Heading Home

The street had become my friend, and it was the street I knew best in Thailand. Many evenings and many mornings I strolled across its narrow pavement. The street was my particular companion at night, as the path to my apartment after a hard-pressed day at the CIEE Learning Center. I would stroll slowly down the humble avenue, sharply aware of the countless creatures chirping in the darkness. The little food shops and cafes—usually bustling under the warm sun—were empty and silent. It was the road and me, the black sky and heavy heat lingering above. With each step, weary thoughts emerged with questions and frustrations, wonders and prayers. The street reminded me I was in another country, but my mind had long accepted this. My mind became less concerned about the strangeness of the new place, and more overwhelmed with understanding of my purpose in this new place. On that street, the peace of God would meet me before I went to sleep.

That’s what I will always remember, and that’s what I acutely remember now, as I sit in the Beijing International Airport exactly where I was four months ago before I hit Thai soil. Again, my travels have come full circle. One last flight lies between me and the Golden State.

After spending a semester in Thailand, am I different now? Of course. Did I change the way I thought I would? I am not quite sure. I am sure, however, that God did amazing works across this time abroad, and enhanced my understanding of Him in numerous aspects of my life. Through my unique coursework, my internal struggles, my long-distance relationship, my culture shock, He has had me return to this essential lesson:

The world is complicated, but your duty is simple—to learn, care, and act in His name; to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

 

This lesson, in its own way, is pure. At the same time, its execution can easily become challenging. During my experience in Thailand I encountered new pressures, uncertainties, and ideas that either reminded me of my duty or crushed my consciousness of it. Often times they did both.

These pressures, uncertainties, and ideas are encompassed by two core themes that arose while I was experiencing Thailand, or more so, God’s Will:

1. COMMUNITIES

At the backbone of my academic program was the powerful concept of solidarity. As my student group explored various development issues faced by Thai villagers, we frequently witnessed how each of their communities—and more so their movement for justice—was majorly dependent on commonality. Was the community able to bond over shared struggles? Shared visions?

IMG_3334In general, the communities I observed in Northeast Thailand were very much alive. In stark contrast to the neighborhoods of my life, where families quietly mow their lawns and stay within their fences, Thai villagers shared food, shared stories and laughs, and opened their homes to all. Multiple generations cared for one another, from grandmothers to toddlers, and camaraderie was built between farmers and those of the same age. Nevertheless, this unity was strained. When a development project created a rift in the community’s way of life or relationships—such as a dam taking away the main occupation of the village, or villagers turning against each other concerning the local mines—devastating scars resulted.

Life was continuing on, but in the back or front of many villagers minds was a fear for the future. What will their children go on to do? Will the village remain in existence? Will more of the same top-down development deteriorate their remaining connection to their land and livelihood?

In my heart, I felt that communities were distracted from perhaps the most important factor for true solidarity—faith. A united dependence on God, unified contentment and determination in His power. Although I was enthusiastic to join CIEE in coming alongside these communities to further their social justice movements, I was wondering what this solidarity really meant… In the short term, I definitely agreed earthly justice had to be reached. These communities needed their human rights met—to have safe water, food, and shelter. Yet in the long term, or more so in the eternal perspective, these aspects of life cannot reach their full potential until heavenly justice is discovered. These communities not only needed to survive and live in their environment with physical confidence, but spiritual. Maybe, if one could see it this way, their “grace” right had yet to be met. The knowledge of Jesus Christ, and the peace He provides. This is a truth for communities everywhere.

2. CRITICISM— a.k.a. “FEED FORWARD”

Taking criticism has never been my strong suit, but when taken well it is a beautiful door to humility. Interestingly, during this semester abroad I was involved in many team efforts and journalistic projects that entailed constant criticism. Whenever I was planning in a group, my ideas and contributions were open and vulnerable—often dissected and agonized over, and often not used. The process of offering suggestions, sacrificing my own personal logic and feelings, and making team decisions was at times like pulling teeth. However, at one point someone caused a brilliant paradigm shift when she described the act of criticism not as the term “feedback” but instead “feedFOWARD”.

