EarthRights School Mekong Students Start Year with Forum Theatre Workshop

EarthRights School Mekong alumni Mueda Nawanat listens as others reflect on an exercise during the Forum Theatre workshop

The start of the rainy season in Chiang Mai, Thailand, also marked the beginning of the year for EarthRights School Mekong’s class of 2014.  On a stormy evening of the first Friday in June, I arrived to the welcoming party.  The sounds of the storm let up just in time for the performances to begin.  EarthRights International staff, alumni, and friends gathered to watch song and dance performed by the new students as well as students of nearby NEED-Burma organization.  

ERI’s Mekong Alumni Coordinator Tom Kaewpradit officially welcomed the students into the EarthRights International family, acknowledging that they are the ninth class of the EarthRights School Mekong.  As nine is the lucky number in Thai culture, he assured us all this class would bring great luck not only to the school but back to their countries as well.

The students are a charismatic crew.  An outsider at the welcoming party would never guess the students met less than a week prior, as their jovial interactions with one another are like those of life-long friends.  They come together all the countries that border the Mekong River, including China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The bonds they create with each other over the next seven months will strengthen relationships between their communities throughout the region for decades to come.

ERI Mekong Alumni Coordinator Tom Kaewpradit catches EarthRights School Mekong alumni Saw Lay Ka Paw in one of several trust falls ERI Mekong Alumni Coordinator Tom Kaewpradit catches EarthRights School Mekong alumni Saw Lay Ka Paw in one of several trust falls

As the students reflected . . .

Courage and solidarity at the EarthRights School Myanmar

A woman pulled the sliding door open, and I drove inside. I parked my motorbike, left my shoes at the door and stepped into the classroom, where everyone was seated in a large circle. This would be my first time meeting the students, a young group who had arrived in Thailand two weeks prior and had just completed their seven day orientation. They came from six different Myanmar states to join the EarthRights School Myanmar, an intensive training in campaigning and advocacy for human rights and the environment, focused on the most urgent issues in their own communities.

I’d been hearing about this group all week, having arrived in Chiang Mai just four days earlier to start my new position as ERI’s Human Rights Storyteller. I’d spent the week in meetings, learning about ERI's programs from the legal, campaigns, and training teams. Each team had briefed me on their current projects supporting the human rights and environmental movements in Myanmar and the Mekong region.

Hour by hour, I’d learned about the devastating realities that communities in these areas are facing. Wading through pages upon pages of assorted notes, scribbled diagrams, memos and legal briefs, the message was clear: there is a lot of work to be done.

So I was excited to meet this group of students who were here to expand their role in this work. Having heard all week about the corrupt governments and massive corporations they will be up against, I was impressed by the enthusiasm and optimism that flowed through the room that night.

After Billy and Nyein Tun, from the school staff, welcomed their students and our fellow colleagues to the celebration, the evening commenced with music and dances performed by the students, drawing from their own traditions but emphasizing a sense of togetherness.

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2014 Welcome Party at the EarthRights School Myanmar

Every year, at the end of student orientation, our schools host a welcome party to allow the students and ERI staff to get to know each other in a fun and casual setting. This video shares sights and sounds from the 2014 welcome party for our EarthRights School Myanmar, including music and dance performances by the students.

Congratulations to the HEART School's Class of 2013!

On November 29th the Health and Earth Rights Training Course (HEART) celebrated its third graduation ceremony in Mae Sot, Thailand. This year's ceremony was held in the grand hall due to the large number of people attending. Over 100 people attended from the following organizations: Mae Tao Clinic, Backpack Health Worker Team, Student Youth Congress of Burma (SYCB), HEART Alumni, Child Development Center (CDC), and the medic training students.

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Lessons from the HEART School

In 2011, when we opened the HEART School in Mae Sot, Thailand, we planted trees outside the building. These small, delicate trees have the potential to grow into giants, capable of providing food, shade, and homes for both animals and insects.  They protect the delicate balance of the environment by preventing floods and soil erosion and producing life-giving oxygen.

The trees are like our HEART students, community activists with the potential to invoke positive change on the ground.  At the HEART School, we believe in the ability of people from the grassroots to transform communities.  The HEART School combines the grassroots activism of the Mae Tao Clinic with the human rights and environmental training of EarthRights International. This year, some students came as representatives of their local organizations; others were simply concerned individuals from communities affected by mining or pipelines. Some students came from communities all over Myanmar (Burma) with no health services or no electricity; others have seen their communities destroyed by development projects, and some students arrived ready and eager to learn with little more than the clothes on their back.  Despite the multiple hardships they have experienced, the students are already growing as community leaders and activists. They are always smiling, laughing, singing and ready to invite you to eat!

The HEART school runs for seven months. During this time, students study topics relevant to their communities; topics include mining, dams, oil, and their connections to health problems. Students also have evening English classes focusing on conversation, building confidence, and computer classes. ERI staff, local trainers, and a volunteer English teacher instruct the students. Recently, the HEART students returned from a one-month trip to Myanmar, where they gathered evidence for their reports focusing on health or environmental issues impacting their communities. The students are currently writing their . . .

