10 April 2009

The voices of villagers echo in my head. Days, weeks, or months after our conversations their words—from exchanges or just from conversations that I’ve managed to have in my barely functional Thai—resonate just as strongly, or more, as when I was actually experiencing them. And when after each week I come back to the university, the more I try to communicate their experiences to others the more I realize that changes in their way of life, their culture, and their livelihoods are best communicated from the source. Working on the Human Rights Report made me realize how exclusive legal language and academic discourse can be for the people actually experiencing those issues, and how this language barrier is partially responsible for the disconnect between villagers and their representatives at both a regional and national level.

As a result of their words, and the strength of my experiences with villagers, I’ve started to think about how their words can be communicated to others. I’ve started to think more than ever before about systems of education, and the ways learning can be facilitated (or exist entirely) outside of academia to empower communities. Academic and legal discourse is isolating, A few nights ago this topic came up in a conversation with a regional NGO that works with communities affected by dams. In various communities surrounding the Pak Mun, Rasi Salai and Hua Na dam projects, villagers are being taught how to research and collect data on their own experiences, and how to find information on other forces that are affecting their lives. This information will be used to inform the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) being conducted to access the affect on dams on communities and their way of life. Protests themselves also serve as a form of community empowerment and self-learning. People are encouraged to think about and learn how to vocalize their stories and their demands.

I was floored by this idea…how by facilitating community voices to be heard knowledge becomes inclusive, and communication of the issues becomes possible. I’ve always thought the role of NGO’s and writers was to hear peoples stories and then to give them a voice in some sort of way. And while in some cases that is true, I think my envisioning of how this should be done has changed. NGO’s role seems to be to teach and empower villagers to research, interpret, and vocalize their experiences. Villagers should be provided the tools, and the language, to narrate their own experience to others. Once verbalized, these experiences should be given a space to be heard by others on the local, regional, and national level (to both governmental and non-governmental actors). NGO’s should facilitate networking with other communities and movements facing rights violations around the world.

People have already started. Paw Som Baht in the Land Development Community takes a bus to Bangkok twice a month, trying to communicate issues of land rights to various ministries. Paw Mai in Na Nong Bong takes pictures of people with visible health problems, starting to collect evidence for a potential court case. Other local leaders collect documents, test result, and keep records of all letters sent to them, and that they send themselves. Meh Die in Ban Poon takes us on a tour of the river and flooded lands, pointing out and speaking (slowly and patiently in Thai, as we struggled to understand) how and where the lands have been flooded after the dam, and how as a result villagers have been displaced and land has been lost.

As we near final project time, I’m starting to think of our role as students. More specifically, I’m starting to question how our role in the academic community and our experience over the past semester facilitating each other’s learning can be brought to the community level to empower villagers and facilitate community learning.

Rebecca Haverson, Muhlenberg College


Anonymous said...

Becca your post is so insightful!

Over my time in Thailand, I’ve also come to understand the importance of roles. They are often over looked and can be easily confused. The question of roles keeps occurring in every unit we’ve had. What are our roles as students? And how can we help?

Sometimes, I feel we become so connected to the issues we learn about that we want to help fix the problem immediately. But it often makes me wonder, are we really helping or are we just alleviating a problem?

This unit I’ve really begun to understand that help comes in many forms. As students, I see that our role can be to help give a voice to people who are never heard. We can act as links and messengers. We can become a tool by sharing the experiences of others in order to help develop social consciousness.

Piper Harrington- CIEE Spring 2009

Anonymous said...


I agree with what you’re saying about how the legal discourse can be limiting and restrictive. The part about this situation that stood out the most to me was the fact that many villagers believe that their own knowledge of situations is less legitimate or less valuable than that of other people. I feel like we have recently encountered many villagers who say that they are “only villagers” without any education, and therefore they want to know what we, as students and as Americans, think about the situation. There is a great deal of value in students and villagers learning from each other, but what worries me the most is how villagers sometimes feel that our type of knowledge, framed within an academic discourse is more legitimate than theirs. Like you, I was really inspired by the idea of NGOs providing villagers with the tools to perform their own research since, in the words of one NGO, it builds confidence and helps them to feel that what they are saying is just as valid as what anyone else is saying. I’ve also been thinking about our role for final project time, and I hope we can play a role, not just in facilitating the sharing of information, which I believe is really important, but also in creating spaces in which all knowledge and information can be equally respected and valued.

Meghan Ragany - CIEE Spring 2009

Luke said...

It’s definitely important that villagers communicate their own experiences, concerns, and hopes without much of a filter from NGOs and academics. Unfortunately, many people are unwilling to really listen to those voices. Too often are villager’s voices dismissed as anecdotal evidence, undeserving of serious consideration. I think, specifically of academia, where, as Becca noted, the language can be cumbersome and exclusive to those with the proper training to crack the code of writing in higher education. Still, that being the nature of the world we live in, it is important there be some people translating the voices of villagers and communities into dense blocks of text that will satisfy students and professors. I think it’s not even a bad thing. So long as the message rings true throughout, what harm can come from having one voice in many forms? Our group has spoken many times of the importance that villagers be given equal access to political forums. I wonder if increasing equal voice in social and academic forums is the first step towards leveling the playing field. If that is the case, than we should be pushing to allow villagers to express themselves, rather than continuing to translate their voices.