Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
Education. Experientially. There is nothing more powerful than all of the senses being awakened through immersive experiences. Experiential education creates the magic for the seeds of true understanding as voices, smells, sights, sounds and raw emotion serve to create points of connection and understanding that words alone cannot create. This type of education allows for a weaving in and out of multiple layers – from the most granular level to a higher, systems level. In order to be an agent of change, this is a critical skill that is required, as evidenced by our recent field study in Thailand.
People who are displaced, living in Thailand
This past week, we had the opportunity to plunge experientially into the dynamic and complicated realities of life for those who are displaced and living in Thailand. In a wonderfully layered, intricately designed field study program, we explored the opportunities and challenges of this issue. Throughout our time with the community, government officials, non-profit organizations and individuals, in a very tangible way, our knowledge about the situation and reality of people who are displaced grew exponentially. Our journey took us to the city of Chiang Mai, through the Wiang Haeng District of the Chiang Mai province and within the confines of the Koung Jor Temporary Shelter/Camp.
The topic of people who are displaced and living in Thailand is complicated. It is rife with varying categorizations and understandings, including the use of the term refugee. Although Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, the Royal Thai government has expressed a commitment to protecting displaced people living in Thailand. As a part of this, the government has been working to verify the number of stateless students in Thailand and determine their eligibility for Thai citizenship. Other Initiatives by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn are helping to provide greater access to nationality for school-aged children and vulnerable people. Provisions are also in place to enable people who are found not to be Thai to be considered for permanent residency, while related frameworks for access to health and education are being developed. According to the most recent United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHCR) statistics, there are over 130,000 displaced people, 500,000 stateless people and 7000 asylum seekers currently residing in Thailand. Not only did we talk about these facts, we got to witness firsthand while on the field study what this data actually means, including the direct impacts of the most recent government initiatives.
Time with community in the Wiang Haeng District. Just 7km to the Myanmar border and 750km to the Chinese border.
The Koung Jor Camp and stateless, temporary residents
Going into the Koung Jor Camp was an experience that affected us all in different ways. The Koung Jor Camp is located in the Piang Luang sub-district and over 400 Shan people are currently living in the camp. The camp was formed in 2002 after violence broke out between the Burmese (Myanmar) military and the Shan State Army. The camp is located on temple land and was named Koung Jor, for “happy hill” in Shan. The camp is not recognized officially by the UNHCR and this has a variety of ramifications including an ongoing status for its residents as stateless, temporary residents. Recent funding cuts have affected food, health and education access at the camp. Despite this, however, the camp continues to provide a relatively secure place for the Shan people who are displaced to live until it is safe for them to return home. We had a chance to witness firsthand the hope of the Koung Jor Camp residents as we shared in story and food. We also had the chance to discuss the impact of funding cuts at a very local level, after learning about them from a higher, policy level. Many of us came away with new information and an ignited passion to help create change.
Sharing food and story in Koung Jor Camp, north of Chiang Mai, on the Thai-Myanmar border.
What did we learn?
It became poignantly clear throughout the field study that in order to understand the multitude of layers and varying experiences, an agile navigation of the complex issues is required. This ability to weave seamlessly through complicated issues -in and out, up and down, across and within, seeing things from the most granular level to a higher, systems level- allows for a very distinct vantage point. It allows one to see how change can occur and the role one might have in creating change.
At the highest level, change can seem impossible. Circumstances can seem hopeless. How can one person stop the construction of a dam or shift a global economic agenda? This is the type of thinking that leads to complete paralysis.
So, what can one person do? From the people we met throughout our field study, we learned that even in the face of overwhelming circumstances, one person can make an incredible difference. One person can write a briefing and publish it online for the world to know about otherwise unreported shelling of refugee camps on the Myanmar side of the border. One person can take a step forward as a leader for their community, instilling hope that one day there will be a recognition for those currently without any sort of official status. One person can also chose to spend an entire day with a group of peace fellows, sharing their personal story and inspiring action globally.
An interconnected web
What one person can do is awe-inspiring. Now, imagine the connection of singular actions to a web of multiple actions and how that might create an interconnected web of inspired action! Connecting to community is important. Throughout the field study, we heard that it is not possible to exact change without having a bigger community to draw on for inspiration and collaboration. Throughout the field study, we were compelled as peace fellows to take action. Do not sit in paralysis and hopelessness, thinking that one person cannot make a difference. Picture your actions connecting with actions across the globe, in an interconnected fashion, and just imagine what that web can achieve as a whole. Some say that it can tie up a lion.
Education. Experientially. There is nothing more powerful than touching, feeling, hearing, seeing, and smelling what comprises an opportunity or a challenge. By experiencing, navigating the complex layers of understanding becomes easier. If there is one thing that is clear after such an intense, experiential learning journey, it is that it is critical to dive in granularly but don’t forget to look up at times and see the whole, at a higher systems level. And, never forget that one single person can, indeed, be an effective agent of change.
Lorelei Higgins – Canada
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 26