Small Footprints, Big Journeys – Buddhist Novices Removing the Stigma of HIV in Northern Thailand

One hundred and nine kilometers northwest of Chiangmai, perched on this side of the border between Thailand and what is officially called Myanmar, formerly known (And still called by many) as Burma, lies the district of Wiang Haeng, within which is a collection of small villages not on the typical tourist route. Getting there, I drove from Changmai out across a verdant sea of rice fields then up and down the nearly vertical mountains that rise majestically from the plains. I was on a journey to learn more about a remarkable group of young Buddhist novices and nains, the latter being young children to young adults. The age for being ordained a Thai monk is twenty. In July, this group of young devoted men won a collective UNAID Red Ribbon Award at the AIDS 2010 Ceremony in Vienna, Austria for their exceptional community service.

Like the majority of the people in this area, most of these young Buddhists have come from the Shan State, which lies across the border from Wiang Haeng. The history of the Shan, a Tai ethnic group, is extremely complicated and their political relationships with neighboring groups are even more convoluted. In 2001, border conflicts erupted between the Shan and the Wa. The Wa people have agreed to trade their autonomy for support from the militaristic regime of the Union of Myanmar and are being used by the junta to help de-stabilize the Shan State through encroachment on Shan territories. A primary goal of the Myanmar junta is to eliminate the Shan State, both culturally and politically and they have been ruthless in their methods.

During the conflicts between the Shan and the WA, the Myanmar army moved in swiftly, destroying village after village. Families were torn apart, and in many cases, children witnessed their parents being tortured and murdered and their mothers being raped by army soldiers. Thousands managed to escape across the border into Thailand where they remain. However, even today, many are not afforded official refugee status, but are simply stateless people struggling in poverty.

I visited Phratyhat Wat Fa Wiang In, a temple that had once been completely on Thai soil, but now is severed in half by new boundaries as a result of the 2001 conflict. Separated by only several hundred feet, across a pastoral gully planted with fruit trees and deadly land mines, we stared at what used to be dormitories for Thai monks; now they are used as barracks for the Myanmar army. On the Thai side the temple was filled with young nains and a few novices busily sweeping up leaves near the main chedi. We spoke with a Shan monk who had secretly crossed back into Burma with a camera hidden beneath his robs. For weeks he traveled his country, copying old Shan photographs and documents that had been hidden from the junta. Had he been caught, the consequences would have been certain imprisonment or death. Another group of older novices were busy with whatever primitive tools they could find remodeling an old temple building in which to house this collection of historical artifacts. It will be a museum to help preserve the culture of the Shan people.

The results of this devastating conflict brought numerous and immediate problems. A huge gateway was created for the smuggling of methamphetamine pills, known as yaba. This year alone, 400,000 pills were confiscated in only one seizure. It is rumored that corrupt groups within the WA State Army of Myanmar bring in most of the illegal drugs. Like the world over, populations who struggle in abject poverty, hopelessness, and desperation are prey to these crippling drugs. The intensity of delivery and increasing addictive strength of the drug continue to grow, supplying an endless demand. Equally devastating are the social scars from the sex-trade industry. Some girls and young women are sold as sex slaves, smuggled into Thai brothels while some, both women and young men, volunteer out of desperation to help support their families. It’s all too obvious what lies on the other side of these unfortunate equations-a dangerous and demoralizing rise in the HIV/AIDS epidemic and drug addiction.

In his re-adaptation of the “Tibetan Wheel of Dependent Origination” to the problems of HIV/AIDS, Buddhist, teacher and humanitarian, Lawrence Maund articulates the chain of events that originate out of ignorance. There follows fear, then discrimination and segregation. This path of darkness leads to unemployment, loss of income, financial worries, stress and anxiety, depression, hopelessness and withdrawal. The end result is we neglect our mental and physical health, falling into sickness, despair and, finally, death

Under the guidance of senior monk and educator, Phra Thanee, these are the problems being tackled by the novices and nains. From various temples throughout the area they have come to a center they call Pleekawiwek (a place of peaceful solitude, suitable for meditation). Their purpose is to learn everything they can about the affects on their communities from HIV/AIDS and drug addiction and the positive ways they can disseminate that learning back into the villages. What is of primary concern is to eliminate the stigma of HIV/AIDS that has, through ignorance, attached itself to the minds of the people, for those who carry the virus and those who do not; everyone is affected.

This understanding and teaching is not relegated to only these problems. What has grown from this benevolence is an action holistic in its approach and from which the seeds of hope and recourse are planted – the development and use of organic fertilizers and organic pesticide. They also teach the people how to make inexpensive mud-brick houses for themselves and they instruct villagers on the positive elements of life skills. A small group of energetic spirits are dedicating their lives to make a difference for those in need.

Pleekawiwek is indeed a quiet, peaceful place yet charged with energy from these young Buddhists who move quietly and with utter conviction, changing the world, step by step. It is a small footprint, but a compelling journey with big rewards. In the pulse of their hearts, their actions move on the river of Buddhist thought, “Neither fire nor wind, birth nor death can erase our good deeds.”

We are now living in a time of much distress throughout the world in which the creative richness of individual spirits is being smothered by a dark cloud of capitalism and corporatism. We are suffocating from consumerism and greed. The illness cannot be healed from the large to the small, but only from the small to the large. As the Italian artist Modigliani said, “Life is a gift, from the few to the many, from those who know and have to those who do not know and do not have.”

I believe the spirit of Pleekawiwek is this kind of extraordinary gift, from the few to the many through which we can begin to heal from the loss of something found neither in governments nor religions but in irreducible, natural, positive goodness given to us from this earth.

Galen Garwood is a painter, filmmaker, writer and photographer. He currently lives in Northern Thailand, within the pulse of Buddhism. He invites you to share his thoughts on all aspects of the creative spirit, the human condition; our relationship to one another, to other creatures, and to this planet we call home. You can visit him at umzugsservice wien