In Thailand, a home-grown project assists a neglected people

In Brief: 

The Omkoi Bahá'í Institute is a locally initiated project that, with minimal help from the outside, has been able to sustain itself over nearly a decade, all the while generating momentum for long-term change. The project also demonstrates how a grassroots non-governmental organization can give key support to national development plans.

In a remote district, grassroots work by Thai Bahá'ís becomes a catalyzing force in efforts to empower the Karen people

OMKOI DISTRICT, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand - Nine years ago, at the age of 60, Boonphan Intawong began a series of trips up into this remote and mountainous district in northern Thailand to assist in the processes of social and economic development among the Karen people, an indigenous hill tribe that by many accounts had been long ignored.

"Many of the villages didn't have schools," said Mr. Intawong, a school teacher, now retired. "I felt that no one really cared about them."

Mr. Intawong, who is a Bahá'í, enlisted the help of other Bahá'ís in his hometown of Takham Neau, located in a valley just outside the Omkoi District. Over the course of 1988 and 1989, Mr. Intawong and his friends visited 26 villages in the district, talking about some simple spiritual principles that they believed could be a motivating force for advancement.

"We talked about the principles of unity and oneness, and how these ideas could build up the power of the community for development," said Mr. Intawong. "When we first started going there, the area was very primitive. The people were scattered and disunited in their thoughts."

Over time, according to Mr. Intawong and others, a larger sense of community was indeed generated in many of the 26 villages, creating new capacities for development. Others in the wider Bahá'í community of Thailand soon joined the effort started by Mr. Intawong and they established a number of village-level tutorial schools and other small-scale development activities. The entire process, in turn, has helped to support government-sponsored development plans for the district, including the establishment of more schools.

In this regard, the efforts of the Thai Bahá'í Community have been a catalyzing force in promoting positive change among the Karen people in the Omkoi District, which is one of the least developed areas in Thailand. By undertaking some small pilot projects of their own, Thai Bahá'ís in some respects led the way for government efforts, both by showing what was possible and by serving as a critical liaison between officials and the Karen population. In this way, the entire effort here demonstrates how a grassroots non-governmental organization can give key support to national development plans.

The story here is also of a homegrown project that, with minimal help from the outside, has been able to sustain itself over nearly a decade. It started not with aid from the international or even the national level, but rather when a nearby community of individuals, with few resources of its own, rose up to assist less fortunate neighbors. And those who have been touched by these efforts say they have generated a distinct momentum for long-term change.

Long Neglected 

The Omkoi District comprises some 300 villages and sub-villages on 2,336 square kilometers near the Myanmar border, located about 180 kilometers south of Chiang Mai, Thailand's second largest city. Ruggedly mountainous and heavily forested, the district is 85 percent populated by the Karen people, an ethnically distinct hill tribe whose indigenous lands extend over areas of Thailand and Myanmar.

In part because they have their own language and customs, the Karen have been isolated from mainstream Thai culture. This isolation has manifested itself in a pattern of neglect and even prejudice. Certainly, many Karen believe that they have been looked down upon in the past.

The Karen population here also faces a number of economic problems. Because of the difficult terrain, agricultural land is scarce; as well, farming practices are primitive, relying largely on traditional slash and burn techniques. To supplement their meager farm incomes, many families work part of the year outside the district as migrant laborers. According to the District Development Office, the average annual income per family in 1990 was about $400 a year, although subsistence farming provides a clear supplement.

Other concerns include inadequate access to year-round supplies of water, high rates of illiteracy, and a persistent problem with opium addiction. According to one Government paper, as many as 18 percent of the Karen people here smoke opium, which is grown in the region.

The Thai Government has recognized these problems and increased spending in the district. In 1995, for example, the Government appropriated US$200,000 for the construction of new schools, a significant addition to the annual schools operating budget of about US$80,000. Other agencies and NGOs, as well, continue to work here. In 1988, for example, four UN agencies collaborated on a four-year project to address social and economic problems in 30 villages in the nearby Paepor Highlands.

The focus of Bahá'í activities has been in the area comprising the 26 villages that were identified by Mr. Intawong and his friends in the late 1980s. Inspired by their efforts, the Bahá'í Community of Thailand held a special campaign in 1992 and 1993 to raise funds for a permanent institute here. About US$16,000 was donated and in 1993 the Community established the Omkoi Bahá'í Institute, through which current Bahá'í development efforts in the district are channeled.

"The purpose of the Institute, simply put, is to do community development, to lift up the spiritual and physical well-being of the Karen community here," said Sunapa Dechatattanon, the Institute's director.

To that end, the Institute has, at various times, run stopgap village-level tutorial schools in the region, providing education in small or remote villages where the Government's own program had not yet reached. During 1994 and 1995, for example, the Institute ran seven village-level tutorial schools, offering basic education to more than 300 students in seven under-served villages. Those schools have ceased operation, in part because the Government has increased its own educational efforts in the district and in part because of changes in staff composition at the Institute.

