Friday, January 16, 2009

Pre-departure Class at MIIS

Prior to our long-anticipated arrival in Bangkok, we all arrived at MIIS to take a two day pre-departure class. Over the winter break we were required to read two books, one about Battambang, an area we will be visiting in Cambodia and another containing the stories of four individuals and their memories of the Khmer Rouge time in Cambodia. In addition to reading these two books, we also read a number of newspaper articles and scholarly journal articles regarding a number of different conflicts. One particular article that we discussed at length was one dealing with the issues of face and honor in Cambodia. Our discussions were very enlightening in helping to understand some of the underlying issues of different conflicts. Another topic that our class expressed great interest in was that of trauma and healing. Dr. Poethig visited our class and lectured on Cambodia history and provided us with the opportunity to inquire about issues of our interest, such as possible explanations for why Cambodias don't discuss the Khmer Rouge era. We are off to visit the Reclining Buddha in Bangkok Thailand, but I promise to write more about our pre-departure soon.

2 (Christine W.)

Thai Border Conflict

I’m winding down in the Evergreen Laurel Hotel, reflecting on my first day in Bangkok in a jetlagged fog. For our first outing of the day we visited the Asia Foundation, an non-profit NGO that works with the Asia-Pacific region countries to improve governance, civil society, empowerment for women, and the economy. As I pounded multiple cups of coffee to keep the jetlag at bay, our group listened to two representatives who spoke about a border conflict in the southern provinces of Thailand, which are populated by Muslim Malays.

Although Thailand is bordered by many different ethnic groups, and the ethnic Thais are actually the minority in Thailand, the Muslim Malays feel particularly underrepresented by the centralized Thai government. The Malays have struggled to preserve their cultural identity in Thailand, and they have a long history in Thailand, which I cannot summon the energy to explain just now. The conflict between the Malays and Thai society accelerated in 2000 when the former Prime Minister of Thailand gave the police control over these provinces in order to crack down on drugs. The police were given the authority to kill accused drug dealers, many of which were young Malay men. Since this time, an underground Malay insurgency has grown, and young educated Malay men are being recruited into the insurgency.

Asia Foundation link:


Cultural identity, and identity in general, are often strong themes in conflict resolution, particularly in an international context. I know that understanding the background of each identity group implicated in a conflict is crucial to a strong analysis of that conflict, but I get so overwhelmed when I think of how embedded religion, politics, and history are in protracted conflicts. I feel it is absolutely impossible to make any kind of recommendation unless a conflict resolver spends a significant amount of time with each group. For example, in the case of the Cambodian genocide, it I feel it is natural to sympathize with a victim when they describe their circumstances during the trauma. For me, during their narratives, the Khmers Rouges become ruthless torturers who lust after power, and the fact that many of them have not apologized for the atrocities they committed is horrifying. Yet when I examine the history of the former members of the Khmer Rouge, I find that many of them were 15-16 years old when they were indoctrinated in a way that spoke to their cultural upbringing, and had they obeyed to refuse orders from the higher cadres they would have lost their lives. As one of the (male) members of our group suggested during our two days of briefings prior to this trip, there is little difference between a 16-year-old boy and a sociopath. How can a former member of the Khmer Rouge, who was strongly influenced during a time when they were emotionally underdeveloped, take full responsibility of the atrocities they committed when they too were victimized and alienated from the notion of morality? Black and white answers just do not exist, and this is when I consider adding Baileys to my coffee.

Our second meeting was with a local NGO, which works to protect children from child abuse and human trafficking. Increasingly there is a demand for virgin girls as young as 14, and younger, in the sex trade. Thailand has thus far been very progressive about passing laws against trafficking women and connecting with other countries to put a stop to trafficking, but men are also increasingly trafficked for labor. This was another wonderful meeting, but I don’t have the emotional energy to blog too much about it just now. I might go to the red light district tomorrow, and if that is the case, I’m sure I will have more to say on the matter.


On a lighter note, the food here has been the stuff that dreams are made of. The hotel offers a beautiful breakfast spread with some of the sweetest fresh fruit you can imagine. It doesn’t get much better than eating ripe papaya and scrambled eggs on a sultry 70 something degree day in January. If I get the bird flu, it will have been worth the eggs. For lunch we went to Cabbages and Condoms, a local restaurant that aims to educate people about safe sex. This can be a taboo subject in Thailand, so the restaurant has a back room where people can discreetly discuss sex with educators. We ordered what seemed like nearly everything on the menu so that everyone could try various Thai dishes. My favorite was a whole steamed fish with lemon-flavored juices. It was the most tender delight you can imagine. The seafood here is exceptional, and I have yet to try something I don’t like. Seasoning is taken seriously, and they don’t pussy foot around when it comes to bold flavors. It is a good thing the hotel has a spa, and that they offered a kickboxing class tonight. Sarah, Brandon and I decided to try the class from 6-7 pm before dinner. Kickboxing is a far cry from ballet, but the instructor was pretty fantastic, and it was a good workout nonetheless that reduced some of my guilt for all of the gorging I intend to continue. Hope all is well with everyone!

Cabbages and Condoms link:


Day 1 Bangkok

So I've never been much of a blogger, but I think this is a great way to be able to share the little observations you don't get in Lonely Planet guide books or the Discovery channel. Faith, Ashley and I arrived early and actually have spent the past three days in Railay, a small island near Phuket to bask in the sun, snorkel and swim with was amazing, but it was a comfy, aloof tourist bubble that is now beginning to erode since we've arrived in Bangkok. Obviously, tourism is a huge industry here in beautiful Thailand but I think if you truly want to understand the culture you're in you must talk with the locals, eat at places off the map (try new, exotic foods), and basically put yourself outside your comfort zone. If it weren't for the fact Faith, Ashley and I came down with a bit of food poisoning, let me tell you, I would be eating everything in sight. I think some of the best food I've had so far came from a small market in Phuket while we were waiting for a cab to the ferry. We had lotus leafs filled with coconut rice, topped with mango and some sticky rice balls..very good! But enough of food...let's get to the main reason our class is here, which is to observe and evaluate the peace-building process in post conflict societies. This is something I am just beginning to comprehend, seeing as I am a nonproliferation major, but it is something I consider equally important in trying to make the world a better place. Today, we met up with Tom Parks of the Asia Foundation and he and his co-worker gave us a wonderful overview of what Thailand has gone through and it's current political state. The Asia Foundation is a perfect example of where foreign aid goes and I am proud to say the US State Dept. is actively involved in providing the funding to stopping human trafficking, helping victims of violence, promoting education and awareness and basically doing all the dirty, hands-on work that individual governments do not include specifically in their foreign policy agenda. This is crucial work that I have great respect for, especially the individuals who work with children who have been trafficked. One of the things that struck me the most was the idea that some of these poor children do not even consider themselves victims...they see these rehabilitation centers and shelters that they are transferred to after the trafficking as a form of prison, thinking they have done something wrong. Being an American, the idea of not knowing your rights is shocking to me, but one of the centers we visited today talked about how they work with these children to empower them. However, he mentioned translation was a big obstacle, aside from just getting these individuals to open-up about their exeriences. Not all children speak Thai and how do you translate emotions they don't even know they have the right to be feeling...? I won't write too much more, so that there's room for other people's reflections but I just wanted to leave you with that thought. The whole experience so far has been incredible and besides the tourist guilt, it makes me very grateful to have the life and privileges I do and hopefully you will feel the same after reading. So stay tuned!
-Stephanie H.