Notes from the Field

Thai Youth Shout to be Heard

October 27, 2010

“We have come to declare that we will help bring reform to this country and create space for access to human rights and true democracy. Our movement will not cease until the people’s problems are solved, until our sufferings are alleviated, and until our people can live with dignity and justice.”

This declaration was read aloud to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, along with members of Parliament and the Senate, by a group of 40 youth leaders from marginalized communities across Thailand at a national youth conference on Oct. 20, 2010.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva

Kariya Musor from the Student Federation of Southern Thailand presents a gift to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva following a joint declaration read by representatives of the marginalized youth groups.

It was an exhilarating moment for The Asia Foundation’s program staff in Thailand. The national youth conference was the culmination of a two-year endeavor involving on-the-ground capacity development training programs in all four regions of the country. The energy required to organize this milestone event had left our team exhausted, but when we saw the results of our hard work we were instantly revitalized. We saw that the work we are doing really does make a difference.

From the hill tribe youth of the mountainous north to young Thai-Malay Muslims from the conflict-stricken provinces of the Deep South, over 200 participants from Thailand’s four regions gathered this month in Bangkok for the four-day conference, “Changing Places, Converging Voices.” Organized by the Foundation in collaboration with several local partners, the timing of the event had poignant significance for the country’s youth, as it coincided with the anniversary of a student uprising that ended in bloodshed more than 40 years earlier.

The conference schedule was packed with opportunities for participants to learn from and interact with each other, including roundtable discussions, a campaign rally, and cultural shows from each of the regions. In addition to sharing experiences with fellow youth leaders from across the country, participants had the rare opportunity to join in interactive dialogues with prominent men and women in leadership positions across Thailand. Among these role models were government officials, journalists, and activists, as well as Sakariya Amataya, winner of this year’s Southeast Asian Writers Award. In one of the 12 discussion sessions, Sakariya – the first Muslim writer from the Deep South to win this prestigious award – described the inspirations for his poetry and offered candid personal reflections on grappling with the Thai-Malay identity.

During the first two days, a group of youth leaders representing 17 local organizations drafted a joint declaration to voice their collective concerns on a set of priority issues of great significance to Thai youth, such as the right to citizenship, land ownership, access to justice, and education. The declaration was read and presented by the youth delegation to Prime Minister Abhisit on the final day of the conference.

In response to the declaration, the Prime Minister embraced one of the key themes raised by youth at the conference. “In response to what we’ve heard here today, the government will work to address the issue of equality, which is also a critical aspect of the government’s reform policy,” he said. “If local people work together with the government, these issues can easily be resolved because no one understands your community better than you.”

Another highlight of the conference was an organized march in which participants carried protest banners they had painted. It was stirring to watch these young leaders from each region emerging with the courage and confidence to voice their problems and claim their rights.

UNDEF Youth conference

Youth groups hold signs in front of the Political Development Council to voice issues, such as the environment, land ownership, and education important in their communities.

“Let hill tribe youth decide their own futures!” read one banner from the North.

“Stop mining the people’s tears!” said another, in reference to toxic waste from gold mining in the Northeast.

“No more scapegoating!” referring to the treatment of accused insurgents in the southernmost provinces.

“Stop squandering our natural resources!” declared one from the southern Andaman region.

The views of these marginalized youth clearly seemed to register on those in authority. During her speech, Senator Rosana Tositrakul, chair of the Senate Committee which co-hosted a half-day event at Parliament House, assured them that those in power would be listening. “Societal reform involves reducing our society’s hierarchical values, which means allowing all citizens, especially marginalized populations, to speak freely about being deprived of their political and social rights,” she said.”This is especially important for you, the youth. Young people are not just the future of our country; they are the future of today. The first step is to speak out so that everyone involved can hear your voices and join together in seeking solutions.”

Thailand Youth forum

A youth group from Northeastern Thailand campaigns to stop the building of the controversial Pong Khun Phet Dam.

Young people from marginalized communities in Thailand, particularly in the remote rural areas of the country and among its ethnic minorities, often have limited access to government services and little voice in policy decision-making. They face discriminatory laws and attitudes, as well as severe economic challenges, despite being guaranteed the right to equal treatment under the Thai Constitution. The conference provided these young people with a unique opportunity to share similar concerns, and to gain a greater appreciation of the cultural diversity among ethnic groups across the country. “We may come from different parts of the country and speak different languages, but today I can speak with the same voice as my friends from the North,” said Kariya Musor from the Student Federation of Southern Thailand as he addressed members of the Senate.” I realize now that we have common grievances that our people have suffered for generations.”

The Foundation’s two-year program to cultivate young leaders from marginalized groups was supported by the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF). It included a series of civic education workshops and capacity-building activities, with seed grants awarded to 17 local organizations, enabling young people to apply their knowledge of human rights and democracy in addressing critical issues facing their communities. Across the country, young leaders organized activities on legal rights, conservation, and civic education to raise awareness among their peers and communities. Some young people held seminars on land ownership in cooperation with local activists, while in the Northeast others worked with university students to teach citizens about the environmental hazards of local industries. The UNDEF program and conference have made significant contributions by establishing youth networks and defining a platform of priority issues on which future efforts can build. With the knowledge and resources gained through the program, a new generation of young leaders have been encouraged and inspired, and are now equipped with the skills to be effective citizen advocates in their communities.

During one of the sessions at Parliament House, Senator Worawit Buru asked the young audience, “Who else wants to shout?” There were many young men and women at that session who were ready to speak out. By raising issues that affect their lives and futures, they proved to us and to the world that the voices of individuals shouting in unison do become loud enough to be heard.

The authors, Program Research Officer Wadee Deeprawat and Program Officer Santi Nindang, work in The Asia Foundation’s Bangkok office. The UNDEF program was implemented under the leadership of the Foundation’s Senior Program Officer Yupa Phusahas, who can be reached at yupa@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Santi Nindang

View all posts by Wadee Deeprawat

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