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Our tribe has a lot of problems; no nationality, no land, fighting in the community.
We are children but we want to work to help our village-
So we use art, theatre and circus to tell our story.
- Theatre and Circus Youth Group, Pang Daeng Nok
The Plight of the Dara-Ang Communities in Thailand
Dara-Ang: The 'Ang' means cliff and is a reference to their origin high in the mountains, and the prefix 'da' is indicative of them being an ethnic group.
Dara-Ang people, from Shan State, Myanmar, first sought refuge in northern Thailand in the early 1980’s. There had been civil wars between the Myanmar Army and military groups in the Shan and Wa states since Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948. In the 1970’s-80’s the Dara-Ang people were forced to supply the Shan and Wa groups with food and resources whilst they were fighting in the surrounding area. When the Myanmar Army were aware of this, they then saw Dara-Ang people as the enemy and demolished their houses, stole their resources, sexually abused the women, and took the sons to fight for them.
Dara-Ang people began to flee to settle in villages along the Thai-Burma border by Chiang Mai province. Initially the Thai soldiers at the border would not permit their crossing. However, following a royal visit by the King to the Royal Agricultural Station in the district, the Dara-Ang leaders managed to meet him and inform him of their plight. The King gave them permission to live in the Fang district on the Thai side of the border. Here, their struggles continued though as they became under the influence of the drug lord, Khun Sa of the Shan United Army. Shan soldiers forced them to work in rice fields to harvest rice for the army’s consumption, and also to grow poppies to produce opium for drug trade.
The Troubles of Pang Daeng Villagers
Makhampom have a long standing relationship with Pang Daeng Nok, one of two Dara-Ang villages in the Chiang Dao district of Chiang Mai. The villagers have had ongoing troubles since their migration to Thailand.
In 1985 the Royal Forestry Department endorsed a reforestation plan for Chiang Dao Forest Reserve. Some Dara-Ang people were recruited as labourers and relocated from Fang to Pang Daeng; never to be sent back to their prior settlements. From 1987-89 illegal logging increased within the reserve, meanwhile the Dara-Ang people worked to conserve the forest they had grown to love.
One early morning in January 1989, police arrived in their community forcefully arresting twenty-nine male Pang Daeng villagers without explanation. Confused and fearful, the men were taken away in iron caged pickup trucks. They were later charged with forest encroachment and jailed.
A second mass arrest occurred in March 1998 when fifty-six Pang Daeng Nok male villagers were charged with forest encroachment and illegal immigration. To this day the Pang Daeng community have not been granted Thai citizenship and therefore it is easy for state authorities to enforce measures of their choosing.
Then in July 2004, two hundred officers from government agencies including the army, police and forestry officials, came at night to arrest without warrant forthy-eight men and women in Pang Daeng Nok for forest encroachment and illegal entry into Chiang Dao National Reserve. A hunger alert case was raised subsequently for the family members left in the village; mostly women and children who had no source of income.
This time the arrests were widely reported in the media and a national campaign by human rights activists began against the violation of the villagers human rights. Included in the campaign was the matter of the arrests being illegal, that the villagers were scapegoats for the true perpetrators of the deforestation, and that there was another motive of removing the villagers from the land to allow for increasing tourism in the district.
Makhampom along with other organisations spent eight intense months in 2008 trying to prove the innocence of the community and put an end to the threat of future arrests. Eventually the Royal Forestry Department allowed the coexistence of human and forest and four hundred villagers were granted permission to settle on allocated land in the Pang Daeng area.
The Pang Daeng Nok Community Today
Of the three ethnic communities that Circus on the Edge are working with, the Pang Daeng village has the vastest of differences. Firstly, they have the smallest area of land, which is a stretch of deep rutted ground, depleted of natural resources for them to live off; resulting in struggles for food. They are the poorest, have less access to health care and education and are affected by long-standing problems associated with drugs that consequentially leads to many internal and external conflicts.
Visible Dara-Ang traditions include:
- The Hoter; a small bamboo structure that Dara-Ang communities build in the centre or “heart” of their village. They are believed to be where an angel lives to watch over and protect the villagers.
- The women of the village adding colour to the arid land with their decorative traditional dress; including a hand woven skirt which is coloured red to indicate their Dara-Ang subgroup.
