Coming back from a visa run in Hanoi, I slow my bike down and inhale deeply to take in the refreshing, smog-less air. The teak trees are flowering, weaving golden-brown ridges across the mountains. In the last few months, Mae Hong Son province has become home, and the sun-baked, scenic road to the Karenni Social Development Centre is warm with familiarity and anticipation. This place has a different feel to it than it did in the early days of my internship. Being exposed to a totally new environment, culture, and community was exciting, but I felt like an interloper – unfamiliar, temporary. Over time, I’ve adapted happily to this niche. The ecology is more familiar, I fit into the routines of KSDC, and those around me are friendly and kind. In this tight-knit social context, every room, variety store, cafe or corner is a place to greet students, neighbours, friends and colleagues in the local social-development network. Those categories blur into one another, and that’s a good thing – less rigidity and performance of roles, more authentic communication.
Each morning, I wake up around 6:00 and go for a walk with my neighbour. Sometimes we buy banana fritters in town, sit in the alcove of her upper-level flat, drink coffee and watch morning begin in the village. The SDC students, like me, love a lil’ music in the morning. There’s usually a guitar and a voice or two mingling with the other sounds of 35-odd people getting ready for the day. Mists rise from the jungle and burn off in the sun. Motorbikes grind gravel and children leave for school. I eat and wash with cool well-water. The next several hours are a combination of lesson-planning, teaching, stretching, writing and reading. Everyone takes some down-time after classes, and we eat dinner together. A river dip, and a walk back at sundown, watching the bats weave clumsily over the rice paddies. Right now, there are white cranes nesting in the trees by the river. Back at school, I journal or read, chatting and answering the occasional question while the students study. Sleep, repeat!
I learn a lot from my conversations with the students, and also from how they relate to each other. On Sunday nights, we have a weekly meeting. We sit in the classroom, and the two monitors check in with each student in turn. Thay Reh kindly translates for me. We cover several topics, from health, dormitory requirements, teamwork, subjects, etc. Decisions are only made with unanimous agreement. Afterwards, Oo Reh, the administrative leader and work skills teacher, offers words-of-encouragement and reminders. The whole situation is full of mutual respect, care, supportiveness and commitment to getting the most out of the Advanced Community Management Training Course.
What I’m getting at in this post, I think, is that the relationships among the community of students, teachers, and locals are what make KSDC and Ban Nai Soi so special. The beauty of the community is amplified by its ecological backdrop: cool freshwater, rice paddies and lush, tropical mountains. As it’s rainy season now, the river has broken its banks and sometimes reaches all the way to the school’s foundations. On our evening walks, we note how lucky we are to be in a healthy riparian environment which absorbs the water that rushes down from the high mountains, keeping the village safe from flooding.
We all have to hold space for two truths here: that this is an amazing place, and that just across the border, those still inside Karenni state are experiencing violence, destruction and human rights abuses by the SAC. There’s a sense of bigger-picture urgency in post-coup Myanmar that’s incongruous with the gentle rhythms of Dohkita. There’s also grief – the more recent arrivals to Thailand have lost everything, and it’s uncertain how, when or where they’ll be able to rebuild their lives, as Thailand isn’t currently issuing refugee status to newly displaced people. From our classrooms at UVic, we read about human rights abuses and war crimes by autocratic regimes. Here, students are learning the same material, but it’s putting words to things that they and their wider communities have experienced firsthand. KSDC provides a practical education for the next generation of community leaders, and there’s hope in that, but they face monumental challenges.
If you are interested in learning more about Karenni people in Thailand, you can check out this documentary by Ansley Sawyer.
If you’re interested in sending a donation to support KSDC, please send me an e-mail at email@example.com and I can direct you!