28 November 2009

Having just completed our final unit and homestay one of the questions that still remains with me is what are we really doing here? By that I mean how are we helping and is that why we came to Thailand? The first “we” I am referring to is the group of 27 individuals from all over the United States who come from diverse backgrounds and academic interests who just so happened to come to Thailand in the fall of 2009. The other “we” I am referring to is the organization of CIEE Thailand as a whole, a program that is deeply connected with Issan’s grassroot movement and larger international development schemes such as issues pertaining to the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS). I have been fascinated by the depths with which CIEE is intricately connected to these different communities we are involved in. I would venture to say that this is not normal of most study abroad organizations. It initiates and maintains relationships that students then get to pursue and expand upon. On the one hand, we have the ability to take our exchanges in any direction, to be creative with our involvement yet we still have to remain within the structure of the program in what sometimes feels to have pre determined solutions. Clearly without students there would be no progression within this mutual relationship but what kind of authority do we really have to make a difference considering some of us are just learning about these issues for the first time? Are we really able to initiate change in such a short period of time? Frustrating as it is, maybe it’s a good thing there are some confinements, it keeps our idealistic minds at bay. Yet I can’t help but be aware of the slight disappointment I feel when we are told to spread awareness as the answer to our questions of how we can be of help. Why do the villagers put so much faith in us that we can effectively spread awareness? I’m not saying that it’s impossible. If this experience has taught me anything, it is the power of a unified group, but I struggle to see how we can raise international awareness about these issues when there isn’t even local awareness. Is it really our place to do such a thing?
Regardless, this blog is my attempt to raise awareness as well as justify for myself the greater importance of why we are here. Our final exchange took place on November 13th with a community that has no previous ties to CIEE, a community that is beginning to form a group to oppose the creation of the first copper mine in Thailand. While the government has not officially stated anything to the villagers and they do not have a mining license or a completed environmental impact assessment (EIA), the community is taking pre-emptive measures to ensure the safety of the environment and their way of life. Aware of their rights, this community is determined to prevent what is beginning to happen all over the province of Loei with gold mines.
It was the first exchange that I actually felt powerful, were I could see how eager these villagers were to talk to us and how badly they wanted us to help. This exchange also helped me better understand the importance of networking, the impressive reputation CIEE Thailand has amongst villages in Issan and that we are part of a cycle of learning and support that is much bigger than the 27of us. If nothing more than just the superficial first meeting, the proverbial toe dip to test the water, this exchange was a necessary step for future interactions.
It is hard for me to grasp the magnitude of what we do here. There is so much potential power in being part of something like this but is it fair for us to have it and if we don’t who will?

Dalya Heller
University of Washington

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