The families live in their extended generations in bamboo huts of up to ten people. Most marry between the age of fifteen-twenty; when the youth are deemed at their best fertility. For the past three years Makhampom have been running a twice-weekly theatre and circus group for the youth to attend until they marry and/or enter full-time work.
The Theatre and Circus Youth Group
Since 2008 Makhampom have been holding cultural exchanges in Pang Daeng Nok with visting teachers, facilitators and performers. The demand for circus training came directly from the youth in 2011. After a succession of workshops from circus performers they highlighted to Makhampom that it was an art form they wanted to develop in. Makhampom in support of this, trained their team further in circus and set up an official Theatre and Circus Youth group, of which Golf has been their Circus Trainer and treasured confidante.
Since joining the group the changes within the youths as individuals and as a team have been numerous:
Greater confidence and pride through the achievement of circus skills
Breaking down the boy/girl power divide and building respect for each other through team work
Developing kinder and warmer behaviour towards each other and a more rational way of dealing with conflicts through dialogue theatre
Stronger and sincere points of view on the issues that affect them
Increased happiness from the participation in a fun and creative outlet separate from their many daily responsibilities and personal troubles.
Golf hopes that the future of circus and theatre in Pang Daeng Nok will be the continuation of using the art forms to help the youth develop the already intelligent and strong human beings they are. Also that their shows will not just be seen as entertainment but as a tool to understand and combat violence and bring about peace.
We are working with a group of seventeen spritely, very friendly and high energy youth, aged between ten and twelve. There was never a quiet moment before, during and after rehearsals with laughter, singing and a relentless excitable bashing of percussion instruments rocketing around the space.
The first stage of the project ran for two evenings in the village, where all the youths much younger siblings race around too and endearingly try and copy the acrobatics. Then much to the youth’s utter delight, the process moved to the theatre at Makhampom’s Art Space at the weekend. They relished in spending their breaks playing in the large grounds and snacking on many treats (although the cinnamon spice in the apple pie was not well received!)
The Circus on the Edge Show
The Circus on the Edge performance was a development of the youth’s previous show One Day in Pang Daeng. The material came from a series of theatrical workshops in which the youth explored and discussed the social issues they face in a safe space for the first time. The issues they chose to narrate through the medium of acrobats, clowning, trapeze, aerial silk, unicycle, juggling and dance (they really are very talented!) include:
Being unable to continue to high school education because they cannot afford the fees and do not qualify for scholarships as they have not been granted Thai citizenship
Being punished by forest officials if caught picking fruit from the forest when they cannot afford to eat
Being regarded as lower status and negatively stereotyped by many lowlanders.
One Day in Pang Daeng was performed with three Makhampom staff playing the characters from outside the village. It was the task of the Circus on the Edge team to hand the new show completely over to the youth to allow for greater ownership and better sustainability. It is now their piece to perform at least once a month for guests at the Makhampom Art Space, with ticket proceeds going entirely to the youth for such things as food for their families.
Andrea and Golf facilitated theatre workshops to enable them to confidently take on the scripted roles. Another new element of the show was to devise individual moments where the youth step out of character and speak directly to the audience about their future dreams, including being teachers, a bank worker, a cars saleswoman, a Christian missionary and an astrologer. They then share their visions of how they plan to use their position positively; for example becoming an alternative teacher to help children who cannot afford high school continue in their education. It hopefully will prove empowering for them to have the opportunity to have their voices and ideas heard and acknowledged by the public. There were also circus workshops to integrate the new generation of the youth group in to the show and start their journey towards not just personal and physical development, but the opportunity for a performing income.
I feel no exaggeration in saying that the Theatre and Circus Youth Group is a lifeline to the children.
They know that they are very good at circus skills and at such a young age. There is no shame in this pride, because these children need something that gives them a deep sense of achievement to try and combat the feelings they have from not being allowed the right to an identity status.
Their relationship with Makhampom is also precious in that they receive love, care for their health and wellbeing and a belief that each and every one of them is valued.
The Circus on the Edge project is another step in empowering the younger generation and opening up opportunities away from some saddening alternatives they face. As with every weekly workshop they have, the youth gave the Circus on the Edge process all their energy and determination to advance. Simply put, they are very, very special individuals.
Thank you for reading, I hope that I was able to give a sense of the nature of the youth and the importance of circus and theatre to them.
Just one of the acts from the youth's long list of circus skills, enjoy!
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