22 November 2010

A Similar Struggle Two Decades Later

In Tamui Village we held our exchange on a deck overlooking the Mekong River. Below us a string of boats lined the riverbank and occasionally a fisherman returned home with a catch. Half way across the river is a cluster of rocks. I was told the best fishing is right by those rapids because that is where all the fish hang out. In the dry season those rocks become a tourist attraction, and backpackers come regularly to camp out in a tent in the middle of the Mekong. Farther, across a stretch of flowing water to the opposite riverbank is a thickly forested patch of Laos. It was a tranquil sight, but the topic of discussion at this exchange was not. A dam has been approved for construction a couple kilometers upstream from Tamui village, and if it is built it will change the lives of the people who live there forever. The Laotian villagers who live across the river are relying on Tamui to resist the dam construction, because under the Lao government, they cannot speak up to oppose it. And those rapids, where the best fishing is and where tourists come to spend the night, is slated for demolition because the Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand has determined it needs to create a deeper channel in that location. The most worrisome effect the dam would have on the lives of these people is that it would destroy their livelihoods. The river is what sustains them.

After our exchange with the Tamui villagers, Paw Somkiat stepped forward from a pack of onlookers and spoke with conviction directly to the people of Tamui. Somkiat is one of the leaders of the Pak Mun dam-affected community, and as such he has been a central figure in the fight against the Pak Mun dam for over two decades. He is familiar with the withering effects a dam has on a community that is so dependant on the river for sustenance because his community experienced these effects thoroughly. He expressed his desire for unity between Tamui and Pak Mun, and he offered to share the lessons he has learned from his many years negotiating, protesting, and fighting against a destructive dam. He said, “Our information is our weapon.” Information is a weapon they will have to use if the villagers of Tamui want to resist the dam from being built, because there are large structural interests that support its construction. Thailand has approved of the project and that Laos government has already checked it off as well. One of the only barriers to construction right now is that the Environmental Impact Assessment has not been completed yet.

Tamui, in a way, is like a snapshot of Pak Mun about twenty-three years ago, before the dam was built. The question that remains, however, is whether the two share a similar fate. The Pak Mun dam has stood across the Mun River for years and years as the pilot project of the Kong-Chi-Mun water development project. It still funnels the Mun River through its menacing turbines, producing electricity (at a miniscule fraction of its projected output) to feed the needs of growing industry and sprawling Bangkok. The dam slated for construction a couple kilometers upstream from Tamui has not been build yet, and the people of Tamui still have a chance to protect their livelihoods, their community, and the region’s natural ecology.

Alex Kovac
Santa Clara University

19 November 2010

What Does It Mean To Learn?

This past unit we explored the theme of water and dam related issues. Our first visit was to a community affected by the Rasi Salai dam in Si Saket province. The community has been fighting for over two decades to seek reparations and restoration of their livelihoods after the Rasi Salai dam flooded thousands of rai of land and inundated a large part of the wetlands. Many of the farmers have yet to receive compensation for lost land and those that have find that it was not enough to make up for everything they lost. After, years of failed strategies the community has redirected its efforts towards peaceful engagement with the government and education. It is this second component that I will address further.

The spring 2010 CIEE student group responded to a request from villagers affected by the Rasi Salai dam to help create a project plan for a learning center. In the beginning, there were a few ideas of what it may look like and the purpose it could serve. Through a process of collaboration and planning the community and students developed a concrete project proposal. Since then the community has moved forward with the construction of the agricultural learning component. This includes a community gathering space, two chicken houses, a mushroom house and the planting of trees and crops.

The next step is the most important and possibly the most difficult. The community wants to preserve as much knowledge about their livelihoods, flora and fauna, the wetlands and the history of their struggle as they can. They may have structures but it is vital that knowledge be collected and displayed effectively if it is to be passed on to a broader audience. This is the task that is confronting the villagers and our student group. I hope that we can work together to establish a system that will ensure Rasi Salai’s local wisdom will be passed on to future generations.

This same strategy is used in our own student group in trying to connect our learning to that of past and future semesters. Through a series of detailed pass-ons and the use of tools like this blog we are able to share our experiences, struggles and knowledge with those to come. This is the true meaning of learning. Looking beyond the now and oneself to see your learning as small step along a very long road. A road that has built by millions before you and will continue to stretch far into the future.

