09 December 2008

Human Rights and Beyond

    The striking thing was not the poverty or their problems. It was their dignity and their ways of working together, whether in the home or as a community. The poor do not need sympathy, all they need is support. We were supporting them by taking the time to learn something about their lives, both good and bad, about struggles and joys. The picture that is painted of poverty is false and two-dimensional it does not illicit what is truly needed, which is empathy. Its not about feeling guilty or having more or less. Its about understanding and helping one another as much as we can, in anything from the daily chores to writing a human rights report or even just sharing what you’ve learned with family and friends.  

    What villagers have to say is no less credible than anyone. They are experts on their lives and their struggles. Academics are knowledgeable on their level, but that only extends as far as their experiences. If they have not spent time living with the poor they cannot talk about the lives of the poor. They may be capable of talking about societal structures and oppression, but the words will always be void of life. There are no people. If there are no people then there’s no point. The oppressed are a faceless, lifeless mob, as are the oppressors. At the Thai Baan Research Center, Paw Somgiat said, “EGAT can fool anyone whose here for a day. You only see one moment in time, while we are here living with the problem.” They are the closest to the knowledge, they are the poor and within their realm they are the most credible.

    Being with them has changed me. It has had me examine my fears and my stigmas. Again I am overwhelmed each time by the dignity and warmth with which they live, yet they are still struggling. They are struggling for legitimacy not only as sources of knowledge, but as people that deserve to be treated with fairness and as equals. Their interests are not considered nor is their voice. As students who wish to learn about their lives and their struggles, we are helping to legitimize their voices and their fight through spreading awareness and taking action. 

    NGOs say that their primary concern is educating people about their rights, letting the people know that they deserve fair treatment. Human Rights are not given power by international law, they derive their power from the dignity which is innate to all people. Human rights is a common language that gives voice to this dignity. With this language all people regardless of community, issue, nationality can communicate and stand together to claim their rights, united in the struggle for the recognition of their legitimacy as people.

    However, human rights is not an end. It is a step. Without human rights, justice is not possible. There are still divides between people and in order to heal we must be able to speak on equal terms.

Alvin Sangsuwangul - Pomona College

07 December 2008

HIV/AIDS in Thailand

HIV/AIDS is an issue that has been around for quite some time in Thailand. Though it has recently taken a backseat as a result of numerous improvements, it is still an issue which needs a sincere amount of attention. Our group of CIEE students spent the day talking with Thai Network for People Living with HIV/AIDS (TNP+), where we learned all about their methods of HIV/AIDS education, their company, its goals, and procedures for helping fight a battle against HIV/AIDS.

We learned through readings and discussion with TNP+ that perhaps the largest reason for the spread of HIV/AIDS in Thailand is prostitution. Our group spoke with many members of TNP+ who contracted the disease through intercourse with their spouse. In general, their spouse had cheated and had a sexual relationship with a prostitute who was HIV positive. This is the most common way to contract the disease, with drugs being the second most popular method of contraction. Formerly, in the late 80s, early 90s, it was estimated that about half of all the prostitutes in Chiang Mai were HIV positive. Seeing as many people often have to travel to the cities for work or in order to find work, they will leave their wives for extended periods of time and then “miss their wives” which causes them to seek other means of satisfaction, as we were told by TNP+ members. They then return home to their wives and have sex thus passing on the virus.

Upon hearing this, my first inclination was to think how stupid the men must be to never wear condoms especially when having sex with commercial sex workers who have sex for a living. I then thought twice and realized that the HIV/AIDS education is lacking and the stigmas for those who have HIV/AIDS are horrendous and sweeping incorrect generalizations. The people of Thailand are often completely uneducated or undereducated about HIV/AIDS and believe that it’s safe to have sex without a condom as long as you really love your partner. Although education has gotten better and people are learning, it is still hard to make up for all the years of lack of education and years of people fearing to get close to anyone who is HIV positive.