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One of my projects was creating an infographic in Thai.

Rather than dread the attack on my work, I needed to hear the critique fully, humbly, and quietly, and then grab ahold onto the pieces that would assist me in moving forward—in improving and progressing. Although this may seem like common sense, how easy is it for us to let go of our pride and differences to consider another viewpoint? This is a weakness I am trying to work on, a solid life lesson. I likewise recognized my need to give critique with this feed forward mentality.

As I took part in these group activities, I was also trying to publish a news feature. The writing process is a long and tedious ride, with seemingly endless edits, made of both brutal and simple critiques. For weeks I was balancing on the crucial line of accepting the advice of those who were older and more experienced, while staying loyal to my style and desire for the story. I felt myself succumbing to others’ desires, wondering if my next draft would appear more professional or too conventional.

Eventually, with the encouragement of my boyfriend Nathan, I realized that in all of these circumstances (whether there was criticism from my classmates or edits from famous journalists in the field) God had given me these responsibilities, passions, and skills. He empowers me to write, to brainstorm, to listen and absorb, take and do. He also has instilled in me, as with every human being on earth, a unique mind with its own imagination and capabilities. Although I must consider the counsel shared with me, I must essentially seek His counsel.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” –Psalm 1:7

 

In the case of writing, I need to be aware of the guides He has placed in my life, but also appreciative of the distinct way He has enabled me to communicate words for His glory. By the way, to see my final published news article CLICK HERE.

In the case of teamwork, my primary responsibility is to love those around me by sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is not only done by sharing the amazing words of John 3:16, but living 1 Corinthians 13 and Romans 12 daily.

These are a few of the major lessons I experienced during my four months in Thailand. I hope to reflect further in the future, but overall I know the country will have a dear place in my memory.

I am now back in America, and I hope to continue to learn Thai at Cornell. By learning more of the language, I hope to continue to have a connection to the Land of Smiles.

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Q & A

For one of my courses, titled “Human Perspectives on Development and the Environment,” we had to reflect on our educational experience and answer the questions below. I thought this was a general overview of my thoughts toward the CIEE program, and wished to share it. Enjoy!

In looking at your experience abroad, identify at least two of your own cultural assumptions and describe how these assumptions initially affected the way you thought, acted, interpreted, and evaluated the issues studied throughout the semester. Did these assumptions change? Why, or why not?

 

photo 1As a person who has only traveled to two countries—Hispanic ones at that—before this semester in Thailand, I assumed that by entering an Asian country I would encounter an entirely new culture than my own. In a way, I expected Thai culture to be independent from the Western world.

This belief, however, was overly simplistic and revealed my own naivety about globalization. Through CIEE sessions and personal experiences I have come to recognize differences between Thai culture and American culture. At the same time, I have been more surprised to see influence of Western-style modernization and how Thais have reshaped it. This influence has been seen as multiple levels. From my roommate knowing more about American pop-stars and preferring Tesco over talaats (markets), to villagers referencing American companies and history, I realized that many of the real-life situations of the Thai people I was meeting were somehow molded for the better or worse by my home nation. While diving into the environmental and social issues of Thailand, globalization both concerned and intrigued me. Each instance instilled either regret or pride in my American-status, and always left me with questions. Why don’t I protest American pesticide exports, when they are illegal by American standards? Why has the American government manipulated Thailand on so many occasions? On a lighter note, how do Thai people take American desserts to a whole new level? When we are exchanges, often those we ask questions talk about America’s example. In the beginning of the program I thought I had left my culture behind in California, when really the American influence has arisen in both explicit and implicit forms.

