19 April 2011


“There would be no suffering if there was justice.”

Wanida Tantiwittayapitak made this statement in 1997 during a speech entitled, “Why do we have to help the poor?” As a founding member of the world-renowned Thai social movement, The Assembly of the Poor, Wanida pinpointed systematic discrimination and injustice as the avenue for change. In empowering villagers throughout Thailand to join the movement for political and social transformation, she organized some of the largest protests known in Southeast Asia. The protests of the Pak Mun dam on the Mun River in Ubon Rachatani Province has lasted over twenty years, and nearby communities still continue to fight. Her model has been replicated in the modern movements against dams in the Isaan region of Thailand.

During the Water Unit, we had the opportunity to visit villagers affected by the Rasi Salai and Hua Na dam construction. These dams are intended to produce electricity and irrigation for surrounding regions and the country as a whole. Instead, the results have been the displacement of tens of thousands of villagers, the loss of traditional fishing and agricultural livelihoods, the depletion of wetlands culture, the ecological destruction of the rivers and dependent habitats, and the salinization of water sources that consequently make intended irrigation impossible.

Oftentimes, the effected villager’s voices appear quieter than the corporate businessmen and government officials who control development practices in Thailand. However, with the help of organizations like the Assembly of the Poor, they have learned their collective voice can speak volumes. It can be heard past the walls of the concrete dam and its rushing windows of water. It can be heard past the police and military officials who blockade peaceful protests on dam property. It can be heard all the way to the central government in Bangkok after spending months protesting as democratic citizens in front of parliament.

After witnessing the profound changes in individual lives that came from participating in people’s movements, we’ve started to question, is there still a need for protest? In American culture, our post-industrial society has subtly turned citizens into consumers. Instead of feeling empowered when we vote, we feel empowered when we buy. In this context, it’s easy to misplace consumer responsibility for systematic change. Instead of asking, why do I need so many products, we recycle them. Instead of asking why people are poor or uneducated, we volunteer to tutor the underprivileged. Instead of asking, what are the root causes of hunger, we donate to a food bank.

If we were to start asking these questions as a society, we could create justice-oriented citizens. By identifying where inequities stem from, we can find ways to contribute to the deeper issues. For example, instead of donating food, we can find out why the food system has unequal distribution across borders, why monocropping has replaced self-sufficiency, why chemical fertilizer is more expensive than food for one’s family. By articulating the root causes and finding the key players, such as corporations and government policies, we can begin to demand political and social change.

How is this change best affected? As we’ve learned throughout the program, change occurs through groups. Oftentimes, these groups work from the bottom-up, from marginalized sectors of society, and with deep connections to their local communities. Seen through movements like those against dams in Thailand, one might expect protest to be the answer. But it also requires redefining protest. I see protest as justice-oriented citizenship. Not necessarily rallies or direct action, unless those are seen to be effective, but instead how one chooses their job, raises their children, partakes in community, raises awareness among family and friends. To me, these are all acts of protest.

Through my experiences in Thailand, I see protest through education. By raising awareness among both youth and adults, by empowering our minds and our collective voice, we can create positive and peaceful change. At the Rasi Salai dam, a learning center was founded in December 2010 to teach younger generations about the importance of local wetlands culture. As Wanida stated, there would be no more suffering if there was justice, and to promote justice, we must each enact our own small form of protest.

Austyn Gaffney
Transyvania University

Sustainability, According to the Villagers

The sun is rising, the day is starting out sizzling, and there are nearly 100 people standing within feet of the nine tents where sleepy students lay. Any other day I would most likely still be asleep, however it’s 5:30 in the morning and I hear the sounds of pickup trucks and people laughing, and decide it’s time to get out of bed. I craw slowly out of my tent to find villagers piling into the 30 Rai area, housing the Tamm Mun Network Community Sufficient Economy Learning Center, in the Northeastern Thai Province of Srisaket.

Today is the day; the day the villagers have spent months planning for. Today villagers from all different districts and provinces in Northeastern Thailand will gather along the Mun River to celebrate their (wat tan a tam) culture and (wit tee chee wit) way of life. The need for such celebration stems from the necessity for the villagers to preserve their culture and way of life. For the past 20 years, residents have been fighting to sustain their livelihoods from the Khong-Chi-Mun Irrigation Project and the potential construction of more dams in the northeast; which, if built, would destroy the culture of river communities.

