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7 posts from April 2014


A Colorful Movement, Lizzy Peake


Sabina Shah, Red Shirt leader and radio host.

The current political situation in Thailand features two main groups: the Red Shirts, who are pro-government, and the Yellow Shirts, who want a new form of government. The Northeast region of Thailand is predominantly composed of people who identify with the Red Shirt movement. Red Shirts are often stereotyped as the poorer, rural population composed of many farmers and those with less education than the middle to upper class urban elites stereotyped as the Yellow Shirts. But the Red Shirt movement is so much more complex and diverse than simply the poor Isaan farmer with little education that supports Thaksin, Thailand’s former Prime Minister.

Within Unit 5, which focused on democracy and politics in Thailand, we had the opportunity to speak with many different people from all walks of life that identify as Red Shirts.

Sabinah Shah, or Jo, is a Red Shirt leader and radio show host, discussing politics. She considers democracy as the “voice of the people…everyone must be equal…everyone must be under the same standards of laws.” Along with equality in democracy, she believes every person should have one vote, “no matter how rich you are.” Active at protests and a leader at the recent Red Shirt rally in Bangkok on April 5th and 6th, she says that protests “are not a fun thing…[they are] risky, but people come out to protect their rights.”

Sohm Sang, 56, is an avid protector of rights; he is a security guard for the Red Shirt movement. Like Jo, he went to the rally in Bangkok in April to “protect the Red Shirts.” He considers the future generation in his political ideology, saying how “we have to fight for future generations…to be able to live their life.” For Sohm, democracy “means equality…we are the same; we are not being oppressed.” He also feels that the voices of the lower class are “not being heard,” and that if the Red Shirt movement fails, then “the poor will continue being oppressed.” Though he is a security guard, he does not carry weapons, but only “a flashlight.” Despite being weaponless, he says, “I am never scared because my heart wants to fight for righteousness.”

Senator Wan sides with the Red Shirts in part because he views the Red Shirts as “doing things according to law…[while] the Yellow Shirts are breaking the law.” He does not readily define democracy, instead saying that it “cannot be define yet; every person has their own [definition].” He does say that for a democracy there needs to be “majority votes,” and “if there is no election, it is not fair and democratic.” In addition to elections and majority votes, Senator Wan think there needs to be a reformed Constitution that “should respond to everyone’s needs in society.”

It has been a fascinating journey through this Unit, speaking to radio show hosts, security guards, senators, academics, and a myriad of other people about the Red Shirt movement in Thailand. It has been especially enlightening to see through the stereotype that all Red Shirts are rural farmers, and add dimension, perspective, and complexity to the Red Shirt movement. Democracy and equality have come up again and again, but different people focus on different tactics and goals for their movement, or just have an interesting opinion to offer. All these people identify as Red Shirts, but hold different perspectives within the movement. Some consider the Constitution, others use radio as an outreach and education tool, others want to fight for justice. The Red Shirt movement, instead of simply “red, ” seems more a rich array of colors, each adding vibrancy to the movement. 

Democracy for Thailand? ... It’s complicated, Shelby Kaplan

The time period and topic selection for Unit 5 of our program could not have come at a better time in Thailand’s political history.  After much discussion about our group interests and feasibility, we decided that we would pursue democracy and development of Thailand.  Throughout all of our previous units we heard about the frustrations and struggles that villagers, NGOs and government officials all face while trying to pursue or protest various developmental projects without an existing, functional government in Thailand.  Red and yellow shirts have taken turns protesting the current political situation and national tension has now led to murmurs of civil war.

We had gained brief insight into the complexity of the political situation from attending and interviewing voters at the February election that was recently nullified by the constitutional court, exchanging with red shirt villagers during community stays, and from our security updates with Ajaan Dave.  After hearing multiple times that we may have to pack our bags and escape to Laos when civil war breaks out, we decided that we should take it upon ourselves to become more educated about what is shaping and breaking the country we have been studying in for three months.