Another assumption I had was that Buddhism would be have a constantly active role in Thai society. As a Christian and coming from a country with diverse spiritual beliefs, I was interested in going to a country known to follow one religion. I thought that Buddhism would be strictly practiced and prevalent, as a motivation and guide of most people’s actions. In numerous ways it is—temples are seen in every neighborhood as community centers, people often give alms to monks and know the precepts, and Buddhist characteristics are highly respected. Nevertheless, my limited time in villages and Khon Kaen have shown that Buddhist beliefs are often mixed with other spiritual traditions such as Brahmanism and Hinduism, and that religious thought and meditation is not uniform in practice. With respect to the issues, I initially wanted to ask many of our exchange participants how their spiritual beliefs have affected their view of their adversity or the strategies they are taking. In became generally apparent, however, that most primarily value community and the Thai culture pillars of hierarchy in everything—from their daily life to their political movements. 

If you were to describe what the situation is for the communities you’ve visited as a whole, what would you say? How do issues of politics and state power, corporations/economics, human rights, community empowerment, and the environment play in creating the situation you describe?

 

We visited communities uprooted in a quickly transforming and economics-driven world. Every village had a long history and a prominent livelihood that formed the foundation of their identity. However, these communities were lost within the politics of scale when the Thai government succumbed to world and internal pressures to advance. In order to supply the needs of the nation or satisfy the greed in capitalism it created and promoted shortsighted initiatives. Moreover, companies promised modernization, stronger markets, and larger GDP—also known as “Think Big” development strategies—and the Thai government welcomed them.

In the middle of all this were these communities, whose voices and destinies were often not considered. In trying to please the majority or the elite, the Thai government repeatedly turned these communities into marginalized minorities. In numerous cases, the development projects we studied led to the violation of human rights in the communities and detriments to the environment. When the environment was affected, the communities were affected. There was the loss of culture, destruction of natural resources, or poor health, and often all of these overlapped.

That is the general overview of how development shifted the status of communities. Now, as these projects continue or are completed, these communities must rise to hold the bureaucracy accountable for the negative side effects. Unfortunately, the instability of the government and the power of companies hinder the communities’ ability to demand justice or recover from the projects’ consequences.

During Unit 1, it was refreshing to see farmers unite to push for organic agriculture and free themselves from the burden of investment in chemicals. However, the government and consumers’ lack of support complicate this. In Unit 2, the communities are continuing to fight for agency over their original land, but corruption in the government’s property system and preservation efforts are roadblocks. Unit 3 brings forth an old case of a development project—the Pak Mun Dam—and how communities still mourn for their lost way of life and hope for government’s permission to open the dam gates. Lastly, in Unit 4, the previous units’ issues of agriculture, land, and water combine into a complex dilemma as communities challenge the mining industry that is disrupting the landscape.  Despite the difficulty of each of their situations, all of the villages have begun to seek solutions, create networks, and generate political movements to ensure that the government will not overlook their community and others in the future.

How has the CIEE approach to education affected your perceptions of yourself and the issues you’ve studied? How has it affected your perceptions of yourself in your larger group or facilitative groups and your role within these issues?

 

The CIEE model has dramatically pushed me to understand my role in my education and within society. Although I did not always receive concrete knowledge on the issues, throughout this semester’s journey I have learned much about group dynamics, the power of communities, and the intricacy of our world.

Interestingly, I found that the program has many parallels to the learning model my faith community in American inherently uses to strength its members in their desire to follow Jesus Christ. In addition to hearing sermons, which is equivalent to a lecture in education, as a faith body we have group discourses on critical texts in the Bible, share about our self-perceptions and spiritual goals, and actively go out onto our college campus and town to come alongside those in need or to engage in conversations about God. I realized that many CIEE activities created these same environments for learning and growing as a group and individual, which was very neat. In general, CIEE’s approach for student empowerment was not necessarily new to me, since I had similar experiences before. At the same time, my semester with CIEE has definitely opened opportunities for me to be open-minded, flexible, and loving to those who hold different perspectives and personalities than my own. In my Christian community the goal and motivations behind our actions are already clear and unified, but most struggles in my student group in Thailand came from the need to find common ground and focus in our learning. I had to repeatedly reassess my role in the group and how I could assist forming and supporting the group’s goals. We also struggled with the peer-to-peer dynamic of our group activities. Since facilitation is not a leader-based system, it was a challenge to move forward as a group without set levels of authority. Overall, CIEE’s group learning process was not a whole new world to me, but it still enhanced my ability to work with others by including its own unique challenges.

