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04/17/2014

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.

Comments

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This was a truly moving experience for me as well. The villagers explained to us how they used to angrily protest publically in front of government buildings and that tactic was not getting the attention that they desired. I think it was so smart of them to incorporate the village children into their demonstrations. It brings such a different dimension to the protest movement. They demonstrations are peaceful and prevent opponents from harshly criticizing the villagers. I mean who is going to get mad a bunch of little children?
It also adds a certain amount of seriousness and soberness to the movement. The children sing about how they cannot drink the water or eat the rice that their parents grow because it is contaminated by chemicals from the mine. It really makes you think about the mining and the negative impacts it has on families. I think that U-Moong, the other community we visited should employ a similar strategy and Na Nong Bong could serve as a great example to U-Moong.

While I have been touched by many stories of local villagers and their various struggles to contend with development, none have impacted me as strongly as watching the children's chorus of Na Nong Bong sing at the walking street. After having the lyrics translated I became even more emotional. The children sing about how their environment and basic way of life is being robbed from them. These strong sentiments coming from such cute children evoke feelings from every listener.
The adults of Na Nong Bong have done an incredible job of not only spreading their story to the outside world, but also encouraging their children to be aware of what is happening to their environment. I know as a child I was oblivious to my surrounding environment. These songs serve as a method of protest in addition to an educational tool for the villagers.
The walls the villagers erected have indeed impeded the mining company yet have also resulted in pending lawsuits. Songs are entirely legal and the resulting human empathy may be more powerful than the wall. With growing awareness and word of mouth the villagers hope to change the course of Na Nong Bong and encourage the government to reconsider their method of ‘development’.

I really enjoyed the kids singing as well! I thought this was a very interested development in their movement as it not only involves the youth and educates them on the issues, but also, as you said, gives them a much more favorable appearance towards the public and government. What I though was extremely interesting about this project was that it has only started a month ago. In fact, when I interviewed the leader of the chorus, he said that this is just one of the many projects that have tried to implement and plan on implementing. Unfortunately, I did not dig any further on past and future projects and thus, cannot provide more information.

Other half of my post! Gah!
Lastly, from this new development, I would be very curious to see how impactful this actually is on their movement. I hope “Kids singing for peace” lasts for years to come. It would kind of depress me, if they had this great idea, but nothing tangible came from it.

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