My big introduction to the messiness of the red and yellow shirt conflict was at a meeting that I attended in Bangkok for an organization called P’move or People’s Movement for a Just Society, whose main purpose is to unite and fight for the rights of the poor in Thailand.  This meeting was very important for the existence of their movement as the organization is composed of both red and yellow shirts.  If they would be able to persevere through their political differences for the greater good and common goals of their movement, it could potentially serve as a model of democracy for the rest of the country.  The outcome of the meeting was not what I expected at all though.  No solid decisions were made about any of the topics that were supposed to be covered at the meeting, including structure and leadership.  This was an eye opener to the fact that this complicated issue has gone so far that it is going to take a lot of work and healing to achieve democracy in Thailand when a once united movement is struggling to maintain itself.  Despite my disappointment from the outcome of the meeting one of the main speakers of unit 5, Ajaan Sulak, believes that the movements of the poor could lead to democracy in Thailand.

Throughout the unit itself our group was able to exchange with a vast array of stakeholders directly and indirectly involved in the current political turmoil of Thailand.  We had the opportunity to meet with common red and yellow shirts, a senator, radio show host, militant, small business owner, NGO and a journalist.  I feel so fortunate that we gained so many different perspectives; because I am now able to see one of the biggest issues of Thailand’s democracy…everyone has their own definition of democracy.

Below are the definitions of democracy that I compiled from the exchanges:

-cannot be defined.  Everyone has their own definition.  There are two parts: majority votes.  If there is no election, not a democratic system

-voice of the people, everyone has to be equal and under same standard of law.  Have free and fair elections and everyone has to accept the laws and regulations

-freedom, justice, equality, government from elections

-everyone has a voice

-doesn’t just mean that majority rules.  Having Dama, reasoning, and cause.  Can be achieved by ridding of the Thaksin system

-freedoms to do things as long as it doesn’t infringe on other people’s rights

-freedom of expressing whatever you think without being an enemy and politicians can safely campaign where they want.  The proper election system would be run politely, not harmed by opponent, all policies laid out, and no interference.

Group Cooperation and National Democracy, Maren Meyers

Red Shirt Rally

After our four main units (agriculture, land rights, dams and mines) came to an end, our group of sixteen development and globalization students had the opportunity to decide on  topic of our own, self-directed unit. The ultimate purpose of this unit is to delve into a subject that surfaced over the semester that peaked interest but where there wasn’t room to deeply investigate.

As we brainstormed ideas in a session planned by our fantastic unit 5 facilitators, the group spat out ideas and discussed interest levels in topics ranging from gender and equality, animal rights, environmental health to government. However, we ultimately decided on the topic of democracy through a process of consensus—a process that we have become very familiar with as we teach each other and guide ourselves through this educational process. Group consensus has become a tool that our group depends on to make major decisions in terms of future actions. One of the main challenges and learning experiences of this whole program stems from the fact that we must operate as a cohesive unit in order to agree upon and reach goals. These goals are set to ensure we learn as much as we can content-wise before delving into our unit topics in a more real-life, people to people exchange setting as well as while we are on site during the field portion of the unit.

The consensus decisions surrounding Unit 5 were largely based on our experiences, or lack thereof, with the political crisis that has been developing throughout the country over the past few months. Throughout the whole semester, the political situation here in Thailand has been something continually intertwined with our focus topics and, as a result, has been ever present in the back of our minds. From regular security updates from our program director Ajaan Dave to meetings called to review of emergency action plans in case of a military coup to the farmers and villagers who vent to us about how they have been harmed by ex-Prime Minister Thaksin’s supposed populist policies, the situation has been something that we have gained unique details on but never fully comprehended.

Thus, when it became apparent that we have the most resources and the highest quality connections to pursue a politically-based topic, at least when compared to the other topics that had originally sparked our interest, it became easy for the group to reach a unanimous decision to investigate democracy in Thailand.

That decision proved wise when we received our schedule for the unit. We had the enormous privilege of speaking to very opinionated individuals from both the red and yellow shirt perspective—both sides of the political divide. We have gained insights from renowned activist and Sulak Sivaraksa to every day small business owners. This multifaceted investigation of the political situation has allowed us to evaluate both the current developmental status of Thailand as well as to investigate the current democratic status of our own country. While a solution to the problems seems out of reach at this point, there is immense value in exploring the options of improving democracy and questions the supposed ideal systems of democracy other places in the world. All of the knowledge gained would not have been possible if it were not for the ability of our group to utilize tools of cooperation and work toward a common goal of self-information. 


Mining's Impact on Two Communities, Dani Corona

In our third video, Allie Quintano and I consider mining's impact on two communities, the complexities that surround it, and what it means to take a side on an issue.

Take a look! 


