Since the beginning of the Mekong Alumni Program, different generations of alumni have come to the Mekong school to share their experience. They have provided invaluable support that has made both the program and the alumni network grow stronger. Through teaching sessions at the Mekong School in 2011, several alumni shared their knowledge and expertise as guest teachers. Shining from Burma (2006) held a class on peace building, while Khun Chanke (2006) and Hom Noon, also from Burma (Alumnus 2009) gave presentations on the impact of extractive industries engaged in mining, oil and gas pipeline projects in Burma. Other activities included a class taught by Piseth from Cambodia (2008) on land and housing rights and a class by Chinese alumna Miao Miao (2007) on how to do advocacy campaigns using photo mapping.
During the 2011 orientation week, the first and most essential session was the class taught by Shining from Burma on the topic of peace building. This session was used as a kind of ice-breaker between the new students, who all have different cultural and political backgrounds and to encourage them to look beyond their differences and embrace the diversity in the group. Shining used a number of sensitive territorial disputes that unfolding between a several Mekong countries at the time of the orientation week as the main context for discussion. She encouraged the students to engage in a constructive discussion on how nationalism affects the process of peace building.
According to Shining, sensitive issues, such as nationalism should be key elements in any discussion on peace building. Even when there is a general consensus between the parties in a conflict that a solution should be reached nationalism often remains a significant barrier to any progress. This has been the case in the recent territorial dispute between Thailand and Cambodia on their shared border and as well as in the conflict between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea.
To turn this sensitive issue into something everyone would feel comfortable talking about, Shining conducted the class based on a student centered participatory approach. Discussions were arranged in both large and groups in order to encourage all students to share their views and debate the issue at hand. Role plays and games were also applied during and class, which turned out to be particularly good tools for getting the students involved in the discussion and to get them to share their views among each other, as well as in the big forum.
“The ultimate goal of the peace building class was to get the students to try to quickly identify the root cause, whenever they are faced with a problem. This will to a greater extent enable them to find the proper solutions to the problems they face. I hope the students will continue to be inquisitive and use what they have learned in class. This might also help them to identify their own problems and needs”, said Shining.
Extractive development projects
Large-scale projects on coal, oil and gas extraction in Burma, carried out by the military regime in cooperation with international investors, are one of the main causes for suffering among people, who live in the construction areas and are victims of environmental degradation and human rights abuses. In a guest teaching session at the Mekong School two Burmese alumni activists shared their invaluable experiences on methods for fact-finding, community organizing and regional campaigning aimed at promoting the right to information, increasing the level of local participation and ultimately stopping the destructive projects.
Khun Chanke (Alumna 2006) gave a presentation on the largest coal mine and coal-fired power plant in Burma, which is located at Tigyit near the headwater source of the famous Inle freshwater lake in Southern Shan state. The project has been going ahead without any public disclosure of information about it, and without any inclusion of the affected communities in the decision making process. During the class Khun Chanke also shared the main findings of an investigative report he had co-authored called Poison Clouds about the environmental and social impacts of the mining project, which was published in 2011. He said that “villagers around the coal mining site in Tigyit got skin rash. They are facing pollution every day. If we look at the experiences from Mae Moh coal mine in Thailand, many villagers there died from cancer related to the coal mine operation. If the coal mine operation in Tigyit isn’t put to a stop, the villagers here will face the problem that have been seen in Mae Moh”, said Khun Chanke.
Hom Noon (Alumna 2009) based his presentation on the Shwe Gas Movement campaign focusing on a major gas pipeline project, which is to bring gas from Arakan state in the south across central Burma to Kunming in Southern China. The main concerns of the Shwe Gas Movement over this project are the severe negative environmental, human rights, and social impacts brought about by forest clearance and land confiscation, which have resulted in hundreds of families from affected villages losing their homes and livelihoods. On top of this, people in the affected areas are also subjected to forced labor and torture on the project sites, which has lead many families to flee their homes and seek refuge in neighboring countries, such as Thailand and Malaysia.