With respect to the issues, the CIEE model was very powerful. Coming into this program, I had little exposure to the realities of development and globalization—at least in the environmental context—and speaking with people directly affected was the most impactful way to learn about issues of this kind. Rather than reading a detached discourse in a book, a living human is sharing with you their fears, hopes, and memories. As a result of this, I now can take a critical look at the development trends in our world with direct examples in my mind. I also have a newfound curiosity about similar situations in the United States. Lastly, as a health major, it was important that I witnessed the environmental, governmental, and social dimensions of human well-being. All of this can be used to contribute to the world for the better. My CIEE experiences reinforced my pursuit of the Biblical Psalm 82:3 – “Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.”

What is the difference between “help” and “solidarity”? Do you feel solidarity is possible? If not, why not? If so, what are the barriers to achieving solidarity? Has your group created solidarity within itself? If so in what way? If not, why not? To what degree is that important in having effective community collaboration? Ideally, how should it be initiated and implemented? What would be key measures of success?

 

I think it is less about what is the difference between “help” and “solidarity,” and how we define “help”. In our jaded world, often we perceive “help” as negative—a top-down or forced solution from one side who views themselves superior onto another. In my eyes, solidarity is possible and is an expression of mutual “help.” In order to form solidarity, all sides must have humility and an understanding of everyone’s roles and ability to contribute. This also calls for a certain level of equality and tolerance. The final, most crucial piece is clear, common goals. The exchange setting is a neat representation of solidarity in the works. Ideally in an exchange between students and villagers, both sides come to learn without intimidation and with respect. The group gathers with the purpose to help each other through the sharing of thoughts and experiences.

I may have given a simple formula for solidarity, but all of these ingredients are certainly difficult to create and maintain. This was apparent as my student group attempted to build solidarity across the semester. The main barrier to our group’s solidarity was distrust and insecurity. On numerous occasions group members could not trust others to work toward the created goals, and were suspicious that others had hidden, personal agendas. I feel this lapses in solidarity occurred both on the part of individuals and on the program structure. The freedom given to us in the education process was a tough responsibility for our group to handle, mainly because people had very different views and goals. The differences in goals particularly impacted our ability to form solidarity. Although we were still able to collaborate, it was very strained.

Collaboration cannot reach its full potential without solidarity. Solidarity cannot be achieved unless everyone is passionate about the same goals. People are often not passionate about goals unless they have solid leadership and shared experiences. This complex web was hard to construct with our diverse student group and the program’s limitations and ambiguity.

Overall, solidarity and collaboration should begin when all parties are ready to act toward a shared mission. Successful collaboration is then measured by the group’s ability to preserve and achieve this mission—to maintain solidarity—despite change and adversity.

Is Irrigation Worth It?

Our van pulled up the village sala, and everyone grabbed our research materials with anticipation. We were about to survey a village about local irrigation for the first time.

“Do you have the surveys? What about the Thai versions?”

“Pens, pens—we need pens!”

“Look, they are waiting for us.”

Piling out of the vehicle, we entered the outdoor community center to find 20 pairs of curious eyes staring back. Villagers of all ages had gathered to participate in our surveying and were causally sitting and chatting, hushing as we began to explain our visit.

(In our own Thai) “Hello! We are American students studying development and the environment at Khon Kaen University.”

(Then with a translator) “We are working with the Thai Baan Center to learn about irrigation from the Pak Mun Dam, and are surveying farmers to collect information about agriculture and the irrigation system. Would you like to answer our questions?”

