Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Land of Smiles

Week 1 = Amazing. I love this country and am seriously contemplating moving here (sorry mom). The trip over was exhausting, about 30 hours in total, but definitely worth it. Once in Bangkok I met all the other students on the trip, 27 including me, and we began our orientation and touring Bangkok. This is the first study abroad I have done that is very organized and legit, and it definitely makes a difference. Usually I go through a faze where I am a bit scared at first, but I didn't experience that this time. I think it's because there were so many people, so much to do and it's a relatively safe.

But any who, a bit about the program. We spend about half of our time living in communities with Thai families. We will be living with families in villages that face eviction because their land was recently made a national park, garbage communities, urban slums, communities battling HIV/AIDS and others. We will be learning about their way of life, the challenges they face, the food they eat, the bugs they live with :( and so much more. The other half of the time we will be spending at Khon Kaen University (KKU) where we live with a Thai roommate and take classes on the issues that the local communities face.

After leaving Bangkok we went to a resort in the mountains to get "oriented," so we don't do or say stupid things (haha). We had 4 hours of Thai a day, which is very intense but sooooo interesting. Sometimes I feel like my head is about to explode, and I get the urge to just start speaking spanish (because it's a foreign language??) but I am learning a lot more then I thought I would. Prior to the program I knew we would be taking Thai, but I figured it wasn't a big part of the program, or that I just wouldn't catch on to it, but after being here I would really like to learn as much of the language as I can.

After the mountain orientation we headed to our first home stay at the village of Nong Jang. We were welcomed by the community and met our families. I had a mom, a dad, two sisters and a brother that was not there because he was studying to be a monk at the temple. Nong Jang is a community that lives with the constant threat of eviction from their land, which was deemed a national park by the Thai government, despite the fact that the villagers had lived there for generations. Twice, the villagers were forced to leave their homes, but with little work for them elsewhere they decided to return. They are now fighting to get a community land title for the right to own their land.

The villagers have very little, but they would give you the shirt off their back if you asked for it. They were rice and banana farmers, and they collected all of their food from the land and forest around them. The homes were made of wood and consisted of one or two rooms separated by sheets. Most bathrooms were outside and had a squatting toilet and then a wash bin for showers, which they tell you to take about 5 times a day. Coon Ap Nam (Go take a shower)! I think it's because they think we are not used to the heat (which we aren't).

I have never experienced such kindness and hospitality. It was truly humbling. There way of life is so very different from mine, and I learned so much in the little time I spent with them. Their sense of community and generosity was inspiring. We played with the kids, helped them cook (although they laughed at our pathetic attempts to peel pumpkins) and learned about their daily lives. They insisted that we sleep in a bed, which is a very hard mattress, while they slept on the much harder floor. In the morning we gave alms to the monks as they passed through town, which was a really cool experience. Every morning around 6:30 the monks come down from the mountain with their rice bins and walk through the town and collect rice from the people. I kneeled on the side of the road and would put a handful of sticky rice in each of their bins, careful not to touch them as they cannot be touched by a woman.

After leaving Nong Jang we headed to KKU to settle in to our dorms. I have not met my Thai roommate yet because she was away for the weekend, but I look forward to that. Tomorrow we are leaving for another community stay (5 days 4 nights) so I am really excited for that. I have only been here a week but have had some of the most memorable experiences of my life, and can only look forward to what lies ahead. The food is DELICIOUS and SPICY! The bugs are GIANT and SCARY! And I will try to fit another blog in next sunday.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Thai Economy

In the three decades leading up to the Southeast Asian financial crisis, which began in 1997, the economies of Southeast Asia, including Thailand, were growing at impressive rates. In Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, average income more than quadrupled between 1965 and 1995, and in Korea, income rose seven-fold. Furthermore, incomes in these four countries climbed from 10 percent of the US average in 1965 to around 27 percent today.

One argument attributes the success of the East Asian countries from 1965 to 1995 to their outward oriented industrialization strategy. Specifically, “countries in South East Asia attracted export oriented foreign investment by integrating national production with international production, not merely through export orientation, but through specific institutions such as technology licensing, original equipment manufacturing, and export processing.” This strategy facilitated the development of complex production processes and greater integration with world markets, but it also necessitated financial reform to meet the demand for a greater range of sophisticated and well-regulated financial services.

In part, the root causes of the financial crisis can be traced back to Southeast Asian countries attempting to liberate financial markets to support more capital intensive production methods and attract foreign investment. For example, in an attempt to compete with Singapore and Hong Kong as a regional financial center, Thailand introduced the Bangkok International Banking Facility (BIBF) in 1992. The BIBF facilitated rapid growth in the number of financial institutions that could borrow and lend in foreign currencies, both on and offshore. This resulted in growing short-term foreign debt, rapidly expanding bank credit, and inadequate regulation and supervision of financial institutions, leaving the Thai economy vulnerable to a rapid reversal of capital flows.

