Jolly, easy-going, and persistent are some words one can use to describe Phrue Odochao, the son of Jorni Odochao from my last post. The day before we left for this field trip, staff and students watched a short documentary on him. He can be heard saying, “I walked all the way from Chiang Mai. Won’t you hear what I have to say?” He is one of the villagers who walked down to Bangkok to protect the land they hold so close to heart.
This was a walking campaign he led back in 2007. It was very interesting to know that one of our students from Thailand joined them for some days, too. Villagers called it a peaceful walk and not a protest or march for their rights. They wanted to make people aware about what is happening to their environment, instead of facing police brutality and returning home. P Phrue walked 700 kilometers over a span of 49 days and had to change 4 pairs of shoes. One of the most disheartening parts in the video was when he said, “Please just smile and give me some strength. I’m not a beggar.”
It wasn’t surprising to see people throwing away the pamphlet he distributed. That’s how it works in a city. I remember doing that all the time back in my hometown, because we “city people” don’t have time to pay attention to strangers. Apparently, the image of P Phrue from this video would always flash in my mind whenever I come across another pedestrian distributing fliers.
He mentioned in the video how it used to break his heart when people won’t show interest in what he had to say, but now it just makes him laugh. “All I can do is laugh,” and, indeed, he smiles brightly even when talking of the painful times he has had. We had a session with him after dinner the first day of our trip and everyone was pretty tired from a visit to the forest (in the picture). He spoke in Karen and a staff member translated it for us. When he felt it was just him speaking rather than being a two-way conversation, he said “You’re not saying anything. You’re probably not interested,” which made me so sad because I wanted to offer suggestions but didn’t have any experience with land rights and campaigning.
An instant “Namaste”
Oh, this was lovely. I apologize for going back and forth and not following the events in order, but I have to mention this in my blog. We sat in an elongated circle at this session and everyone introduced themselves to P Phrue. We went from country to country, as we have people from all over Asia and North America. When someone shouted “India”, I raised my hand, then folded them and bent forward, saying “Sawatdee kha”, which is how we greet people in Thailand. He responded at the same time, saying “Namaste”, the way people traditionally greet each other in India. Some people burst into laughter. This was a short, blissful moment for me. I’ve rarely been greeted that way in the last two years!
Next day, we had an interactive session. Sitting cross-legged, P Phrue talked with the same enthusiasm he had the previous night. One thing that impresses me every day here is people’s willingness to learn from others. P Phrue was no different. He kept asking for suggestions and wanted to learn from us, given that the majority works in a similar sector. When he helped draft the people’s version of Community Forest Bill, he had the support of 50,000 people. Slowly, people started losing faith and eventually gave up but he continues to fight for what is right for the nature.
People in this community were once fined a million baht for cutting trees. What the government doesn’t understand is the community forest is protected by villagers. They’ve been distressed for so long because “the law is fair (to them), but they are under the law anyway.” The government also blames them for releasing a ton of Carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and P Phrue questions how city life doesn’t create pollution. Besides, the community contributes to the environment by growing a variety of plants.
In practice, community protects the forest but by law, forests are managed by the government so all the money that comes from activities like tourism goes to the government. These people barely make money, but again, they don’t need money because they don’t need the things we do. Their livelihood comes from the forest, which they also protect.
P Phrue went to UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) in Copenhagen through some support from another organization, where the discussion was centered around reducing CO2 and managing global warming. He mentioned how it wouldn’t make much difference for countries like China and the U.S. to reduce carbon release by 10% but developing countries like his need growth that produces CO2.
Although, when he was a kid, he felt shy to accept his identity as a Karen, Phrue Odochao is now proud to belong to this community. He has been trying hard to preserve the culture they share and feels that most people are victims to modernization. Words that children learn in government schools sound impolite in their community and in this way, the new generations are losing their native tongue.
Their voice isn’t loud enough and they need media to support them. I felt bad at not being able to offer solutions to their problems but it was an incredible opportunity to learn about what is happening in the countries located right next to mine. I am amazed at how much I am getting to learn about minorities similar to the ones that exist in my home country, India, and how they could also suffer or would have suffered at some point.
When P Phrue was taking pictures of the session, he kept saying “Capture” with the same energy he showed from the minute we met him. Thus, I decided to name one of my posts “Captured”, which is full of sights I wanted to capture throughout this trip. Overall, Phrue Odochao kept me both amused (with his never-ending jokes and expressions) and very involved in what he had to say. I really hope they get more support and successfully protect their home.
Featured image credits: Jamon Sonpednarin