Fellow Since 2006
This profile was prepared when Phairot Pronjongman was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.
By working with women and young people to address the needs of ethnic communities, Phairot Pronjongman is developing a new comprehensive community-based empowerment program in northern Thailand.
The New Idea
Phairot sees a great need to introduce a comprehensive program that empowers ethnic minorities and enables them to determine their priorities and chart appropriate ways to improve their economic and social conditions. A Karen minority himself, Phairot is addressing drug issues and initiating income generating projects by effectively engaging women and youth, promoting the development of community organizations and forums, and providing leadership and networking trainings. Combined, Phairot’s carefully planned mobilization scheme, awareness of local culture and development of women’s weaving groups overcome the challenges these communities face within an increasingly competitive and globalizing world. In fact, no serious effort has been made from government authorities, citizen organizations or communities themselves to implement a community-based program methodically addressing a wide range of problems. Phairot is creating opportunities for all to understand the community workings and putting pressure on local officials and the broader public to recognize and protect the vibrant diversity and abilities of ethnic minorities.
South East Asia is home to some of the most ethnically diverse peoples in the world, typically known as “hill tribe” or “mountain” people, because of their lifestyles in the highlands. Of Thailand’s 68 million inhabitants, 11 percent (ranging from 550,000 to 1.2 million people) are hill tribe minorities resettling from Burma into the northern Thai provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son. The Ministry of Interior’s regulation handbook reported that half of its estimated one million total hill tribe population had attained Thai nationality as of June 2000. Of the remaining, the Thai government estimated that 100,000 were qualified for citizenship, and 90,000 for permanent residency. Karen minorities are the largest group, representing more than 50 percent of hill tribe population (around 400,000) with an estimated 63 percent of the Karen population located in the Mae Hong Son province. Additionally, ethnic Karens from Burma fled the violent political situation of Burma, resulting in Thailand sheltering about 120,000 Burmese refugees in 2005. With Karen villages spread throughout northern Thailand and isolated from one another, these communities lack the leadership and capacity to resist the growing pressures of economic development, education, culture and citizenship that are threatening their ability to realize their human rights and achieve sustainability. The processes of economic development led by national and international development assistance projects fail to take into account the villagers and their traditional ways of life. The lack of understanding of local ways of life and recognition or leadership positions given to minority groups has failed to generate any decision-making skills that enable the affected communities to set their own goals. Many development projects have not integrated local ethnic communities in social accountability and local organizational capacity and have often failed in achieving long-term sustainability. Strategies for improved governance and poverty reduction have focused on formal systems, with little connection to those working at the community level. The challenge of strengthening the capacities of citizens, especially minorities, to monitor governance and hold governments accountable has not been met.As a part of the Birth Registration and Citizenship for Thailand’s Hill Tribes policy, a compulsory educational system was implemented that aims to produce a new generation that assimilates into the Thai population. Leaving home and the supervision of their parents for a better or compulsory education youth are exposed to a new culture and language, to drugs, sexuality and violence—elements they carry with them when they return to their communities. While some youth do not return, those that do return struggle in integrating into their communities and in finding jobs that match their skills and educational level. While women and mothers play a crucial role in protecting and forming the next generation, they typically do not play leadership roles in Karen culture. The role of women is not fully utilized, partly due to their lack of visibility and independence but also because of the absence of collective income generating projects. Cultural influences, unique economic situations, formal and informal social network systems have impacted the way Karen minorities, similarly to other ethnic minorities, battle with every day pressures.