According to Hom Noon, these are just a few examples of the negative impact of the project, which in no way creates opportunities or benefits for the local people. To counter this tendency, the Shwe Gas Movement has been advocating for the right of the affected communities to participate in the decision- making process of the project, and for the Burmese government to use some of the revenue to provide a fair compensation to these communities.
“Sharing my knowledge about this issue with the Mekong School students has given me the opportunity to establish a wider network with other civil society movements in other Mekong countries. This project is mainly financed by the Chinese overseas investment sector and by establishing networks with the Chinese civil society we will be able to share experiences and exchange information that will to a greater extent enable us to analyze the policies and regulations of the project. This will make it easier for us to try to hold the involved companies accountable and to force them to make sure that basic human rights are respected in the area they are investing in”, said Hom Noon.
Land and housing rights
For two days during the orientation week, Piseth (alumna 2008) from Cambodia taught the new students at the Mekong School about the importance of land and housing rights. Piseth is a trained lawyer and has many years of experience working with land and housing rights cases with grassroots communities and with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
One of the most pressing land and housing rights issues that Cambodian society is facing is the land grabbing, forced eviction and insecurity of land tenure that many communities have been victim to following a number of major economic development projects. This is, according to Piseth, guaranteed to lead to loss of livelihood, income, job opportunities, education and health for many ordinary people.
Piseth explained that in the case of Cambodia many of the land and housing rights problems are directly related to the country’s economic growth policy and the restoration plan imposed by the state following years of damaging civil war. After establishing peace, the country has become one of the primary economic investment locations in Asia, along with other countries in the Mekong region. Furthermore, the state owes a lot of funds to international creditors and therefore has a strong incentive to invite foreign capital. This has lead to a significant growth of the number of local and international investors, who are eager to benefit from the many new opportunities in the country. The result of this is however that the price of land and housing has begun to increase drastically in urban, as well as rural areas. Furthermore, a lot of the entitlements for the land were lost during the time of the Khmer Rouge and a lot of land is now being expropriated for economic development purposes. Piseth added that similar problems on land and housing rights are occurring in many other Mekong countries as well. “Therefore, sharing ideas and knowledge about this issue across borders will provide additional insight of the problems concerning land and housing rights in the region and will enable us to overcome the problems together”, he said.
Based on the case of Cambodia, he gave some recommendations that would help to reduce the land and housing rights problems and which could be applied in the specific context of each country. “First of all it is important to make sure that laws and legal frameworks to deal with these issues are in place and can be effectively enforced; Second, it is important to establish a system that secures land tenure and the entitlement of land, as well as to establish a detailed plan of cities and provinces that clearly marks these entitlements; Finally it is important to have a functional and independent juridical system, as well as an alternative dispute settlement mechanism, such as the Nation Authorities for Land Dispute Resolution”, said Piseth.
Photo mapping advocacy
Finally Miao Miao (Alumna 2007) from China shared her knowledge with the Mekong students on Photo Mapping Advocacy based on her participation in a 2011 multi-media and arts workshop organized by the Makhampom Foundation in Chiang Dao district near Chiang Mai. This workshop gathered diverse of grassroots activists from all over the world and allowed them to share their experience, knowledge and skills on creative advocacy methods.
She encouraged the students to use photos captured during their field work to organize group discussions and present their field work experiences in a creative way. “The idea of photo mapping is to deliver your message in a way that is simple, but attractive”, she said.
Photo Mapping gives people the opportunity to show their ideas and thoughts in a creative way and allows them to do so without risking violent confrontation”, said Miao Miao. By this she was referring to countries, such as Burma and China where the political space and freedom of speech are restricted and where activist can feel more secure using photo mapping. “Instead of talking about particular sensitive issues directly to an audience we can use creative approaches like photo mapping to express our ideas about these issues in a way that people will be able to access safely”, she said.