Tag Archives: Rotary World Peace Fellowship

What have I learnt?

My eight months in Thailand are nearly over – in two more days I’m flying back to Australia.  I’ve been reflecting on what I have learnt during this adventure.  I’ve learnt things during my time at the temple, on Koh Tao doing my dive master training, at the Rotary Peace Fellowship at Chulalongkorn University, and even on the plane flying over here!  There is far too much to fit into one blog post, but here are 10 lessons that I’ve learnt that will make a difference to how I live my life from now on.

1.  Fit your own oxygen mask before assisting those around you

Eight months ago, as I was settling myself into my seat for my flight to Bangkok, the flight attendant gave this very important safety advice.  However, the advice is useful in a much broader sense in life.  If you don’t look after your own well-being, you are not able to be any help to others.  This connects with another important lesson I learnt during my time at the temple:

2.  Be compassionate to others, and also to yourself

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Dalai Lama

Being compassionate to others is not about pity, and it’s not about only being compassionate to those who are ‘worthy’.  True compassion is that which we feel when we are confronted by someone who we find incredibly difficult, ignorant, rude, violent or evil – it’s about understanding that those people are suffering and their behaviour stems from this intrinsic suffering.  It’s about wanting the best for them so that they have an opportunity to break free from their suffering and become the good person that is trapped within all the bad habits and thoughts they have built around themselves.

Being compassionate to yourself is about recognising that you are only human; that you are not perfect; that you have a lot of potential to improve yourself – and it’s especially about realising that this is ok!  It’s about understanding your own suffering and wanting the best for yourself, so that you can be the best person you can be, and be happy!

3.  Always see the good and rejoice in the merits of others

Encouraging and honouring the goodness of others is really important.  We do not do this enough in life.  We are quick to criticise others, and to notice faults. We may think that some casual compliments are enough to make up for this, but while commenting on somebody’s outfit or hair style is a nice gesture, it’s not very meaningful.

Think about the qualities and behaviours that you admire in others and aspire to develop in yourself, then look for them in those around you. Look actively for the good in others, and let them know that you have seen it.  There is nothing that makes a person feel so truly understood as when another acknowledges something good about them.  It builds a connection and motivates that person to continue with that goodness.

4.  It’s more important to be good, than to be right.

There is an important distinction between good and bad, and right and wrong.  A person may be right, but if they are not good, then they may be right for the wrong reasons, or by accident.  Whereas if a person is good, they may be wrong, but they will be motivated to try to make it right.  A person who is truly good will be right most of the time anyway.

5.  Wisdom is far more important than knowledge

No amount of knowledge in the world is valuable unless the person with the knowledge also has the wisdom to use that knowledge effectively.  Even if a person has no formal education, if they have wisdom they can contribute an enormous amount to the world.  We need to spend time and effort developing our wisdom, not just accumulating more academic qualifications.

6.  The worst thing you can be is unwise and active

The monks taught me that there were four different relationships between wisdom and action:

1.  You can be wise and active

2. You can be unwise and inactive

3. You can be wise and inactive

4. You can be unwise and active

The first relationship is clearly the best.  If you are wise, and you are active, you will do good.  The second relationship is, perhaps counter-intuitively, the second-best option.  This is because, if you are unwise, doing nothing is actually the most sensible course of action.  The third relationship is actually worse – if you are wise and inactive, then you are not doing as much with your wisdom as you can.  The last relationship is the most dangerous – if you are unwise and active, you are likely to do more harm than good, despite your best intentions.

The monks’ teachings were reinforced in our Peace Fellowship lectures on Mary Anderson’s principles of “do no harm”.

7.  Think about how you use the energy you consume

We think a lot about the purity of the food we eat – we take care to avoid artificial colours and preservatives, we try to eat low-fat, healthy meals.  However, the monks taught me that the purity of our food is more than just its nutritional values.  It involves four different factors:

  1. Nutritional value
  2. The origin of the food (e.g. whether we stole or killed for the food)
  3. The mood in which you eat it (e.g. if you eat in a bad temper you might get indigestion!)
  4. The way in which you expend the energy that you gain from that food (i.e. do you use the energy to do something bad, or something good and constructive).

How do you use your energy?

8. Remember to breathe

During my Dive Master training on Koh Tao, I was reminded of the first rule of scuba diving, and of life – always remember to breathe!

I would add to that the notion of mindfulness – and the usefulness of the breath to bring you back to the present moment.  Thich Nhat Hanh has a lovely meditation to use while concentrating on your breathing:  “Breathing in, I dwell deeply in the present moment; Breathing out, I know this is a wonderful moment.”

Learning to scuba dive, and breathe underwater, you are suddenly acutely aware of every breath in and every breath out, and there are pretty dire consequences if you hold your breath.  For me, working with first-time dive students was the perfect reminder about something that I had started to take for granted – how magical it is to breathe underwater.  It made me start to again notice every breath, how deep it was, how the pressure of the water affected the feeling in my lungs…Who’d have thought that scuba diving was so good for meditation!

9.  Always leave a bit of air in the tank

Another important bit of advice for scuba diving and life in general! You never know when you are going to need that little bit of reserve for an emergency!

10.  Don’t waste a moment!

These eight months have flown by so quickly that it has reminded me that there is no time to waste!  If there’s something that you want to do – do it now!  If there’s something that you need to say – say it now! Live every moment to its fullest, learn from everyone and everything around you, do as much good as you can cram into every twenty-four hour period (including taking good care of yourself).

This morning prayer by Thich Nhat Hanh is now the first thing I read every morning.  It reminds me of how I want to live my life, day by day:



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Rotary World Peace Fellows Field Study in Cambodia

[NOTE:  This is a very long post, as I try to make sense of all the things we learnt during this field study.  It may also contain some inaccuracies in parts, particularly around dates, and also no doubt there are important omissions.  I was overwhelmed with so much new information and often so caught up in the very personal and emotional stories of the people we met that I forgot to take notes!]

Before starting this part of our course, I knew a little about Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot and the Killing Fields.  However, after a lecture from Emma Leslie from the Cambodian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and ten days in and around Phnom Penh and Siam Reap, I have a new depth of understanding of the very important context to these dark few years in Cambodian history.

The three year Khmer Rouge period was a massive eruption of violence against the structural violence that had been oppressing the lower classes for so long.  It came to a head in the pressure cooker environment created by the cold war dynamics around and influencing Cambodia.  China, Russia and the US had a significant impact on the conditions leading to the Khmer Rouge genocide.  Australia and Britain also contributed to the death and injury by training the Khmer Rouge in the use of land mines (currently one of the main causes of death and injury in the country).

Cambodia, like many South East Asian countries, began as a culture based in animism.  Hinduism then arrived with the Brahman system, along with its hierarchical caste system.  This form of structural violence forms an important part of understanding what led to the Khmer Rouge period in the country.

In around the 13th Century, King Jayavarman VII introduced Buddhism and decided everyone should be equal and that he didn’t need to be a God King any more.  The upper castes became very angry about this and there were religious wars between Hindus and Buddhists.  In the 14-17th Centuries, conflict in the area moved from religious to ethnic wars.  In the 14th and 15th centuries, Siam (now Thailand) conquered and sacked Angkor a number of times, eventually leading the Khmers to abandon their capital.  In the 17th-19th centuries, the Khmer Kingdom lost a great deal of territory to Siam and also the Vietnamese.

The Khmer Empire used to stretch right across Thailand to India and also into Vietnam.  The Champa Empire (predominantly Muslim) also existed in between Cambodia and Vietnam.  The Cham fought with both Cambodia and Vietnam and eventually the empire more or less disappeared completely.  Emma explained that the disappearance of the Champa Empire is also important in the Khmer mindset, as there is a strong acknowledgement that a people can simply cease to exist.  This prospect of potentially ceasing to exist seems like a real threat to Cambodians, especially given its demographics: it’s a reasonably large country with a population of only 13-16 million.  In comparison, its neighbouring countries include Thailand (with a population of 64 million) and Vietnam (with a population of 70 million).