After 1994 the ratio of short-term debt to foreign exchange reserves exceeded one, and by 1996 banking claims on the private sector reached 140 percent of GDP. Due to the significant influx of capital into the Thai economy in the early and mid 1990s, exchange rates began to appreciate in real terms as capital inflows put upward pressure on nontradeable prices. In late 1996 the fragile state of Thailand’s financial institutions was highlighted as investors began to speculate about the value of the baht. In spite of government attempts to inject confidence into the market, by late June, Thailand had sharply reduced its liquid foreign exchange reserves, and the baht was allowed to float on July 2, 1997.

As a result, foreign creditors withdrew their capital and the value of the Baht fell by more than 20 percent. The deteriorating state of financial institutions and creditor withdrawals in Thailand set off a chain reaction in other Southeast Asian countries as speculation with regards to the region as a whole heightened. From 1998-2001, however, the five countries impacted the worst by the crisis (Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and South Korea) achieved an account surplus.

From 2002-2004 Thailand’s economy averaged more than 6 percent real GDP growth; however it has since slowed, averaging 4.9 percent from 2005-2007 and 3.6 percent in 2008. The slowdown was attributed to uncertainty stemming from political conflict; however, the 2008 global financial crisis has worsened the economic downturn.

A Long History of Political Uncertainty

Established as a unified kingdom in the 14th century, Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia never to have been colonized by a European power. In 1932, a bloodless coup resulted in the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. Since then, Thailand has had over seventeen charters and constitutions, the most recent being drafted in 1997 and 2007. All of Thailand’s charters and constitutions have permitted a constitutional monarchy, with the prime minister as the head of government, a hereditary monarch as the head of state and a judicial branch independent of both the executive and legislative branches. The powers assigned to each branch under different charters and constitutions have, however, varied significantly.

King Bhumibol (pictured above) has been the ruling monarch since 1946, and although he has little direct power under the constitution, he is a symbol of national identity and commands a considerable amount of popular respect. He is also seen as the commander on moral authority as he often steps in to mediate political crises that threaten national stability.

The Thai constitution drafted in 1997, called the “People’s Constitution,” is the first permanent constitution. It is considered a landmark in terms of the degree of public participation involved in its drafting as well as the democratic nature of its articles. The first prime minister to rule under the “People’s Constitution” was Chavalit Youngchaiyudh, who was elected in 1996. The public, however, quickly lost confidence in him and his party with the onset of the 1997 financial crisis.

Thaksin Shinawatra, and his party Thai Rak Thai (TRT), won the January 2001 elections, running on a populist platform of economic growth and development. His populist policies generated sizable support from rural Thailand, as he introduced programs that included debt relief for farmers and a more affordable health care plan. Rural support helped him win reelection in 2005, but soon after, allegations of tax fraud and high-level corruption within his party spurred political protests from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Public protests led by PAD called for the resignation and impeachment of Thaksin.

With increasing public uncertainty Thaksin was ousted by a bloodless military coup in September 2006. The military appointed an interim prime minister, and by the end of 2007 it drafted a new constitution and held general elections. Samak Sundaravej, of the People Power Party (PPP) was elected as the new prime minister, but protests continued as the new government was seen as a proxy for Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party that was barred from politics for five years. Like Thaksin, Samak had overwhelming support from rural voters which helped elect him to office. This enraged members of PAD who are a loose coalition of royalists, businessmen and the urban middle class.

Throughout 2008 PAD conducted sit-ins and protests that shut down Thailand’s two main airports, crippling the tourism industry. Protests led to the court decision to ban the ruling party, PPP, in November. Following the court ruling, Abhisit Vejjajiva defeated an ally of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a parliamentary vote to become Thailand's fifth head of government in a little over two years. Abhisit Vejjajiva is a member of the Democratic Party, and he draws the majority of his support from the middle class, similar to PAD. He lacks the support of the rural and working Thai.

The ongoing clash between political parties is referred to as a struggle of Red-shirts vs. Yellow-shirts. Red-shirt protesters and supporters generally identify themselves with Thaksin and PPP. Yellow-shirt protestors are members of PAD, who oppose Thaksin and his allies. With Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in power the yellow-shirts have called off their protests as they have accomplished the goal of ousting both Thaksin and PPP from office. Tensions, however, still exist between the two parties and the yellow-shirts are paying careful attention to discontent that may arise from red-shirt supporters.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why blog about development and the environment in Thailand?

