2018 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: College Of Idaho

Refugee Narratives along the Thai-Myanmar Border:
Bringing the Dara’ang Out of Obscurity

Mentors: Robert Dayley, Professor of Political Economy; Alice Vinson, Assistant Professor of Art
Students: Kennedy Alvaro, Hannah DalSoglio, Kaytlyn Marcotte, Gavin McCaw, and Marine Vieille

Among the hotspots for refugee flows in Southeast Asia is the porous Thai-Myanmar border, a 1,300 mile boundary of mountain ridges, river valleys, and ungovernable forests where insurgents hide and the oppressed seek sanctuary. The Dara’ang, also known as the Palaung, Ta’ang, or Pale, are an ethnic group of 300,000 whose main populations are found in the Shan State of Myanmar. Known as peaceful tea growers and devout Theravada Buddhists, the Dara’ang have been repeatedly coerced, victimized, and blackmailed into serving as foot soldiers for more powerful groups caught up in Myanmar’s ethnic wars, insurgencies, and drug trafficking. Seeking to escape this predicament, large communities of Dara’ang began migrating to Northern Thailand in the 1980s. Today, around 8,000 Dara’ang live in village communities near the Thai-Myanmar border where they find real and symbolic protection amidst “sacred mountains” deemed holy by locals.

The Dara’ang are small in number. Their struggles and trials have not attracted the attention of the UNHCR, international relief agencies, or journalists. Their story of victimization, refuge, and redemption is barely documented. We intend to change that. Through intentional and planned interaction with Dara’ang communities, we hope to bring their story out of obscurity. More specifically, our project involves researching, documenting, and sharing the narratives and experiences of the Dara’ang with multiple audiences through three distinct formats: (1) a documentary film, (2) a scholarly paper, and (3) a conference poster. While the paper and poster represent standard academic outcomes of field research in Asian Studies, our documentary intends to bring greater awareness and dignity to a relatively unknown group of people. By sharing human stories of struggle and courage, our aim is to screen our film to diverse audiences and through social media. Doing so will not only highlight Dara’ang refugees, but also broaden global concern for the refugee experience.

Our on-site research includes extended interaction with Dara’ang border communities. Through homestays and village visits we will conduct interviews, film video, document narratives, and analyze conditions on the ground. Our key research questions seek to uncover why many Dara’ang chose to leave and the extent to which they are satisfied with their decision. We intend to gather stories of hardship, separation, success, regret, and hope. We will evaluate local response and compare development across refugee communities. Collaborations with local NGO leaders, legal experts, and academics have been arranged to facilitate our project.

Our student group will develop skills in project development, research, fieldwork, interviewing, data analysis, writing, filming, story-boarding, film production, digital fluency, and teamwork. Professionally, this invaluable first-hand experience will challenge students to think critically, troubleshot problems, adapt culturally, and become more reflective and creative. Students will also improve their ability to express themselves knowledgeably in written, visual, and oral formats. Reflecting a commitment to student-faculty collaboration, student research, and cross-cultural communication, the project enhances our entire team’s engagement with both Asian Studies and the digital liberal arts and prepares students for career paths in social analysis, digital media, and film making.

Our College of Idaho SFF group at Upland Holistic Development Program (UHDP), an NGO that works closely with the Dara’ang refugees we studies. Pat Lawan (fourth from left), an informant and UHDP official, is a Dara’ang refugee.