In 1864 France had colonized southern Vietnam and also forced the Khmer King to sign a treaty making Cambodia a French protectorate.  In 1884 it became a French colony.  The Khmer people were mostly happy to be protected by the French (and still believe today that having foreigners around keeps them safe and under the world’s eyes).  Cambodia never really had a moment of liberation from colonization: the King quietly signed an agreement with the French in 1953.

In 1955 King Sihanouk abdicated the throne to form a political party, which subsequently won all seats in parliament.  In the next election in 1958 he won 99% of the popular vote, but under his increasingly authoritarian rule, all opponents were persecuted.  The Cambodian communists (who Sihanouk labeled the “Khmer Rouges”) began to form an underground resistance movement in the countryside.

In 1963, America’s involvement intensified in the wars of Vietnam and Laos.  While Sihanouk was of the non-aligned movement, staying neutral in the international context, he became increasingly worried about the surrounding wars engulfing Cambodia, so he cut off American Aid and diplomatic relations with the United States.

In the late 1960s, Vietnamese Communists installed sanctuaries for their troops along the Cambodian side of the border.  Sihanouk, worried about the increasing Vietnamese presence, resumed diplomatic relations with America.  However, under pressure from North Vietnam, he allowed them to pass supply lines through Cambodia.  When America discovered this, they indiscriminately carpet bombed Cambodia’s eastern side (the statistics tell a horrifying story – the Americans dropped more bombs on Cambodia during this time than all the bombs dropped in WWII in total).

In 1970, Sihanouk left the country for “health” reasons, leaving Lon Nol, the Prime Minister, in charge.  Lon Nol led a coup (supported by America) and Sihanouk was deposed.  Sihanouk then formed an alliance with his former enemies, the Khmer Rouge, dedicated to defeating the Lon Nol government.

In the 1970s the Vietnamese moved further into Cambodia to avoid a battle with the American forces. By then, Sihanouk’s Khmer Rouge communist forces occupied half of Cambodia’s territory.  They aimed to push out the Vietnamese.  Lon Nol kept failing in attempts to do so.

In 1972 Lon Nol named himself President, prime minister, defense minister, and marshal of the armed forces.  He eliminated all opposition.

In mid-1973 the Americans withdrew from Cambodia, leaving Lon Nol to face the Khmer Rouge.  The Khmer Rouge continued to take over almost all of Cambodia, except Phnom Penh and a few other towns still controlled by Lon Nol’s army.  Lon Nol fled to the United States.

Rural Cambodians supported the Khmer Rouge who told them that they would fight Americans and capitalism.   In the wake of the historical decline of the Khmer empire, the Khmer Rouge also gained support by telling the people of Cambodia that they would rebuild the country and take back the lost land.

On 17 April 1975 the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, and the city erupted into a huge celebration.  Soon afterwards the Khmer Rouge told the residents that they should flee because America was going to bomb the city. Almost all the residents of Phnom Penh fled, and the city was like a ghost town within a few days.  However, there was no plan to bomb Phnom Penh.  In fact, clearing the city was the first step in the Khmer Rouge plan for an agrarian revolution.

(As an aside, not only did America not bomb Phnom Penh, but from 1975 until 1991, it supported the fact that Cambodia was represented by the Khmer Rouge in the UN, despite the fact that everyone knew about the atrocities being committed in that country.  It appears that the Khmer Rouge was the lesser of two evils than Vietnam, America’s main concern at the time.)

The names of the Khmer Rouge leaders were kept secret for years after they took over the country.  Power was in the hands of a nameless “organization”.  Nobody knew that Pol Pot (real name Saloth Sar) was the leader of the Khmer Rouge.  (Even Saloth Sar’s brother and sister didn’t know.  They were both in the US during this period.  When they later found out that Pol Pot was their brother, they came back to Cambodia and worked tirelessly to repent the bad family karma.)  Saloth Sar was one of the Khmer elite who had studied in France.  He learnt about the French Revolution – peasants bringing down a king by violence – and was inspired by this.   The newly invented Pol Pot saw himself as the personification of Stalin and Mao.  He even had an artist paint a portrait of him that made him look like both of those men:

After taking Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge’s plan of ultra-communist social engineering began in force.  Their strategy included breaking down the family unit – they separate families to ensure loyalty was only to the regime.  They abolished money, and prohibited all private property, Western medicine, education, and religious practice.  Ironically, given that Pol Pot himself was an educated elite, the Khmer Rouge’s plan required the extermination of all educated elites. Pol Pot called back all Cambodians overseas, particularly students studying abroad, telling them that they were needed to rebuild Cambodia.  However, when they arrived back in the country they were collected from the airport and immediately taken to the killing fields where they were murdered.

We visited one of the killing fields.  There is a large memorial stupa that contains the bones of many of the people who were killed there.

Inside the stupa

The area around the stupa is a mass grave where thousands of people were killed and buried.  As we walked around the area you could see bones and pieces of clothing still sticking out of the ground.  Although the area was excavated and the bones collected and sorted, every rainy season more bones and clothes reveal themselves.  The dead don’t want to be forgotten.

The mass graves of one of the killing fields

Anyone who was identified as educated or elite was killed, including anyone who spoke other languages, wore glasses, was a teacher or any other kind of educated professional.  In total, about 2,500,000 people were killed (one-third of the population of Cambodia).  Many were taken to prisons such as Tuol Sleng S-21 Prison where they were tortured in order to extract detailed confessions of a variety of ‘offences’.

Looking out the gates of Tuol Sleng, now a genocide museum

Tuol Sleng prison used to be a school

In one of the torture rooms

Tuol Sleng

Tuol Sleng

The Khmer Rouge were very thorough in recording details of the torture and the confessions.  When we visited Tuol Sleng, we met one of the seven people who survived being imprisoned in Tuol Sleng. We asked him how he had managed to survive.  He said that because he was able to fix typewriters and machinery, the Khmer Rouge had found him useful and spared him death.

Those who survived were forced to perform physical labour under extreme conditions.  All 13-19 year old youth (boys and girls) were used for big infrastructure projects (e.g. building dams: the youth had to dig 1 cubic metre of dirt a day each, in return for 2 bowls of rice porridge).  The only problem is that since all the engineers and construction professionals had been killed, the projects were not properly planned and most of the work done on infrastructure during these three years went to waste.  Over 1,000,000 million people also died of starvation.  Although the majority of the Cambodian population was engaged in growing rice, people died from starvation because all the rice was being exported to China, in return for weapons (theoretically to assist the Khmer Rouge fight Vietnam).

In 1979 the Vietnamese army captured Phnom Penh and Pol Pot and his government fled to the Thai border.  Vietnam installed a puppet government and changed the name of the country to the People’s Republic of Kampuchea.  Hun Sen (former leader of the Khmer Rouge, Eastern Division) becomes the new Prime Minister, and calls his party the Cambodia Peoples Party.

Bizarrely, the Khmer Rouge still represented Cambodia in the UN during this time, even though Vietnam was in power, because nobody wanted Vietnam involved.  The cold war dynamics come into play again here.  In effect, Cambodia was a pawn in the cold war between China and Russia.  China was backing the Khmer Rouge (a similar form of communism) and Russia was backing Vietnam.  The US began funding the Khmer Rouge to fight Vietnam.  The Australian and the British trained them in landmine use.

