23 April 2013

A Buddhist View of Human Rights and Development

            Our group had the honor of meeting with Sulak Sivaraksa, one of Thailand’s leading thinkers, academics and activists who has been repeatedly arrested for his activism, particularly speaking out against the Thai government. Sulak helped us connect the Western concept of Human Rights with Buddhist ideas of how to treat people and the environment. He explained that Western education teaches students to think, over-emphasizing science and rationality in a way that leads to arrogance rather than humility. This intellectually centered approach also ignores other important realms such as spirituality and emotional well-being that are essential to both human rights and development. In contrast, Buddhism’s fundamental teaching is not how to think or even pray but how to breathe. Sulak emphasized that just by learning to breathe calmly and slowly, with awareness of each moment, we can change our mindset from being dominated by greed, hatred and delusion to being humble, peaceful and compassionate because we realize the interconnectedness of all beings.
When we understand and start to feel interconnectedness, we can break down the barriers between others and ourselves, and we can stop seeing people as “friends” or “enemies.” Instead we can embrace everyone’s common humanity and realize that to hurt another is ultimately to hurt oneself. This idea manifests in terms of development and environmental issues in many ways. For instance, when we consider putting poisonous chemicals on the plants that become our food, we can see the connections between the insects that will ingest that poison, the plants that will absorb the poison, the water supplies and earth that will absorb the poison, and realize that eventually the poison will work its way back to us. When contemplating an economic development plan, rather than measure its effectiveness in terms of the amount of buildings it will build or dollars by which it will increase GDP, or we can evaluate its effect on human lives. This can be measured in terms of community structures, ability to be self-sufficient and the degree to which the plan supports traditional ways of life. With a Buddhist perspective we can recognize that when development benefits a few and harms many it will lead to overpopulation, mass migration to cities, unemployment, crime and other problems, therefore ultimately harming everyone.
With this Buddhist framework of Human Rights in mind, it is possible to conceptualize development that does not harm people or the environment. Sulak reminded us, “we cannot practice earth, animal and human rights without practicing generosity and meditation.” In his view, inner reflection and awareness are crucial first steps to peace. While it is easy to think on big scales, advocating systematic change, it is important to also remember that change comes from within and the best way to create a peaceful society is for its citizens to find peace within themselves. Only then can the society can truly work towards sustainable development. In as essay entitled, “Development as if People Mattered,” Sulak says alternative development would “consider the impact upon humans and the environment, taking into consideration spiritual and emotional effects as well as strictly monetary ones.” This form of development will not be easy, because it is based on more than clearly defined statistics and numbers, however Sulak emphasized that we can learn to be “skillful, meaning everything you do makes sense.” Development has the potential to be done mindfully and skillfully, but it will take political will and social pressure to make it so. In trying to change the minds of others, it is important to maintain friendship rather than seeing anyone as an enemy, because only together can we achieve social change. Friendship does not simply mean agreeing all the time. Sulak defined friends as “people who tell you what you don’t want to hear.” By both recognizing each person’s inherent worth and also challenging others to make choices that are in harmony with the well being of people and the environment, we can achieve sustainable development.