When you understand the history of HIV/AIDS in Thailand and how far they have come it is not surprising that people do not understand how to interact with people who are living with HIV/AIDS. For example, as we learned from readings and discussions with members of TNP+, the original slogan for HIV/AIDS in Thailand was “If you get AIDS, you will die.” With these messages being distributed by the government, it is all very clear why the people of Thailand would not want to interact with people living with HIV/AIDS. That being said, it is important to see how much Thailand has grown since the time of that slogan. For example, the government sponsored slogan is now “If you get AIDS, you will live” which is a stark contrast to the original. Additionally, the HIV/AIDS awareness has increased and the media has started to advertise safe sex and other positive messages that no longer condemn those with HIV/AIDS, but show that they too, can live a full life.

That being said, there is still a long way to go. With drugs being another big issue in Thailand, there are still more actions that the government could take to secure the future safety and security of the people. For example, needle exchange programs would greatly benefit the people of Thailand. More importantly, however, for those living with HIV/AIDS who contracted the virus through drug use, they are not being allowed access to the appropriate healthcare. In all, Thailand is being remarked as a role model for other developing countries when it comes to the fight against HIV/AIDS for the remarkable progress it has made. Although Thailand does deserve all the credit for the actions taken to fight HIV/AIDS, there is still much to be done as far as eliminating stigmas and providing the appropriate forms of healthcare. There is much to be said for groups like TNP+ however, that spread HIV/AIDS awareness and help those living with HIV/AIDS know and obtain their rights. Indeed groups such as TNP+ have the power to continue the current trend in the right direction providing a hopeful future for Thailand’s HIV/AIDS population.

Suzanne Haggerty - George Washington University

Going Home...Is Building Community Even Possible?

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to make some sense of the units we’ve studied and to identify some of the ties between villages we visited. For me, the most important parallel between all of these villages is the strong sense of community they seem to develop. It’s not a realization I recently came to, but a topic that I came to Thailand hoping to learn more about. I never expected to be as moved as I have been by the relationships villagers forge with one another. During our home stay in Kambon Noi, the landfill community, it was difficult to tell which of the many people coming in and out of our house were actually family. The families there relied on each other for daily survival, helping each other scavenge for recyclables to sell. At the exchange in the evening, I noticed that the women in the village acted more like sisters than neighbors.

It’s difficult not to envy the strong bonds that villagers share. My family moved into a housing development a few years ago, the kind of subdivision with a neighborhood association whose primary concern is how long residents keep up their Christmas lights. We still don’t know our neighbors. Big surprise.

I’ve been wondering why it is that this concept of a strong community has been disappearing throughout America. Why is it that we can join online networks to read about the music preferences of acquaintances living across country, but not take the time to know those who live right next to us? Are we just too busy? I’ve been asking myself “why don’t we have community” when really I should’ve been wondering what reason we have that would bring us together.

There are many reasons why the villages we’ve studied have been able to develop a strong community. Each village was united by a common issue. In Surin, it was farming. In Khambon Noi, it was the dwindling economy and poor health conditions. In addition, Thailand has a rich cultural history. Isaan has a culture that is so tight knit and specific.

But what unites us as Americans? In a nation of immigrants, do we even share a cultural history? In “Angels in America”, Tony Kushner calls America “this great big melting pot where nothing actually melted”. It may be pessimistic, but lately I’ve been wondering if it’s even possible to strengthen communities in our nation that is a heterogeneous mix of immigrant cultures.

And while I know this may spark harsh criticism from many, I can’t help but think race is a part of the dissolution of communities. I’m from a small Georgia town, where racism is still very much a problem. I have seen the way it affects communities and feel like I can confidently say it is a dividing line for many. The college I attend also has its fair share of race related issues which have contributed to a rather disjointed student community. Sometimes I wonder if Thai villagers are able to share such close bonds not only because they share a common issue, but also because they come from a similar racial background.

This blog post probably says a great deal about my faith in humanity, which is another post for another time. Disenchantment is not a pleasant experience. I came to Thailand hoping to learn about how to build community and now I’m unsure of whether an attempt at reconstructing it is even possible.

Lane Eisenburg - Wofford College