Congratulations to the EarthRights School Myanmar Class of 2013!

Congratulations and best wishes to the EarthRights School Myanmar's class of 2013!  On October 4th, we celebrated the successful completion of a challenging seven-month training program.  The thirteen graduates are the newest members of our Alumni Program and have already participated in an alumni reunion in Myanmar. They will now be returning to their communities to apply their new knowledge and skills in campaigning and advocacy for human rights and the environment.

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Training "operators of the law" in the Peruvian Amazon

This summer, ERI held our third training in the Amazon for judges, prosecutor and lawyers, a group known locally as “operators of the law.” The seminar was held over two days in Pucallpa, a city in the Ucayali region of the Peruvian Amazon.

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Thai villagers win dispute over husk-fired power plant

It was the last week of June when I received an invitation to hear the Chiang Mai administrative court’s decision on the dispute between 200 farmers from Ban Trai Kaeo village in Chiang Rai and the Phalang-ngan Sa-ard Dee 2 Co, a biomass company that wanted to build a husk-fired power plant in the farmers’ community. I was invited because my old classmate from the Mekong school, Neung, was serving as the farmers’ lawyer. At first, seeing my classmate and being in the administrative court of Thailand for the first time was more exciting than the lawsuit itself. However, seeing 200 farmers standing up for themselves and using the law as a tool to win made me change my mind.  I was deeply moved by their struggle for justice, and by its culmination: the power plant's license was revoked!

On the day of the court decision, my friends from the Earthrights School Mekong and  ERI’s Mekong legal program joined me at the court.  We were surprised to see over 200 local farmers actually present. They represented the 7,756 people in the Wiang Chai district affected by the proposed factory. They made the 200km journey to court by bus, having started very early in the morning and also bringing their own food. I remember this case from Neung’s fieldwork presentation in our class back in 2011. Neung explained that the villagers had been struggling for 5 years to withdraw the license for the biomass plant construction. It started when the local people realized that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Health Impact Assessment (HIA) were not conducted and the pollution from biomass plants operation would impact their water quality and fresh air.

A villager thanks his attorney with a gift of flowers . . .

Hoping for a sustainable ASEAN community

The Great Mosque in Brunei

The first word I learned in Bahasa Melayu, the language spoken in Brunei, was “Selamat Datang.” It means, in essence, “welcome.”

Back in April, I traveled to Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city of Brunei, to participate in the ASEAN Youth Forum 2013 and the ASEAN People’s Forum 2013. ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is a group of ten countries (Brunei, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Phillipines, Indonesia, Lao PDR, and Malaysia) working towards economic, social and political cooperation, including formal regional economic integration as the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015.

I was also, however, very eager to explore Brunei, my distant neighbor in the ASEAN community. This peaceful and prosperous country benefits from extensive petroleum and natural gas fields and has of one of the highest per capita GDPs in Asia. Brunei’s wealth is visible everywhere. For instance, the highways are well built and almost every family owns their own car.

As an Islamic country where 70% of population is Muslim, people way of life is bounded politically, legally and culturally by the religion. Brunei is a dry country, with a national law prohibiting the sale of alcohol. There are no night clubs or pubs, so the night life instead consists of drinking a coffee or tea.

Most people go to mosque every Friday. I was excited to buy a traditional Muslim cap, a ‘Kapi Yo,’ from a local market, but on Friday afternoon, my friend told me to take the cap off. “If they think you are a Muslim and not going to the mosque you will be fined 50 Dollars.” I later had a chance to visit the Muslim mosque which is very huge and splendidly beautiful, with a dome made from real gold!   

We started the ASEAN Youth Forum (AYF) 2013 at . . .

Using theater to address social challenges in refugee communities

In the middle of April, accompanied by alumni of the EarthRights School Mekong, I travelled to the town of Sob Moei, the ‘city of three mists,’ in northwestern Thailand. We had a special guest, Hjalmar, a friendly German-Bolivian theater practitioner from Afghanistan, who joined us to lead workshop with villagers from Karen communities. The workshop participants were young people whose ancestors fled from Myanmar as a result of civil war.  Since then, their new life in Thailand has been a struggle.  For instance, it is difficult to get Thai citizenship.  As a result, their lives have been difficult in terms of practicing their human rights. This time, we organized people and discussed Free, Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) by using the special methodology called the ‘Forum Theater’.

“What do you know about Forum Theater?” was the first question Hjalmar asked. Confused, we waited for Hjalmar to explain more about the “Forum Theater”. According to him, the Forum Theater is one of the various methodologies of ‘Theater of the Oppressed’, initiated by Brazilian theater practitioner Augusto Boal in the 1960s, during Brazil’s dictatorship. The purpose of Forum Theater is to help those whose rights have been violated find space, to reveal how much people know about their situation. This is important because during Forum Theater, the audience could stop any scene to try and change the situation. Different from traditional plays, Forum Theater always stops at climax. The climax and problems must come from real situations, allowing them to clearly understand their problems.

The Karen participants climbed a tree to fetch local fruits for usThe Karen participants climbed a tree to fetch local fruits for . . .