In 1989 Vietnam withdrew.  In 1990 the Supreme National Council was formed, which united the pro-Vietnamese government of Hun Sen and the Khmer Rouge.  In 1991 the Paris Agreement was signed, purportedly to stop all fighting and to create a new political environment.  UN troops arrive to implement the agreement.  A coalition government is formed between the four parties, however the agreement quickly unravels and political violence escalates.  In 1993 the Royalists win the election, despite political violence and intimidation by Hun Sen’s ex-Communist Peoples Party.  Hun Sen refuses to accept the result and is appointed as a joint prime minister.  (While to Westerners, the concept of joint prime ministers seems bizarre, Cambodian people point out that in Cambodia, where the Tonle Sap river flows two ways, there is no problem with having two prime ministers!  Also, by this time, the Cambodian people were exhausted and didn’t have the energy to stand up to corruption or for their rights.)

Hun Sen subsequently became very active as a co-prime minister and stablised the country, including negotiating amnesty for Khmer Rouge who joined the new military.  In the 1998 election, Hun Sen wins a landslide victory, and has been in power ever since.

In 1998 Bill Clinton announced that he would put Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge on trial in an international court against war crimes.  Many countries opposed this, largely because such a trial would reveal the extent to which they had supported the Khmer Rouge (especially the US, Australia, China, UK).  Two days after this announcement, a US journalist visited Pol Pot to do an exclusive interview.  He brought with him Pol Pot’s heart medication as requested.  The next day, Pol Pot was dead, and was speedily cremated by the Thai.  There are rumors of a conspiracy: that Pol Pot was killed to avoid the Khmer Rouge trials having to go ahead.

In 1997 Cambodia requested United Nations assistance in organizing a court to try the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge.  In early 2006 the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) were formally established.  The government of Cambodia insisted that, for the sake of the Cambodian people, the trial must be held in Cambodia using Cambodian staff and judges together with foreign personnel. Cambodia invited international participation due to the weakness of the Cambodian legal system and the international nature of the crimes, and to help in meeting international standards of justice.

The ECCC is only hearing the trial of five of the main surviving senior Khmer Rouge officials.  Tens of thousands of mid- and low-level Khmer Rouge officers have been granted amnesty by defecting to the government.  Many of the best-known perpetrators were either killed or fled the country between 1979 and 1984 (mostly to Thai refugee camps, from which they were resettled to Canada, France and Australia – apparently there is a large community of them living in Perth, Australia).  Others simply reverted back to everyday life in Cambodia.  One man we spoke with told the story of a woman whose husband was arrested and killed by the Khmer Rouge.  In 1979, the Khmer Rouge officer who arrested her husband returned to her village to live and work as a tuk tuk driver.  He has driven past her house a few times a day for the past thirty years.  This must be a common situation for many older Cambodians.  We kept asking people how the victims of the Khmer Rouge could live side by side with the perpetrators of so much violence against them and their families.  The typical response was that Cambodian people are Buddhist, and so they believe that those perpetrators will get their bad karma sooner or later.

A more complicated explanation was provided to us by the head of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, who demonstrated that the distinction between perpetrator and victim was not at all clear: many of the perpetrators were victims of fear and abuse by those higher in the chain of command, and had little choice other than to comply with orders, or risk torture and death to them and their families.  He contrasted the situation with Germany, in which you could fairly easily classify people as either Nazis or Jews.  In Cambodia, there was no such clear distinction.  He explained that many people had to cheat, lie, steal and point the finger at others simply in order to survive.  He said in such desperate times, a survival instinct kicks in, and sometimes saving one life (your own or others) can only happen by destroying another.  He told a story about how, years after he was tortured by the Khmer Rouge, he came face to face with his torturer.  He approached him and asked “do you remember me?” but the man did not remember him at all.  Later, he also came across a man who had, at great risk to himself, gone out of his way to provide him with food when he was starving.  That man did not remember him either.  He was struck by the fact that neither of the two people who had had such an impact on him personally, remembered him at all.

Just two weeks before we visited the ECCC, the Court handed down its judgment in the first case, against the man known as Duch (the head of S-21 prison).  He cooperated and confessed fully to his involvement in the Khmer Rouge atrocities.  He was given a sentence of 30 years imprisonment (which many believe to be manifestly inadequate).  His lawyers have filed an appeal against the sentence.  The second case, against the other four senior leaders, is still being investigated.

After visiting the ECCC, we met with Theary Seng, the author of “Daughter of the Killing Fields” and the founding director of CIVICUS.  In her opinion, one of the strengths of the ECCC was that it involved the victims.  Victims could register a civil action to be heard in conjunction with the criminal proceedings.  These people then had a personal interest in following the progress of the Court hearings.  However, she pointed out that for many people, the ECCC process was very theoretical and disconnected from the public who don’t have faith in the justice system and are not educated.  Although the judgment in the Duch case was widely disseminated, most Cambodians cannot read, and even those who can are unlikely to have access to the internet, or be able to read through the 400 pages of the judgment.  Accordingly, she was skeptical about the ability of the court to produce reconciliation, justice or peace, despite the fact that the peoples’ expectations had been raised by publicity about the court.  She was, however, optimistic that the court might be useful in jump-starting the legal system in Cambodia.

Theary Seng also pointed out that there were 9 million people now in the Cambodian population who were born after the Khmer Rouge.  In 2010, 70% of the population of Cambodia is under 30, and so did not experience the direct impact of the Khmer Rouge atrocities.

CIVICUS is engaged in a country-wide public education campaign, conducted by community forums and radio broadcasts, to teach people about their history and their rights, and to empower them to spread this learning to others in their community.  She calls this work the “informal truth and reconciliation commission”.

We visited a number of organizations working in the area of Human Rights, including the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, the Khmer Institute for Democracy and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  These organizations, particularly the local Cambodian ones, are fighting an uphill battle.  The local staff are at significant personal risk, and a number had recently been imprisoned for criticizing the government (the crime of “disinformation” is frequently used to silence any political opposition).  People have been placed under pressure to stop any political activity and there have even been some mysterious deaths.  However, in recent times there has been less political intimidation, and certain kinds of human rights violations are decreasing.  The current major concern expressed by all organizations was the issue of land-grabbing.  As all records of ownership were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, there has been a painstaking process implemented by which people can demonstrate ownership of their land.  However, those with money and power can bypass these procedures and also the government has been granting large areas of land to international companies in return for financial support for development.  The judiciary and conflict resolution mechanisms in the country are weak and corrupt, so there is generally no recourse for people whose rights have been violated.

Development in the country has been phenomenal in the last 15 years.  There are sealed roads throughout the country, an enormous amount of infrastructure, and in Siem Reap particularly, a multitude of luxury hotels.  In both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap there are areas of obvious wealth – large houses and expensive cars.  However, as Theary Seng pointed out, in all the places where there is obvious wealth, most Cambodians don’t feel comfortable.

Much of the development is funded by China and Korea, and in return they share in the spoils of tourism and trade.  Even Angkor Wat is now effectively ‘owned’ by foreigners.  The current government sold the rights to the site to a foreign investor (some people told us it was Vietnamese, others said Korean).  Importantly though, none of the fees taken from visitors to enter the site go to the Cambodian people.

The NGOs in Cambodia, working in the areas of human rights advocacy, are being blamed by the government for inciting unrest in the provinces.  The government has recently introduced draft legislation to further curtail the activities of NGOs.  The legislation includes prohibitions on NGOs being engaged in political activity, public disorder or instability, but there is no clear definition of what those terms cover.  Also, there is a new criminal code due next year that extends the already problematic crime of “disinformation”, including making it an offence to criticize a court decision.

Recently in Cambodia, people have been prosecuted and jailed for the crime of disinformation for publishing:

  • an article on corruption in Cambodia
  • a statement that the Mekong River dolphins were at risk of extinction
  • an opinion that the new lighting system at Angkor Wat may damage it

While Cambodia seems quite stable and developed on the surface, the conflict has scarred the country very deeply.  There is also the major difficulty that the current government is a product of that conflict.  Major issues are now simmering very close to the calm surface.

