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The Potential of People: An Interview with Chayan Vaddhanaphuti
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positions: east asia cultures critique 12.1 (2004) 71-91

An Interview with Chayan Vaddhanaphuti

Celia Lowe

Chayan Vaddhanaphuti is an activist-intellectual who works on land rights and indigenous knowledge among ethnic minorities in Thailand. He has examined the relationships between rights, identity, and the state in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, and he is a well-known critic of elite development projects, including large-scale hydropower and logging. His life's work illustrates how the Thai academy is necessarily interconnected with new social movements in Asia. He himself is responsible for many collaborations between Thailand's ethnic minority and academic communities and has promoted socially engaged social science research among Thai scholars.

Vaddhanaphuti is the founding director of the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development at Chiang Mai University. He is a graduate of Chulalongkorn University and received his PhD in 1984 in international development education and anthropology from Stanford. This interview is part of an extended conversation that we had in May 2000 at the University of Washington, Seattle, and in June 2002 in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The conversation also developed via e-mail in the intervening months.

Celia Lowe: Much of your work has involved a critical examination of the idea of development. Twenty, thirty, fifty years ago, development seemed like a beautiful dream—a fantasy of empowerment, peace, and prosperity for every community and every society for the first time in world history. We have since become aware, however, that development has also been a political strategy, a method for winning the "hearts and minds" of the Global South during the Cold War—thus we had the "green" revolution designed to combat the "red" revolution—and a way to depoliticize civil society to the benefit of authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

We can now recognize development as, on the one hand, an unfortunate teleology forever destined to cleave the world into developed and undeveloped, advanced and backward, and, on the other, a construct that has become meaningful to the identities and aspirations of many peoples. How do we balance the coercive and ideological aspects of development with a recognition of peoples' efforts to imagine the forms of their own prosperity—to imagine what some want to call "alternative modernities"?

Chayan Vaddhanaphuti: The development experience in Thailand exemplifies the common phenomenon of development, which is propelled by governments as well as the capitalist economic system. It should be noted that in the process of development it is always the small people, the powerless people, such as women, children, and ethnic minorities, who have to sacrifice and suffer. It is not my intention here to blame Thai government officials or even nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] for causing unintended adverse effects for many Thai communities. In fact, the government officials and NGOs do have good intentions, but they often do not learn from the people.

They disregard the existing indigenous-knowledge systems and do not believe in the potential of the people. They cannot see the relationships between ethnic communities and the environment. For them, development means economic improvement, law and order, and the integration of ethnic communities into the modern state. It means the expansion of state control over natural resources. It is not a learning process in which people learn how to strengthen their capacity in order to cope with external changes.

We need to examine development as a process and as a historically produced discourse. We need to unveil the "colonization of reality," to use Arturo Escobar's term, which has shaped the way in which development is imagined and implemented. We also need to ask ourselves what social development for our societies should be like. Most importantly, we need to search for and relearn new modes of knowing which allow other types of knowledge and experience to be imagined.

CL: Following a Karen saying, "If there is no forest, there are no Karen, and if there are no Karen, there is no forest," you have said, "If the people are not involved, there will be no engaged social science, and if there is no engaged social science, there will be no social development by people and for people." What is the...