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About the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN)
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For many university students in northeastern Thailand, life outside of class is often summed up in three words: “eat, play and sleep.” This is no different than many students in the U.S. Last week, however, I had the opportunity to join up with a network of student activist groups on the Mahasarakam University campus, including the Create Dreams Club and the People’s Farmhouse Organization. Both groups are engaged in the revival of the Student Federation of the Northeast, an organization long in existence, but which has faced membership challenges in recent years. In late August, Mahasarakam will be hosting the Federation’s Assembly, with student groups and activists from all over the region coming together for dreaming and strategizing.
On Wednesday the 15th, the Federation hosted a seminar titled “A History of Isaan Farmers’ Fight Since ‘Puu Mee Boon’ to the Present Time.” Students from Ubon Ratchatani and Khon Kaen University were also involved. The event was kicked-off with a musical performance and slideshow of rural people’s movements in Thailand, as well as La Via Campesina in Chile and the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. I was impressed by the presenters’ knowledge of these movements as it shows their efforts to connect with peoples’ movements globally. The seminar was led by P’ Leuhn of the Assembly of Famers’ and Agriculturalists, along with Joy and Muon, a young NGO and a student-activist, respectively. Most of the discussion focused on the relationship between Isaan (northeastern Thailand) and the Thai state, which historically has been characterized by state pressure to control and exploit rural communities. Isaan people were not always viewed as Thai, but more so as forest people that needed to be brought into civilization. Via the expansion of state bureaucracy and infrastructure, the state was able to exert power and control over the hinterlands.
P’ Luehn pointed out that according to the government’s democratic growth, over the past 20 years power has been put into the hands of the people. But after spending time in a lot of rural communities, this power has yet to be seen with in the people. Villagers are unable to access the government offices of environment, natural resources or land reform. The Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), during it’s short life, was able to bring change for rural people, but the government only wanted to stop the party – destroying forest, building roads and cassava promotion meant people followed government policies.
But resistance has always characterized this historical landscape of environmental degradation. Beginning with the “Puu Mee Boon” movement in Phibun, Ubon Ratchatani during the formation of the Thai state, to movements beginning more than 25 years ago for community forest rights. By 1985, communities throughout southern Isaan formed a conservation network to resist the government’s Kor Jor Gor “forest management” policy of eucalyptus plantations and community forest destruction. By the end of Kor Jor Gor in the early 1990s, with a chaotic political situation and increasing militarization in the northeast, the Assembly of the Poor (AOP) formed around a number of important issues. Representing people’s movements against large-scale dams, for slum communities’ rights, alternative agriculture (AAN), and community forest management, the AOP continues to struggle to make the people’s voice heard. P’ Luehn concluded by again pointing out that power is still not the people’s, and asked simply, “where does exploitation come from? Why are villagers exploited?”
Muon, a student-activist from Mahasarakam, continued the discussion on the present day socio-political situation in the northeast. He pointed out, “Students don’t feel they have anything to do with farmers – these issues aren’t connected to them. But students can be a force for justice in society and work with their energy for farmers. Farms surround this university – I saw two older farmers working in the fields recently, while two students were flirting with each other right nearby. It made me think, what are these people thinking? Maybe they just see the farmers as low class, but they fail to see the importance of these farmers or respect them.”
Following up on this ignorance on the part of students, Joy described a conventional educational system in which students are supposed to study, go to class and once finished, get a good-paying job. But to young NGOs like Joy, there is still a lot to learn from traditional wisdom in society. Joy also put a request out to students to go and work with villagers and see how it makes them feel – does it bring happiness?
The exchange that followed the seminar was wide-ranging and lively. There was some consensus created that many students do care about social and environmental issues, but they need someone to help them approach these issues and help them begin to work for change. Further, the student-activist groups were told by a few professors they need to believe that they can have a role in future societal change. As Isaan farmers’ struggles are for their survival, students can have a role in expressing this struggle. Yet class self-awareness is a challenge, as youth no longer want to be farmers or even help their families in the fields anymore. This also prevents students from seeing the value in activism. Few students are like Muon, who pointed out that as the son of a farmer, he wants to complete his education and continue his father’s livelihood.
In the evening following the seminar, everyone gathered at the nearby evening market and hooked up the amps and speakers for a concert and campaign event. The night was filled with protest songs, folk songs and even a few pop hits. At one point, a student from Khon Kaen got on stage and made a call to students to join in and work for change, which was definitely the most moving part of the night. The market served as a great forum, as students sat and ate their noodle soup and listened (at least we hope) to what we had to say. After the show was over, we headed back to the People’s Farmhouse to plan out next steps for the Federation’s assembly in August and plenty of discussion late into the rainy night.
The student-activist network in Mahasarakam isn’t all talk. When classes were over on Friday, six students, along with Udee and P’ Breeo from the AAN came here to Baan Non Yang in Yasothon province for a weekend-long photography class for local youth. The group even got out into AAN President Paw Bunsong Mahtkao’s fields to help with rice transplanting.
P’ Wik, from the Sustainable Agriculture Foundation in Bangkok was our teacher for the weekend, as she is a talented photographer with some teaching experience. Students got to take the lead in learning techniques for photocomposition, tone, balance and content. We all worked together in small groups and gave feedback on each other’s photos throughout the weekend. In the end, the local high school and middle-school students, who rarely have the opportunity to pick up a camera, took beautiful photographs and I think they got a lot out of walking around their community and finding interesting things to take photos of or talking with villagers before taking their photo.
While this past weekend’s activities were small and may not seem all that “activist-y,” they represent students’ genuine interest in working with rural communities and taking the time to work with villagers. For these activists, their time at Mahasarakam means a lot more than “eat, play, sleep.” By working to inform and educate their classmates on campus and heading into rural communities with their free time, these students represent a tradition of activism on which many Thai NGO careers are built. Their efforts are enabled by the strength of farmers’ organizations like the AAN, which welcome students into their communities and help coordinate activities, despite even this season’s busy planting schedule.
Since studying with CIEE Khon Kaen in 2006, I’ve wanted to learn more about the student movement in the northeast and engage with young Thai activists. It is important that these student networks are working to revive the Student Federation of the Northeast. Simply organizing events like the ones this past week represents an empowering process of coordination and critical involvement. I look forward to seeing where this movement will go next.