We also visited NGOs working to stop violence against women, those promoting labour rights, and those working on environmental, health and other development issues.  These organizations are doing wonderful work and gave us some hope and positive perspectives.  Our meetings with local villagers also gave us all an enduring love for Cambodian people.  They seemed to be consistently resilient, welcoming and optimistic about the future.

It seems that Cambodia is at a cross roads and we all hope that the chosen path will be one filled with positive developments and not one back towards violent conflict.  There are many good people working towards a positive future for all Cambodians, and we wish them strength and motivation to continue their good work.

Do you believe in ghosts?

This is where the Peace Fellows are living during our time here at Chula:

Vidaya nives ("place of knowledge")

The building is accommodation for staff and for visitors.  The inside looks a little like a hospital, with dimly-lit linoleum corridors with room entry doors on each side. Each room is pretty basic, with a (very hard) double bed, a wardrobe, a desk, a kitchenette with sink, and a small ensuite bathroom.  Because security is not that great (each door just has one of those push-button locks in the handle) each Rotary World Peace Fellow was given a padlock with a key that we can use to lock the door from the outside when we leave our rooms.  The only problem is that the cleaners can’t get into the rooms when they are padlocked, so we have to make sure we are around to let the cleaners in.

Anyway, since we have been staying here, some of the Fellows have been reporting some very strange incidents:

  • Firstly, Olja kept mentioning that she has been having nightmares about being strangled or dismembered.
  • Earlier this week, Olja also approached one of the other women in our group and told her that she had had a very vivid dream about her.  She recounted the dream, which included some particular personal details, which turned out to be very accurate in relation to things going on in this woman’s life.  She was quite freaked out by what Olja said to her.
  • Ben says that every night he goes to sleep with his windows closed, and every morning when he wakes up his window is open.
  • Tito’s Badminton racquet disappeared from his room during the night while he was asleep, as did Manisha’s bunch of bananas.
  • On Sunday Joanne and Vicky went shopping and Vicky bought an outfit for a friend’s new baby.  Joanne ended up with it in her bag and so put it out on her dresser on Sunday night so that she would remember to give it to Vicky the next day.  The next day it was gone, and in its place was a “lucky bean”.  Joanne thought she was going mad, so she looked everywhere in her room for the baby outfit, but couldn’t find it.  She looked again at lunch time and Monday after class, but the outfit was gone.  On Monday night Joanne and I went out to dinner and we were puzzling over where the outfit could have gone, and how the lucky bean appeared in its place.  Joanne laughingly said to the sky “Whatever spirit took the baby clothes, please return them”.  I laughed and said it would be funny if she went back to her room and the outfit had returned.  She laughed too and said it would be very freaky because she had padlocked the door so nobody could get in.  Guess what happened???  Yes, she went back to her room and the outfit was there.  As you can imagine, she was really freaked out.

Yesterday we asked Jenn during a break whether anyone had ever reported anything unusual happening at the building.  Jenn immediately asked “what room?” and rushed down to the office to consult with the Thai staff.  They all came back to the classroom in an excited state and proceeded to tell us this story:

Some years ago, there were two gynaecologists who were husband and wife. They were having marital difficulties but the husband didn’t want to get divorced as he would have to split their fortune with his wife.  One night he had dinner with his estranged wife to discuss their breakup.  He put a sleeping tablet into her drink during dinner and then took her in a taxi to our building in Chulalongkorn, where he rented a room.  Two weeks later when the woman had not re-appeared at work, police investigated and discovered body parts in the building’s toilet system. Apparently he had killed his wife and chopped her into little bits and flushed her down the toilet in this building.  He was later convicted of her murder.  We were all a little shocked and quickly googled news reports to see what room this had happened in.  It turned out not to be Joanne’s room, but one on the same floor.  Thankfully, it also turned out that none of the Peace Fellows were staying in the room in which this happened.  However, Ajarn Pitch, one of the professors here, who was lecturing us that afternoon, noted that “ghosts can travel through walls” so it could have been the wife’s ghost that took the baby clothes.

The Thai staff then talked with us very seriously about ghosts and how we should not be scared of them.  They don’t want to hurt us, but they want something.  If we can tell what they want, we can give it to a monk (e.g. one of the Thai staff dreamed that she was catching a train and a ghost was sitting next to her who wanted a certain kind of fruit, so the next day she went and bought that fruit and offered it to a monk), or we can make some merit on the ghost’s behalf (e.g. by dedicating some good deeds to the ghost, or by praying or giving food to monks) and we may be able to help the ghosts in this way so that they don’t bother us any more. They also told us some stories about other Peace Fellows in the past who had had encounters with ghosts during their fellowship.

Needless to say last night everyone had a bit of a restless sleep – well, everyone except Joanne who says that she slept very soundly – perhaps the ghost has moved on from her room now…?  Just in case, Joanne, Vicky and Olja have gone this evening to the Erewan Shrine to make an offering on behalf of the woman who was murdered.

Meet the Peace Fellows: Joanne Levitan


Joanne Levitan

Joanne is a documentary film maker from South Africa who is currently living in Sydney, Australia.  She has been adopted by the Aussies here as an ‘official honorary Australian’.  Joanne was born on a Friday, which according to Thai tradition means that her lucky colour is blue (I’m quite jealous, as blue is my favourite colour, but as I was born on a Thursday, my Thai lucky colour is orange – yuck!)

Originally, Joanne wanted to join the foreign service, or to be a foreign correspondent, but upon realising that she “was a bit of a sissy” she decided that being a documentary film maker may be a safer career option than running around war zones.  She started out her career in television news, reporting during her university holidays when the permanent journalists were on holidays.  She then directed a current affairs show, as well as a travel, technology and car show.  She also got to star in the travel show when the story involved something a little bit risky that the normal presenter didn’t want to do.  So, for example, Joanne got to be a passenger in a stunt plane that flew directly up into the sky, then the pilot turned off the engine, and the plane plummeted down towards the earth until the pilot turned on the engine again just before hitting the ground!  Joanne actually got to do this twice in a row, as the first time the cameraman passed out during the drop and didn’t end up getting any footage!

Joanne and her co-director were commissioned to do some films about the New Millenium in South Africa.  After doing this they realised that they could do this on their own and started up their own film company: http://www.pandamonium.co.za/

Joanne’s documentaries have covered topics such as:

Joanne says that her experience growing up in South Africa during apartheid, and being very aware of the abuses during that time, compelled her into this kind of work.  She explained that as a child it was a bit of a shock coming out of her bubble and realising that the situation was not normal.  She said at first she didn’t realise anything was wrong.  She went to a private primary school with mostly white students, although there were a few black and Indian students (whose parents had money).  At the time, the only difference that she noticed was that those students were not allowed to come to her house (as they weren’t allowed in a ‘white’ area).  As she grew older she started to notice other things.  Joanne had a black maid who raised her and was like a second mother to her.  Her maid had seven children of her own, who were being raised by the maid’s sister in a distant township.  Joanne did think that it wasn’t right that her maid could only visit her children once or twice a year, and it seemed strange to her that her maid wasn’t taking care of her own children.

In Joanne’s final year of school, apartheid laws were starting to be relaxed and some schools (including hers) were declared “Model C” schools.  These schools were an initial attempt at integration, and a few black students were allowed to join the school.  Joanne still remembers the headmistress making an announcement over the school loudspeaker welcoming “the new model C” students.  She also remembers that many of the white girls would bring notes from their parents exempting them from swimming, as their parents did not want them getting into the pool with black students.  Joanne lived through the State of Emergency in the 80s and remembers the tanks in the streets, but says that she was lucky to live a fairly sheltered life.  She is proud of the fact that her very first vote at age 18 was in such an important election for South Africa and equality.

