06 April 2010

Trials of Baw Kaew

I am skimming through my documentation of an exchange CIEE students held with the lawyer for Baw Kaew’s upcoming court case. The notebook we used during our last visit to the protest village is full of rushed penmanship, question marks and ellipses, glaring omissions and questionable orthography. The pages of our notebook devoted to this exchange, which took place on a low, covered bamboo platform in the oppressive heat of March in Thailand, do little to reflect the surroundings, or the character who generously offered his time for our questions that day.

The lawyer for Baw Kaew’s trespassing trial is a small man named Bibun, from Pukeow province, who warned us more than a few times that he would hold us accountable for our facts during his exchange with us. Our conversation touched on the court cases (the earlier mentioned trespassing case, and the trial of the Forest Industry Organization (FIO) guards who physically assaulted youth from Baw Kaew) as well as the lawyer’s views on the different legal tools available in Thailand. He cited the constitution and the ESCR as necessary guidelines and mindsets for the fair and just practice of law that were often overlooked by judges.

The exchange took a turn at one point when Bibun began to describe the government policies that originally led villagers to the area where Baw Kaew is situated. During the 1960s and 70s, farmers were encouraged to migrate into the forests of the northeast for the twin purpose of growing cash crops like cassava and hemp, and mitigating the influence of communists hiding out in the region. Pens clicked, eyes sharpened, and all interested bodies leaned in to hear more, as we realized we were discovering hitherto unknown details about our current location, and the subject of our study. Aptly, the lawyer seated cross-legged in front of us had appealed to our sense of justice, provoking curiosity and astonishment at the revelation that the government of Thailand had led farmers to settle in the forest here, only to claim a few years later that the site had never been occupied.

My initial reaction, as it was hastily written in our composition book, was to determine whether there was any documentation of the government’s initial plan to settle the northeast for its own ulterior motives. Surely if they had kept records of this, there would be no difficulty in proving that the claims of the residents of Baw Kaew were legitimate so they could get their land back.

His response to my question was less than satisfactory in my opinion. The lawyer admonished my inquiry about documentation, claiming that the search for it was a moot point, since the important thing is to get the government to admit that the migration had occurred (they did admit this). I tried pushing the question one more time, with the same wavering, vague results.

Over the next week, as I delved into new books about the politics of Thailand’s forests in a quest for the responses Bibun had withheld, it became apparent just how engrained my American/western mindset about objective truth is, and was during this exchange. A few months previously I had read (in some documents) that while Westerners tend to focus on objectivity and a single truth, and the quest thereof, there is no such emphasis in Eastern cultures. If this is true, it explains some of what the lawyer was trying to get at in his ambiguous answers, and why my direct and objective questions about truth and proof were so lost in translation in the conversation.

My next slip-up was when I decided to write my blog about this idea of objectivity and truth. I was approaching the subject in an entirely objective fashion, intending to get the facts about the Thai alternative to my own way of thinking and proving, and to find out more about how a legal system works if documentation is not the summum bonum of proof. Finally, I sat down to write, only to realize I would need the composition book with our documentation of the exchange in it, in order to be as objectively accurate to the events as possible.

Althea Smith
Georgetown University

1 comment:

Alexander Binder said...


You raise some very interesting questions regarding the 'subjectivity of objectivity'. It is unfortunate that the fate of Baw Kaew will be judged by elites and determined by the legitimacy of documentation produced and mandated by the elites. Baw Kaew's fate will be minimally influenced by the actual villagers of Baw Kaew. The lawyer seems optimistic that citing ICESCR and human rights will be effective, but I am skeptical. How legitimate are human rights when they have to be enforced by a body of elites comprised of absolutely none of the people who's rights are being violated the most? When the government signs these ICESCR agreements and does not abide by them, do these agreements really mean anything at all? The main problem lays in that the actor that is violating these human right is the exact same one that is supposed to be protecting them: the government. Can these issues and violations perhaps be mediated with more representation by the people in the decision making process? Are the lack of democratic ideals really the core of these issues we have been investigating all this time? Hope, Althea, you and I can answer these questions in the next two weeks. I have total faith that we can. Maybe.