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


Emily Neubig said...

Hi Eleanor!
I loved what you wrote and I found myself relating to the things you are thinking and feeling- in a different way of course! I am studying abroad in Santiago, Dominican Republic and have spent the semester trying to figure out how to process my experience. You say it best though, it is like trying to digest unprocessed food! I think I will be continuing to process this experience for the next few years of my life, taking my time chewing :)
I also found similarities between the cultural dichotomies, except here I struggle to identify what is "Dominican" culture and what is "Dominican influenced by American" culture. I have come to find that the two have morphed into one in some ways, yet in other ways they couldn't be more opposite. It has been interesting to see how culture is shaped/formed!
Enjoy Thailand, it sounds amazing
Emily N.

Tom Baker said...

The question, "what is progress?" is a question that anyone who studies or works in development will have to struggle with at some point, and I think it is one of the critical questions of the field. As an outsider, you have the privilege of being able to examine the host culture with a unique set of expectations, ideas, and values. Although this may seem to be an “unqualified” opinion, I would encourage you to keep asking the questions that you are asking and remain analytical in your observations of the experience you are having.
Additionally, I really liked your comments regarding the diversity of “Thai culture.” From my experience, although the majority of a culture exists in the peak of the bell curve, there are so many outliers that diversify and bring different perspectives, values, and lifestyles to a culture. Just as you have had a hard time categorizing Thai culture, I have found it impossible to define or categorize Dominican culture or a “typical Dominican” during my time studying in Santiago.
Your article was very though-provoking; thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

This is really brilliantly written, and extremely thought provoking. I think that it is really easy to pass by all of the things that we see in Thailand- and take them at face value.
This pull and push of development that we have seen consistently throughout the country has made me question development in a way that I never had. Does it take away from the beauty of Thailand's natural culture? Would Thailand be better off if development stopped? How can they achieve a happy medium?
These are all questions I ask myself all of the time. I am really interested in seeing what happens in Thailand, especially after the AEC in implemented.

Thank you for the article, you got me thinkin!

Sonja said...

Emily, I relate to your struggle to "identify what is "Dominican" culture and what is "Dominican influenced by American" culture." In Thailand, too I feel that the two have both morphed and are also opposites, as you explained. In Thailand there is also an interesting discrepancy between Buddhism and Western values. While Buddhism emphasizes minimal attachment to worldly possessions and the idea that happiness comes from within, as Thailand "develops" people are placing a strong emphasis on acquiring and displaying wealth, from buying a TV to having electricity. It seems that even Buddhism itself is becoming commodified through thousands of Buddha statues for sale, Songkran festival becoming a tourist attraction, and so on. One speaker we met with, Sulak Sivaraksa, questioned whether Thailand can truly call itself a Buddhist country since it has adopted such Western values. These issues are complex and hard to pull apart, especially given that globalization seems to be an unstoppable force. My hope is that perhaps the tide could turn the other way, and Western academics, economists and politicians could begin to be influenced by Buddhist ideals that encourage mindfulness over materialism.

April said...

I think that your description of your experience as half digested is excellent. From the experiences I've had in CIEE Service- Learning in the Dominican Republic, I also feel as though there are always pieces of your experience that you can not fully make a decision on because they are both complicated and controversial. For example, our group has traveled to a government own beach in the Dominican Republic, which means that vendors are not allowed to wander it and sell their wares as they do at other beaches and that there is an entrance fee that goes to beach maintenance. Though this might seem like a simplistic idea, that the beach gets preserved environmentally and provides work for a few government-sponsored employees, I also wonder who is benefitting from the beaches themselves. There are a number of tours from hotels that bring tourists, but most of these hotels are owned by foreigners. However, they are employing local drivers. On another side, the lack of vendors might bring more people to this beach, but means less people making money. And these ideas are only the human component, what about the environmental side? Should the beach be preserved or should there be more ability for Dominicans to access it and use it as a cash resource?