Sustainability, according to the villagers, means sustaining their livelihoods so future generations can know and enjoy their lifestyles. Meh Rampan Chantarasorn, a Learning Center leader, explains it perfectly, “Before the dam was built these different communities were friends. They lived together. They were brothers, sisters, and lovers, living in the wetlands. The flood has broken culture and relationships. This center is to bring this culture back for future generations. If we don’t preserve it, youth will never know about it. They won’t know the word wetlands, only the word dam!”

Thinking about the usage of the word sustainability in northeast Thailand dared me to think about how the term is used in the villages of Isaan verses the ways in which the expression is commonly used in America and other first world countries. For these Isaan villagers, the word sustainability is far removed from the culture of the word in developed countries. In America, the word sustainability seems to pop up on every supermarket shelf, on every billboard, and on every commercial advertisement. Being sustainable has turned into a fashion craze that the mainstream media has picked up on. But what does this world really mean? For most Americans, and people living in developed nations, I believe the term generally refers to the desire to protect the planet by reducing our carbon footprint, buying more “eco friendly products,” and driving a high-gas-mileage vehicle. While applying these practices to our everyday lives seems sustainable; is it really?

Over the past couple of weeks I have learned how to fish using a homemade fishing net, how to weave a sticky rice basket, how to look for and catch crickets, how to plant and harvest rice, how to properly do an Isaan dance, and how important it is to preserve culture. For the villagers effected by the Hua Na and Rasi Salai dams, sustainability means sustaining their livelihoods from the destruction of commercialism and capitalism. Sustainability to these villagers means living off of the land that they grew up on, it means eating food that is caught or grown on the surrounding land, continuing ancient celebrations, using instruments reflecting the culture, speaking in the local dialect, and eating the incredibly delicious treat of (kaew neow), sticky rice. Sustaining and protecting the planet doesn’t happen by supporting large corporations and businesses selling products made halfway across the world, or buy buying items that contain a “green” label. According to the villagers, in order to really be sustainable we must preserve ancient cultures and protect the livelihoods and way of life for villagers, threatened by corporate greed, around the world.

Julia Peckinpaugh
Transylvania University

Is GDP the Way to Measure Success?

This past week our program has been focused on water issues specifically on Dams as a source of energy and irrigation. Over this week I expected to think of grassroots movements, the environmental and cultural impact of dams, as well as the political forces that guided their building. While I did learn about these things the topic that was on my mind most during this unit was GDP (Gross Domestic Product.)

As an economics major at Beloit College I decided to study abroad in hopes of taking a break from studying the economy in order to explore my other interests. In actuality, being on the CIEE program in Issan, Thailand has only served to bring me into direct contact with the economic theories I studied in the classroom at Beloit. I can not get away from economics because it directly guides government policies, especially the concept of GDP.

After only a few months we have noticed a very dominating pattern in Issan. The Issan people live in a traditional sustainable way, the government decides that the region is not contributing enough to GDP so implements a project that will “help the poor people of Issan” by boosting their economy. This past unit it was a dam that would destroy fishery and flood several communities but increase government spending. They were also built to create domestic energy, reducing imports, and to irrigate non-native jasmine rice fields to increase exports. Though it was discovered that Issan region is not suitable for irrigation dams because salt deposits underground are released by the pressure caused by the dam’s reservoir.

During our first unit the government encouraged previously self-sustaining farmers to contract farm and use chemical fertilizers. Our second unit, we learned that farmers were kicked off of their land so that tourist resorts could be built and companies could come in to start eucalyptus plantations. All of these actions created a poorer quality of life for the Isaan people but potentially boosted the overall GDP of the country. The problem is that GDP does not measure wellbeing, it is the measure of a countries yearly output. All the money that has been moving around the economy is added up. So if one person, say Thaksin, generates a lot of money, while all of his neighbors are impoverished and starving, the GDP will show that the community is doing great. But the GDP of a fishing village, that sustains itself from the land and the community around it, will be extremely low which people will use as an indicator of extreme poverty.

While GDP is obviously a poor indicator of the wellbeing of the economy it is the measure used by all countries to guide its policies. That is all countries excepting Bhutan. In Bhutan a measure called Gross National Happiness is used. While happiness seems immeasurable Bhutan has come up with an intricate system based on nine domains: “Psychological Wellbeing, Time Use, Community Vitality, Cultural Diversity and Resilience, Health, Education, Ecological Diversity and Resilience, Living Standard, and Good Governance.” Though only here for a short time, all of my peers know enough about Issan to realize that if the Thai government was focused on GHP instead of GDP, Issan would not have many of the problems it is facing today.

