Borderland- experiences in Northern Thailand

Sena 1
[Image description: two Global Health Students and four NGO staff members are smiling at the camera while sat around a table eating lunch together]
Authors: Androga Diana and Sena Otio

Editor: Philippa Simmonds

This summer the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU) hosted a course in Chiang Mai, Thailand, entitled ‘Borderland- Critical Approaches to Field Research in the Global South’. The programme brought together students with diverse backgrounds from seven universities, including two MSc Global Health Students from KU.

Diana’s reflections:

Diana 1
Aerial view of Chiang Mai

After 12 hours of flight we finally arrived in Chiang Mai. The first thing I noticed was the hot humid type of climate, and I was surprised to find that the city was much bigger than I expected. It felt like a very international city, but still the local culture was very visible through local people’s way of communication which portrayed politeness. This was the first aspect I noticed: when greeting somebody you had to bow slightly and the same when saying goodbye!

During the first week we attended classes at Chiang Mai University and explored the different meanings of the term “border”. We discussed the development projects happening along the Mekong river from Laos to Thailand, which are often income-generating projects which may have environmental effects. The construction of hydroelectric dams in the highlands of one country can cause problems in a different country by preventing the natural flow of silt needed for downstream agriculture. Furthermore, some villages affected by the dams have been resettled to new locations away from the river; despite being people who relied on fishing as their main source of income.

One of the lecturers talked about the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and emphasised the power of labelling. The Rohingya can trace their presence in Myanmar back several centuries, but were labelled “illegal immigrants” by the government and refused citizenship. This emphasises how a label can signify rejection or acceptance by society.

At the end of the first week we visited one of the local hill tribe communities. This was fascinating and allowed us to see how some tribes have adapted to tourism by selling textiles and other handicrafts to visitors. In the evenings we went to the famous Chiang Mai street market, which gave us a chance to socialise and try local food such as mango sticky rice.

Diana 5
Rice field in the town

During the second and third weeks we were assigned to different NGOs. My colleague from Global Health and I were attached to HelpAge International at their South East Asia headquarter office. Our tasks included a review of their training material to add new contents where necessary. We also carried out a literature review to identify new models that are being used to assist elderly people in other countries, and could therefore be utilised by HelpAge International. We learned that Thailand has Universal Health Coverage for all Thai citizens, and that the elderly get priority in terms of health treatment. This is representative of the respect for the elderly that is present throughout Thai culture.

HelpAge International’s work is partly done via partner organizations like the Foundation for Older Persons’ Development (FOPDEV). We got the opportunity to join FOPDEV for their field trip where we saw how they carried out distribution of allowances to elderly people in the different village zones. There is also an allowance for people with disabilities and for those living with HIV/AIDS- the latter is given through the bank for anonymity. In the end almost every elderly person in the area receives some sort of financial support, except a few who live in the remote locations of the forest and may not be aware of the service.

Our fellow students had a variety of interesting experiences with their NGOS. Some created a very professional-looking documentary about the rivers, while others helped to develop their NGO’s websites, and some even explored projects about ghosts. All the different projects were presented to the whole group during the final week.

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Chiang Mai Arts and Cultural Centre

Sena’s reflections:

The themes that we explored through the Borderlands course included:

  • Borders and boundaries
  • Mobilities and immobility
  • Environment and natural resource management
  • Human in/security and social justice

To begin with, beyond the geopolitical definition of borderland areas, the course opened our thinking to the fact that in the context of South East Asia, borders also meant the cultural, social and political connotations of border areas. The networks, relationships, mobility and dynamics of ethnic and tribal groups, and how these separate one from the other. This perspective is essential to understanding the people of this region in an in-depth manner. Secondly, we explored how tribal groups associate meaning and importance to the rivers, forests, and other natural resources around them, and are therefore ready to protect them by any means possible; including demonstrating or rioting against industrial projects like hydro-electric dam construction.

Furthermore, on human in/security and social justice, it was noted that every theory of ethnic relations points to the importance of political and economic structures in the creation and maintenance of ethnic inequality and ideology. It was learnt that labels also assume politicized meanings and may compel us to act in accordance with them, particularly when they determine our eligibility for and access to resources.

In south east Asia, more than a million people are stateless. This means that they don’t have citizenship in their own countries; lack of citizenship means lack of identity. Lack of either (citizenship or identity) means one does not have access to most of the basic needs in life; education, mainstream employment, health care and other social services. Living without state protection means that you are born and may die without records. You are not in any public register so your movement is curtailed, and you do not have a voice with which to challenge the situation as you are a non-entity in the eyes of the state. This is the plight of many ethnic groups in South East Asia.

From the placement with HelpAge International and FOPDEV, I learnt how NGOs and other civil organisations were partnering governments to develop social security policies for older people. I also got the opportunity to help translate the WHO PEN interventions (the package of essential noncommunicable disease interventions for primary health care) into civil society groups’ programmes.

Since a system is only as strong as its weakest part, health systems are only strong if the most vulnerable and the voiceless have good representation with accessible and quality services available to them. I believe every global health student or practitioner would benefit from learning about the complex problems facing people in this region. A better comprehension of these issues through utilising effective field research techniques is essential for devising locally-relevant, sustainable solutions.

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