A Break of Class, Still a Week of Learning

After finishing my trek to Sukhothai I was off to Karen Nature Conservatory to volunteer for a week through Elephant Nature Park. This is an area inhabited by indigenous Karen hill tribe people who work with Elephant Nature Park (ENP) to have economic opportunities and improve the treatment of their elephants. What I did not realize and only later learned through volunteering with ENP is that many indigenous people have had centuries of experience domesticating and creating relationships with elephants. Only once rapid development and the tourism industry hit Thailand did many people transition from using elephants for personal domestic use to using them for commercial and touristic use. This led to many elephants being abused in the logging industry and elephant riding camps since many tourists who come to Thailand want to ride elephants. ENP instead pays the Karen to put their elephants back in the wild instead of in elephant camps or circuses, which allows them to live as close to a natural life as possible.

Besides their relationship with elephants, the Karen people face many challenges that come along with the changing  cultural and economic landscape of Thailand. ENP has a variety of programs including financing schools, employment opportunities, and selling crafts and goods made by locals, as a way to include them in the economy without disrupting their way of life. I learned about the fear many Karen people felt around losing their culture, and the efforts ENP makes to help these people profit while retaining their heritage. One Karen man in particular that I met said he was the last person in his particular village that knew how to play the Thana, a harp like instrument with 7 strings. He said his curiosity around how different Karen in Burma are, coupled with his worries around the Karen losing their culture, led him to travel to Burma to visit other Karen tribes, who although separated by a border he hoped would share some of the same traditions. He said upon arriving to the village and pulling out his Thana, that an old man started to become emotional, saying he hadn't seen anyone play one since he was a boy, and thought the instrument and traditional songs were lost. We talked further about his desire to see a united Karen people, and much of his music centers around stories of one day seeing this happen.  "I want to see my brothers and sisters joined together again, " he said, "the borders that are drawn are not ours, we have always lived in these hills together. I want to see a day where we can have our own Karen state, to keep our traditions alive."

For one week I started everyday trekking out into the jungle to see some of the Karen people's elephants. A favorite to see was baby elephant named Gili, who was only one and a half year old, and her mother. Full of energy and completely wild, it was refreshing to see  her play in a natural environment after learning about horrors many elephants face in contrast in camps. We spent one day planting over 300 Arabica coffee trees, which are then harvested by the local peoples and sold back to ENP, who then sells the coffee to tourists. In this way the Karen people are able to keep their traditional life style and agricultural practices, while having a reliable source of income. On another day I spent the morning at a local school for young children from a variety of nearby tribes. The school consisted of four rooms separated by age, and guaranteed free education for any child until the age of around 8 or 10. Since by this time I had enough Thai language studies to be able to speak at the kindergarten level, I helped count numbers and sing songs in their class. Many Karen people realize that higher levels of education and the ability to speak English are now essential to their ability to have economic opportunities. A large problem in many hill tribe communities however is the lack of access to education due to the need for young children to help in the homes. There is a big initiative among this community, and increasingly among many ethnic minority communities throughout Thailand, to have their children learn English as well as Thai, in addition to their native language. One Karen woman in particular spoke to me about how aware she and others are of globalization affecting their future way of life saying, "my daughter must learn English, it is good for her too, so she can have jobs I [could] never have, the work I do will not pay much, and she can talk to tourists, that is where our money is now, in tourists." The following day I went back with some of the other volunteers after school ended to help middle school age children with their English vocabulary. This experience was not dominated by concerns only however. Seeing the children playing, hearing light jokes being made, and the way the community seemed to just keep moving, facing different challenges as they came, was reassuring and inspiring. It was a privilege to have the ability to teach at their school, and I felt welcomed into the Karen community with open arms. Living among the Karen was an incredible and eye opening experience that I am extremely thankful that I was fortunate to have.

Finally, on the last day of the program we traveled and stayed at the the main Elephant Park of ENP. There we learned more about the different ways elephants are rescued, the legal process surrounding it, and the different challenges the elephants face, both mental and physical, as they are adjusted to living at ENP. After our last day with elephants we packed up, said our goodbyes, and headed back home. It was just enough time for me to unpack, sleep, and start my second session of class on Human Rights in Southeast Asia. My experiences living with the Karen and learning about their way of life made me decide to write my final paper comparing the treatment of ethnic minorities in Burma and Thailand.