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


Lindsay Friedman said...

I too have learned the power of a justice-oriented citizen. Instead of questioning why a problem or situation continues to exist we must be part of its solution. Though we may not be directly affected by situations, we are still connected as humans. If I buy vegetables from the store I am connected to the farmers who produced the vegetables. I may be supporting a large farm that benefits from the dam's irrigation that replaced the small farm. We have responsibility for one another. I believe that the individual must have self-realization of that power to make a change, and then join in a group to strengthen that power. At CIEE we are in the process of creating that strength that we will take home and create with our friends and community. Why help the poor? Because they are part of our community and I have privileges due to their suffering. Like Wanida, we must act in the interest of others when they go through hardship because we are all citizens of this Earth

Cassie Schneider said...

I have been thinking a lot lately about where the root our issue stem from and how to create change in society. After being in Thailand for the semester and making connections between large development schemes and the destruction of people livelihoods, I have come to the realization that I have been supporting these corporations’ cruel intentions. After exchanging with multiple NGOs and reading article after article majority of corporations development projects are fueled by power, money, and politics. I have seen these three factors cause the demise of ten of thousands villagers lives. So the question I have been left with, how do we create change? Just like you I have seen the power of the collective voice in protest, but I also think a level of change lies in the individuals hands. Being a conscious consumer that question their individual habits along with the governments intentions can pinpoint the root of the issue. Without holding ourselves accountable how can we depend on others to see the root of issue and realize how they themselves can make change on their individual level? Before we can come together in protest, I believe we all need to see our personal connection to the issue that is making so many people abroad suffer. So be a conscious consumer that is questioning our power structures.

cassiemarr said...

The connections you have drawn here between social action and empowered social change are not only potent but also holistic. Protest, when paired with a larger campagin and/or social analysis, is imperative. Watching the lives of many of the familes we have met in Issan, though, has led me to question the quality of a life of protest. In addition to what is achieved toward the main goal of a campagin, organizing often breeds many other positive changes within a community. We have seen it so often throughout our time here: the slum came together to defend their right to land, and through this work, people realized how widespread were problems of addiction and violence, which they began addressing as a community. At the same time though, when protest becomes intimatly entwined into our everyday, we have choosen to embody struggle. Is it sustainable for one's motivation to stem from the frusturation that motivates protest? More importantly, if this life of protest is founded on sentiments of oppression, injustice, frusturation, explotation and inequality, are we able to find joy? Or, do these things threaten to permantly harden us towards what the positive experiences of life? Protest is not motivated by a search for joy, it stems from an injustice that can not be remediated without struggeling for systemic change, but, at the same time, what happens when we are so constantly bombarded with these injustices. It is not that we should not engage in protest, but, what would the world look like if we were not forced to make this choice?