Sonja Favaloro 
Bates College

Red Shirts: Hypocrisy and a Muddled Message

Wearing a red shirt in Thailand is more than just a fashion statement—it’s a political affiliation. The Red Shirts are a political group that rose to prominence in 2006 as a response to the military coup of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin Shinawatra was accused by the military regime of corruption, lèse majesté (insulting the King), tax evasion, and selling Thai assets to foreign investors. Following the coup he underwent a self-imposed exile from Thailand in order to avoid his local charges of  imprisonment. To this day he remains in exile, even though his younger sister Yingluck Shinwatra was recently elected Prime Minister in 2011. Yingluck has been criticized (and hailed) as a puppet of Thaksin, who some claim is pulling strings from abroad.
The overthrow of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, following a democratic reelection, is one of many grievances the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorships (“Red Shirts”) has against the military junta. The Red Shirts also quietly criticize the role of the monarchy in Thaksin’s removal and are vocal advocates for a more democratic process in Thailand. Since the overthrow, Red Shirts have voiced their discontent through protest. Red Shirt protests began in 2009, gaining in momentum and popularity until April 2010, when the military cracked down on the protesters, killing 10 red shirts and one Japanese reporter. However, the Red Shirts continued to protest. They occupied Bangkok’s economic zone, pressuring the government for new elections, until on May 19th 2010, when the Thai military cracked down again, killing 70 to 80 protesters and injuring thousands. Media attention and international intervention heavily criticized then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, leading to his capitulation from office and the re-instantiation of democratic elections. 
In light of the historical background, the political turmoil, and the controversial nature of the Red Shirt group, it’s understandable that my peers and I were excited when we got the chance to interview representatives of the movement. However, the Red Shirts we met did not match our expectations.
The Red Shirt movement is portrayed as a people’s movement, headed by the poor disenfranchised people of Isaan, who are fighting for democracy. The reality was startlingly different. The Red Shirts we interviewed were from the Democratic Youth Alliance, and one of them, the leader, drove a brand new matte red Mercedes-Benz, and had a gold ring with an inlaid stone the size of a pistachio on his finger. Another had perfectly quaffed hair and wore his shoes inside (in Thai culture that is a big no-no), his face was carefully made-up, did he have on lipstick? It was hard to tell. But the glittering diamond ring on his finger was unmistakable. This may seem hypercritical and unnecessary to point out, but when these are the most vocal Thaksin supporters, and they claim that Thaksin is “of the people and for the people,” especially the poor, I start finding it hard to believe. We questioned them about this, asking how Thaksin can be a voice for the poor despite his fabulous wealth. The Red Shirt representative with the quaffed hair responded that “poor people are everywhere, so everyone is close to the poor.”
Admittedly, the Red Shirt representatives had some compelling points. They whole-heartedly support a democratic system, wish to take away some of the monarchy’s un-checked power, advocate for decentralization of the Thai government, and their three principles focus on educating the youth about constitutional rights. They claim that these are the central tenets of the Red Shirt movement and that Red Shirts are “over Thaksin.” If this were true, the Red Shirt movement would be very strong, garnering the support of the rural Thai people of Isaan, who reject the movement for its Thaksin-deification
But it’s not true. The Red Shirts we interviewed spent at least an hour building a beautiful image of Thaksin The Beneficent, ignoring the fact that many Thai are wary of this incredibly rich and controversial figure. I realize the power of a figurehead for a political movement—Che Guevara and Aung San Sui Kyi come to mind—but there are also limitations. It would be better for the Red Shirts to find, or create, a new figurehead, one that embodies their goals in reality, who isn’t clouded by charges of corruption[1]. Until then, there will not be enough popular support to bring about the social and political change the red shirts claim to want. 

Nelson Falkenburg
Whitman College

[1] Ironically, there is no word in the Thai language for “corruption.” It is said just like the English word with a Thai accent.

Long Tail Tribulation

Koh Phi Phi Don - Once I am sure this place was one of the most beautiful islands on earth. The craggy cliffs rise like fingers grasping up through the sea. In the middle of the hand is this little plot of an island, where jungles ride over hills and waves caress endless white beaches.

Or that’s what it once was.

Here, now, the beaches are crowded and overflowing with boats, ropes, bars and wonderers. Finding an empty, beautiful beach here is like finding a tiny piece of glass in a handful of sand.  Every beach is littered with trash, and the boats are constantly pulling in and out, unloading their tourists, and loading up more to take to some other island.

One of my first thoughts when landing on this island was that it severely needed a limitation on the number of people allowed to visit. But that kind of regulation is of course impossible, seeing as the people living off of koh phi phi Don and Leh would be put out of work.

Would they be able to make a living? Probably yes, in some other way. But whose right is it to regulate how much money someone should attempt to make?

One thing is certain; if the islands of Thailand’s south don not begin to regulate tourism, they face destruction, disasters for both Thailand’s environment and culture.

The environment of the south of Thailand is precious. It hosts some of the world’s most divine marine structures and habitats. The island formations themselves are awe-inspiring, otherworldly creations, rising out of the water with jagged cliffs and narrow, rugged caves.

It is no wonder that tourism has hit this area of the world with fury. Being so beautiful has been southern Thailand’s downfall. Since tourism started really picking up in the 70’s and 80’s in Thailand, the toll on the environment has been growing and growing.

In one documentary, a group of students traveling in Thailand in the 1990’s search for a clean, beautiful, un-occupied beach one day. They rent a water polluting long-tail (water taxi), thereby spurring the tourism economy, and proving the point of the devastation that tourists have brought to the islands all in a few minutes of film.