Survey

The villagers nodded with interest and enthusiasm, ready to participate. We, however, were not quite ready. Expecting to do individual interviews and one-on-one surveying, we were caught off guard by the unexpected numbers—21-question survey, 20 farmers, three students, but only two translators.

What was “Plan B”? Only a vague idea I had proposed on the drive to the village—that we have all the villagers take the survey together, with the translators reading the questions one at a time.

Now, with dozens of villagers shifting in their seats, Plan B was a go.

All three of us students hurriedly passed out pens and survey forms to the crowd, while our translators cried out instructions.

Quickly, however, it became apparent that the older farmers in the crowd were having difficulty reading the survey’s small Thai print, while younger participants were eager to fill out the survey independently. Soon it became less of a group Q & A session, and more of a proctored questionnaire.

The translators and I circled around the sala, assisting those with any confusion with the questions. Although it was a last resort decision for me to assist the farmers with my limited Thai, it was amazing to realize how much I understood and could explain to those I interacted with. Their smiles and eagerness in completing the form was encouraging, a beautiful reminder of why we were collecting this information in the first place.

Many of these villagers were once part of households that relied on a fishing livelihood. When the Pak Mun Dam was built, hundreds of fish were unable to swim upstream to the communities, leaving villagers reliant on dry-season farming and freshly built irrigation stations to have an income.

Our surveying of this village, along with three others and three local government entities (known as TAOs), revealed that the irrigation system is burdened with issues of quality, cost, and access.

The Khamkhuankaew TAO, which has jurisdiction over two of the villages we surveyed, currently pays 66% of the local farmer’s cost of water. Every year pressure increases for it to support agriculture in all seasons through the costly upkeep of irrigation pumps.

According to one Khamkhuankaew official, the TAO has 200,000 baht in its budget for pump maintenance, yet each time a pump is fixed it costs 100,000. If pumps have to be fixed more than twice, the TAO then has to divert funds from other projects in its budget. Unfortunately for the TAO and villagers, this happens more often than not.

“I am frustrated with the current irrigation system. My station is often broken, sometimes for as long as 2 months,” said Toei Phunchai, a rice farmer in the village of Khan Puai. “The area’s soil also can’t absorb the water well—it is too dry. Even if I had irrigation I would need to use a lot of water, and it is still too much money.”

In addition to the stress irrigation places on the local economy, agriculture appears unsustainable when considering the area’s arid geography and the river-based knowledge of the local people. The Thai Baan Center, a Pak Mun community group and our research partner, holds onto the conviction that a fishing livelihood—especially for the case of Pak Mun people—holds equal or superior economic and cultural value than that of farming. If this is the case, the government’s irrigation scheme is missing the bigger picture.

From our surveys we created a report on irrigation as well as an infographic, all with the hope of giving a glimpse of that bigger picture. We especially hope our work will facilitate common understanding between the parties involved—villagers, TAOs, and the central government.

Should the Pak Mun Dam stay in commission to provide irrigation? Our infographic explains the irrigation system farmers in the Pak Mun area use to grow dry season crops—but with many difficulties and questionable success.

Should the Pak Mun Dam stay in commission to provide irrigation? Our infographic explains the irrigation system farmers in the Pak Mun area use to grow dry season crops—but with many difficulties and questionable success.

Songkran: A Nationwide Water Spree

In one moment a wave of water slashed against my face. My eyes furiously blinked to identify my attackers—this time being two kids armed with buckets and screaming with joy.

In the next moment I met the refreshingly sweet scent of tea. Turning toward the street, I saw a procession sprinkle cups of warm oolong onto Buddha.

It was Songkran. Thailand’s wild, and yet spiritually rooted, water festival. During this time every city in Thailand transforms into a homemade water park.

I was Chiang Mai, tourist central for the country’s Northern region. Usually its streets are bubbling with activity as farang (foreigners) explore its markets, restaurants, and crafts shops. Today, however, roads were covered in human masses for April’s 3-day epic water fight.

