2012 Student-Faculty Fellows Program Report: College Of Charleston
Savages, Victims, Saviors and Their Engagement in Neoliberal Processes
Mentor: Professor Helen Delfeld
Students: Lua Eijsink, Elizabeth Figliola, Susannah Hicks, Tara Schiraldi, Liza Wood
The research of the College of Charleston students was conducted in Cambodia and Thailand during the months of June and July. Though of an independent nature, all projects were jointly informed by the concepts developed by Makau Mutua (2001) which suggest that the discourse of human rights in the Global North rests on a triad of concepts, a three-legged stool comprised of savages, their victims, and their saviors (SVS). Violations are imagined to be attributable to a perfect savage, a dehumanized figure that carries the evil for us all. This figure is constructed as “the other” – not us, but barbarians, i.e., not civilized people. In contrast, the victim is described as a “powerless, helpless innocent” (Mutua, 2001:204). If the savage is less than human, the victim is the defenseless human, with little agency or will. This weakness therefore necessarily calls forth the last leg of the triad, the savior, constructed as “the good angel who protects, vindicates, civilizes, restrains, and safeguards. The savior is the victim’s bulwark against tyranny” (Mutua, 2001:204).
The focus of my research is titled “Local Alternatives to the Truth Reconciliation Committee (TRC): Unofficial Truth Telling in Cambodian Communities.” It recognizes that even though efforts are being made in Cambodia, through government channels such as the TRC and ECCC, and through media organizations such as “Mekong News”, to better understand the genocide that occurred there from 1975-79, important additional work that more fully engages the average Cambodian is being undertaken by a broad range of less well known NGOs, such as Youth For Peace (YFP), Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), and Bophana. In addition, state sponsored memorials were not exactly built by Khmer. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, former Security Prison 21, was preserved almost immediately upon the arrival of the Vietnamese in Phnom Penh to help justify their invasion of the country. Similarly, the Choeung Ek Genocide Memorial was built during the last year of Vietnamese occupation, and it was sold in 2005 to the Japanese Company JC Royal. My study considers alternative venues that provide the Khmer people with the opportunity to memorialize and which promote national healing, educational outreach, and intergenerational dialogue. The focus of these NGOs is often not to develop a national narrative, but rather to foster individual stories from this terrible period. Though handicapped by government limits established to protect those still in positions of power, these unofficial truth projects are, as stated by Louis Bickford, “a social reality currently under-explored” which both compliment state initiatives and substitute for an absence of such initiatives.
Lua Eijsink and Susannah Hicks
The focus of our study was to examine the status of the child welfare system and orphanages in Cambodia and how these organizations collaborate with tourists who volunteer to assist them. Our analysis is based upon interviews with volunteers and with child welfare institution directors, participant observation, and the analysis of formal questionnaires. Our assumptions about the role the state plays in protecting children from labor exploitation was challenged from the start and became the new normative in our research process.
My study is focused upon the impact of improving diplomatic and economic relations between the West and Myanmar on the NGOs and CBOs (Community-based organizations) currently providing services to displaced Burmese populations living inside Thailand. It is titled “The Marketing of Need: Analyzing the Responses of NGOs and CBOs to Funding cuts and Shifting International Prerogatives along the Thai-Burma Border.” Because the possibility of democracy and lifting of economic sanctions in Myanmar looks promising, funding cuts to groups providing assistance to refugees seem likely even though at-risk populations along the Thai-Burma border remain large and in peril. Interviews with those working in these NGOs and CBOs conducted during the summer of 2012 suggest they are experiencing or anticipating cuts. Their perception is that given the changes occurring in Myanmar, novelty of programming and effective marketing is more essential than their actual achievements if they are to continue to receive support. For CBOs in Thailand who are working with Burmese in Myanmar, marketability is weakened by two key factors, the clandestine nature of their cross-border efforts, and the limited linguistic capacity of the CBO workers to converse in English with potential benefactors.
My work, recently presented at an international conference in the Netherlands with my mentor Dr. Helen Delfeld, is titled “The Hegemony of Homogeneity.” It studies the commoditization of rice production in Thailand and the impact of moving from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture in the country’s Northeast region. Working with six communities across the Northeast, we studied the choice made by farmers to affiliate with either governmental or non-governmental organizations or a combination of both in seeking a market for their goods. We then compared the impact of network affiliation through surveys, interviews and ethnographic observations in these communities. We discovered that those engaged in non-governmental networks express a greater degree of engagement with alternative farming practices, understanding the value of native rice varieties, and the practice of agricultural customs. However, it is clear that farmers affiliated with both organizations are equally focused on markets given the reality of ongoing market pressure.