Sofia Noorani
Beloit College

“I Will Not Shut My Mouth”

Lèse majesté, or crime against the monarchy, has been prohibited in Thailand for more than a century. Since 1932, when it was first introduced to the Thai constitution, lèse majesté violations have included any “insult” against the King, whether written or spoken. In 2009, Thai courts accepted 164 charges of lèse majesté, far more than any other country in the world. That year also saw what seemed to be disproportionately harsh sentencing against Red Shirt activists, who oppose the current Thai administration.

Red Shirts have been persecuted outside the legal system as well. In the April-May 2010 military crackdown, the Thai Royal Army killed 92 people, almost all of which were Red Shirt demonstrators on the streets of Bangkok. After the crackdown, public outcry forced the administration to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate the events surrounding the violence of April-May 2010.

In Unit 3, we traveled to Bangkok to speak with Dr. Khanit na Nakhon and Somchai Homla-or, two leaders of the TRC. We also spoke with human rights experts Dr. Sriprapha Petcharamesree and Kwanvaree Wangudom to learn about the ways students can get involved in fighting against human rights violations in Thailand and elsewhere. What we learned was that political activism starts with educating ourselves rather than educating those around us. We also learned that real progress is made when we can identify core problems and fight to remedy them. One of the core challenges facing Thailand is limited speech, which has taken the form of the Computer Crimes Act and lèse majesté laws.

Upon returning from the unit trip, I was able to interview Chiranuch Premchaiporn, a woman who may face 50 years in prison under a regime which is unwilling to accept criticism. As you can see from the profile below, Chiranuch taught me about hope and perseverance in the face of a seemingly impossible challenge

“I Will Not Shut My Mouth”
Chiranuch’s Fight for Open Dialogue

Two days.

That is how much notice Chiranuch Premchaiporn is given when she must make the long journey from Bangkok to Khon Kaen each month. The scramble to Isaan is a reality she faces while detained on bail, as she is required to travel at least six hours by bus to check-in at the provincial police station, located more than 470km from her home. After her March 25 hearing, she was notified that she would not have to return to Khon Kaen until police hand her case to the court. The handoff is still yet to be determined.

Her trips to Khon Kaen were precipitated by a local Khon Kaen business man that she had committed lèse majesté. “[Making me come to Khon Kaen] is obviously meant to harass and intimidate me. I think the person who filed the complaint did not expect me to enjoy Isaan. But I have some friends here who try to make sure I have some activities to do every time I travel to Khon Kaen so I don’t just go to the police station for five minutes and leave.”

Premchaiporn is one of 164 people charged last year under the lèse majesté law and the Computer Crimes Act. She was first arrested in March 2009 for not promptly removing comments that were allegedly insulting to the monarchy posted to the online forum she moderates at Prachatai news source.

Despite the sensitivity of her case, she has never closed her story off from the news media. “I don’t want to be involved with a conspiracy or some lobby behind the scenes. I want to do everything in public, and I want to be transparent,” she said.

Her desire to be transparent lies at the foundation of what she wants for Thailand: the freedom to have open discussion about the issues facing the country.

“In the past we were under the illusion that Thailand was at peace and people were friendly and open. But actually we are not open. Now people are beginning to understand that we live in a conservative society,” she said.

She began to champion open discussion and non-judgment long before her work at Prachatai. These ideas stemmed first from what she calls a “flexible upbringing” and were fostered in her work with ACCESS, an NGO aimed at providing support for people living with HIV/AIDS.“HIV/AIDS work is about being non-judgmental and about counseling. It helped me open my mind to something else, rather than sticking with what I had always believed.”

This attitude of non-judgment translates directly into her work with Pratchatai, where her main concern is to create an open space for all ideas and perspectives. “There are political conflicts. People have frustrations. They want to talk, and they want to discuss,” she explained.

But for now, open dialogue is not possible because people live in a climate of fear. And cases such as hers do little to encourage Thai people to express themselves freely.

“We used to think we lived in a country where we could say anything we want. But there really are limitations on the things we can talk about.”

That is why she now dedicates her energy to the new Article 1-1-2 Awareness Campaign, which seeks to disseminate knowledge about the lèse majesté law. The campaign, which launched March 27, also encourages debate about solutions for the issues posed by lèse majesté. The movement is encouraging to Premchaiporn, who finds strength in growing public interest surrounding the issue.

“I will not shut my mouth. I will keep talking to the press,” she explained. “This is not my problem. It’s a social problem.”

Despite the legal challenges she is soon to face in the Khon Kaen judicial system, she has remained remarkably optimistic.

“It’s not nice when I have to go to the police station, but I like Isaan. I really like Isaan people,” she said.

Dan Cohn
University of Rochester