Every beach they find has seen some touch of human occupation, whether in the form of huts or just trash washed up on shore. Distraught and a little depressed, the party seekers “settle” for a beach where they can sit and relax, taking drugs, drinking and doing what westerners do best.

Regulations on the islands are the trickiest part about conservation, but aren’t regulations usually the trickiest part. By combining human rights and rights of the environment, more oft than not, the human rights win out. Unless of course those human rights are actually economic rights or money’s rights. In that case, no one wins at all except Thai government.

From the devastation I saw on the islands, I propose a regulation on how many people can visit an island at one time. This could be raised and lowered according to holidays like Songkran, where the local businesses would gain the most benefit from tourists. But during other seasons, the amount could be seriously lowered to allow for the recovery of the environment. Certain times like these could be times for environmentalist groups to come in and clean up the area, recover certain flora and fauna and revive any destroyed habitats.

Ideal as it may seem, this tiny regulation might never be passed in Thai Law.

For a country that has development on its mind, bringing in as many tourists as possible, for as much of the year as possible, is ideal for the growth of the economy.

Let the Long Tails come. 

Avery Ches
Tulane University 

ASEAN and the AEC: Where do the people fit in?

Over the course of this semester, we’ve been learning about ASEAN and its main pillar, the AEC (ASEAN Economic Community), from the perspective of rural Thailand. ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, consists of 10 Southeast Asian countries, and was designed to promote economic, social, and political cooperation and growth between them. However, its top-down approach to economic development will continue to limit power and resources to leaders of corrupt governmental systems, and increasingly dominant trans- and multinational corporations.

While the three pillars of ASEAN are the AEC, security, and sociocultural integration, the fast-moving economic plan has received the most attention and has made the most progress. Originally planned to begin in 2020, the ASEAN summit pushed the date forward to 2015, and preparations are already in full force.

Railway slum communities in Khon Kaen are fighting for government leases to force legal accountability when, due to AEC railroad expansion plans, they are evicted from their land. Farmers have switched to cash crops like cassava and rubber in all corners of Thailand: all the better for international trade. Labor, already migrating from rural to urban sectors en masse, is primed to expand its exodus to other Southeast Asian countries.

The AEC’s mission is to promote trade within Southeast Asian countries by increasing the movement of goods and services across borders. It is feared that skilled labor including doctors, will leave Thailand’s already strained medical sector in favor of higher-paying countries. Large-scale corporations already hop borders to avoid strict environmental and social regulations; the AEC will make cross-border operations even easier, with no corresponding plans for accountability.

These problems are already seen in Southeast Asia, and all over the world. When a multinational corporation (mainly located in one country, but operating in at least one other country) violates human rights in one area, where should it be prosecuted? Transnational corporations, which have no ‘home base’ in one country and multiple administrative locations instead, make it more complicated. Add in limited liability and corporate personhood, and accountability seems nonexistent.

It is touted that increase in big business, big corporations, and big projects promise big benefits for Thailand: a growing economy, investments in neighboring countries, increase in tourism and money flowing into Thailand.

Of the 100 largest economies in the world, trans/multinational corporations make up 51 of them. The responsibility of government lies in providing services and protection for its citizens, while the legal responsibility of a corporation is to make a profit. When corporations have more power than an entire country, it is not hard to see how the interests of people – especially those who are poor and under- or un-represented – become marginalized in the name of development or international trade.

Thailand’s civil society is growing, as we’ve seen from the many organizations and leaders we’ve had the privilege of meeting this semester. NGO Cord in both Isaan and the North continue to actively fight human rights battles ranging from citizenship to land titles to sustainable agriculture. The ASEAN Youth Movement’s forums before each ASEAN summit incentivized ASEAN to set up its own Youth Forum (although it fell short of a space to voice concerns over ASEAN’s actions and policies). While Thailand’s justice system remains unscrupulous in many ways, human rights lawyers have detected the beginnings of a shift. There’s still a seemingly endless way to go, especially when decisions made by the ASEAN summit have no input from the people its plans will affect.  

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is being introduced into more companies’ policies, but like the green movement, actions behind the scenes don’t always match up with the public statements. While consumers’ demands for products, energy, and money continue to be separate from their realities and implications, corporations’ drive for profit above all else will continue to be the force behind development.