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Although I would have loved to photograph Songkran, the constant presence of water threatened my ability to take a pictures without destroying my camera. This is from Google Images.

Water guns squirted from every direction. Hoses sprayed waterfalls over partygoers. At each storefront or front yard, families launched buckets of water against passerby, neighbors, and drivers. No one outside was exempt from the watery celebration.

Running through the main roads with a bucket in hand, I faced the watery warzone, ducking to avoid hose sprays and releasing my own H2O ammunition when I had the chance. On the craziest of avenues, bubbles and baby powder were also thrown in the aquatic madness.

At one point, a group of young Thai men and women grabbed me (the unsuspecting farang), sat me in a chair… and I looked up to see three buckets of water converging on top of my head. I felt like a coach that had just won a championship, drenched with a Gatorade cooler by the revelry of my players.

On the quieter alleys, the whole phenomenon was similar to Halloween. I was literally passing house-by-house, asking not for a sweet treat, but for another soaking splash.

The atmosphere was amazing, and in some cases, slightly inconvenient. Desperately trying to reach the airport on the last day of the festival, my travel group was forced to take a tuk-tuk—an open taxi with no protection against the forces of eager Songkran participants. Speeding through the neighborhoods, we were repeatedly slammed with water, cringing in our everyday clothes and huddling to protect our luggage on the inside of the vehicle.

During the drive my emotions shifted dramatically. Irritated in the beginning, I was unable to understand why people did not slack in water-throwing to cater to our obvious goal to travel. By the middle of the journey, however, no inch of me was dry, and I had decided to embrace the watery onslaught. Then, toward the end of the ride, I had had enough. It seemed the water-attacks were bigger and more abrasive by the stoplight.

In one final instance, I saw a huge white man wielding a massive bucket, prepared to catapult it at my side of the taxi. In delirious experimentation I screamed, “MERCYYYYYYYYYYY!” to prevent the blow.  He responded with a wide-eyed face of surprise, lowering his bucket with a grin.

It was a small victory. By the time we had to enter the airport to check in, all of attire and bags were dripping wet.

Reflecting on the event, many questions come to mind: Could this happen in America? Would we be able to let go of three days to douse our towns in water? I feel like it would complement Fourth of July very well.

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Songkran celebrators–Thais and foreigners alike–walk alongside a Buddha procession.

Despite all of these musings, I also recalled the fact that this holiday stems from Buddhism, and was not only a spontaneous jubilee to draw tourists. The farther my friends and I wandered away from the party streets, the more we witnessed Thais taking part in the original ceremonies of Songkran–which technically marks the Thai new year. As Buddha idols were paraded throughout the city, many would gather to pour cups of tea onto them, in order to pay respect and wash away evil spirits in their lives.

I saw a few farangs imitate the ritual, and wondered if they understood the true meaning of their action. This, along with the touristy water mayhem only a few blocks away, reminded me of how commercialization often overshadows the true meaning of holidays.

At the same time, as I watched tea poured down Buddha’s sides, I remembered this passage from 1 Corinthians 8:

We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

 

Across my life I have come to believe in these statements, that Jesus Christ is the only living Lord that can wash away our wrongs. Although the sweetness of the tea, the chanting and laughing of the people tingled my senses, in my heart I was standing outside of this occasion, knowing that majority of those around me did not share my revelation.

Around this time, the warm sun that had encouraged the watery celebration was lost in the development of cold gray clouds. Rain lightly sprinkled down from the darkening sky, water naturally falling and adding to the city’s soaked streets. The Buddha procession continued to move forward, but instead of following I stopped and watched it grow smaller, until it finally entered a temple. Many crowded at the temple entrance, but I turned and walked away.

Video Post: Mining in Thailand

“My house has gold, which is actually rice.
My house has a story to tell.
My house has been facing misery,
that became a legend.
My house in Isaan will now
determine which way to go.”
-Poem written for the anti-mining movement in Thailand.