I have focused the majority of my undergraduate research on development issues, with a concentration in microfinance, nonprofit management, and fundraising. I was attracted to CIEE’s Khon Kaen Development and Globalization (DG) Program because I feel that it provides me with the perfect opportunity to observe and apply concepts that I have researched and learned in class, while working to improve the living standards of Thailand’s rural poor. While in Thailand I hope to expand my understanding of the complexities concerning development and globalization, and share my observations through this blog.

The Khon Kaen DG Program is unique, as it focuses on extensive field experience, but the fact that the program is based in Thailand also provides me with the opportunity to study in a country that has experienced considerable economic growth, but which has a severe unequal distribution of income. The poorest 20 percent of the population in Thailand hold only 6.3 percent of the country’s wealth, whereas the richest 20 percent hold 49 percent of the wealth (2007/2008 Human Development Indicators).

Taking these statistics and the recent growth of the country into consideration, the poorest 20 percent of the population are likely to be significantly more exposed to environmental hazards, a topic I hope to address in later blogs. I am scheduled to leave for Thailand on August 20th, however, I suspect that my first blogs chronicling my observations on Thai development, the environment and globalization will not come for a couple of weeks. In the meantime I will try to provide some background information on Thailand.

Thailand is a middle-income country in Southeast Asia, with a 2008 GDP per capita (PPP) of $8,700. Its economy experienced considerable growth from the 1960s to the mid 1990s; however, it suffered a severe financial crisis in 1997-1998. Since, it has recovered, posting average growth rates between 5 and 6 percent from 2000-2006.

Recently, Thailand’s growth rates have slowed, in part because the global economy has slowed, but also because political turmoil has induced uncertainty into the market.

With regards to social movements over the last three decades, the Thai government has been successful at reducing poverty and extending access to social services. By 2006 the number of poor people in Thailand had dropped to 6.1 million from 18.4 million in 1990. This achievement, however, has come at the expense of increasing income inequality.

In addition to growing income inequality, economic development in Thailand has spawned environmental concerns that must be addressed. In order to better understand the context of economic, social and environmental issues in Thailand the following three blogs will review the economic status of Thailand over the past 15 years, the current political state, and challenges facing the country going forward.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Gilman International Scholarship

I am a Beth Stocker Cutler Scholar at Ohio University, which is a merit based scholarship awarded on the basis of academic excellence, leadership potential, and a commitment to civil responsibilities. One of the many perks of being a Cutler Scholar is that you receive funding each year to pursue an enrichment experience. The four experiences are broadly defined as outward bound, volunteer, internship and study abroad.

I am currently going into my senior year, which is usually when you complete your study abroad experience. After searching extensively for a program that fit my interests I settled on the Khon Kaen, Thailand Development and Globalization program offered by The Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). The program description sounded as if it had been written for me! That is until I scrolled down and saw how much it would cost for one semester of study. The cost was more than double the funding I would receive from my academic scholarship, and not wanting to take out any loans, I began to look at other ways to help finance my study abroad experience. That is when I learned about the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program.

The Program offers grants for "U.S. citizen undergraduate students of limited financial means to pursue academic studies abroad. Such international study is intended to better prepare U.S. students to assume significant roles in an increasingly global economy and interdependent world." The application process does take a considerable amount of time; however, it is certainly worth the effort for anyone that wishes to study abroad but is worried about the cost.

Gilman Scholarship recipients may receive up to $5,000 in funding and are selected on the basis of applicant diversity, a statement of purpose essay, a follow-on project proposal essay, academic progress and performance, fields of study, country of destination, length of study, and lack of previous undergraduate study abroad experience. Furthermore, students at community colleges are strongly encouraged to apply. All applicants, however, must qualify for a federal Pell grant.

If chosen as a Gilman Scholarship recipient, you are required to complete a follow-on service project to promote education abroad and the Gilman International Scholarship program. Hence, the creation of this Blog! My follow-on project proposal was to keep a blog on my observations on development and environmental issues in Thailand. My goal is to inform interested readers about critical development issues that impact the Thai people and the environment, but also to spark a curiosity in other students about the cultures, customs , and challenges of other nations. I hope that this new found curiosity will motivate others to pursue a study abroad experience of their own in the future.

Below is a link if you are interested in more information on the Gilman International Scholarship:

I anticipate most of my blog postings to be observations from my travel, cultural, and fieldwork experiences; however, I will also try to include historical background information about Thailand to help put my observations into context. Additionally, I plan to post pictures of experiences that I blog about.

Comments are encouraged, as I would love to hear the thoughts of any readers on the topics that I chronicle. Stay tuned...