Phairot’s program, which has already expanded throughout the province of Mae Hong Son, to the province of Tak and to the cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, works by creating mutually beneficial partnerships among villagers, villages and the external market.After several years of study and work outside of his village, Phairot returned, under the auspices of the Thai-German Highland Development Program and focused on the drug issue in Karen communities. Phairot quickly realized that the single problem of drugs that pervaded the entire community could not be solved without a comprehensive community-based approach. Starting in his home community, Phairot drew people together through forums, the development of community organizations, and leadership trainings. Engaging in numerous community discussions, Phairot brought together key actors from the community and the local authority in an empowering and networking effort. In a community-based participatory process, different stakeholders ranging from youth to women to elders to local authorities came together to make decisions about setting priorities and charting strategies. Since achieving results requires understanding the village as an integrated whole, Phairot arranged forums for discussion in the village, forums for discussions with target groups, organized information collection with the partnership of all participants and called for the help of everyone in the interpretation of the data gained from forums and research in order to setup guidelines for the next course of action. Assessing the potential of community participation and the need for kinship to be restored, Phairot launched the Women’s Network for Karen Handicrafts in 1994. The primary purpose was to bring together the community around the issue of drugs while revitalizing and preserving local wisdom, developing the potential skills of women and creating job opportunities for the youth returning to their villages in order to generate a second income and to empower a network of self-sufficient Karen minorities. Further assuring the spread and succession, Phairot is identifying youth who can speak Thai and enhancing their bookkeeping knowledge. For three months, the youth receive training in the entire weaving process—from farming to dying to weaving. Having understood and interacted with the community, the youth are sent to towns to sell the products. With the establishment of a multi-disciplinary management team; the women’s groups have expanded to other villages and form the key people organization the Mae Hong Son province, strong in management and sustainable development. Successful in his aim of linking women’s groups in different villages together, Phairot is developing a web across northern Thailand. In Chiang Mai, three women’s groups are focused on the promotion of cotton and silk use and on the documentation of traditional design, knowledge and techniques; private businesses have bought the cloth and have agreed to place marketing tools in their stores, non-governmental organizations are cooperating to organize study groups and forums to promote the Karen tradition. Women have provided training to 50 youth in 10 villages in Tak province. The women’s groups have participated in weaving exhibitions in northeastern Thailand and exposure trips and showcasing events in southern Thailand. Phairot’s marketing strategy has rendered the cloth well-recognized, generating more income than from farming or agriculture, allowing for the creation of Community Development Funds, providing social welfare for group members and investment funds for weaving materials. In 1996, the women presented their material to members of Parliament, of the Labor Department, from private businesses and leaders of various ethnic groups. Since 1998, the cloth generated by the women’s group is sold in Lemon Farm, a boutique located in the national Bangchak gas stations and that serves as a marketing channel for community products. Using the fair trade system, products are enhanced and promoted through a packaging/marketing program both nationally and internationally. A Japanese business has helped the women’s group develop a finer quality cloth, improved productivity rates, and provided environmentally-friendly counseling. With cloth meeting Japanese standards and competitive on the handicraft market, Phairot has begun his international spread.
Born in a Karen family and a peaceful community, Phairot admires the close kinship, quality of life and coping mechanisms of Karen minorities. Strongly influenced by his mother, a strong and hard-working woman, Phairot was troubled to notice that external effects were changing his community. Among a small number of Karens to receive a good education, Phairot was encouraged by family and friends to go out of the village and study—for the first time bridging the gap between his culture and the outside world. After graduating from a non-formal educational center with a teacher certificate, Phairot joined, for 5 years, a UN volunteer teaching program that organized literacy programs for minority groups. He was responsible for the Karen section of the program and designed primary and secondary school curriculum, appropriate to the situation of Karen minorities. In 1985, he began working for the Hill Area Development Foundation, headed by Ashoka fellow Tuenjai, and helped advocate for land environmental reform and community-based development. Seven years later, wanting to be with his family and live in Mae Hong Son, Phairot accepted a job with the Thai-German Highland Foundation. Returning home and realizing the changes in his community cemented his desire to work on the drug and community issues via women in the communities. In 1997 the foundation shut down their programs but the women, supported by Phairot as a community coordinator, the men with their tool-making skills, the elderly with their knowledge of traditional ways and the youth and their marketing skills, have successfully continued and enlarged the project.