Paxeducare’s Blog

Is Sustainability an Oxymoron in Southeast Asia? Or Is This a Westo-Centric View?
January 10, 2012, 10:01 am
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My husband and I are now on the last days of a month long sojourn in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. We have left our son, Boyce, who flew back to Mississippi a couple of days ago. We left our daughter, Gretchen, in Mae Sot, Thailand, where she works. Most of the time we have spent in Thailand. Traveling with our two grown children most of the time has been a wonderful treat. Asia seems a feast for all of the senses: loud cars and motorcycles, street noises of all kinds, smells of food frying, odd sewer smells, dirt and dust. Stimulations of sites, bright hues, garish western gear, huge billboards advertising things we “must have”. Taxis of all sorts: tuk tuks (motorcycle taxis), songtows (pick up taxis), bicycle taxis and really new and fresh looking car taxis in Bangkok and Saigon. Energy conservation is ubiquitous, if nothing else to save precious Thai Bhat,  US dollars (used in Cambodia) and Vietnamese Dong. In many guest houses we have stayed in the electricity is connected to the room key: all of it goes off when you leave, including the air conditioning, in those places that have AC. In a couple of places, recycling was important: bins provided for various kinds of items.

                On the other hand, bottled water is a must and what to do with all of the plastic bottles. The locals don’t drink the water either as it can make one sick. Large jugs are provided and replenished. Not so for the tourists. I presume some sort of recycling at the hotels is in order for all of these bottles, but am not sure. The larger issue to me is the carbon emissions: public buses are few, though the train system in Bangkok is good and quite crowded much of the time. After a few minutes of either walking or sitting in Saigon, Chang Mai and Bangkok traffic, I found my lungs filling and the view clouding. Many locals wear face masks a good deal of the time-rather sobering. There is an art to walking and driving any vehicle and, to my surprise, we did not witness any accidents.

                What I find interesting is the seemingly ubiquitous ethos of consumerism, particularly in the larger cities. Seems we in the US do not have a corner on this. Not only local markets that seem to cater to both locals and tourists (evolving I presume from what was once a local market culture) but the advertisements on huge billboards, the very modern, hugely overcrowded Siam mall area of Bangkok. One can choose from thousands of varieties of flip flops, the footwear of choice, everywhere, myriad kinds of shirts, pants, purses, cheap sculptors, snack foods.  Who is buying all of this stuff? While some of us in the West are trying to figure out how to live more simply, it is as if Southeast Asia is moving up and away from once upon a time what we would call simple living to trying to live what we in the US once may have called the American Dream. Truly this is a time of global transition , with some cultural “flip flopping”and it is so interesting to experience this first-hand. What all of this resource use will do the planet gives one pause.


Journey to the Burmese Border of Thailand
January 10, 2012, 9:58 am
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Mission of Assistance Association for Political Prisoners


Our family has been traveling for a month in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It was wonderful to spend two nights and three days in Mae Sot, Thailand, where our daughter, Gretchen, lives and works. A border town, much of the population of Mae Sot consists of exiles, refugees and migrants from Myanmar (Burma). A river is all that separates the two countries. Though this river crossing is, metaphorically, much wider than a look would indicate. Many of the Burmese in Mae Sot are not there with legal documents, but have escaped the military junta that now rules.

                Gretchen had arranged three site visits to various organizations with which she works. The first was a recently founded school for “post 10” students from Burma, to prepare them for entrance to the school that will, in turn, prepare them for the rigorous entrance examination for most universities in Southeast Asia. Each of these students has their unique story involving their journey to Thailand. Much of this preparation involves learning the English language, as the tests are in English. We were treated like royal guests upon our arrival at this simple school and were able to dialogue with the students who were eager to learn about us, our work and travels. I was able to talk a little about peace education and we chatted about local farming and sustainability. Some students there are involved in growing their own food on the grounds and have established a business growing mushrooms for harvest and sale. These students were some of the most motivated and eager to learn I have seen in my years of teaching, based on the time we spent together. For, in a sense, their very lives may depend on their learning. The teachers are volunteers from other countries, often from the US and other western areas. The two that we met were both retired American teachers, who commit to a period of from 3-6 months at the school.

                The second visit was to a medical clinic in Mae Sot which was founded by a Burmese doctor about 20 years ago to serve the Burmese exiled and refugee community. We were graciously shown around. Typical it was of so many hospital settings one sees in developing countries. Primitive by some standards and yet a caring place and jobs get done. More extensive care needed for patients is done at a local, larger hospital when possible.  A sobering visit to the prosthesis room indicated the list of injuries for which they fit-mostly land mine accidents. Throughout our travels, seeing the legless and handless has been a reminder of the consequences of conflicts in this war ravaged area. And also the consequences, too often, of American foreign policy, particularly in Vietnam and Thailand. Though these injuries we saw in Mae Sot may more likely be a result of war ravaged Burma. Many, many patients and their families waiting to be seen outside. A full OB delivery area which we walked right through, with newborns and their mothers. We declined to view the operating “room”, with its rather thin curtain separating it from the rest of the area and, by our standards, a bit of an unusual invitation.