Joanne described, very matter-of-factly, living through the daily reality of violence in South Africa.  She lived in high security accommodation and carried a panic button.  She was also car-jacked one day when she was driving with her boyfriend.  They had stopped at an intersection when suddenly there were men with guns surrounding the car.  Joanne and her boyfriend got out of the car and the men demanded she hand over her handbag and the car keys while they held a gun to her boyfriend’s head.  Joanne, feisty with adrenaline, refused, despite her boyfriend sensibly suggesting that she hand it all over.  Joanne explains that she was particularly upset because her handbag had been designed by a friend of hers and was known as the “Jo” bag.  (Later, she and her friend jokingly developed a funny TV commercial based on the carjacking, where the woman tells the men to take the car and her boyfriend, but just let her keep the bag).  In hindsight, Joanne can’t quite believe that she put her boyfriend’s and her own lives at risk by not handing everything over right away.  She surprised herself by her own reaction in the heat of the moment.  Eventually, having handed over everything, the men drove away in her car (a beloved purple Ford Fiesta known as “the raisin” – hardly the normal target for a carjacking!).  Soon afterwards, a kindly stranger stopped to see what she and her boyfriend were doing standing in the road, and let them know that “the raisin” had been abandoned just down the road – it had been used to steal another, presumably more attractive, car!

Later, interviewing young male prisoners for the violent crime documentary, she shared her carjacking story with one of them as the cameraman was getting set up.  The prisoner was astounded and told Joanne that she was very lucky that the people who carjacked her were clearly amateurs as they broke the rule that if the person doesn’t hand everything over within sixty seconds you shoot them (“like the Americans made that movie ‘gone in 60 seconds’ if you are not out the car in 60 seconds you are gone”)!

In 2002 Joanne worked at the United Nations in Holland, covering the Yugoslavian War 
Crimes Tribunal.  She was an audio-visual director so she made short films about the tribunal, handled all audio-visual evidence and recorded the hearings. There were 8 robotic cameras in each courtroom, which she operated and had to live switch between. The big trials, like Milosovich often went out live on various channels like Sky, CNN, BBC etc. so you had to be sure not to make a mistake or show any judges sleeping! During this time, Joanne also got to carry a walkie-talkie which she thought was pretty cool.

Joanne said that it mostly made her very depressed to sit for 6 hours a day listening to horrific things that humans did to other humans. But it was also amazing to be a part of documenting history as it was the first war crimes trial since Nuremberg. She also learned just how bureaucratic and hierarchical the UN is, which shattered all her ideological illusions of how it would be to work there. Outside of work, Joanne definitely enjoyed living in Holland, riding her bike and eating stroopwaffels and bitterballen.

Stroopwaffles

Bitterballen

I asked Joanne how she ended up in Australia. Weirdly, it all started with another crime (although I guess that’s how a lot of white people got to Australia in the first place!)  Joanne was backpacking around Central America and she was robbed in Mexico.  The thief took her passport and all her money.  The loss of her passport was particularly traumatic, because it contained visas for her entry to other countries on her trip that she had organised in advance (it’s quite difficult for South Africans to travel as they need special visas in many countries and also have to demonstrate that they have money, etc.).  She went to the South African embassy, but they told her that she couldn’t get a new passport without money, despite the obvious problem that all her money and her wallet had been stolen along with the passport!  Joanne met an Australian who had also been robbed, and he had gone to the Australian embassy and not only had they organised him a new passport quickly, they also gave him money to use until he had received replacement bank cards.  Joanne thought to herself “now there’s a country”!

When she got back to South Africa she applied for permanent residency in Australia.  She eventually received approval and had five years to move there.  She had just started up her own business and decided it was not the right time to move, but one week before the five year period was over, she got on a plane and moved to Sydney!  The conditions of her permanent residency were that she had to reapply for it to be extended after two years.  However, she was offered the Rotary Peace Fellowship and so was going to be out of the country at the time she had to make the application.  She went to the immigration department in Sydney with a big bundle of documents and references to try to negotiate a renewal in advance so that she could come to Thailand.  She was prepared for a difficult negotiation.  The first thing that she was asked was what she had contributed to Australia during her time there.  She told the woman about the documentary she made about Australian Prime Ministers for the Museum of Australian Democracy.  The woman got very excited and asked her “is that the one that you see on the TV screens with the headphones as you first go in on the right hand side”?  Jo, surprised, said yes, that was it.  The woman then started gushing about how wonderful it was and how pleased she was to meet the woman who made the documentary, and approved her extension with no further questions.  Joanne laughed and said that she should have asked for citizenship!

Don't forget to stop and smell the flowers!

Refugees by any other name

It is estimated that Thailand is currently home to about 2,000,000 “illegal immigrants”.  These illegal immigrants can be completely illegal (and thus subject to instant deportation if arrested by police) or “registered illegal immigrant workers” (meaning that their employer has asked the Thai government for permission to grant them an amnesty from deportation for a year so they can work, however they have no labour rights under Thai law and are often exploited).  There is a third group of illegal immigrants, mostly from Burma (now known as “Myanmar”) who started arriving in Thailand about 20 years ago.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) moved these Burmese refugees into 9 different “Temporary Shelters” in Thailand along the Burmese border.  These camps house 140,000 refugees.  They are called “Temporary Shelters” rather than refugee camps as the Thai government does not recognise them as refugees, and has not signed the International Refugee Convention (so has no international legal obligation to assist refugees). Avoiding the refugee label also allows Thailand to avoid any discussion about local integration (although this happens on a wide scale informally and illegally). However, as one of the Camp Commanders told us, the Thai government supports the camps “because the situation in Burma is terrible and Thailand is a Buddhist country”.

UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) have been managing a resettlement program since 2005.  Everyone who is a registered resident of the camps is eligible to be resettled in another country.  Since 2005 over 60,000 camp residents have been resettled in other countries (USA – 80%, Finland – 9%, Australia – 2%, New Zealand – 1.5%, Norway, Sweden and Canada) however camp numbers have not declined significantly, as many more unregistered people keep arriving.  Although all registered residents are entitled to resettlement, less than half of the residents opt to be resettled.  Many of them just want to be able to return home to Burma, and some are quite happy in the camp.

It is estimated that in Baan Mai Nai Soi (the camp we visited) there are 13,000 registered and 3,000 unregistered residents; however, it seems likely that the number of unregistered residents is higher.  In total, the estimate is that there are over 50,000 unregistered residents in the 9 camps, in addition to the registered residents.

In 2005 when the resettlement process began, all residents in the camp were invited to come and be registered.  Anyone who chose not to register, or who arrived after this date, remains unregistered. This means that they are illegal immigrants and subject to deportation at any time, and it also means that they are not eligible for resettlement.  They are also not eligible for any of the humanitarian services provided in the camps (shelter, food, etc.) although there are many ways around this in practice.

Anyone who leaves the camps (registered or unregistered) and who is caught is immediately arrested and deported.  This policy seems to be not-negotiable and despite the fact that the situation in Burma is still so dangerous for these “displaced people”.  In reality, people leave the camp all the time, and often have jobs in the local community (they need this to survive as the food rations provided by the various humanitarian agencies are not enough to sustain a family).  The local officials seem to turn a blind eye to people leaving the camp, so long as there are no complaints from the local community about theft or any trouble caused by the refugees.  When people are caught they are taken to the border and released into Burma, however many of them simply turn around and walk back to the camp.

However, when people leave the camp they are at risk of exploitation and human trafficking as they have no papers and effectively nowhere to go.  (Some illegal immigrants who had been living in Thailand for ten years or more have voluntarily moved into the camp because it is much safer for them, and also many services are provided to residents that are not available if you are illegal outside).

Many of the camp residents have been born in the camp and theoretically have never left.  Despite a Thai law that all children born in Thailand are entitled to a birth certificate and Thai citizenship, nobody born in the camps is given a birth certificate: they remain stateless.  Most of the residents who arrived after fleeing from Burma are also without any documentation and stateless.  The Karenni people are not recognised by the current Burmese government as citizens of Burma.  Burma’s position is that all the camp residents are insurgents.

