beautiful. One example of this has come to the forefront of my attention- namely the paradox of a nation committed to a mainstream development makeover while also trying to preserve traditional knowledge and ways of life that have fostered the well-being of many communities within its borders since its creation. During our two months in the Northeastern region of Isaan and our recent visit to the North, I have become increasingly aware of this countrywide balancing act.
In Khon Kaen (Isaan’s largest city) and Chiang Mai (largest city of the North), Lady boys (Thai cross-dressers), ancient wads (Thai temples), condom advertisements, saffron robed monks, giant portraits of King Bhumibol (Thailand’s current King, crowned in 1950), sprawling open-air markets and multiple 7/11’s all coexist within a minutes walk of each other.

This stark contrast, however, is not solely prevalent in two of Thailand’s largest cities.

While often presenting itself in different forms, the dichotomy between ‘development in the name of progress’ and the preservation of traditional knowledge and ways of life has been predominant in nearly all of our village exchanges and homestays across both Isaan and during our visit to the North.

One of the most striking examples of this shared dichotomy can be seen in the similarities between the Hua Na and Rasi Salai dam affected communities in the Isaan province of Si Sa Ket, and the Kaeng Sua Ten dam affected communities of the North. According to the Thai government, these dam sites are part of the State’s larger initiative of both flood control throughout the country using dams in the north and large-scale irrigation and agro-industrial development in Isaan using dams in the northeastern Khong-Chi-Mun river basin.

After visiting these two dam sites, however, it is clear that in both cases the main parties benefitting from the projects are the government (which enjoys a rise in the State’s GDP- and a consequent boost of international standing), and the companies that are hired to build the dams. Furthermore, these government projects not only fail to accomplish their original intentions, but also cause destruction to surrounding lands and the communities that have lived on those lands for generations. When the Hua Na dam is completed and the gates are closed, many village’s farm and wetlands located along the banks of the Mun river will be submerged under a reservoir of water, stretching 90 km from Hua Na to Rasi Salai dam. And if the two Kaeng Sua Ten Dams are constructed, four communities in the area will be permanently flooded along with one of the oldest Teak forest in the world. Both of these communities have lived on the same land for generations.

In both dam sites of the North and Isaan, the government and companies involved have tipped the balance of the scale by choosing development in the name of progress over the cost of losing entire communities’ land and the traditional ways of life and local wisdom that go with this. Is this justifiable? It’s a complex and morally loaded question, but in my unqualified, present opinion, the answer is no. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in Thailand, however, it’s that rarely is anything ever black or white- so I will keep chewing my partially digested food and attempt to reflect on my time here. 
Eleanor Bennett
Middlebury College