06 April 2010

Making Connections

The sun was just rising when our van pulled up to the temple in Loei province. A group of us students and a few staff were embarking on an exchange between two mining affected communities via a skype call. One of the communities lives in the province and is affected by gold mining while the other community is half way around the world in Floyd County, Kentucky is affected by coal mining. This exchange was one of the most powerful things I have seen since I have been in Thailand. The communities expressed their struggles, strategies and support for one another. Paw Mai, a leader of the Na Nong Bong community, closed the Skype conversation by saying; “One thing that we still have is a friend across the world.” This conversation was an example of how increased globalization; technology and overall interconnectedness can be a positive thing.

We left the exchange to go observe a protest to receive withheld water test results at the Provincial Hall. At the protest, I encountered the opposite side of interconnectedness.

“Where are you from?” asks a surreptitious government official. When we replied that we were from the United States, he inquires about why we are supporting the villagers. This is an issue that troubles me.

Out of the sixty villagers that were at the protest, many of who protest once a month, the government official came up to the four new comers. Was he coming up to us because he realized that mountain top removal and mining is an international issue or was it because we are Americans?

The governor came to visit the village the next day to further discuss their problem with contaminated water and gave them a supply of clean water. P’Kovit, an NGO that works closely with CIEE Thailand, along with a few community members expressed that they didn’t think that the governor would have come to Na Nong Bong if it weren’t for the foreigners who were at the protest. How do we reconcile this attention and undeserved privilege? Should I just accept that this is how the Thai social structure is and this is where I fit into it? By doing so, I can help these people that I care about.

Paw Samai, a Na Nong Bong resident, said, “When a foreigner comes into town, everyone knows about it.” Ben did a profile with Paw Samai who has death threats against him while all elders are dying of kidney and liver problems. He feels that he is living in danger everyday. “I think foreigners are afraid of dangerous situations,” says P’Kovit. He continues to explain that Na Nong Bong really needs a resident NGO because the government attributes no power to the villagers. He also says that a foreigner living there would be the most beneficial next step for the community because everyone will know more about the issue. He also says that if a foreigner were threatened or attacked, everyone would also know. As I make this connection in my head, I wonder to myself, ‘How many people other than the community members in Na Nong Bong know that Paw Samai and Paw Mai have received death threats?’

I thought about this phenomenon cross-culturally. Why is it that we pay more attention when politicians or famous people are threatened? This goes way beyond Thailand because of social hierarchy exists across the world. In my opinion, this is natural but not when it informs the rights of people. This could either be evidence of social injustice in a society or it is a tool in a way that promotes more justice. How can we have a meeting with the mayor of Khon Kaen when residents of Khon Kaen have been fighting these issues for years without direct contact with him?

The negative feelings that arise within me from thess situations could be internal because it hurts our pride. It does so because we think people should be judged on ability and have respect for the quality of our beings. Maybe the reality isn’t so bad; maybe it means that we have the ability to assist them in the change they need. These terrible feelings may really just be in our heads.

Many of us agree that the power we seemingly have for just being foreigners is dispiriting. Being viewed with such reverence is a difficult thing for many people to grasp.

I want to provide what I can to the communities I work with, whether it be a complement about their inspiring community or presenting my ideas about their learning center. I want them to use our resources up fully.

One of my fellow CIEE students explained our project by saying that we, as students, would act as a mirror for the villagers’ ideas and visions. We will take in their desires and ideas and then reflect them out to the public with the resources that we have. We will do what we can.

My feelings of anger and confusion subside as I finish a long day of planning for a learning center in a community. Hours away from leaving for the Rasi Sali dam affected community; I anxiously await the positive exchanges we are going to have with this community.

Gianna Fazioli
University of Michigan


Rachel said...

I'm glad someone wrote a blog entry about this, because I definitely think the questions arising from trying to understand our role as foreigners are an important factor to our experience here. People often talk about what it's like to be the "outsider" on an issue, but I don't think that adequately reflects what we see and feel. You could name anyone who isn't a victim of an injustice an "outsider" in trying to help resolve it. But we are privileged outsiders. The easiest thing to do would be to use this privilege on behalf of the unprivileged; to accept the extra attention we receive and use it to draw attention to the issues we're concerned with. But in doing so, don't we continue to support the system of privilege that places these people in unjust situations to begin with? Is our use of privilege as a tool reaffirming that privilege? When confronted with these questions, I think we often look at our limitations as students only here for four months, and as outsiders with an incomplete understanding of the culture, and argue that we can't create a change in mentality (although perhaps we can begin it), and feel thereby absolved from the situation. Yet we rarely discuss how we might actually begin a broader change, and we leave the question of whether our other actions undermine these intentions open.

Bijal said...

This strange phenomenon is something we have been dealing with all semester, and it’s such a weird issue that most of us have never experienced before. Why do they like foreigners so much! On the way home from Yasothon the other week, we were standing on the bus. The bus was packed and several people were standing alongside us in the bus aisle. Suddenly the bus attendant forces his way through the people standing to get to us. He says things in Thai and makes us follow him. We didn’t know what was going on and whether it was time to get off the bus, or possibly make a bus switch. Then, the bus stopped and the people in the front seat got out, and the bus attendant told us to sit. We stared at each other in disbelief and discomfort as we turned and saw the rest of the standing passengers behind us. “Mie ben rye” we insisted awkwardly at the nice gesture. He insisted and we sat, happy for the physical comfort but uncomfortable with the special treatment.
I don’t know what to do with that kind of treatment, attention, and respect. We are a bunch of college students and in America people wouldn’t give us a second glance. But for some reason, in Thailand, we are recipients of respect and put on an undeserving pedestal. I also think it’s a sense of hospitality that is firmly in place in Thai culture. Taking care of the foreigners in Isaan and making sure they’re happy is a matter of taking care of guests in their home region. We can try to convince the people we meet that we aren’t worthy of their attention, but I think that might be a slightly fruitless endeavor. I think the only thing we can do is utilize this unwarranted attention in the most effective manner and bring attention to these issues and make people in power aware that we care and if they really do like us foreigners, then they should too.