Burma/Myanmar history is complicated.  Basically, the ethnic nationalities of Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon had established de facto autonomous states along the border with Thailand.  In 1984 the Burmese army launched a massive offensive against the Karen National Union forces, and sent about 10,000 refugees into Thailand.  Since then the army has launched regular offensives and by 1994 about 80,000 people had fled into Thailand.  In 1998 the people of Burma rose up against the oppressive military regime, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.  Thousands of people were killed and tens of thousands more fled across the border into Thailand.  Since 1996 almost 3,000 ethnic villages have been destroyed, affecting over one million people.  More than 250,000 of these people have fled to Thailand.  There are also hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people in Burma, either in hiding or in forced labour on government projects.

We visited Baan Mai Nai Soi, the biggest temporary shelter in Thailand, and spent the day there.  It is not easy to get access to the camp and we were very lucky be given permission to enter.  Security for outsiders is very tight and usually only humanitarian officers working in the camp or high up government officials are allowed in.  We had to sign in and provide copies of our passports and a whole lot of documentation (that, thankfully, the Rotary Centre had organised for us).

We weren’t allowed to take any photos inside the camp, but were permitted to take some at the checkpoint outside.

Waiting at the checkpoint before going into the camp

At the camp checkpoint

At the bottom entry to the camp

I also found some photos on the internet of inside the camp.

There is also an article and a video montage of photos from a nearby camp in today’s Age newpaper (weird timing) and the images in that clip are fairly representative of what Baan Mai Nai Soi looks like here: http://www.theage.com.au/multimedia/world/inspiration-on-the-border/20100806-11nyz.html

The camp is about one hour’s drive from Mae Hong Son, the nearest town.  We had to travel there in the back of four-wheel drive trucks, as the ‘road’ is very muddy and we had to cross a number of rivers.  The camp is controlled by the Ministry of Interior.  The Camp Commander is the head of the camp, and employs 60 staff (known as “rangers” but they wear camouflage gear, carry firearms, and are effectively part of the armed forces). There is also a Camp Committee comprised of an elected chairperson (a camp resident) and 20 section leaders (the camp is divided into 20 sections and each section elects a leader).  The camp committee manages the day-to-day issues in the camp, and also has a role in administering camp justice.   There is also a Karenni Refugee Committee, which was formed in 1997 to coordinate and manage humanitarian aid in the camp.

Camp residents are mostly Karenni people. There are four main ethnic groups in the camp: Kayah, Paku Karen, Kayan and Kayaw.  These groups are about 80% of the residents.  There are also some Karen, Shan, Burman and Pa-O residents.

International NGOs provide all the necessities for the residents of the camp.  Residents are given bamboo and other materials to build a house, monthly basic food rations and charcoal for cooking. The TBBC (Thai Burmese Border Consortium) has now been providing food to the camp residents for over 20 years, which is way beyond what they were expecting.  The food allocation per month for one adult is:

  • 15 kg rice
  • 1.2 kg beans
  • 125 grams sugar
  • 123 grams dried chilli
  • 1 litre cooking oil
  • 500 grams iodised salt
  • 0.5 kg fortified flour

The camp also has a medical clinic, schools, and vocational training centres.  There is also a weaving and handicrafts centre where local women can produce goods to sell to make a little money to buy additional food items, although technically they cannot leave the camp to sell their goods, and residents do not earn income, so this business is not very developed.  When our group arrived at the camp, word spread quickly and soon a group of women quietly gathered at the back of the shelter where we were meeting with arms full of woven products to sell to us.  The Commander laughed when he saw them and announced that the camp market had come to us.  We all bought lots of things from them.

Other INGOs working in the camp include the International Rescue Committee, Jesuit Refugee Service, ZOA Refugee Care, Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees, and Women’s Education for Advancement and Employment.  There is also a camp-based organisation called the Karenni Women’s Organisation.  We also met an AVI volunteer there!

Basic facilities are actually very good in the camp, and residents have access to services such as education that they would likely not have had in their previous home.  There is access to sufficient water and sanitation facilities are good throughout the camp.  However, the main problem for residents of the camp is that they have no real access to employment or any way to develop a livelihood because they cannot leave the camp.  They also have the impossible situation of being stateless, and not recognised by any country as a citizen.  This creates a great deal of frustration and mental health issues, particularly for the men.  The women in the camp have, in a way, improved their traditional position in life, as they have the most opportunities to work by preparing and selling food and handicrafts.  However, the only work for the men to do in the camp is building and repairing houses.  There is no space for agriculture in the camp, other than some small vegetable gardens in the spaces between the houses.

There has been a significant problem with sexual and gender-based violence in the camp and there is now a specific program to address this.  The program includes education for men, women and children; medical and psychological care and protection for women (there are two women’s shelters in the camp); and access to legal advice and support in cases of criminal prosecution.  Victims of gender based violence and other crimes (so long as they are not serious offences) can choose whether the matter is addressed through the official Thai legal system or the camp justice system (which includes voluntary arbitration by one of the senior and respected camp leaders).  The camp justice system is quicker and more effective in many ways, but when a serious offence occurs, the Thai criminal justice system is activated.  All people who are charged are provided with voluntary legal representation through the Thai system.  The camp also has a legal assistance centre to help people up to that point.

We met with various NGO and camp committee representatives in a bamboo shelter: the main meeting place in the camp.  During the talks hens and baby chicks wandered around our feet, and people came in and out to see what was going on.  This was the first time that a group of foreigners had visited the camp, so we attracted a lot of attention.  The Camp Commander was our host.  He is a perpetually grinning young Thai man, who apparently has a big future in the Thai government.  Jenn described him as “naturally caffeinated” as he bounced around for the entire day proudly telling us about all the wonderful initiatives in the camp.  He seemed to genuinely care about the camp and its residents, and was open in admitting that he did not always follow the letter of the law when it was unfair to residents.  However, we were all left feeling a little bit uncomfortable at his over-the-top enthusiasm and the residents’ obvious discomfort and very cautious, tentative responses to any of his questions.  It is very clear that he holds a great deal of power over these people’s lives.  There were also some uncomfortable moments, such as when he led us into the clinic and announced “Come and see this woman, she has just given birth!”

Most of the residents do not speak Thai, and many do not speak Burmese.  We had translators accompany us as we moved around the camp, and sometimes translation was occurring from a Karenni language to Burmese to Thai to English, so I’m sure an awful lot was being lost in translation.  Two of the translators shared our truck and spoke quite good English.  We asked them a lot of questions while we had this time away from the Commander.  They were both awaiting resettlement and were desperate to get out of the camp.  One of them was a young man who was born in the camp and had never left.  His family left to be resettled in Dallas, Texas, but he stayed in the camp as he was in his last year of high school there and wanted to finish his education.  He has now been waiting for a few years, with nothing to do, for his resettlement to be approved.  He should be able to go to Dallas to be reunited with his family.  The other translator was an older man, probably in his late 50s or early 60s.  He had come to the camp 9 years ago alone.  He was apparently in grave danger as his brother was in the rebel army.  His family is all still back in Burma, and he says that they are safe.  He is waiting for resettlement on his own.  We asked him where he would like to be resettled and he said “anywhere, I just want to get out of here”.