The Institute has also offered on-going moral education and literacy classes. Aimed primarily at children and young people in the region, these classes are today the backbone of the Institute's work.

"The most important and effective activity is moral education for the children and youth. [Such classes] help the youth gain confidence in themselves, to help them see their inherent nobility."

— Sunapa Dechatattanon, Director, Omkoi Bahá'í Institute 

"In the situation here, the most important and effective activity is moral education for the children and youth," said Ms. Dechatattanon, who came to the Institute in May 1996 with her husband, Giovani de Leon, who is from the Philippines. "We believe these classes are a way to help the youth gain confidence in themselves, to help them see their inherent nobility."

By coming to understand their nobility, Ms. Dechatattanon said, the Karen youth are better able to resist the attraction to opium and other drugs. The moral education classes are also aimed at teaching that all humankind is one - and that the Karen are part of this oneness. In this way, she said, the Karen children and youth see that they are equal with others, and feel empowered to change and advance.

"We feel better about ourselves."

According to Karen who have participated, the classes have provided a key resource - and helped them to feel equal to the Thai majority in the country.

"Some people like to say that we are stupid and we don't know how to read or write," said Tanyarak Sujipong, a 14-year-old girl from Pongdin, one of the villages where the Institute has been especially active. "But the Bahá'ís taught us how to read and write and not to use any drugs. So now we feel better about ourselves. We feel we have equality."

This spring, Ms. Sujipong was one of four girls who were the first Karen students from Pongdin to be admitted into the District's regional high school, an important signpost of the village's progress.

Khamnoi Gilatoh, a 30-year-old mother of three living in the village of Pang Ong Mong, said that even though her 10-year-old daughter attends a nearby district-run school, the supplemental classes offered by the Institute have greatly sped her daughter's progress.

"At the regular school, the children study only a little bit and play most of the time," said Mrs. Gilatoh. "The teacher is absent a lot and often comes late. But at the Bahá'í school, they study more and I feel my daughter has become smarter. And also before my daughter was quiet and shy. Now she has the courage to talk."

Government officials confirmed that it is often difficult to get good teachers to serve in this remote district, where school buildings are frequently little more than a single room, open to the air and sheltered by a thatch roof. "But it is better than in the past," said Bopit Vatavijarana, a development officer with the national Community Development Division assigned to the district. "The Government is actively working here now and would like to make the whole of Thailand equal in its development."

In this regard, the Institute has also played an important role as a catalyst for official development efforts by acting as a liaison between the Karen communities that it works with and government development officers like Mr. Vatavijarana.

According to Rong Sujipong, the 44-year-old headman of Pongdin village, the Institute has provided a link between his community and the authorities. "When we need anything, we contact the Institute and they contact the government," he said.

Mr. Sujipong, a vegetable farmer, enumerated a series of small projects in Pongdin that the Institute has either established itself or helped the village to obtain from the government. Such projects include the village primary school, which was started by the Bahá'ís and then taken over by the district, a well and a piping system to bring more reliable supplies of water to the village, and a new day care center.

"Pongdin has become much better since the Bahá'ís came," he said. "We have the school, we have tap water, and the children have become much better from attending the Bahá'í morals classes.

"Because the children have had this education, it will lead to a better future," he said. "This all has made me feel that everyone is equal, that all the Thais are equal, and everyone around the world is equal. And it has made me feel better inside."

No one suggests that the Institute has been solely responsible for the changes here. "It's not to the extent that if the Bahá'ís hadn't come, the Government wouldn't have come," said Supachai Nimmanheminda, 40, who was Deputy District Officer from 1991 to 1992, a period when many of the efforts were started. "But for sure, they have had a good effect, and been a good support."

Mr. Nimmanheminda, who now operates a family flower-growing business near Pongdin village, said the Institute has been distinctively sensitive to indigenous Karen culture. "Unlike some other groups, the Bahá'ís don't go in and change things immediately," he said. "They don't go in and tell the Karen to stop believing in ancestor worship. Rather, they build something so that the people themselves can change things. So the Bahá'ís teach them to develop their own wisdom, and from that, change occurs."

"This is a large, large world and we shouldn't be in the dark and we shouldn't let others be in the dark. So we went to try to develop the community."

— When Chinawon

The Bahá'ís who have been involved with the Institute say their goal has been simply to be of service to their less fortunate neighbors, and their motivation has come from their own understanding of the principle of human oneness.

"I went to teach them because I've seen that the world has developed so much and I wanted to help them develop themselves," said When Chinawon, a 77-year-old farmer from Takham Neau who was one of the first to accompany Mr. Intawong on his initial forays into the district. "This is a large, large world and we shouldn't be in the dark and we shouldn't let others be in the dark. So we went to try to develop the community."