Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
Sixteen Tons, written by Merle Travis and recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford, became one of America’s most popular songs in the mid-1950s. People seemed to identify with this coal miners’ lament about feeling trapped and unable to change his situation no matter how hard he worked. Coal-miners often lived in company-owned houses and were paid in scrip – coupons valid only at the company store. Even if summoned to heaven, the miner said he couldn’t go because he owed his soul to the company store.
Christian believers would liken this sense of hopeless resignation to the feelings of the Hebrew people during their 400 years of bondage in Egypt. When Moses told them of God’s promise to release them from slavery, they did not listen to him because of “anguish of spirit” (Ex 6:9). They were so far down, they could not look up.
One experience that no one can avoid is the feeling of hardship. We all know the feeling of being down in the ditch, feeling like there is no hope. Our struggles come in every shape and size, but hopelessness is something that we’ve all shared.
From my human rights work, I had to follow-up on cases related to violence against women who were suspected of practicing sorcery which has led to someone’s death. For sure, the suspected victim knows she will be tortured first, and then killed. She would know too that her husband, or son, (in some cases women with many sons are saved because their sons would protect them) or a brother, or a village elder, or church pastor would not come to her aid; the most obvious reason is for safety or fear of being accused as a co-sorcerer. So she would prepare mentally to die at the hands of an angry mob, mostly consisting of young men who are out to show they are the protectors of the village and community from bad spirits.
In June, my course mate Tanya and I visited Mercy Centre, a place run by Fr. Joe, a Catholic priest in Bangkok. This Centre works with orphan children and families from the slums of Bangkok – the poorest of the poor. They have programs addressing early learning, education for children, HIV response clinics and visitation, a legal branch which deals with rights issues and attends court nearly every day on cases related to human trafficking, ensuring all the Centre’s children are enrolled in a regular school, and other services as well. A few days before our visit, four children arrived at their doorstep. The oldest, a nine year old girl, had been protecting and “providing” for her three younger siblings as best as she was able to – trying to make sure they had enough to eat, a place to sleep, and a safe place to play – but, that is a lot of responsibility for a young child.
In Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, we visited community based organisations, women’s groups, care centres, and educational institutions that were addressing similar issues working with victim-survivors, many of whom were immigrants who were running away from war-torn countries, victim-survivors of human trafficking, children growing up with fear of the unknown, always longing to be in the loving and caring arms of a parent, and the list goes on. Who could understand their fear, despair, fight for survival, hunger, the need to be with family, mental anguish, alienation, and even struggle to be counted as important contributors to nation building, such as the case of the Urban Management Network in Chiang Mai?
Some of us may have perceived a sense of hopelessness for their situation; at least this was the response I got from two of our team members. Some of us may have seen a people with determination, hope, and fearlessness to claim their stake as a people with human dignity, spurred on by their mentors, supporters, and patrons.
I thought I should share with you on this blog the vision I had for Urban Management Network which I had written in my reflection report:
With their level of innovation and self-determination, I believe that if they were given community land rights or titles, they could do greater things. Through mutual aid and cooperation they can develop eco-villages, organize a co-operative to have access to basic amenities, and, gradually, the cooperative could search for competitive business operations such as:
– A community land trust to own the land and lease it to a tenant ownership co-operative
– With assistance from the land trust, the co-op could then negotiate with a lender for a mortgage.
Is that not the ideal kind of society democracy propagates – that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, are endowed with reason and conscience, and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood?
We might think, “What hope do the hill peoples, the immigrants, and those living in slums have for the future?” For some people the struggle is with themselves, with their emotions, self-confidence, or depression. Others are bombarded and attacked by situations of the world.
Listening to our speaker on Friday 26th July who spoke about the role of women in advocating for peace and access to justice, it seemed to me that the rights of women are not fully recognized and appreciated by the Muslim community in the deep south of Thailand. Realistically, while war tends to be men’s business, more often than not, peace is women’s business. Without their participation in peace and reconstruction discussions, sustainable peace cannot be achieved.
I quote from the speaker, “Peace is not the end; It’s work in progress. There are no short cuts or recipes. Each peace process nurtures this developing field of knowledge. More work is yet to do after peace”. Indeed, because true hope can only be found through the pursuit of something greater than one-self.
For the Christians, no one is hopeless whose hope is in God. For the victim-survivor of sorcery accusations, tortures, and killings in Papua New Guinea, the new law for serious criminal offences such as grievous bodily harm with intent to kill is now 30 years + life imprisonment. That is strong political will by government to provide protection and security for its people. However, implementation of the laws remains challenging due to multiple factors such as weak police and judicial systems, lack of accessibility, security issues, etc.
No matter how difficult our struggles, there is always hope. No matter how long we’ve fought to overcome our hardship, there is always hope. The trick to finding hope is to look in the right place.
We must continue marching for the good of humanity. “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge” – Bertrand Russell.
Sarah Garap, Papua New Guinea
Rotary Peace Fellow
June 2013 Session