As a 4-Year Army ROTC Scholarship Recipient, a Community Assistant, and an intern at the Language Resource Center, the thought of studying abroad seemed almost impossible three years ago. Aside from the extra-curricular and academic obstacles, studying abroad as a first-generation immigrant from Los Teques, Venezuela comes with its own set of challenges. However, during the Fall of 2017, I had the wonderful opportunity to Study Abroad in Thailand and spend my semester in the beautiful city of Chiang Mai. Throughout my semester, I embarked in an independent research project that focused on the role of women, the effect of conflict and war on minority populations, and the contributions of NGOs and the media. This project served as an extension of my Seminar 293: Political Violence in Thailand taught by Dr. Ronnie Olesker.
Given my profound interest in feminist war theories and my experience during Dr. Olesker’s class, I was motivated to revise and expand my research while immersing myself in the culture of the nation I studied. Under her mentorship, I conducted research on local and international governmental and non-governmental organizations and spoke to several scholars from Chiang Mai University who were familiar with the subject of women, minority migrant populations, and low-intensity conflict in Southeast Asia. In addition, I met with Consul General Jennifer Harhigh and spoke with the Political Officer Julia Moghe based out of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. Furthermore, I had the delightful opportunity to visit museums in Bangkok and Chiang Mai that focused on the role of the political violence in the southern regions of Thailand, and NGOs that provided resources to minority populations in Thailand to build a better life away from violence and persecution.
Although I only spent a semester studying this subject before my time in Thailand, I quickly realized it was equally under investigated in both nations. While there are many theories that focus on the effects of war on women, none fully addressed the effects of low-intensity prolonged conflict on minority populations alone. Whilst researching the effects of the southern insurgency on women and the resources NGO’s and other government agencies were offering to Malay-Muslim communities, I began to draw similarities between the experiences of the Malay-Muslim groups in Southern Thailand, and migrant workers from Myanmar (Burma). These migrants included those known as Rohingya, which could not receive refugee status and are predominantly in the border areas residing in refugee camps, and Shan people which make up the majority of Thailand’s migrant work force but are neither respected nor welcomed.
From my research inland, I learned that due to the restrictions placed on legal migration and refugee statuses, both groups experienced deep rooted institutional discrimination. Although I was only able to study the experiences and background of the Rohingya communities and take a course which focused on the Shan migrant work force in Thailand, my studies aided me in drawing links between these two underprivileged and discriminated groups with the experiences of women and Malay-Muslim communities in the southern regions of Thailand.
Although I set forth to study the militarization of women and their contributions to the low-intensity conflict in the south, my experience inland gave me ideas for revisions of my original proposal. This allowed me to optimize my time in the cities I visited by focusing more broadly on the role of women and resources given to ethnic and religious minority groups rather than just insurgents and females in the Thai Royal Army. Furthermore, my broadened subjective scope allowed me to critically analyze my topic and relate it to bigger themes such as the treatment of migrants who experience similar challenges to those living and enduring the insurgency in the south.
My academic findings and research was then complimented by my visits to museums such as the Bangkok Art and Culture Center and a temporary exhibit in Chiang Mai at the MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum called Patani Semesa: An exhibition on contemporary art from the Golden Peninsula. Moreover, to better understand the role of NGO’s in supporting similar migrant communities and women, I visited The Empower Foundation and the Pratthanadee Foundation. During both visits, I was able to interview several Board Members and volunteers. During our meetings, we spoke of their personal efforts and the contributions of their foundations to aid women. From the research I conducted, I learned that many NGO’s predominantly focused on empowering Thai women and assisting them while they earn their GEDs and find sustainable employment. However, few of them addressed similar issues experienced by the Shan and Rohingya migrants from Myanmar or Malay-Muslim communities in the southern regions.
By using these perspectives, I was able to better understand the role of women, the effect of conflict and war on minority populations, and the contributions of NGOs such as the Empower and Pratthanadee Foundations, and other media outlets displaying and educating populations on these subjects. With many prevalent issues and limited resources created to help these minority populations seek a better quality of life away from violence and persecution, it is imperative to understand how local communities can help, have contributed, or refuse to mobilize through different outlets such as the media, NGOs, and grassroots organizations. Most importantly, how other nations are addressing similar matters such as women’s rights, migrant rights, and minority populations in comparison to the United States.