Melanie Medina
Whitman College

03 April 2013

Paradox of a Nation

            Summarizing my experiences in Thailand at this point in the journey is like trying to chew partially digested food- it’s too soon. As I attempt to reflect on my time here, however, I find myself both exhilarated and perplexed. Like many cultures around the world, what has been labeled as “Thai culture,” seems to me as diverse and contradictory as it is rich and beautiful. One example of this has come to the forefront of my attention- namely the paradox of a nation committed to a mainstream development makeover while also trying to preserve traditional knowledge and ways of life that have fostered the well-being of many communities within its borders since its creation. During our two months in the Northeastern region of Isaan and our recent visit to the North, I have become increasingly aware of this countrywide balancing act.
In Khon Kaen (Isaan’s largest city) and Chiang Mai (largest city of the North), Lady boys (Thai cross-dressers), ancient wads (Thai temples), condom advertisements, saffron robed monks, giant portraits of King Bhumibol (Thailand’s current King, crowned in 1950), sprawling open-air markets and multiple 7/11’s all coexist within a minutes walk of each other.

This stark contrast, however, is not solely prevalent in two of Thailand’s largest cities.

While often presenting itself in different forms, the dichotomy between ‘development in the name of progress’ and the preservation of traditional knowledge and ways of life has been predominant in nearly all of our village exchanges and homestays across both Isaan and during our visit to the North.

One of the most striking examples of this shared dichotomy can be seen in the similarities between the Hua Na and Rasi Salai dam affected communities in the Isaan province of Si Sa Ket, and the Kaeng Sua Ten dam affected communities of the North. According to the Thai government, these dam sites are part of the State’s larger initiative of both flood control throughout the country using dams in the north and large-scale irrigation and agro-industrial development in Isaan using dams in the northeastern Khong-Chi-Mun river basin.

After visiting these two dam sites, however, it is clear that in both cases the main parties benefitting from the projects are the government (which enjoys a rise in the State’s GDP- and a consequent boost of international standing), and the companies that are hired to build the dams. Furthermore, these government projects not only fail to accomplish their original intentions, but also cause destruction to surrounding lands and the communities that have lived on those lands for generations. When the Hua Na dam is completed and the gates are closed, many village’s farm and wetlands located along the banks of the Mun river will be submerged under a reservoir of water, stretching 90 km from Hua Na to Rasi Salai dam. And if the two Kaeng Sua Ten Dams are constructed, four communities in the area will be permanently flooded along with one of the oldest Teak forest in the world. Both of these communities have lived on the same land for generations.

In both dam sites of the North and Isaan, the government and companies involved have tipped the balance of the scale by choosing development in the name of progress over the cost of losing entire communities’ land and the traditional ways of life and local wisdom that go with this. Is this justifiable? It’s a complex and morally loaded question, but in my unqualified, present opinion, the answer is no. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in Thailand, however, it’s that rarely is anything ever black or white- so I will keep chewing my partially digested food and attempt to reflect on my time here. 
Eleanor Bennett
Middlebury College

