Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
I went to Thailand at the end of January 2014 to evaluate Rotary International’s Peace Center Program at Chulalongkorn University. Now that I am back home in Alaska and have had time to process all my experiences, I realize that I had my own mini-lessons in peace and conflict prevention and resolution. This is what I learned.
The media really does sensationalize current events. During my stay, I had access to cable channels that broadcast news about the protests in Thailand as well as to several online news web sites. To listen to media reports, you would believe that Thailand was close to exploding. Tourists were warned not to travel to Thailand. Yet, every day I walked by a tent city set up by the protestors and I felt no fear and saw no threats of violence. It looked like a great outdoor sit-in and late night party, complete with live music and speeches.
Non-violent protests can be organized, disciplined and effective. Time and again, I would comment to myself about how “civilized” was this protest. At the tent city, some protesters had the assigned task of cleaning up litter. There were 2 gaily-painted school buses transformed into bathrooms and showers. There were designated protest sites, usually around government buildings; there were designated sites that were safe sites – for example, tourist venues and airports. Rather than use violence to change government, these protesters determined to change government by making it impossible for the sitting government to operate. They blocked entrances to government buildings, thereby preventing government leaders and workers from entering. They ringed postal buildings to prevent the distribution of ballots, thereby calling into challenge the validity of an election where a significant number of ballots could not be cast. On the night before the election, I stayed at the Princess Hotel right up against a tent city. The music was loud and continuous and I expected it would last all night as a means of motivating the protesters for the next day’s actions. On the contrary. At eleven in the evening, the music ceased. Completely. Absolutely. I surmised that there is a noise abatement law that is effective at 11. Whatever the reason, I was grateful and I got a good night’s sleep.
Peaceful protests may become non-peaceful when two opposing sides deliberately confront each other. From my limited observations during my brief stay, it seemed that the protest by the anti-government group was fairly peaceful and nonviolent. (Just compare it with what is simultaneously happening in Syria and Venezuela.) However, when the pro-government forces would come to a protest site and confront the anti-government forces, violence seemed more likely. It seemed that both sides might have an assortment of weapons and both sides could possibly use them. Until recently, the Thai police had been content to stand by and make sure that things did not get crazy. Shortly after the election, the Thai police evidently decided that it was time to discourage the remaining protestors; to dismantle their tent cities; to put a stop to the protests. Predictably, there was some violence. The police used the weapons at their disposal; the protestors responded with what they had. And, at the end of the day, four people were dead. Now I read that the Thai police have decided not to pursue that course and I do not read of any violent confrontations between the police and the protesters.
Extreme conflict leads to extreme fallout. The field trip to Mae Sot exposed me to another lesson in peace and conflict. While the events in Bangkok represent the “beginning” of conflict and in a peaceful manner, what I learned in Mae Sot was about the fallout or end of extreme or violent conflict. My “education” in Mae Sot was incomplete in that I could not meet with refugees from Myanmar, and I understood the reasons. On the other hand, meeting with all the organizations that exist to address the presence of the refugees told me a lot about the “ending” of conflict. The victims of conflict face: displacement, statelessness, lack of documentation, homelessness, unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, threats to personal safety, unsafe housing, malnutrition, hunger, illness – to name a few.
The Lesson lives. Well, my time in Thailand was all too brief to qualify me as an expert in the field or as to these local protests. Indeed, I did not go to Thailand with any intent or expectation that I would get a personal lesson in the subject. I was enriched and educated by the experience; I see the world differently; and I will never be precisely the same.
Since I have come home, I continue to look for reports about the unfolding events in Thailand. Now I have to rely solely on what the press will tell me but, at least, I remember that I should not believe everything that the media writes and tells me. When I watched the opening of the Winter Olympics, I looked for the tiny Thai contingent to march in and I was glad they were present. I have been to a local Thai restaurant for lunch with my friends. I read about the ongoing protests and violence in Syria and Venezuela and compare them to what I observed in Thailand. I ask myself why they are different. Is it a matter of history or religion or culture or people in power or leadership on all sides or something else that I am missing?
Hail and Farewell. I miss you all.
Carolyn E. Jones, United States
Chair of the Rotary Foundation Peace Centers Committee 2012-2014