Kennedy Alvaro

As a Marketing & Digital Media Major, I had little knowledge on Asia, Thailand, or the issues refugees there face there and elsewhere before this project. Through this project, however, I have learned so much about Thailand, its politics, how their government is run, and especially about Dara’ang refugees and the struggles they have faced during the last few decades. I was able to not only learn copious amounts of information through research and books, but also through the refugees we were fortunate enough to interview for our video documentary. I was able to see multiple perspectives from a variety of different people. Before we left to Thailand, we researched a lot about the political issues in Thailand and Southeast Asia. However, during our time we were in Thailand, we learned much more about the current issues and information that you cannot acquire through textbooks. Being able to communicate with people who have experienced these issues first hand and learning how they are doing now was an incredible and once in a lifetime opportunity. The SFF grant also helped me develop better teamwork skills. As a team of five students, it was very important that we worked together and helped each other out when we needed it. This was especially true with filming, photographing and recording audio as well as supporting each other during stressful times. Being in a foreign country where everything is new to you and the primary language used is not English is sometimes stressful. Adjusting to the new culture and customs was sometimes hard but it helped when the group was supportive and was there for one another. I have learned so much throughout the two years working with the other four students and our faculty mentors. I have acquired professional skills and now want to go back to Thailand to further learn about Thai culture and Southeast Asia as whole. I would love to pursue a marketing job in Thailand and use my new skills gained from this project.

Student Kennedy Alvaro recording audio during interview with key Dara’ang informant, Mr. Ta, who served as a Palaung-to-Thai translator for our project. His personal story as a refugee is the centerpiece of our documentary.

Hannah Dalsoglio

I have never been so proud of a project as I am with this one. This has been an invaluable experience to me. I have found a good direction for my future in pursuing digital media and trying to tell the stories of those who need their stories told. Through working on this project, I was able to interact and collaborate closely with the people of Asia, especially the Dara’ang. We grew to care sincerely about the people we were meeting, filming, and writing about. Between the film, the paper, and the poster, I felt that we were effective telling the story of the Dara’ang to academics focused on Southeast Asia and to people completely new to the topic. People who saw the film, read the paper, and interacted with the poster, seemed to really empathize with the struggle of the migrants who were trying to escape the unrest in Myanmar. People seemed to connect with their inspiring story, and I was pleased we could fit everything into 22 minutes. After many hours working in the editing studio, Kennedy Alvaro and I finally finished the film in early April. We took the final film to the ASIANetwork Conference in San Diego and many people there were interested in seeing a link to the final project online. We then did an open campus showing. The students who attended had great things to say about the final product. Then, we showed it again to a large audience at our college’s annual Student Research Conference, where it again received a lot of praise. I was so thrilled with the number of people who were interested in the project and who had thoughtful questions about the situation of the Dara’ang in Northern Thailand. This project has added so many strengths to my resume and opened my mind to experiences that are as different from my own, such as that of the Dara’ang.

Student Hannah Dalsoglio using a gimbal to record video of village elders being honored during village celebrations of Khao Phansa (Buddhist Lent)

Kaytlyn Marcotte

Our project took the current issue of refugees and examined how they become assimilated into a formal state. Prior to departure, our group was tasked with reading and understanding James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. This book served as one of the building blocks of our paper to understand how upland groups in Thailand behaved. Engaging in fieldwork allowed our group to understand the complexities surrounding the Dara’ang community first hand. Being on the ground in Thailand allowed us to gain a deeper understanding of why the Dara’ang are seeking assimilation into the Thai state. In addition to interviewing refugees, our team spent time exploring museums on the opium trade, drug lords, ethnic insurgencies, and many other elements that were important to understanding how upland minorities are exploited. Throughout our time with the Dara’ang community, I fell in love with Southeast Asia and the opportunity to learn more about this incredibly diverse region. I am still in awe about the cultures and places that I was able to interact with throughout this grant opportunity. Without the SFF experience, I would not have been able to experience the wonders of Southeast Asia or discover my love for its many peoples and cultures. Though our project hit a few road bumps, I would not have been able to learn how to control an unknown situation and how to problem-solve conflicts within a group. I now have the drive to pursue a future in development studies in addition to having a focus in Southeast Asia. As the lead on the research poster, I was also able to create a visual representation of what our team conducted in the field. I created a storyline approach that allowed the audience to understand what our project goals and outcomes were visually. This experience taught me how to be more confident in my work and how to present it to an audience. I look forward to applying the experiences and skills that I have learned to my future career, life, and educational opportunities.