Hill Tribes

Governments are created to control. To regulate, to enforce, to listen if they want to. To change. When conflict arises, it can be hard for the people to counteract what the government mandates. In the face of losing land villagers have lived on for generations, they fight against the government, and they fight hard. It’s understandable really, pushing to protect the traditions of your people. The Karen Hill Tribes in the Northern region of Thailand, however, take quite a different approach.
            The Karen Hill Tribes reside among the mountains of Thailand, farming and living with one another in places they’ve been for generations and generations. Driving up the winding dusty roads just wide enough for one car zooming up or down the mountainside, the heat begins to fall away along with the worries lingering on the ground. Upon arrival, a nearly tangible calmness settles in the air. The people there are happy. They’re simply content to be one with the forest and one with each other.  Smiles are frequent, villagers venture from house to house fluidly, animal noises are constant, laughs come easily. The joy is potent.   
 This road is the only thing that connects the village to the outside world, both physically and culturally. The Hill Tribes have their own language, their own history, their own spirituality and traditions. To call them “Thai” puts a bit of a twinge in their expressions, a reluctance to identify themselves as citizens of the country they live in. They adopt this same approach when it comes to dealing with the Thai government.
            After the intense wave of logging throughout Thailand in the 1970s and 1980s, the country desperately needed to restore its environment and preserve the forest. Sounds like a good solution right? Block off huge chunks of land just for the trees to grow, elephants to roam free and bugs to jump about. Great idea. The US did it, seems to be working out so let’s try it out. Upon second glance, it’s not as great as it sounds. The creation of national parks and wildlife reserves has pushed people off of the land they’ve been cultivating for tens, sometimes hundreds of years.
The Thai culture of community based living doesn’t exactly translate to the legal aspects of land ownership. Since all Thai land belonged to the King back in the day, the concept of “individual land ownership” doesn’t really exist among these communities. Most villagers did have receipts proclaiming that they lived in the area and pay taxes for it. However, officials came into many areas to collect these documents, saying that they were going to return with more official documents for the tax declaration. Then they were off with the papers, never to be seen again. Now they’re facing government officials threatening them off their land without providing anywhere for them to go and virtually no way to win their homes back.
Villages throughout Thailand are outraged. Many protest, some give in and move away, villages disperse, and others fight and petition. This village in the hill tribes wants nothing to do with it. They worked to get a registration number for the villages so that they can come to the government if they need electricity or an improvement on roads. They don’t feel the need to push for a land title. They say that they want as little involvement with the government as humanly possible. More government, more problems. Who can blame them after hearing what’s been happening to other villages? It goes along perfectly with their entire way of life. They’ve created their personal haven in the skyline and they don’t need anything else. They’re happy. Problem is, will they be left alone?
The spirit of the Karen Hill tribe village is profound. Constant need or any trace of consumerism hasn’t made its way up that dusty road to penetrate the village. They want to live and let live. It is my deepest hope that this respect will given to them, and my greatest fear that it will be taken away in an instant. 
Corinne Molz
University of Maryland 


After spending two months studying issues regarding the environment and human rights’ violations through the lens of Northeastern Thailand, CIEE Thailand traveled to Chiang Mai to look at these issues from a different perspective.  During our trip, we visited the Can-Do Bar, home of EMPOWER.
             EMPOWER is a national organization founded by sex workers, for sex workers. Located above the Can-Do Bar, there are two floors, which we toured that facilitate its mission to educate and empower women sex workers in Thailand. The space includes a library, gym, office, computer room and most importantly, two classrooms. Theses two classrooms are where the women, who come on a walk-in basis for 1 baht a day, are taught English and Thai. What is so incredible about these classes is that they are designed to be applicable to their work. Their education motto is “learning by doing”. The women are learning English phrases, that they can use to speak with farang (Thai word for foreigner), like “would you like a drink” or “do you have a condom”. They are even learning the alphabet in both English and Thai.
        This organization also teaches them how to fill out job and identity card applications. Many of the women have been able to get the American equivalent of a GED or a high school diploma after taking these classes. Not only because they are learning the skills necessary but also because the staff encourages and empowers the women that they can succeed. But enough about EMPOWER, which I think is doing a great deed to the women of sex work. Let’s talk about the exchange with the bartenders of Can-do Bar. 
  After a tour, the student group interviewed the lovely bartenders of the bar that is underneath EMPOWER. Sex workers who do not have social security or health care founded the bar six years ago. The women together create a safe working environment to ensure that the women are protected and given workers’ rights just like everyone else, regardless if their work is considered taboo. The women work an 8-hour day and are given vacation, social security, and government holidays. Within the bar, there is no smoking allowed and the music’s volume is limited to 90 decibels. The bar also has fire alarms and emergency exits. 
The mission and purpose of both EMPOWER and Can-Do Bar are commendable, appreciated, even needed in today’s society because I agree that all people should be given the same protections and rights in their workplace. However, I was thrown off at how the women responded to our questions. We have exchanged with many villages, government officials and NGO organizers but never anything related to sex working or labor rights in general. I guess that was not clear to the women because when we asked simple or basic open ended questions like, what is the daily life of a sex worker, we were immediately directed to their book that included 12 stories of sex workers instead of getting it from them in an interview setting. We did not understand why they were being defensive and guarded with us because all we wanted to do was learn more about their occupation and movement.
       After the interview, Emma, another CIEE student, and I spoke with Whitney, the English teacher and our tour guide of EMPOWER to follow-up and hopefully get a better understanding of the women because with the language barrier we thought it would be easier. After speaking with her, she also was defensive. This is when I realized that when people are being marginalized because what they do, it is difficult to let others in. Reflecting on it now, the women were vulnerable and that is not a comfortable feeling. I even look at myself and wonder how would I feel in that situation. At the same time, I also think that it’s not the best way to create understanding if one is always on the defense. We did not want to exploit them or make them feel judged but how would you feel, knowing that society does not approve of your life choice to be a sex worker, if westerners (or people of another culture who are considered of higher status) came into your space and asked you questions? It’s not an easy thing to do – being open, raw and honest even though there is the fear of rejection, judgment and criticism. I do not like being vulnerable by any means but I have learned to do so when it is beneficial to others’ learning and also for my own healing. I hope that these women can do the same.

