A project connecting southern Mexico indigenous rights’ activists the Zaptistas with migrants from Burma in Thailand shows impact of international solidarity
Jay Kerr | Wednesday 14 January 2015 07.00 GMT
It started last spring when I visited a Thai NGO supporting the rights of migrant workers from Burma. I had just been in Sydney where I’d seen a presentation on Zapatistas, focusing on their work helping autonomous communities in southern Mexico build new schools and develop educational initiatives.
I discovered the Zapatista movement was almost unknown to my friends at Map Foundation in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. Twenty years on from when the Zapatistas first entered the world stage – on the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) came into effect in 1994 – the Zapatistas are a social movement of thousands of indigenous communities who have declared complete autonomy. They operate a form of participatory democracy and run their own healthcare and radical school systems.
Burmese migrants in Thailand face a situation akin to Mexican migrants crossing the US border. Escaping economic poverty under a brutal regime in Burma, more than two million people have migrated to work in Thailand, one of the richer countries of south-east Asia. Many face workplace exploitation, oppressive state restrictions on travel, and are often harassed by police or scapegoated for crimes.
We held a private film screening to communicate the story of the Zapatista rebellion and the work of Schools for Chiapas in Mexico to Map Foundation staff, who are mostly migrant workers from Burma. A heated discussion followed, revealing similarities between struggles against state repression and the impact of free trade in Burma, Thailand and Mexico.
Map members said the Zapatistas’ ability to bring different indigenous groups together was something to learn from, as this was unseen in Burma. The film’s report of a massacre in the indigenous village of Acteal by anti-Zapatista paramilitaries (with apparent state complicity) raised comparisons with Burma’s brutal history.
The impact of neoliberalism in Thailand was also discussed, as indigenous Mexican fears of Nafta in ’94 have their counterparts around the world today in hundreds of free-trade deals. Map members discussed the impact of free trade on the livelihoods of Thai farmers and struggling migrant agricultural workers, through cheap food imports that undercut local producers. Fears were raised that political changes in Burma could bring similar problems.
An older member of the Map Foundation, a Thai man with many years’ experience in social struggles, surprised everyone by telling of the Zapatistas influence in Thailand in the past. He spoke of a group of farmers in one of the poorest regions which, soon after the ’94 uprising, had followed the Zapatista example, expropriating fertile lands that had been bought up by large corporations so they could be farmed collectively. The Thai farmers, rather than becoming caught in a war of weapons or words as the Zapatistas had been, were instead caught up in legal battles that drag on to this day, he said.
A few weeks after this film screening I visited Zapatista communities in Mexico, bringing a Map Foundation film with me as a gesture of solidarity from Thailand. The film featured migrant women talking about difficulties in their workplaces and domestic lives, and the impact of skill-sharing through Map’s exchange meetings.
Women in Mexico should be able to relate to this, but unfortunately I arrived in Chiapas soon after a Zapatista teacher had been killed by paramilitaries and tensions were high – dashing hopes of holding a screening. Instead, copies of the film were presented to leaders for distribution.
In fostering relations between diverse groups in Asia and Latin America – in this case migrant communities battling exploitation and indigenous communities battling oppression – we could show similarities and share lessons. The use of films allowed minimal influence from a third party; I consciously tried to avoid any paternalism as a western NGO worker and instead let relations develop of their own accord.
The successful connection between these groups, as well as the difficult circumstances surrounding the project – from a Thailand recently overtaken by a military coup to a community in Mexico dealing with another killing of one of its members – is a stark reminder of the importance of international ties to build strength.
Jay Kerr is a campaigner for No Sweat. Follow @PunkEthics on Twitter.