26 March 2012

Grassroots Organizing in Isaan

A Kok Yao village woman recounts the arrests of her husband and son to CIEE students.

Unit 2 was devoted to the study of land rights issues in Northeastern Thailand, particularly the conflict between the state government and villagers. Government policies on forest and wildlife preservation continue to vex villagers whose land overlap with the preserved forest. To combat the loss of land, villages near the preserved forests organized at the level of the community. The relationship between the community organizations and external groups influence how successful the villagers can be.

Villagers of Toong Lui Lai in Chaiyaphum Province in Northeast Thailand organized in order to support one another through the legal procedures. Sanctuary officials had charged many farmers with trespassing on the preserve forest (a criminal offense) and causing global warming. They came together as a group to fight against the injustice of the lawsuits and for the right to use their land. Their rights as Thai citizens were violated, and they came together to fight against the injustice that the state government inflicted upon them.

Relationships between people are the foundation of community organization. The group decides upon a leader within the community who will represent them. Because the leader comes from within the community, there is more trust than if the leader was external to the group. The power to decide lies within the individual villagers, and given the opportunity to exercise this ability, the villagers and the community become empowered. They can organize themselves in order to fight for their rights.

External groups can help or hinder the community as they battle for land rights. The wildlife sanctuaries within Thailand, which is under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, are the representation of the state government at the community level. Each sanctuary is headed by a different government official who has the power to enforce the state’s policies. Bordering Toong Lui Lai and Kok Yao is Pha Peung Wildlife Sanctuary. The relationship between the two groups is antagonistic as the officers strictly adhere to policies that advocate the filing of chargers and arrests. In Kok Yao village, a group of 200 men consisting of soldiers, police, and sanctuary officers came to arrest the villagers. The extraordinary display of violence demonstrates the unequal relationship between the sanctuary and the villages. On the other hand, Pha Daeng Wildlife Sanctuary in the neighboring province of Petchaboon had recently become friendlier with the bordering villages. The current head of Pha Daeng is Phiramet Teuthanstkul, who has taken initiatives to build a relationship with villagers. His model of wildlife management focuses on a stable relationship between villagers and the sanctuary so that both parties can work together to preserve the forest.

Students are another external group that assists community organizations. The CIEE Development and Globalization Program in Thailand has a long relationship with NGOs and villages. Through the Land Reform Network of Thailand, the CIEE program asks villages to accept and teach students about the problems that the community face. Five out of seven exchanges in Unit 2 were with villagers, and each time, our student group was asked: what are we going to do with this information? The program allows a space for students to assist communities with projects, and we can do so within our role as foreign students.

Mina Dinh

Williams College


Emily, CIEE-SL student said...

"Relationships between people are the foundation of community organizing."
I agree whole-heartedly! Interesting perspective because here in the DR most of the efforts we learn about are associated with outsiders in the community who attempt (often successfully it seems) to integrate with the community and make the cause and the community their own. Such as through many instances of Peace Corps or our own service-learning projects relationships are what we strive for as a requirement to accomplish anything. Many cases this seems counter-productive when the ultimate goal is self-sufficiency, but the jury's still out.

How big are the groups that are organizing? Have they seen any outside influences? What is your role as a student in this movement; do you think you have an influence? As part of our program, we look for a balance between being change agents and being learners and sometimes learning shows us the folly in trying to have an influence. What is your perspective of this based on your observations and involvement?

There seems to be an interesting reversal in Thailand where what first-worlders normally consider the good causes are being used to suppress the little people. How does this make you feel about these issues?

Zoe, CIEE-SL student said...

I second Emily in agreeing with your assertion that community organizing is based in relationships. As I have learned everywhere, but especially here in the DR, it's truly all about the people.

When you talked with these villagers and they asked you what you were going to do with the information, what did you say? What are you going to do with that information beyond just writing it on the blog? Not to say that your work with different organizations and villages hasn't been meaningful, but it's just something I think about more and more every day, especially in terms of what I'm going to do once I go back to the States.

What will I do with this knowledge and these experiences? How can we make a positive change? How can we continue to foster relationships with people and organizations that will bring about this change? Is this something you talk about on your program?

Just some thoughts to keep the conversation going—great experience and article!

Ellery, CIEE Thailand said...

To respond to Zoe, yes, we think about our role as outsiders and as students coming into these communities often. We have been asked many times as well about what we will do with our information. For me personally, I feel quite a bit of empowerment knowing that I am a part of a continuous program that builds relationships with villagers to also exposed them to knew ideas; a fresh outsider perspective. Sometimes we don’t have any new suggestions for them to attack their issue. But, by asking them questions, causing them to critically think about what they’re up against, and providing a formal space for villagers to come together and discuss how to solve it, I think we can give them something to contribute to their fight. We are there to observe, to understand, to evaluate, and to show our support whether we will come back for final project time to implement something that they ask for, or just to stand by their side. In the end, it is their fight, and we can tell the stories we’ve created with them to those we know back home, creating more awareness of these struggle. It’s how society changes.

brennkelly said...

This is a great post Mina it really brings to light everything that we learned on unit. Grassroots organization was still a new concept to me when I cam to Thailand so I've been taking time to really reflect on what it means to be a grassroots organizer and what it takes. I completely agree with what you said and Emily from CIEE-SL commented on that "Relationships between people are the foundation of community organization." This reigns true for all of the villages we stayed in and problems we focused on that were prevalent in Northern Thailand.

And to answer some of the questions brought forth by Zoe from CIEE-SL those questions you ask are exactly some of the things we talk about in our program! The idea of making positive change is always something that is on our minds as a student group. We have talked about although we are only here for 4 months we support each one of these villages that we visit individually and their grassroots organization that they are in the process and continually working on.