 

In our third video, Allie and I consider mining’s impact on Thai communities, the complexities that surround it, and what it means to take a side on an issue. Watch here:

IMG_3370As you may or may not know, Thailand is in a political crisis. The country is struggling to define its democracy and stabilize its government. There are two general sides in the conflict, and tonight my student group was able to interview members of one side- known as the “Red Shirts”- before they headed to the capital of Bangkok to join a mass rally. A rally like this is meant to make a statement, to demonstrate how much power and passion the party has. However, these active and exciting events have the tendency to result in violence if the other side crashes the scene.

Pictured here is the woman that I interviewed, and she was amazing. With so much fire for her party and democracy, she was sure of her dedication to enter the potential danger zone. Later I discovered she was a Christian, and after discussing her belief in Jesus, she and I both felt the need to pray. I prayed for her safety, for protection over the people at the rally, and for peace in Thailand. I opened my eyes to see tears in hers. She was so touched, and said, “I am not afraid, because Jesus is with me.” While I already was inspired by her political zeal and good heart, I was blown away by her faith and, even more so, by God. He had planned this incredible moment where two women, from two different countries and speaking two different languages, both knew Him and were encouraged to be courageous in His love.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” 1 John 4:18

The Rebel Fisherman

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It was an election day. A reporter stopped Paw Somkiat, asking if he had gone to the polls.

 “I don’t vote. Why do you ask?”

“It’s illegal to not vote.”

“I don’t want my vote to be used in the wrong way. I reserve my rights and give them to no one.” Somkiat paused, critically gazing the reporter. “Who made this law?”

 “The government.”

“Then I will not follow it. Maybe if the people actually came together and decided this for all’s benefit I would. I only know what’s right, and what’s wrong. I do not know the law. How am I supposed to know the law? I only graduated from the fourth grade.”

Grinning at the memory, Somkiat sat inside the wooden classroom of his self-established “School of Local Knowledge”. Makeshift signs, covered in haphazard Thai, surrounded him with old adages. Although his story had reached its climax, his point was not done. His lack of familiarity with policy, regulations, and legality was only a shadow to his stronger conviction that they were not the source of morality.

He proceeded, “Culture and traditions are above the law, because culture came first.”

As a fisherman turned activist, Somkiat was preparing to launch into his philosophy, more so criticism, of development as the world knows it—the very same development that led to the Pak Mun Dam.

Back in 1991, when the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) was erecting the Pak Mun Dam’s walls and devastating fishing villages in the process, Somkiat was running from bureaucratic office to another to demand that the government take responsibility.

His urgency came from the realization that the existence of the dam would mean the end of his and his people’s way of life.

“The dam was like a tsunami to culture; it destroyed it,” Somkiat states with bitter nostalgia.

Before his eyes, villages’ spirituality lost face, community sharing became strained as every resource became a commodity under the influence of companies, and family relationships were splintered as younger generations left for Bangkok without the chance of carrying on the river traditions.

Today, over 20 years later, Somkiat still laments the missing culture. Across all this time, he clung to the belief that permanently opening the Pak Mun gates is the only means of restoration, and was not afraid to part ways from those who forfeited this goal.

Once a member of the Tai Baan Center, the community resistance group against the Pak Mun Dam, Somkiat was an active leader in the days of grassroots superpower Assembly of the Poor and its protests in Bangkok. However, when the Pak Mun movement began to cool down, Tai Baan chairpersons began to warm up to EGAT and political parties for monetary compensation. Unable to withstand such compromises—what he saw as corruption—Somkiat broke off and initiated his own resistance group under the “School of Local Knowledge”, independent of any politics or industry.

Originally boasting over 1800 members, the “School of Local Knowledge” now only represents 297 villagers from 3 sub-districts. The loss in numbers has not discouraged Somkiat. Attributing it to the long length of the controversy and the pressure from political advertising, Somkiat knows those remaining truly share his desire to decommission the Pak Mun Dam. His followers are as uncompromising as he is. They know that his wish to see the gates open comes from his underlying principle that where development exists, culture cannot.