Singing for Peace, Ellen Swain

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What can someone do to gain the attention of others? Sing. Better yet, get a whole group of people to sing and that will attract even more attention. But for the ultimate attention-grabbing tactic, try to collect a group of singers who are all young children.

Na Nong Bong, a community in Loei province of northeast Thailand, have done just this; and they certainly have gained attention. On a unit trip to the community and a nearby village, called U’Moong, experiencing the same issues as Na Nong Bong, the students of the CIEE Khon Kaen Globalization and Development program, were able to witness the practice behind the singing and the impact that the singing had on others.

Na Nong Bong is in a battle against gold mines being build in and around their community. The people of the village have experienced social and health impacts, such as confirmed cyanide poisoning. Their struggle with the mining company has been ongoing for the past nine years but they continue to fight back, upping the intensity and power of their tactics.

One of the most interesting methods they have utilized is protest songs. The lyrics are written by a female citizen of Na Nong Bong who is also the director of the singing groups.  All of the lyrics are anti-mine, talking about the effects of the mines on the people and how the mining company does not seem to care about the people. The  lyrics are then set to the rhythm of catchy tunes, played on guitars by young university students from by Loei province and Khon Kaen, a nearby province in Northeast Thailand. 

But the most fascinating aspect of the singing method is that the singers are all young children of the village. We were able to watch the children perform on our homestay visit, as some of the people of Na Nong Bong and many of the children travelled to U’Moong to perform for us and the U’Moong villagers.  I would estimate that the average child in the singing group is around 9 years old, with a wide range between the youngest and the oldest. All of the children dress in green shirts to show that they are neither Red Shirts or Yellow Shirts, two common political groups in Thailand; the green signifies that this is a separate issue.

 After settling into their assigned positions, approximately thirty children sang for a large group of people in U’Moong. The straight rows and columns of the performers shows that this is an established and organized form of protest. Although I cannot speak Thai and therefore was unable to understand the lyrics, the CIEE translators told us students that the lyrics involve protesting statements towards the mining companies and call for people to join the movement. It was so captivating and powerful to watch the children passionately sing these songs.

One of the reasons I believe this method is so powerful is that it touches people’s emotional sides. It makes witnesses realize that these children are suffering the consequences from the greedy mining companies, who are only looking to gain a profit. Also, with the clever lyrics and simple melodies, watchers can easily sing along to join the movement.

After watching the children rehearse their singing, many of us headed down to a local town center to watch the children sing and march. They took their assigned formations and began marching down the narrow streets, past shops and shoppers. Adults and CIEE students handed out pamphlets as people moved closer to investigate the marching crowd. It was a powerful and exciting event in which to be a participant.

Hopefully other movements, such as U’Moong, can learn from Na Nong Bong’s inspiring and effective methods. It is a unique way to capture the attention of others, and allows community members of all age ranges to engage in the battle with the mining company. I will remember the sight of those children marching through the town forever.

A Day In The Forest, Katrina Harrington


During my 4th Unit on Mining I stayed in U-Moong village, a village split into thirds on the issue of mining.  There is a mine in their village that is contaminating their water supply and possibly damaging other parts of their land.  I stayed with a family of Mango farmers, my host Mom and Dad worked in their mango forest and their 13 year old daughter took care of their 3 year old son while they worked.  We took their old tractor up to their forest early in the morning and it was such a beautiful trek up the mountain.  The weather got fairly hot, but in the morning it was cool and serene.  When I was visiting, we spent one of our days on a bamboo matt, shaded by trees watching our parents work in the forest.  I had ate a lot of Isaan food during the day with my host siblings, played games, took naps, and talked with them.   The weather was hot but the shade of the trees kept us cool.  It was such a wonderful day, it felt nice to not have any plans and just watch my host parents as they worked.  It was so interesting for me to watch, because I had never seen a mango farm, or what goes into having one.   I was really grateful they took me to the forest, because usually the kids stay home.  The weather got fairly hot, but luckily in the morning hours it was cool and serene.  We finished our day by having a cook out with some other families in the near by forests.  I was amazed by the food they cooked, and how they cooked it all.  There was fish, vegetables, and mango of course.  My host Mom found some bamboo, cut it in half and placed the three fish in between the bamboo, she then tied the bamboo together with bamboo scraps.  My host father made a fire and they put the bamboo with fish over the fire.  The other families that showed up made another fire as well, the spent a lot of time trying to get the fire just right to roast the vegetables.  All of the food tasted so delicious.  I was very impressed by how it was all prepared and cooked.  We had sticky rice, fruit, and noodles to accompany the fish and vegetables.  It was so wonderful sitting with my host family having dinner, as well as the other people who came and joined us.  There was such a lovely sense of community and a lot of laughs shared.  After our dinner, we got on the tractor and headed home as the sun was setting.  I couldn’t have imagined a better day with my host family; I was able to see what they do for work, their community network, their culture, and the love they have for their own family and village.  It was a great opportunity for me to get to know them, more so than I have in other homestays.  While on other homestays I always have a wonderful time, but my families will take days off work or do some fun activity, which is great, I just don’t get to see a glimpse of their everyday life, this time I was able to.  I will remember my day in the forest forever!