Brett Srader
Macalestar College

10 November 2010

Some Program Philosophy

"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn”.
-Benjamin Franklin

The CIEE programs philosophy of education captures the essence of intrapersonal development, collaboration, self-empowerment and direct engagement in the learning process. CIEE offers a personalized, community based, holistic alternative to mainstream education. My ambition to pursue a study abroad program involving an alternative education model stemmed from my passion for adventure and interest in experiential learning. I aspired to participate in a program that would challenge me personally, intellectually, and academically. Nearly 2 months ago, I arrived in Bangkok wide-eyed and apprehensive. Thus far, my experiences throughout the semester have tested my limits, broadened my horizons, and exceeded my expectations.

The program is structured to offer students the opportunity to organize and facilitate informal/formal academic spaces. The semester is divided into 5 units. Each unit focuses on protection of human rights in communities throughout Northeastern Thailand. Themes include civil, political, economic, and social issues. Our first unit was based on traditional agricultural production and organic farming. Rather than being confined to the classroom, our student group explored the issue hands on by visiting Yasthon, a self-sufficient community in the midst of transitioning to chemical free agricultural production. We spent 5 days in Yasothon exchanging with villagers and grassroots organizations (Alternative Agricultural Network), helping our host families sell at the ‘Green Market’, and even breaking a sweat in the rice fields. Our second unit focused urban development schemes, landfills, and slum communities. Again, the program did not rely on textbooks and traditional academia to provide us with insights and solutions. We set out to work with scavengers in the landfill belonging to the Khon Kaen municipality. Believe it or not, my 9 ‘farang’ (foreigner) friends and I accompanied our host families to ‘Trash Mountain’ in hopes of collecting an ample supply of recyclables to earn a days wage. Living in the Kham Bon village, which neighbors the landfill, was enlightening. I was forced to face the issues of access to housing, political rights, civil services, environmental protection, and social security full on. We also had the opportunity to visit Nong Waen, a slum/squatter community in the course of being evicted and displaced by a railroad company. Exchanging with slum dwellers offered a deeper understanding of the complexities of accessing property rights. Home stays and exchanges with villagers are a core component of the CIEE alternative education model. Active service learning within raw cultural immersion experiences raises consciousness and fosters a discovery of the self.

Katherine Cooney
University of Minnesota

03 November 2010

Sex Made Me a Feminist and Human Rights Advocate

Although the first human rights conference in Southeast Asia was only 2 days long, it provided information that changed my entire perspective on the issue.

Prior to the conference I wasn’t really interest in human rights and I wouldn’t have considered myself a feminist. While I think everyone should have freedom and access to certain things simply because they are born, I definitely wasn’t passionate about the idea. Likewise, while I believe women should be considered equal to men and I firmly believe in women’s rights, I would have never labeled myself a feminist. Then I went to the human rights conference where I attended a session on women’s sexuality and sexual rights and immediately my thoughts on both ideas changed.

The main focus of the first speaker in the session was the notion that women enjoying sex is often looked down upon, especially in the Philippines, where the speaker did her fieldwork. The speaker advocated that women are “sexual beings” and it is their right to both openly explore their sexuality and enjoy sex. Despite the fact that I am female, I had never considered the ability to explore my sexuality and find pleasure in sex a human right. Coming from America where we are desensitized to sex because it is everywhere, I’ve always taken sex for granted. Yet, honest and open conversations about sex are still taboo. Moreover, I have witnessed the societal norms that degrade women for comfortably expressing themselves sexually. This is a blatant contradiction and to be completely honest, I had never really stopped to think about that prior to this session. As the speaker continued with her presentation I found myself realizing just how much of a victim I was to social constructs about sex. Why had I never thought about these things? Why isn’t a woman’s sexuality considered a human right? Or maybe the real question was, why had I never thought of these issues in terms of human rights?

This realization was only further confirmed by the second speaker who spoke about utilizing spiritual activism in the form of Buddhism, along with feminism to empower people, but especially women. She advocated using the framework of spiritual activism because it focuses on understanding the self both as an individual and as part of a larger world. For the feminism part, Bell Hooks’ definition of ‘a movement to end sexism, sexual exploitation and oppression” was used. Together, feminism and spiritual activism are used to empower women. In Thailand, as well as other Buddhist countries, many people, but especially women, use karma as a reason for their suffering. For example, because someone was a bad person in a previous life that is why their husband beats them in this life, as well as various other things. This mindset forces people to think that they can’t change their situation and they are stuck suffering. This is similar to what the first speaker mentioned, where women should be sexually liberated, but they allow social constructs to restrict them.