                The third site visit was to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). Founded by Burmese ex-political prisoners, the organization works to advocate for the conditions and the release of those jailed for conscience, now numbering in the thousands, including many Burmese monks. Our tour guide had been released in 2004 after 5 years, some in solitary. Wonderful work and courageous, given, for instance, that her release was contingent upon the condition she not engage in political work inside Burma. In all of these settings, we were very careful about to never photograph the faces of the Burmese and to be careful generally about what we said about the work. The photo here of the clinic listing of prosthesis injuries does not include the names of the patients, for instance.

Injuries of the Prosthesis Clinic Mae SotMission of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners

Southeast Asia December 2011
January 10, 2012, 2:45 am
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Southeast Asia December, 2011  Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

 left-Genocide Museum Phnom Penh            Having come from Cambodia to Saigon, embarking from Bangkok 10 days ago, with a stopover in Shanghai from New York, it is interesting experiencing different nationalities, cultures and political and historical environments in each country. The appalling poverty of Cambodia, including countless street children and beggars, is contrasted against the rising of the tourist industry and innumerable local and international NGOs in Cambodia which are feeding the development of many social enterprises. Vietnam, on the other hand, seems “already there” in terms of a much more prevalent middle class, much cleaner streets and upscale shops and buildings  and, to my observation, few beggars. Both countries are emerging from the last many decades of war. The tourism industry has capitalized on this. In Phnom Penh, the 2 main tourist attractions are the Genocide Museum, formerly a school, where the officers under the famed Pol Pot secured their “enemies of the state” before shipping them off to be killed in the countryside, and, secondly, the memorial to the “Killing Fields” outside of town. The latter is deeply spiritual, haunting in its reminder of the horrors of war and what happens when the populace is unable to resist the ravages of a deeply disturbed and paranoid dictator.  

                In Saigon three of the main attractions have to do with what the Vietnamese call the “American War” or the war of American aggression, the concomitant resistance of the Vietnamese and their role as victims of an unwanted war. One of the most vivid reminders of “whose side” is depicted is the tour to the famed Cuchi Tunnels, outside of Saigon, which were built by the Viet Cong, series of disguised and booby trapped tunnels built to repel and resist the American invaders. It was truly fascinating to be visiting the sites of the places featured in my youth on CBS, ABC, NBC news networks during what we Americans call the Vietnamese War. Particularly since my cousin, Richard Threlkeld, was a CBS news correspondent covering the war in Vietnam.We also visited the Reunification Palace and the War Remembrances museum in Saigon, both vivid reminders of the recent past trauma of the country.

                It is the “extreme” nationalism of the current Vietnam that fascinates me. As if, in this particular time in their history, they must glorify the accomplishments in war and the rise of a people united to resist foreign enemies. Ho Chi Minh is considered reverently as the hero and liberator of Vietnam. I have been fascinated by the dominant narrative of Vietnam which is at this point, quite frankly, full of propaganda and lacuna in historical remembrances, all in the name of Vietnamese patriotism. Of course in America we have done and do the same. The films we have witnessed at various sites on our trip remind me of old reels of U.S. World War II propaganda movies. I suppose this sort of thing is true of all countries in the name of nationalism, so many having emerged from the deep wounds of war.  It is as if the patriotism displayed offers no view of other ways of thinking, other perspectives. This is why nationalist thinking can be so dangerous. Nowhere in all of these tourist sites we have visited in Vietnam has there been mention of the thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers who fought willingly alongside the Americans. It is as there was no such thing as 2 sides of a civil war in Vietnam. It is as if this new Vietnam, a unified country now and its people, have difficulty critically evaluating the issues, which include thinking about those who either fought for the south or to whom it mattered little which side was fighting, because so many just wanted to live their lives and make a living in the countryside, not caring whether troops were North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, Americans or Viet Cong.

                As the only Americans on our tour of the tunnels, I felt somewhat conspicuous and, I realized, a little offended as our tour guide and members of the tour laughed as he showed land mines which the Viet Cong cleverly hid to “get Americans”….”and they died, ha ha”.  I discovered some patriotic feelings I didn’t realize I had. It was a vivid reminder of what we have learned in the processes of teaching conflict transformation –it truly does matter your perspective. While sitting quietly at a rest spot on the tour, we chatted with our young guide and, when he learned we are Americans, he apologized for what he said about Americans. He told us his father was severely injured during the war fighting with the North Vietnamese and he hates Americans. He said he tries to tell his father that “the war is over”. I told him that my cousin, an American marine, lost both legs and a good part of his hands while tripping on a land mine as a U. S. marine. We agreed that war is terrible.  For some, wars don’t end. I don’t think this young man meant any harm. He was merely adhering to the narrative his tour guide training had instilled.

                Yet when this kind of narrative continues, I realize how imperative it is to teach the processes and skills of peace, to teach to think critically and to understand these issues from multiple perspectives and our own role that we each have in transforming violence and conflict. My hope is that some years from now, the dominant narrative at the Cuchi Tunnels will not be the glory of a unified Vietnam against the American enemies, but an exposé on the horrors of war and the importance that each of us must place on examining our own lives, to see what within them contains, as 18th century Quaker John Woolman wrote, “the seeds of war”. This can include narrow mindedness, lust for greed and power, and a willingness to look the other way in the face of injustice and structural violence.  

Victim's Clothing-the Killing Fields of Cambodia


Cuchi Tunnels Outside Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)