As we drove around the camp, people stopped and stared at us.  We drove past the school buildings and children all rushed to the side and were staring and giggling at us. I smiled and waved to them and they would collapse into hysterical laughter.  Some were brave enough to wave back and then everyone laughed!  We then stopped and got out of the trucks and the students all rushed back to their seats and sat silently as a couple of us entered each class room.  Jenn had given me a bag of candy to give them, so through the translator I asked them whether they would like some.  They all sat there very seriously staring at me and nobody said a word.  They were so shy (unlike when they had the barrier of the bamboo wall between us).  I put a candy on the first three girls’ desks and they didn’t touch them.  But when I went to pick them up and take them back, they quickly snatched them and hid them in their skirts.  I had to laugh!  I asked the translator to explain to them that we were going to play a game and I was going to close my eyes and throw the candies into the classroom and who ever caught them could eat them.  That seemed to work!  There was a scramble to catch the candies and much giggling when someone caught one.  They still wouldn’t answer any questions though, and were incredibly shy.  Some did wave goodbye as we drove away though, giggling nervously.  They probably are still wondering what on earth these foreigners were doing there.

This is a quite confused account of the situation at Baan Mai Nai Soi and for Burmese/Karenni/etc refugees in Thailand.  It’s such a complicated situation and my head is still reeling from all the new information I’ve learnt in the past week.  There are many other aspects of the situation that I’d like to write about, but that will have to wait for later posts.

The nearby town, Mae Hong Son is very pretty.  We drove there from Chiang Mai (a 5.5 hour drive around 1864 curves up the mountains – you can get a certificate to say you survived that many curves on the drive)!  We were all given motion sickness tablets half an hour before getting into our vans for the drive.  Thankfully they seemed to be effective and nobody was sick.

In the van (Arti, Jo and Ian in the front row)

The drive was a little hair raising at times, but beautiful scenery.  It’s rainy season so everything is very lush and green.

Mae Hong Son town and airstrip

Mae Hong Son from the temple on top of the hill

Mae Hong Son country side from the temple on top of the hill

Temple on the lake

Food stalls by the lake

Human trafficking (part 2)

After a very emotionally draining day yesterday, today was a day full of hope.

We first visited the Chiang Mai office of World Vision Thailand and learnt about their many projects to support migrant and stateless victims of human trafficking in the region. They have five main projects that support victims of human trafficking. These focus on prevention and protection; case management, cross-border cooperation and repatriation/reintegration; advocacy and policy development, and two regional projects supporting people in particular areas.

In particular, the ASAP project (Assistance, Support And Protection) is very important. The goal of the project is increased community resilience to reduce their vulnerability to human trafficking. Community resilience is increased by:

  1. Formal and informal education for adults and children from at-risk stateless and migrant populations. Education includes topics such as children’s rights, health, safe migration, and activities to assist in decreasing the financial strain on families (e.g. safe ways for them to make income). Education is provided to teachers, parents and students.
  2. Strengthening existing children’s, youth and women’s groups.

World Vision also collects data about at risk populations and follows up children identified as being vulnerable.

Disturbingly, the funding for many of these projects runs out in 2011, and their application for funding from the Thai government has been rejected.

If you would like to make a donation to support World Vision Thailand projects you can do so through the website. Alternatively you can also sponsor a Thai child to support their education.

Our next visit was to the Gabfai Community Theatre group. The word ‘gabfai’ means ‘match’ in the local northern language and this is reflected in Gabfai’s motto: “A single flame can light a thousand candles”. The director gave us background about the group’s activities. The group is really working at the grass-roots level to prevent human trafficking, with fairly ad hoc funding and a group of dedicated volunteers.

He explained that their mission is empowering women to stand up for themselves, because they can’t sit around and wait for the government to save them. They need to be strong so that they don’t believe lies that are told them and that they can look after themselves so as not to become victims of human trafficking. He explained that young women in Thailand are in a very difficult situation. Sons can easily contribute to the family by becoming monks, even for a short while, and dedicating merit to their parents. However, as women cannot become monks, daughters are expected to contribute to the family by bringing in money and there is a lot of pressure on them to do so. This can make them particularly vulnerable to trafficking when they are enticed to go to the city based on promises of making good money to send home. This vulnerability was compounded by the fact that successful women were the ones who returned to their villages and talked about all the money they made, but the ones who returned with HIV after having been abused as sex slaves a did not talk to anyone about their experiences as they were ashamed, and nobody heard from the women who never returned at all. Accordingly, most villagers do not know about the bad experiences, despite the fact that they are much more common than the happy stories.

Gabfai puts on performances in the villages. For many villagers, this is the first time they’ve seen theatre, and often they are surprised that it can be performed by ‘everyday Thai people’ and not Hollywood movie stars. Gabfai’s performances start with amusing scenes and the villagers enjoy laughing at the performance. For example, they portray a foreign man watching a woman dancing sexily around a pole, the villagers laugh very hard, because they have never seen anything like this before and find it terribly amusing. However, they soon begin to understand that this is actually not a funny situation, as the plot develops and they realise the extent of exploitation that many young women experience after they leave their villages. The performances open up the issue so that the villages can talk about it, and the performers ask the villagers questions after the show to encourage this.

Soon, Gabfai performers were asked to help the children and young people learn how to act and put on performances of their own. So they started teaching young villagers theatre, and how to tell their stories through theatre. The young people in villages started to write their own plays about issues that were of concern to them and performing them for the adults. They would also then ask the adults to discuss the issues they had raised. Adults were at first surprised that their children were so confident and had opinions about things. They were frequently speechless as they watched their problems portrayed in front of them by their children. Parents began to learn from their children. Community leaders became involved and also local artists. Kids started learning all sorts of things, such as their traditional arts, and they became proud of their local heritage. It also encouraged people to work together and start to value the skills and strengths that they already had.

Eventually, Gabfai staff realised that they also needed to get the messages that these children were identifying out to the broader community and the tourists. They started to run mobile theatres, and to perform in all sorts of public locations, such as markets, carparks, etc. They made sure that in the mobile theatres, there were people who spoke all different languages, and they would perform in different languages, so that after the performances, tourists and other people could come and talk to someone in their own language about the issues raised in the performances. They would also hand out pamphlets about laws relating to prostitution and human trafficking to raise awareness. People really engaged with them, particularly because it was the children themselves performing and trying to solve the problems.

Gabfai’s mission developed further when they realised that many of the children needed education in life skills as well as theatre. So they started to develop programs to teach students important life skills. They first had to convince teachers in local schools that it was worthwhile teaching these things (which are not in the standardised curriculum) and also that there were more imaginative ways to teach things to keep students engaged. This was so successful that provincial government officials became interested in what Gabfai was doing. Gabfai went to meet with officials, taking a group of students with them to try to convince them to support a longer-term plan. It took a long time for them to become known and to prove that their work was making a real difference, but now they have strong support from the provincial government. This support, however, is not financial – all work is still done largely on a volunteer basis, or with support from international charities.

Gabfai then realised that they were able to get access to illegal immigrant populations that other NGOs were unable to get permission to visit. This was because the government felt that Gabfai’s ‘entertainment’ was not threatening to the government’s stance against supporting these populations. Gabfai has managed to provide a great deal of support to these communities through their ‘entertainment’!

After a network of youth theatre groups spread around the north, adults started to ask to be trained in theatre too, so Gabfai began a whole new raft of training for adult villagers. This turned out to be very important, because the adults tended to stay in the villages (while the young people frequently left for work elsewhere) and the remaining adults were crucial for the continued protection of vulnerable people in their community. The theatre and education programs ensured that these topics continued to be discussed and supported. Gabfai has even run a large festival, with performance groups from all over the country coming together, and important government officials attending performances.

Someone asked the director how he had come to be involved in this work. He said that he had always wanted to be an actor or a film director. He went to Bangkok to study acting and after that he enjoyed performing in local theatre. One day he went to a village to perform and it was the first time this village had seen such a performance. He said that his role in the play was to be a tree, and another actor had to cut him down. He said that when they were walking out of the village a small girl ran after him and gave him 2.5 baht (not quite ten cents) to thank him. He said “she bought my life right then and there” and ever since he has been working to help villagers to have a better life through theatre. (At this point, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room). He said that he may not have any money, but he really enjoys what he does. He says there are many film directors in the world, but there are very few people who are prepared to work for next to nothing to make others’ lives better, and so he is happy to be doing this work. He said that there are very few jobs in which you can have a lot of fun and change people’s lives.

