Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
We are half-way through the 2014 Summer Rotary Peace Fellowship. How time flies! The past week has been a busy one!
From July 5 to 11, we had our first Field Study, which focused on the domestic political divide within Thai society. When I arrived in Thailand for the Rotary Peace Fellowship, I came with very little understanding of the events that had led to the May 22, 2014, military coup d’état. Before leaving Canada, I had skimmed news articles on the BBC website and elsewhere describing the Red and Yellow Shirt protests that had filled the streets of Bangkok, and I had been struck by the photos of soldiers and tourists snapping ‘sefies’ together following the military takeover. Arriving in Bangkok, though, I had no real understanding of the players or history of the conflict, just a general impression of a deep divide in Thai society.
Recognizing the delicacy of researching the Thai political divide so shortly after a coup, our field study focused on the events leading up to the current situation, i.e. the circumstances between 2005/6 and May 21, 2014. Working their magic, Jenn and Aor (the Peace Centre’s newest staff member) were able to recruit a diversity of speakers to share their perspectives with us. These included representatives from the Thai military; the police; a minister who was in the Shinawatra government at the time of the military coup; professors; businessmen; leaders from both the Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt protest groups; and others. We were particularly honoured to again be graced by the esteemed Mr. Bhichai Rattakul, former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Thailand, and former president of Rotary International (2002-2003).
The first half of the field study was conducted in Bangkok, and the second half was in Chiang Mai. After a month in the big, bustling city of Bangkok, I was more than ready for a visit to the north! Known as the centre of Red Shirt territory, the trip to Chiang Mai enabled us to see another part of Thailand and gain more perspectives on the geographic dimensions of the country’s politics. We stayed at a hotel in town and had eight speakers join us over a three day period. I found it refreshing to be out of Bangkok, which I find to be a loud, intense city (at least compared to Ottawa, Canada, my hometown). In contrast, Chiang Mai was slower, smaller, and less congested. By traveling together as such, it seemed that our group of fellows got a moral boost and came closer together as a group.
I have learned two important lessons through this field study. Firstly, I have been reminded of the importance of actively listening to alternative viewpoints in any conflict situation, as divergent parties will inevitably bring challenging but valid perspectives. Secondly, the field study has reminded me of the importance of culture in determining how we approach conflict, both individually and collectively. By far, what brings me the most hope for Thailand’s future is the oft-repeated notion that “Thais are not like this – we are not a violent people”. I much admire and respect Thai society for this, and I believe such cultural connectors can be used to carry a society forward.
Sarah Angus, Canada
Rotary Peace Fellow
June 2014 Session