Astrid Quinones
Fairfield University 

Halting Development

One of the most incredible parts of the Khon Kaen Development and Globalization program is that we are provided with the opportunity to visit a variety of communities facing issues that at once overlap and stand alone. We are left to draw our own comparisons from our experiences in each village. Our recent trip to Chiang Mai, however, allowed us to see the most extreme comparisons to date as we learned about agricultural trends, indigenous rights, and dams in Northern Thailand for the first time. I’m sure each one of us came away from the North with a somewhat altered perception of development in Thailand, but the most striking difference I saw was not between the North and Isaan, but between two communities exemplifying vastly different stages of community organization against large-scale development projects threatening their way of life.

In March we visited villages in the Na Nong Bong area. Six nearby villages had already been affected by Tungkum Limited’s mining operations when their tailings pond broke last October, leaking cyanide-contaminated water into the soil and groundwater. Tungkum limited is now seeking a license to expand their mining operations into a new area, meaning that seven more villages may be affected. The villagers who were not yet affected expressed fear for their health and livelihoods if the mine expanded. However, it was disheartening to hear that they did not think they would be able to effectively organize in protest against the mine. They were hesitant to join the People Who Love Their Hometown, an organization already working in the affected areas of Na Nong Bong, because they perceived the group as somewhat volatile and did not want to join forces with a group that already had a less-than-perfect relationship with both the government and the mine. When asked if they thought they could form their own organization, though, they sadly agreed that their community did not have the requisite local structures in place to allow for effective organization. Our meeting with them was one of the few events where that village has met together about an issue affecting their future.

After witnessing such discouraging morale, it was refreshing to meet with a community that was effectively halting the spread of a project that could be detrimental to their community. The villagers surrounding the proposed Kaeng Sua Ten dam project have been protesting its expansion, which would lead to the flooding of Thailand’s largest natural teak forest and destroy the villagers’ livelihoods. Organizers are taking a number of steps to protest the dam. They have set up watch points on the mountains on either side of the proposed dam site to ensure that no survey activities are carried out. There is a makeshift camp and cell tower set up specifically for this purpose. In addition, local monks ordained a large number of teak trees that would be lost to flooding if the dam is built. In Thai society and Buddhist culture it is highly disrespectful to harm a monk in any way. Thus, by making the trees sacred, the monks hope to make the government think twice about their actions.

So many of the protesters we’ve met have been reactionary—the protest village in Baw Keaw was founded by villagers who had already been evicted from their traditional land, villages surrounding the Rasi Salai dam are now fighting for compensation after flooding destroyed the wetlands where they farmed and collected food, the Na Nong Bong villagers are contesting the expansion of a mine that has already contaminated nearby soil and water…To see a community that is tirelessly fighting for its way of life before it is destroyed gives me hope that large-scale development projects can be stopped before they destroy everything in their path.

