23 October 2008

A Rebel

With a low ponytail, a wicked looking half-goatee half-scraggly beard, and a dark olive complexion, our first physical impression of Mr. Supad** was that of a traditional Thai drug dealer rather than an NGO spokesman respected throughout Udon Thani province.
Despite our initial perception of him, NGO spokesman he definitely is. As one of the overseers for the Peace and Human Rights Center of NE Thailand, P'Supad has traveled throughout the region supporting people's movements and counseling villages affected by development projects in Udon Thani. "Which villages do I go to?" he laughs. "I have a beat up old Chevy – I go wherever it has the strength to take me."

It became increasingly apparent that P'Supad is not your typical NGO or even your typical guy. It was the clear after our group's first exchange with him present – that with villagers affected by river dredging – that we were on completely different wavelengths. After a lecture on Isaan ecology and the largely destructive effects development projects various ministries were planning would have on it, we began peppering the lecturer and villagers with questions.

"What do you mean, they might put nuclear waste underground if the mine is built?" I sputtered. "And since those contracts are completely government-backed as opposed to the mine being a private enterprise, would potential protests be better heard?" Other students questioned about how he proposed to get information and education about development projects out to affected villagers.

All of Mr. Supad's answers were frustrating – they were whole other questions and topics to themselves. "You must not think that the government is good," he chided us. "Words like 'nuclear' and 'benefits' are not those that villagers understand, and the government won't tell them about it anyways." Problems need to be framed relative to villagers' lives in order to mean anything to them.

He talked about the problems with the governing system, democracy, and capitalism in general: "Democracy is a tool of capitalism." Things like potash, nuclear, and development are all trends fashioned by the current system. The exchange was unlike any other we've had with other NGOs – where we were able to control the direction of the discussion in accordance to the nature of our questions. Here was a man who had his own agenda in speaking with us and was clearly trying to lead us on a certain train of questions.

Where could this anger against the government and the powers of capitalism have come from? What little information we have on Supad's life is interesting and thought-provoking to say the least. The first impression of him being a drug dealer is not too far off the mark – the man started off as a Bangkok gang member and later a drug dealer and gambler in southern Thailand. Even after giving up on illicit activities and turning back to schooling, Supad refused to pick up his diploma from the king (making him appear to not support the much-revered figure) and quit jobs that paid him too high of a salary. Many of his actions show a life against conventional traditions and concepts. These concepts were those that we as American CIEE students had attached ourselves to as part of our lives. A 'democratic' government, a highly economized market world. It was certainly difficult to take ourselves out of that background and perspective.

However, the group went back to Supad in our last exchange of the unit trying hard to absorb and ask 'big, systemic' questions rather than specifics caught up in the details. Did it help us understand this enigma of a man? Perhaps. While we may now see why people like him in Thailand are wary of working 'within' a governing system as I am certainly more wont to do, I still find the things he says contradictory and strange. For instance, explaining away villagers' exclusion of pro-mine villagers by saying that they have not gone along with the majority decision sounds far too much like the conformity he tries so hard to avoid for comfort. Regardless, I think exchanging with this man has forced us to re-evaluate and think deeply of our own perspectives and values – something that is almost always needed when dealing with such different cultural and political backgrounds.
**name changed for privacy

Emma Htun - Georgetown University


Wes Mills said...

Wow, I haven't heard your perception on P'Suvit before. It is very interesting. I myself was trying to dig apart his personality to find where his motives came from and where his fervor's source came from. He is very radical in thinking and practice. This usually turns me off. I found encapsulated by him because he truly believe everything he was fighting for. He also seemed to live the life too (to what extent I truthfully don't know).

I know that people's movements take very different forms in order to create success. For example the Lampaniang community used the legal system and the PakMun community used peaceful protest and communication. I was very frustrated with the way P'Suvit exemplified the Potash mining community for being uncooperative with the government and the Italian Thai because I though they were degrading others humanity. But the truth it, P'Suvit's method is working. I'm still struggling with this idea.

Another thing about P'Suvit is that he will jump into action about whatever he believes. He will travel somewhere and see people protesting a Tesco Lotus and stop to protest with them. I'm not sure how effective this is but sometimes I feel like I don't put into action the beliefs I have.

I have been personally challenged with not fully believing in the democratic system and capitalism. As an American I feel like I've been taught that they are all good. I'm trying to rid myself of what my culture tells me and grasp what I have seen. P'Suvit spoke with a lot of emotion about his ideas on government structure. I hope to learn more about this.

Thanks Emma
-Wes Mills

aldulin said...

Our group’s interaction with P’Suvit was a defining time during which I learned the value of unlearning. Learning is hard- of course- the process of understanding new information and piecing it together with prior experiences and knowledge is difficult. However, learning is also familiar in that it is something I have been doing for quite some time. Not as comfortable or familiar, the process of “unlearning” is slightly painful and exceptionally frustrating. P’Suvit spoke with us about democracy, capitalism, education, common resources, free trade, and every other “big picture” idea one could imagine. Like Emma and Wes, I felt drawn to criticize his views on his radical philosophies. Also like my two group members, I recognized how many of these radical philosophies were effective in the communities in which he worked. But still I wasn’t convinced. As my econ professor’s words about supply and demand echoed stubbornly in my head I was slightly resentful towards his harsh words about capitalism, free trade, and democracy. Then- somehow- this process of unlearning began to happen. I recognized that stubbornness- and fear to change- only serves to handicap my education.

Matt Palamara said...

Development issues in Thailand are difficult to understand if they are only being studied from “within” the development model. Individuals who have spent time operating outside of a subject, in this case traditional Thai society, are most capable of realizing the underlying causes of a problem. P’Supad, acting as a drug dealer and illegitimate businessman was able to view Thai development and society through an entirely new perspective.

“Well why don’t you try…..and gain a new perspective.” Who hasn’t heard this phrase uttered at one time throughout their life? This new perspective that is frequently discussed is acquired subconsciously, without recognition, and rarely recognized. P’Supad only came to understand the troubles with development in Thailand through working as a drug dealer and operating outside social norms. Perspective can’t be forced; it just comes naturally through unscripted interactions and contemplation.

Guilt can play a large role in aiding peoples’ understanding of human nature and the driving forces behind capitalism and development. Often, those who possess guilt are the ones who attempt to right their wrongs by preaching about the pitfalls of human nature.

Max Weisman said...

It is hard to figure out what to say after the way you captured the persona of P'Suvit so well, but I’ll do my best. I, like some others, was a little wary of the guys’ intentions after the first exchange with him, but by the end of our final land unit exchange, I couldn’t help but love the guy. Normally I’m not particularly fond of those with extreme points of views (being the staunch moderate I claim, and try, to be), but talking with P’Suvit was extremely refreshing and enlightening to me. Upon listening to his story I found that he not only had legitimate reasons behind his views, but that he was willing to concede the fact that he may be wrong on certain points rather than completely disregarding other view points. Plus, the guy puts his money where his mouth is, which is something I always respect in a person. Overall, he turned from a man of whom I was suspect, to a man I came to respect.