Human trafficking

The last two days have been very intense.  That may be the understatement of the year.  I’m emotionally exhausted.  We have been talking to a range of people working against human trafficking.  These people work in a number of very different roles, including government officials, police officers, social workers, NGOs, and people running shelters for victims to recover and rehabilitate.

We attended a panel discussion on human trafficking.  The panel consisted of a police officer, a social worker (from a government agency) and a woman who runs an NGO that coordinates the various organisations (government and non-government) that work on human trafficking issues.  These three were representatives of a multi-disciplinary task force that works against human trafficking in Thailand.

They explained that Thailand is the source, a transit point, and a destination for human trafficking in the area.  Thailand’s ‘porous’ borders and its proximity to less developed and troubled countries such as Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Southern China, and Cambodia exacerbate the problem of human trafficking. However, victims of human trafficking do not just include illegal immigrants or refugees fleeing from a bad situation in their own country. Thai hill people and rural Thais are also vulnerable, particularly if they are poor or ostracised in some way from their communities.  Women, children and men are trafficked.  Up until 2008, when the Anti-Human Trafficking Act was passed in Thailand, men were not recognised as victims of human trafficking.  Women were recognised through the prostitution laws, but it wasn’t until two years ago that the government recognised a much wider problem.

There are three main areas of human trafficking in Thailand.  The most publicly recognised form is human trafficking for the sex trade.  There is also a very large problem with human trafficking for forced labour.  There is also baby trading and organ selling.

The sex trade is what most people think of when they think of human trafficking, and it has received the most attention from government in recent years.  It includes a wide range of activities and some of these demonstrate the fine line between what is trafficking and what is not.  For example, human trafficking for the sex trade may involve women being taken and held against their will in a brothel.  It may also involve a woman being forced to enter or remain in the sex trade due to debt bondage (where, for example, a loan is made to the woman’s family and the interest is so great that she can never make enough money to pay off the loan, and she is effectively forced to keep working to pay the interest and protect her family).  Marrying foreigners can also be an example of human trafficking, particularly where the woman is taken against her will and effectively kept as a sex slave.  However, in all but the first example, there is often a difficult line to tread between what is and isn’t trafficking.  There are issues around the point at which the woman can be said to be a willing participant.  There is the question about where blackmail ends and debt bondage begins.  There are issues around whether a woman who is not in chains is free to leave a sex venue or not.  These things create political and practical problems.

A lesser known, but perhaps much more prevalent form of human trafficking in Thailand is forced labour.  This may include keeping someone (often young girls) in a position of servitude, where they are required to work for a family and often not leave the house in return for a meagre amount of food.  It also includes forcing children to beg or sell flowers on the street (the movie Slumdog Millionaire paints a very graphic picture of this issue in India).  However, the most astounding instance of this kind of trafficking in South East Asia is in the fishing and seafood processing industry.  The current conservative estimate is that a million people are being used for forced labour in those industries in Thailand.  In many cases entire factories full of workers (frequently shrimp peelers) are kept locked in the factory and work very long hours in return for food.  They are either physically restrained on the premises or are prevented from leaving with the threat that they will be immediately reported to the authorities and, on the basis that they are illegal immigrants, will be simply deported.   (Please, stop buying Thai seafood, as until the consumers make a stand on this issue, this practice seems likely to continue).  Men are also often drugged and wake up on fishing boats way out to sea, where they are forced to work.  The boats never go back to land, so the men are effectively trapped at sea.  Another boat comes to collect the catch and return to shore.  Many men die of starvation and are simply thrown overboard to drown.

Dealing with the problem of human trafficking is not easy.  There are problems at every level, from identifying people at risk, difficulties in education and prevention, police and other corruption, the obstacles created by the legal system, and the fact that victims tend to have difficulty communicating due to language or trauma, they can also be uncooperative and not want help for a variety of reasons, and they tend not to have papers or a permanent address.  Many also do not want the stigma of being a victim of human trafficking.  There are also many, many people directly involved or complicit in human trafficking.  The notion of the ‘perpetrator’ is much broader than an individual grabbing a girl at a bus stop.  Very often someone close to the victim’s family is involved.  There is also the person who makes the initial contact with the victim, people involved in transporting the victim, doctors who may be involved in treating a victim, government officials and police who are bribed along the way, etc., etc.

TRAFCORD and other organisations working in Thailand are trying their best, with limited resources and an incredibly difficult situation, to help.  They focus on prevention; the rescue, protection, recovery and reintegration of victims; and prosecution of perpetrators.

We heard some harrowing accounts of NGO staff visiting venues undercover to gain evidence, and some heartbreaking stories of what they found.  We saw some terrible photographs.  We also heard inspirational stories of recovery and tragic stories of what happened to people who were not rescued in time.

We also visited a centre called the “New Life Center” which is a residential facility for girls and women who have been victims of trafficking.  The centre provides medical and psychological care, employs teachers to provide the girls with primary and secondary schooling on the premises, offers vocational training in a variety of areas including sewing and cooking, and has a handicraft centre where the girls can use their traditional tribal skills in embroidery and silver jewellery making to make items to sell for spending money or to send back to their families.  The three centres in Thailand run by this particular NGO house about 112 girls and women between the ages of 10 to 24.  The centre we visited housed about 60 young women.  One of the staff (an American woman, although most of the staff at the centre are Hill People so that they can talk with the girls and women in their native languages, though all girls eventually learn Thai as part of their studies) talked with us about the work of the centre and told us some of the girl’s stories.  They were shocking and many of us were in tears.  Most horrific was the fact that when girls or women were rescued and identified as illegal immigrants, they were frequently just ‘dumped’ across the border of their home country (or their most likely home country if that couldn’t be definitely determined) and then left to fend for themselves.  Many NGOs work very hard to identify girls and women about to be left in this situation and to notify partner organisations in the other country to collect them and care for them, but this doesn’t always happen.

We were given a tour of the centre and introduced to some of the staff.  In one room there was a class being held with some of the girls.  I felt so terrible that there we were, a group of westerners, gawking at them like they were animals in a zoo.  I know that nobody was looking at them in that spirit, but I was torn apart by this feeling that these girls had been through so much, had been treated as objects for other people to use for their purposes, and here were people taking photos of them.  It seemed to me to be a very fine line between wanting to share their plight with others and exposing them to another invasion of their privacy and space by taking photos of them.  The staff member told us we could take photos as long as we didn’t post any on the internet or show their faces.  But I couldn’t take a single photo.  I wondered how many times they had had their photos taken by people in the past as part of the abuse perpetrated on them.  I wondered how they felt to again be the object of more powerful/privileged peoples’ gaze.  I wondered if they really did consent to having their photos taken, or whether they felt that they really had no choice.  I wondered if their smiles and wais were genuine or programmed to be polite.  I was an absolute mess after that short encounter, shaking with rage and guilt and a complicated mix of emotions.

Later that day we met with a woman who runs a shelter for men who have been victims of human trafficking.  This is a very new development in Thailand, as until 2008 men were not recognised as potential victims.  Her organisation works on rehabilitation and identifying the men’s families, so that they can hopefully return home (if they have one).  Given that there are apparently hundreds of thousands of men in forced labour in South East Asia, we optimistically asked how many men the organisation had helped in the past two years.  She proudly informed us that they had helped 32 men.  It was such a stark illustration of the seemingly hopeless task facing all the people working against this horrible demonstration of human nature at its worst.

One thing that we all agreed on in our debrief at the end of the day, was that all the people we met who are working in this area were inspiring and dedicated, and joyously celebrated any little step in a positive direction.