Chloe Ginsburg
Drake University 

Baa Nong Tao Village and The Desire for Development

      The hill tribes of Northern Thailand have been living off the land for the better part of 300 years. They have learned how best to use the land and how it can support their communities. However in the age of globalization, rapid development has reached all corners of the world including the once isolated village of Baa Nong Tao. A few years ago they received solar panels from the government which power a few lights in each house. However they have watched as nearby communities receive full access to electricity, television and internet. As a result their isolationist mentality in the face of government sponsored development has quickly changed.
    Less than thirty years ago there was no road leading up to the village. No cars or motorcycles existed in this small village nestled in the mountains above Chiang Mai. In 2005 they received solar panels while the communities lower down the mountain already had full access to television and internet. Education followed electricity and eventually all the hill tribe communities built schools for younger children. Still only 30% of people went to school and only 10% finished high school, while in the lower communities everyone graduated with a GED equivalent. The road offered, for the first time, healthcare to villagers who were sick. When asked what happened when someone got sick before the road was built the villagers simply said, “they died”. The villagers of Baa Nong Tao are eager to work with power companies to catch up with their neighbors.
       However the ones with internet and television are hesitant about promoting the integrity of electricity. They claim it has already made them seem more distant towards each other and foresee themselves becoming more “westernized”. They are starting to slowly be assimilated into central Thai culture, and are thus losing their own. They do however speak very good english, are more educated on world issues and understand why the Thai government wants the land they live on. The villagers of Baa Nong Tao are envious of this kind of education and are focused on the positive benefits of electrical development. Specifically the access to education about health, environment, the outside world, and the actions of the government. All of this which internet and television could bring. 

Jeremy Starn
Art Institute of Boston

01 April 2013

The Dangers of Incomplete Discourse

Throughout our studies in Thailand, particularly on dams and water resources, our understanding of development has become much more muddled and complex.  During the water unit it one thing became glaringly evident: the disconnect between development project proposals and local needs.
Currently the Thai government is conducting the Kong-Chi-Mun project, an attempt to create a water grid throughout northeast Thailand in order to evenly distribute irrigation water year-round.  In large part this project is a result of national discourse which describes Isaan as a dry, barren land where poverty is rampant.  This discourse is not only prevalent in politics, but in the media and popular culture as well.  
However, the idea of “dry” Isaan is problematic; Isaan only appears this way during the dry season- in the rainy season the countryside has ample amounts of water.  Regardless of the fact Isaan is green for much of the year, it is this “dry” image which is perpetuated.  As a result, people throughout the country have begun to understand Isaan in this light and its people poverty-stricken farmers.
The power of discourse is sometimes hard for me to wrap my head around.  It shapes how we talk about and understand a place and limits what a place can and cannot be.  When I go stay in the villages I don’t see mass suffering that we come to associate with poverty, nor do I see people toiling away at the dry earth unhappy at their lot in life.  Instead I see people who are (or at least were before some development projects came into play) fairly self-sufficient and enjoy the “simple life.”  People are happy, just like anywhere else, and often have a fierce pride in their work.  While the images of dry, poor Isaan are certainly true in some respects, they do not paint a holistic picture of the region or the people who live there. 
However, because the idea of poor, dry Isaan is dominant and people are taught to see the region as such, politicians have begun to pursue policies and projects rooted in this understanding.  This has led to the idea that one way to develop Isaan is through massive water projects which would provide farmers with water year-round.  Irrigation, especially under the Thaksin regime, is often touted as a poverty-reduction strategy: give farmers water then their yields, and thus profit, will increase. 
While large-scale irrigation projects benefit some, they interfere with traditional ways of life and farming practices of many.  Villagers have found well-suited ways to adapt to their environment for hundreds of years and large development projects can disrupt this knowledge and practice by altering the environment and implicating villagers in political struggles, such as struggles to obtain community land titles.  We have seen similar trends throughout all of our units where development projects, while well-intended, often disrupt local ways of life.  For example, for years the government has promoted the use of chemical fertilizers to increase agricultural productivity throughout the region.  This has resulted in a huge loss of traditional knowledge about local sustainable farming methods, has increased soil degradation, and has contributed to increased farming debt as costs of inputs become more expensive.
Many other large-scale projects have similar results, drastically altering villagers’ ways of life and undermining traditional knowledge.  I think these effects are amplified when projects like mass irrigation are founded in flawed understandings of a region which stem from incomplete discourses.  Adopting a more holistic view of a place might help alleviate some of the negative repercussions of large-scale development and bring more benefits to the people the project originally intended to serve. 

Melanie Ferraro
University of Colorado

Is Development Truly the Answer?

