Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

Village Encounters in Northeast Thailand

Our second field study day in Ubon Ratchathani, the Rotary Peace Fellows visited Boomsaraol Village.  At Boomsaraol Village, my group stopped by a shaded platform where the village grandmothers were getting ready for a festival the next day, rolling strips of banana leaf with their hands into small cones and capping them the tip with a small white plastic bud.  When Antony our Sri Lankan friend asked them for a song they willingly obliged, starting up a folk song that they all joined in singing, no hurry, no fuss.  Oy handed me a roasted tamarind seed to chew on, from the small pile on the platform, but it was puzzling because the seed was smooth and rock hard.  I hadn’t even known before that the seeds were even edible!  But she told me to wait, wait, the seed would get softer if I just sucked on it.  And I waited, and waited.

By the time we were ready to head back to the village hall, it finally crunched into pieces somewhat reminiscent of a roasted soy bean.  It was a true “slow” food, the antithesis of any lightweight, crunchy, salty, oily snack foods available at the ubiquitous 7-11s on every street corner.  It was a food for a slower, quieter and perhaps more peaceful village era.

Our small group, a third of the Rotary Peace Fellows met with a few of the village leaders.  Interestingly, it seemed more often than not in Ubon, we found women in the leadership positions at the village level.  When we met with the Forum for the Urban Poor, they explained to us that their problems with collective funds “disappearing” or other mismanagement issues ended once the women took over the leadership positions as they kept more detailed records.  One of those we spoke to was remarkably candid and open with us about the practical difficulties the village faced, his concerns, hopes and aspirations for the village.  Although we peppered him with questions on all aspects of life there, he patiently weathered each one and responded with little hesitation.

Back in Boomsaraol, I couldn’t help but feel that the village was a transfixed butterfly, confronted with painful realities, but in which life also just carried on.  It had the misfortune to be located at a place on the Thai-Cambodia border that was involved in a border skirmish with Cambodia and was on the receiving end of some light shelling from the Cambodian side four years ago.  The primary issue at stake had little to do with the village itself, but was centered over access to a 2,000 year old Hindu temple (Preah Vihear) nearby, a registered UNESCO World Heritage site, claimed by both countries to be within their territory.

Some village houses were destroyed, those whose homes were destroyed were temporarily displaced for several months, and a village school had been bombed.  Fortunately it had been Sports Day and none of the children had been inside the school as all were outdoors.  Far from becoming rabid nationalists as a consequence of the incident, this mixed ethnic Thai and Cambodian village seemed to bear no grudge against their neighbors across the border.  They seemed more visibly under the ever watchful observation of the Thai military.  The other two groups of Rotary Peace Fellows had Thai military follow them to their small group discussions seemingly to monitor what information the villagers might share with us.  The military presence felt to me uncomfortable and stifling, and I sensed the community preferred to be left alone to focus on taking care of the social problems at hand – like the inflow of drugs from across the border, an alarming spike in teen pregnancy, and the care of young children in the village, whose parents had left for jobs in Bangkok.  When I asked how journalists had treated the incident four year ago, we were told that journalists would come for a week or two at a time and then report stories that had little to do with the actual situation, and this was a disappointment.  Relatives from Bangkok would call their family members in the village unduly worried about the news.

When we asked their feelings about their Cambodian neighbors across the border, we were told it was “the relationship of brother and sister”.  When the weather was cold they often sent blankets across the border for the children in the Cambodian villages.  And before the heightened military tensions they used to attend each other’s village festivals.  One man expressed the aspiration that Cambodian language be taught in the local schools, as fewer young people spoke the language than in his generation.  In the end, I could not help but feel that this one village had little to do with the political controversy surrounding it and just wanted to pursue its own future without the push and pull of external forces beyond their control.  We drove away in our vans at the end of our brief visit, with a much greater appreciation for the people of the Boomsaraol area, their traditions, joys and difficulties.

Soo Sun Choe, USA
Rotary Peace Fellow
January 2015 Session


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