In his strong-willed fashion he affirms, “You can only give life back to the Mun River if you open the gates forever.”

When asked about the benefits of the Pak Mun Dam, Somkiat can only speak of development’s contradictions.

“Many say the dam brought about advancement, but I don’t see modernization, because everything creates problems for us.”

Using Pak Mun Dam as his haunting example, Somkiat always refers back to his core stance that development fails because it is unable to preserve culture.

“If companies actually talked about preserving culture, they could no longer build a dam, or destroy wetlands. So they don’t talk about it.”

He, on the other hand, always will.

The Cave

The light at the end of the tunnel was dimming, and I was yearning to be in its shine.

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Instead of being a grim end, it was a reminder of the beautiful day that existed outside the walls of stone and shadows. I was deep into the caverns of a Thai cliffside, scrambling across rock formations behind my homestay brother and sister with three other students. We were slowly ascending into darkness in flip flops. Yes, flip flops. When my host-brother mentioned visiting a bat cave earlier that day, I imagined a little opening that we could causally stroll through. Instead I found myself climbing boulders, grimacing at the double dilemma of avoiding bat scat with my hands and lifting my body with zero guarantee of foot traction.

Every step of the way into the cave I doubted my desire to go farther.

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Bats tittered in the distance. No other signs of life were apparent, but the mystery of the darkness magnified the possibility of something more. How did I end up here? At one point I turned back to see the cave entrance glow as a faint orb in the distance. I had taken myself into a world of blackness. Fear began to creep into my bones. While the other students continued moving upward into the rocky rafters, I sat down, paralyzed. My mind attempted to make sense of the area. It was an alien space–the landscape unintelligible to my eyes–but I knew it was jagged stone in every direction.

Often we define ourselves, our life, by place. In this moment I was nowhere and somewhere at the same time. My senses wondered at the rocky chamber, invisible and empty of everything except winged creatures and minerals. My eyes told me it was nothing. Yet, as I sat quietly in the darkness, I remembered I was in a cave every Thai youth in the local area explores. I was in the village of Khon Saan. I was in the province of Chaiyaphum. I was in Thailand. The light was not really that far away.

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Are your wonders known in the darkness,
    or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? Psalm 88:12

 

For it is you who light my lamp;
the Lord my God lightens my darkness. Psalm 18:28

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Video Post: Land Rights in Thailand

Is your land, your property, truly your own?

 

In Thailand, many communities cannot quite answer this question, due to complex governmental and environmental conflicts. Learn more through the second video Allie and I created to document the engaging issues of our study abroad program in NE Thailand.

 

IMG_2049At the beginning of this past week, I visited a 9-story temple in the city of Khon Kaen. My friends and I climbed all the way to the top, in awe of the surrounding views along the way. Although I am not a Buddhist, I was able to admire its stunning architecture.

Interesting Bible verse and food for thought: “the Most High (God) does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?’ “
-Acts 7:48-50

Here are more snapshots of my recent experiences, be sure to read the captions for further explanations!

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While exploring the temple’s upper floors, I looked below to see monks drinking slurpies as they entered the temple grounds.

Many monks were visiting the temple as "tourists" like we were. I like this shot and the next because they convey the natural, boyish camaraderie of the young monks.

Many monks were visiting the temple as “tourists” like we were. I like this shot and the next because they convey the natural, boyish camaraderie of the young monks.

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After visiting the temple, my group ventured over to the city’s lake where Thais and farangs (foreigners) alike boat upon the waters, exercise along the bike trails, and wander through nearby markets.

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As the sun made its descent, my friends rowed toward the center of the lake to take photos of the Thai twilight.

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For our latest academic unit on land rights, my student group stayed in the lively village of Khon Saan. The tight-knit community is protesting against the proposed building of a rubber factory. Our awesome host mothers gave us activist shirts that say “We love Khon Saan.” Allie and I will soon post another video about what we learned from this village and two others.