The connection of the two changed my ideas about feminism. As a young female who identifies as a sexual being, feminism wasn’t something I had ever associated myself with. However, if being a feminist means I just want the right to be a sexual being without being oppressed or exploited because of my sex, than I am and have always been a feminist. Moreover, if this has to be defined as a right, that I support it and definitely consider it a human right.

At the conference I encountered numerous examples of human rights violations and ways in which human rights are researched, taught, and promoted. Maybe it’s sad that my feelings for human rights were indifferent before this conference since I believed that they were bigger than anything I could address. By the end of the conference I had an entirely new perspective on it. Human rights and human rights violations are just something that happens on the state level and to groups of people. They happen every day by individuals as well. Moreover, living a fairly decent life in the US doesn’t make me immune to them. It would be a lie to say that I am passionate about human rights because I’m not. I’m now an active advocate and for the rest of my life I will make sure to fight against human rights violations at the individual level whenever I can.

Jessica Bohanon
University of Rochester

The Need for Buddhism in Social Change

Many times religion is seen as a tradition disconnected from progressive social change and human rights. Sometimes, religion even creates a force that pushes against the momentum of social justice. Yet after completing our third unit on human rights, I saw a new approach to the Buddhist religion that creates a framework for social change that blurs the lines of religious practice and social action.

For three days of our Collaborative Community Consultation unit, we traveled to Bangkok to attend the First ASEAN Human Rights Conference. The night before the conference we had the opportunity to exchange with Buddhist activist, scholar, and father of the “Network of Socially Engaged Buddhists” Sulak Sivaraksa. Sivaraksa has been charged for Lese Majeste (libel against the Thai King) multiple times, and is seen as one of the leading figures for social justice and human rights in Thailand.

Sivaraksa explained to us how a new movement of Socially Engaged Buddhists has interpreted the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism as a calling for social and environmental action. He detailed how Buddhism (and all honest spiritual practice from any religion) is an extremely powerful tool for social change. The reason comes from a belief that has been preached by the Dahli Lama for generations. That is, world peace is only possible if we cultivate peace within ourselves. Sulak believes that spirituality is critical to positive action, because one cannot act completely truthfully and positively without personal awakening. Only after we throw out our dishonest desires, our egos, and our dualistic thinking can we begin to approach problems of social justice.

While this view may seem questionable to the Western mind, the ultimate message is powerful nonetheless. If a person begins to confront these issues within oneself, they can better understand the deep seeded roots of problems. So often individuals place themselves outside of the “objective reality” that they see in the world. However, it is individuals that make up this reality, and each individual typically contributes to the problem. With this in mind it is imperative that individuals begin to live with a virtue ethic—also preached by authors like Thoreau—to confront societal issues on a more personal level.

A good example of this idea comes from the abuse of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in Thailand. We visited a scavenger community that ekes out a living by scavenging through the trash of wealthier urbanites. We also visited communities living in slums, and Isaan villages affected by large destructive dams. These people consistently have their Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights abused by the government, the economic system, and the actions of others. Every time I over-consume and create abundant waste so I can live a gluttonous lifestyle, I trod on the rights of these people. Every time I eat food without thinking of the consequences, or demand more electricity because of my excessive energy use, I indirectly abuse the rights of others. With a Buddhist perspective I can begin to understand this, to address the issue from a deeper, more personal level. I can work to live in a more simple, non-consumerist way. Western society tends to attack problems from a higher level, when many of the problems stem from individual greed, desire, and ego.

Ginger Norwood, a presenter at the Human Rights Conference, continued this idea. She has created an organization in Thailand that uses a Feminist perspective, combined with Buddhist spiritual practice to question societal oppression. She calls it “spiritual activism.” Her organization attempts to create a space where individuals can introspectively focus on their own internalized oppression. The spirituality of activism also cultivates a more sustainable activism to counter burnout and hopelessness often seen in NGO and activist movements.

Sivaraksa and Norwood also explained the Buddhist belief of “skilled mindfulness.” That is, Buddhists don’t necessarily see actions as right or wrong. Instead, each individual action needs to be examined and contemplated. It isn’t that government is bad, it that the people in government act with ego and selfishness. It’s not that capitalism is bad, but corporate business leaders aren’t leading lives free from greed and desire (or their greed is not being channeled to the public good). Buddhism is successful in creating social change because it attempts to create a holistic personal health, because only then can a healthy society be created.

Bryant Mason
University of Colorado at Boulder