Students Kaytlyn Marcotte and Marine Vieille at the Thai-Myanmar border, Doi Ang Khang Mountain. Controlled by the Thai military, the border crossing, at an elevation of 6,100 ft., has been used Dara’ang refugees. The late King of Thailand met Dara’ang refugees here in the early 1990s granting the first wave permission to resettle in Thailand.

Gavin McCaw

The joy of conducting a project such as this is rooted in its consistency. Where many research projects for classes last a mere month, perhaps two at the longest, the work that I’ve been able to do on this paper and subsequent presentation has stretched out throughout the school year and has become very familiar. I have come to know the Dara’ang like the back of my hand. Writing the paper in particular was a project that really allowed me to dive into the raw observational data and theory that we had collected as a team over the previous year. As far as the Student- Faculty Fellows core principles, this project meets each of them quite firmly. Across the world, the issue of refugees is politically salient. In Southeast Asia, the Rohingya Crisis in Rakhine State may dominate international the news, but there are countless other refugee experiences in the region deserving of attention. Our project only focusses on a single fragment of the much larger conflict happening in the Shan State in Myanmar, but our dissection of Dara’ang migration and how it is embedded within the context of upland-lowland relations in Southeast Asia demonstrates how complexities of refugee crises are sometimes lost upon a cursory glance. Clearly, we would be unable to provide an accurate depiction of this crisis if not for our interactions and interviews with people inside the region itself. The Student-Faculty Fellows grant has been a truly incredible experience. Two years of work and struggle have finally yielded products that my co-researchers and I are proud of. It has changed the direction of my career in terms of a regional focus while also affirming that the general field of academia will be a good fit for me. The presentation of our work demonstrated further the value in what we have been able to achieve. I can’t thank ASIANetwork and the Freeman Foundation enough for allowing us to both expand our own horizons and share the story of the Dara’ang. It’s truly difficult to imagine such a project coming to an end, but I’m inexorably pleased to have been a part of it.

Student Gavin McCaw with refugee migrants dressed in traditional clothing in celebration of Khao Phansa (Buddhist Lent). Higher family incomes in Thailand have allowed Dara’ang refugees to spend more money and time on fashioning traditional dress.

Marine Vieille

When I first heard that my application had been selected to participate in the SFF-sponsored project, I was extremely excited. I knew that it would be a tremendous learning experience and, truthfully, I now quite surprised by how much I learned about myself and as a student. Prior to going to Thailand, I thought that I had a good idea of what refugees had to go through. I had been lucky enough to interact with many of them but little did I know that all that I had imagined would be challenged. The Dara’ang gave me exposure about what it is to be a refugee in a developing country. Not only had I not had the experience of interacting people who lived daily in situations that would be considered poverty by Western standards, but also I had never thought of what refugees in developing countries had to face. I had to redefine my vision of citizenship. Knowing my legal status and the exact date and time I was born were both concepts that I took for granted and I assumed everyone benefitted from. I could not have been more wrong. I had no idea that there were five different types of residential status in Thailand. What I loved most while in Asia was to learn about the environment and how essential it is for people to work within their natural environment to succeed. I was impressed by how the NGOs we interviewed use agroforestry and sustainable agriculture to help the refugee populations to provide for themselves. I always knew that I enjoyed spending time in nature but this experience has shaped my desire to dedicate my life to helping the environment. It would have taken me much longer to come to this idea if I had not been a part of this experience. This experience has made me a more focused student, a better writer, and a young person who is more aware of her surroundings and privileges. This journey was transformative and I was blessed to embark on it.

Video Interview of ninety year-old Dara’ang refugee from Myanmar who now lives in a Dara’ang migrant village, Fang District, Chiang Mai. He told us of stories of hardship, hunger, and war in Myanmar. He far prefers living in Thailand. “I don’t really miss anything about Myanmar,” he relayed.