Teaching and Learning in Thailand
by Carolyn Shea
Luis Garcia '08, clearly recalls the photograph that ran on the front page of the September 27, 2007, issue of The New York Times: A lone monk, clad in a burgundy robe, faced a gauntlet of armed riot police blocking him from entering a pagoda in Myanmar. At the time, the country—known by most of the world as Burma—was gripped by a brutal military crackdown against peaceful pro-democracy groups and Buddhist monks protesting the political repression and economic hardships that had been imposed on the populace. “That image stayed with me, not just because it was powerful, but because it was incomplete,” he says.
Like so many others, Garcia had limited knowledge about what was going on in Burma. What he did know came mainly from hearing about a trip the singer Ani DiFranco made to the region a few years earlier to raise awareness about the plight of the Burmese people, who have suffered under six decades of military rule by successive regimes with poor human rights records. More than a million have fled to other countries in search of work and asylum. In Thailand alone, about 150,000 refugees live in nine overcrowded camps. Some of these individuals, who met DiFranco, told her they were heartened by her visit because it gave them hope that the people of the world would not forget them.
Garcia was a senior when Burma was headlining the news. He had moved from New York to finish his undergraduate degree at Evergreen with the ambition to study abroad before he graduated. At the end of his first year at the college, he took the two-credit course, Preparing for Study Abroad. The class helped Garcia prepare his application essays for a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, which supports studies abroad. “I didn’t know exactly where I would be going, but I knew I could never go if I didn’t get some sort of funding,” he says.
In his last year, he enrolled in the America Abroad program, which offered training in ethnographic fieldwork and the chance to undertake community-based study overseas. “September came and class began and I still didn’t know where I would be going,” he recalls. Then one of his teachers, Eric Stein, spoke about an opportunity for students in the class to work at a school in one of the refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. “That’s when the images of the red-robed monk and Ani’s trip came back to me and I decided pretty immediately that I would throw my efforts into trying to go,” says Garcia.
In January, Garcia learned that he had won a Gilman scholarship, and a month later, he was on a plane to Thailand, along with five other classmates, two of whom were also Gilman award winners. For the next 10 weeks, they lived among refugees in the Ban Nai Soi camp, eight miles from the Burmese border. Garcia taught at the Ban Nai Soi Community Learning Center, a three-year-old high school started and operated by refugees.
Founded by Kyaw Hla Sein, a Burmese refugee who had once studied overseas himself, the school was created to provide a better future for the next generation of families in exile in the Mae Hong Son province, where Ban Nai Soi and other camps are located. Its curriculum focuses on the English, Burmese, and Thai languages, as well as organic farming, science, computers and math. Refugee children can attend Thai primary schools but the Royal Thai Government does not admit them to Thai high schools. Students who complete three years of study at the learning center earn a high school certificate that allows them to attend university within the Thai system.
“Once we got to the school, we stayed in a bamboo hut that was built for us by our students’ parents two weeks before we arrived,” Garcia says. “While we were there, we visited many of their villages. On our first night, there was a big festival to celebrate the completion of a new pagoda at the Ban Nai Soi Temple. There was food and a talent show that many of our future students were in, singing and dancing.”
Garcia recorded video interviews of the school’s founder, his daughter, who is a graduate, and its head teacher. He and his fellow Greeners also “talked to everyone we could to try and grope for some understanding: NGO (non-governmental organization) workers, Thai people, Burmese people, restaurant owners, former and current rebel army soldiers, judges, and of course, our students and the migrant workers who lived and worked at the school.”
One of his fondest memories was of his students’ graduation. “I remember how proud the kids and their parents looked and how we set tables up right under the graduation tent and ate and drank with our students, their parents and friends of the school under a red full moon with lines of fire cutting through the mountains around us,” he says.
“America Abroad was the hardest program or class of any kind I took at the college. I’m glad I was able to finish my BA that way. Part of what I would like to accomplish now that I’m back is to tell the stories of the people I met there, add them to a few more people’s conceptions of history. By sharing people’s stories, they are saved from non-existence in the historical views of the people who stand to be able to improve their futures.”