Global Connections XI

February 2008

Chian Mai, Thailand

This seminar was organized and hosted by the Prem Center (the Prem Tinsulanonda Center for International Education) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Fifty five school leaders (including 11 from Thailand) from 16 different countries and 5 continents, attended. The theme was “West meets East.”

This unique gathering representing international, government, and independent schools, had the opportunity to listen to and discuss this theme with some outstanding speakers, and to also visit schools and projects.

The Seminar opened with a dinner on the Wednesday evening when the participants were welcomed by the Chairman of the Prem Center Board, Mom Luang Tridhosyuth Devakul (Mom Tri) and the Seminar theme was introduced by the Founding President of the Center, Lister Hannah. Youthful and polished performers from the local village introduced participants to the music, dance and drama of northern Thai (Lanna) culture. The evening finished on a particularly high note as everybody took part in lighting rice-paper lanterns before launching them into the night sky.

On Thursday morning, following an introduction to Global Connections by Malcolm McKenzie, Head of the Hotchkiss School, USA, the opening speaker was renowned humanitarian, Khun Mechai Viravaidja. Khun Mechai is the Founding Chairman of the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), Thailand’s largest NGO and recent recipient of the Gates Award for Public Health and the Scholl Award for Social Entrepreneurship. His theme of”Thinking Outside the Box”, addressing issues of public health and poverty alleviation, was both entertaining and challenging. After the morning break, as with all the speakers, a session was devoted to group and plenary discussion with the opportunity to address questions to the speaker.

The afternoon session speaker was Khunying Kasama Voravarn, the Harvard-educated Secretary General of the Office of Basic (Primary and Secondary) Education, Ministry of Education. In a very balanced presentation, she clearly and comprehensively outlined outstanding achievements and the major challenges facing education in Thai schools. Her theme was”Dealing with Globalization and Maintaining National Identity”. This and the discussion session which followed provided a very appropriate introduction to the school visits the next day.

In the evening, Mom Chao (Prince) Chatri Chalerm Yukol, a National Artist and widely-acclaimed film director, shared some of the challenges he faces in portraying Thai history in film. He illustrated his talk with excerpts from his Thai box-office blockbuster epic,”Suriyothai”.

Friday morning opened with participants attending the flag-raising assembly at the local village primary school, Baan Nong Pla Mun. Three groups then visited a leading government, an independent and a temple-run school respectively. Particpants had the opportunity to see the schools in action and to talk with teachers and students.

Following lunch in a village Thai restaurant, the participants travelled an hour north through the countryside to the beautiful Makhampom Living Theatre and Training Centre in the paddy fields overlooked by Thailand’s third highest mountain, Chiang Dao. This Centre has a focus on fusing Western and Thai theatre traditions to express and address outstanding social issues.

Guided by teachers from Makhampom, there was a visit to a remote primary school where young refugee and stateless students enacted their own stories of displacement. After dinner at the Centre, there was a powerful and moving performance by adult actors of a play reflecting the tragic impact of the tsunami.

Saturday morning, back at the Prem Center, Lynda Rolph, Head of Programs, spoke about Prem’s Visiting Schools Program and also its interface with the Prem International School. She then gave a brief introduction to the Kings”Sufficiency Economy”, a prelude to visiting the Royal Project Centre in the neighbouring town of Mae Rim. Here, participants were able to see some examples and demonstrations of the King’s sufficiency projects, which now number over a thousand throughout rural Thailand. One highlight was the attempt by several of the more intrepid to ride a water buffalo.

The speaker at the afternoon session at Prem was one of Thailand’s most eminent political scientists, a former headmaster himself and now President of the Royal Society, Dr. Chai-Anan Samudavanija. Entitled”West meets East: A Democratic Thailand”, his talk provided an invaluable insight into the evolution of Thai democracy and the challenges it has and continues to face.

Participants spent Saturday evening in Chiang Mai city, many focusing their evening on sampling the local cuisine and walking the famous Night Market.

Sunday was based at the Prem Center. In the morning some participants chose to pick the necessary herbs and vegetables at the Prem Organic Farm in order to prepare the lunch at the Cooking Academy for their colleagues. Others went on a bike tour of local villages and paddy fields, visited a local market and a buffalo-training camp where they could also see the traditional methods of rice planting.

Lunch was followed by Phra Saneh Dhammavaro, Academic Dean at the Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University based at the Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai, giving a most illuminating talk on learning to”still the monkey mind”. He emphasised how crowded lives and busy minds can become unhealthy and stressed the importance of training a disciplined and peaceful mind and living a balanced life.

The Seminar dinner was held in the spectacular setting of the Mandarin Dhara Dhevi, a re-creation of an ancient royal Thai palace and surroundings. The following morning, Monday, after group and plenary input to the Seminar Declaration and the annual business meeting where plans for the next Seminar, in Amman, Jordan were announced, the Seminar came to a close with lunch.

A group of fifteen school leaders stayed on, after the Seminar, for a three day tour through the far north of Thailand, into the Mekong region, and into the Golden Triangle, once notorious for opium growing.

It included a visit to the remarkable Doi Tung Project in the mountains, renowned for the transformation from slash-and-burn agriculture for poppy growing to developing sustainable agriculture, reforestation, alleviating poverty and restoring pride and ownership to the Hilltribes in this area. There was also a visit to the spectacular Opium Museum nearby to the Mekong River, with a sobering journey through the tragic history of opium growing and trading.

Just north of the city of Chiang Rai, the tour took in the Mae Fah Luang University and the Princess Sirindhorn Centre for Chinese Studies and ended with a visit to a fascinating northern Thailand cultural museum set in beautiful parkland.

On a more informal note, there was also time spent en route at an elephant camp and two very different fish-tail boat rides, one through the mountains down the Mae Kok River and the other across the Mekong into Laos.