Mining A Universal Conflict, Alice Chen

For Unit 4, we delved into the topic of mining and natural resources. We drove up north to Loei Province and visited two mountain communities right near the Laos border. The two villages, Na Nong Bong and U-moong are both being threatened by gold and iron mining respectively. In Na Nong Bong, their movement is in full-fledge with leaders, support, and programs. For example, when we went, they were one month into their “Kids Singing for Peace” project, and we were fortunate enough to sing with them in downtown Chiang Khan. U-Moong, however, is a much different story. This village is very much in the infant stages of their movement. Because, this community has not received any widespread impacts from the iron mine (unlike Na Nong Bong who have experienced water contamination and major health problems), they seemed to be having trouble getting villagers on the anti-mining side. The other groups, neutral and pro-mining, have yet to be directly impacted by the mines. As a result, U-Moong’s movement has been considerably slowed down as they try to establish a powerful following among the villagers.

The whole time we were on this unit learning about the issues and social movements of these two communities I just could not help but think how similar the situation was for these two communities and the mining communities back in America. Most people affected by mining tend to be poorer or are in rural areas. You could even argue that the marginalized groups in society always seem to get the brunt of it. Many mining communities also have issues with groundwater contamination, waste-dam breaks, and air pollution. At the same time, these same communities might depend on the mine for jobs as other opportunities are few and far between. Thus, a lot of times, communities run into conflicts on what they think would be best or they are already in such a low state that they do not know what to do.

In U-Moong, Doungta Nakrayrai, a papaya farmer, explains some of the issues that have arisen since PTK constructed the iron mine in 2006. She says that crop production has decreased by 30%, which she attributes to the contaminated water. The water pollution has also impacted their personal eating habits. “We can’t even find enough food to eat. We don’t dare eat the fish and frogs from the stream; we don’t dare eat those things.” Furthermore, the explosion from the mines can blast rocks into the village, putting holes into their rooftops.

Another issues, the anti-mining villagers currently face is money and trying to get other villagers (neutral and pro-mining) to join their movement. Some people do actually benefit; the mine gives them jobs, constructs temples, and fixes roads. The trouble is trying to get villagers to listen to their side, especially when the mining company, PTK, has money.  As Surat Kumraitong, another villager impacted by the mining, explains, “Other groups will not listen to us, they are more wealthy. If you are a rich person and a poor person came up to tell you things would you listen? The answer is no.”

I think this is very indicative of miming movements in America as well.  One example that immediately comes to mind is the battle for Coal River Mountain in West Virginia (documentary The Last Mountain). Some community members and environmental activists have teamed up to fight Massey Energy on mountaintop coal removal. Mountaintop removal is essentially using explosives to flatten mountains for easier access to coal. The downsides to this method are the destruction of the ecosystem, the filling of nearby streams and valleys with rubble from the blast, and altering water resource pathways and pollution. But on the flip side (I cannot remember the name, but another documentary from CNN) showed how some community members really needed the jobs that the coalmine would potentially give.

So the communities near Coal River Mountain are to an extent facing very similar challenges to Na Nong Bong and U-Moong. I think we are getting this wonderful opportunity to see first hand these issues and to learn so much about the villager’s struggles and fights. But I also think it is time for us to put it on a global scale, and see how these issues that we are studying, like mining, occurs universally. It is going to be hard for us, after seeing all these issues in Thailand, to just leave these people and go home, but we do not necessarily have to leave the issues. What we are doing here, we can do in America. We can and need to join these fights.