In a world where governmental structure and corporate power rule the things we do in our everyday lives to ensure a means of living, self- sufficiently isn’t always a main priority when you need to put food on the table. As we enter into a period of the history during a new phase of dwindling fossil fuels and the resultant rising energy costs, I have become more and more aware of how difficult it is to express to the world about the fact that this point is becoming increasingly apparent everyday. But people need to survive, and as of the year 2013, we have come to a point where the majority of the world lives in a manner of complete disconnect from the very necessities that are sustaining this survival. Why bother understanding when the government has taken the liberty of monopolizing our every way of living and transformed it into a commodity. We can now buy everything we want without even needing to know what was put into it or how it was created, so what is the point of trying to understand?
I am not saying that all development is wrong or bad or dangerous, but at what point have we crossed this line into complete detachment? As I continue to learn about the problems that development and globalization have caused to different communities and their cultures, I ponder upon a bit of hope. I hold onto the fact that I, as well as others are aware and can see and feel this disconnect, thus realizing the destruction that the continuous cycle is causing for the future of our world.

In a country that is considered underdeveloped because they don’t have the same infrastructure, political ideals, or technologies, is Thailand really less advanced then America, a developed country? In my opinion, no they are not any less resourceful because many people choose to work in agriculture rather then the office, or the fact that they choose to live in villages rather then suburbs. Many people are able to live lives without the tremendous use of fossil fuels, yet we do, knowing full well that in the very near future that they will be depleted. These people have preserved traditions, ways of life, and connections that as people of developed countries, we will never be able to understand.
Although many people in Thailand dedicate their lives to tradition, they are aware of how heavily their lives are dependent, and influenced by government and distant corporations. Thankfully, I see some communities fighting for living as sustainably and self- sufficiently as possible. However, for our future, these transitions and ways of living are neither quick nor smooth. This means that we need to prepare today to deal with possible shortages. Thus, in my opinion, developed countries need to take a lesson from countries like Thailand and slow down to realize the destruction that continued unsustainable development is causing. We need to find ways where we can revert back to more traditional ways of living, before we run out of the time to do it in less impactful manner.
Hannah Rae Damgaard
Susquehannah University

The Race of Consumerism

Everything I look at lately seems to scream out a new example of needs vs. wants and the culture surrounding consumerism. My decision to go to Thailand was fueled partly by my desire to gain some clarity on this global issue and to find more peace within myself.

What does money mean? In Seattle, where I live in America, I had never really stood still long enough to think about this question. Living in Thailand, I have for once been able to exist in a space where I can slow my world down enough to see clearly. In this moment I see money as simply a chosen medium we have attached to, used to ascribe meaning to our lives, to give us directional, measurable goals and comparison to others. The shallow race “to make money” is used to focus our attention on a surface layer so we do not need to unearth real feelings for why we behave.

This seems to be crystal clear when I we are staying with families in the rural villages in Northeast Thailand. (As part of our program, we stay in home stays in communities that have been affected by recent Thai globalization projects. My most recent host family lived in a farming community affected by a nearby mine, in which a recent chemical spill at the plant had contaminated their farmland and water supply).

We are so wrapped up in money that we have lost ourselves and our meaning. We are chasing something void, running around in circles and moving so fast we only catch blurry glimpses of life passing by us. I have heard many times that money does not make us happy but I have never in my life felt it or really understood the statement on a gut level.

As part of our courses here, we got the opportunity to interview an NGO (Non-Government Organizer) named P’Suwit who has helped Thai communities in the Northeast deal with humans rights issues surrounding dams and mines in their area. P’ Suwit was the kind of speaker who made you stop what you were doing and listen. Even through the lag of the translation, his words hit me straight in the face.

He said that he has seen some people in the villages receive financial compensation for their damages to their farmland or livelihood. But they often don’t know what to do with this money and often buy meaningless objects or technology. These things are not equivalent to the farming land or livelihood they have lost, and the compensation may actually due more damages by starting them on a rat race of their own. P’ Suwit used an example of families with open house layouts using the extra money to renovate their houses and building walls and windows where it used to be open to the community. The money is used to assimilate to an “ideal” modern lifestyle but because of it, the connection between people is slowly being lost.

It is definitely not money that is the answer because these people I have met in the rural communities in Northeast Thailand have very little of it and they seem to be extraordinary people. These people do not have many fancy things, but they are strong, kind people with amazing characters. The children seem joyous and the community seems connected with a genuine caring for one another.

I want to acknowledge that these opinions are not intended to be deprecating in any way to people who have done well for themselves financially. I am simply pointing out that it is worth thinking of what else is driving you and what your purchases mean. Thai Food for Thought.

Aziza Seykota 
University of Washington