28 November 2009

The Real Farang Power

All twenty-seven of us Nak Suk Saa’s (students) have since returned from a pristine mountain-side community called Na Nong Bong, up north adjacent to the border between Thailand and Laos, where mountains are plenty, the environment impeccable. Except - of course - if one were to look closely; for wedged in between two glorious mountains, one lies cut at its edge, scraped clean of its natural beauty. And the villagers we stayed with were all directly affected by it and will talk of it disparagingly and rightfully so. This gold mine, built by the Thai government (indirectly through an industrial company bent on the surplus gain of natural resources), has [allegedly ed.] leaked its harmful effects into the surrounding rivers which, for local communities such as Na Nong Bong, are and have always been the singular source of fresh water.

Before this construction life for the villagers was simple, and a trip to the river meant not only fresh water, but food and gatherings for a potential profit at the local market. But now things have changed, and with toxic chemicals such as cyanide permeating through the soil and into the water, their way of life and their ability to access the fundamentals of it are gone, ignored. Their water is contaminated, and thus their food goes rejected at the market. Without anyone to fight for their cause and lacking the proper means to fight for it themselves they continue - through their daily routine - to bathe in and even drink these toxins and their limbs do not hide the effects. Dark rashes cover some portions of their skin and cyanide levels in their blood are far above normality. But the Health Inspection claims there is no proof of its source, and who knows with what connection these facts are made, yet still the lack of information alone is unacceptable (at least that to which the villagers are granted a proper review). They are kept from the results of these tests, kept from both the construction and regulation processes, kept on the sidelines to watch their livelihood slip between their fingers without consent. And who is it that can bridge the gap between them and the other side? Who can fight for their cause at levels they would never have reached otherwise? The farang (foreigner). Or so I and they as well I’m sure, assumed.

As we sat in an exchange with the Ministry of Industry, it became clear how we were received; with warm impatience and the preconceived notion that we were all NGOs in the making and should be treated as such. And so we got our information, fine-tuned exactly to how they wanted it told, careful not to overstep bounds or provide any false inclinations. At one point during the conversation they had asked our opinion on the villager’s perspective, to which we made the convenient note of their presence behind us, asking for them to be addressed directly. But to this they declined; refusing to speak with anyone but the mid-adolescent farang with whom they had scheduled their meeting; of whom knew far less, whose motivations were less inherent.

Yes we had gotten that meeting, but it was more an opportunity for us to continue learning than for us to start helping (and possibly this was the intention all along, but at the time we felt powerful, wanting and expecting so much more). And so I left the exchange and the village too soon then after, feeling sorry and with a heavier burden than that which I had arrived with. And I had my shower in Khon Kaen waiting me in the hours approaching, as too the cleanest tap water in the world will welcome me back to New York City in a month’s time upon my return home. And Na Nong Bong and its villagers do not have this luxury, this escape, and I was biased in my time there to remember that I did have that advantage. This is a power that we all had; the knowledge of a better life, and the reminder that going without fresh water would only be, for us at least, a five day chore. It is a simple power and it goes unforced but it still remains at the back of the mind all the while. Yet it is only through uncomfortable situations where we can realize the responsibility we all have in providing this comfortability to those lacking such simple fortune. And we’re trying. Now if only the Thai government and the Ministry of Industry too could perform a home stay at Na Nong Bong.

Ian Samplin
New York University

1 comment:

Kara Heumann said...

I remember the frustration I felt walking out of our Ministry of Industry exchange. Pi Maun, one of the villagers from Na Nong Bong that was there, whispered to me in Thai, “They don’t know anything. They are black-hearted.” I’ve struggled over the issues at Na Nong Bong since first arriving there as I feel urged to help them. This is the only unit I have had a hard time seeing a tangible way to resolve the issue while sustaining the world’s need to extract resources. But when I look back, having that exchange did help. I think of the Philosophy professor from KKU that we listened to at a recent human rights conference when he said, “To tell a farang about human rights violations in Thailand is meaningless. We have to help ourselves.” Giving the villagers like Pi Maun an opportunity to sit in on an exchange like that has the ability to better prepare their argument when dealing with the industry and government officials on their own in the future. And perhaps it made a worthy point that in pursuing their rights in Na Nong Bong, they cannot rely completely on the presence of farang.

Kara Heumann
Indiana University