The start of the rainy season in Chiang Mai, Thailand, also marked the beginning of the year for EarthRights School Mekong’s class of 2014.  On a stormy evening of the first Friday in June, I arrived to the welcoming party.  The sounds of the storm let up just in time for the performances to begin.  EarthRights International staff, alumni, and friends gathered to watch song and dance performed by the new students as well as students of nearby NEED-Burma organization.

ERI’s Mekong Alumni Coordinator Tom Kaewpradit officially welcomed the students into the EarthRights International family, acknowledging that they are the ninth class of the EarthRights School Mekong.  As nine is the lucky number in Thai culture, he assured us all this class would bring great luck not only to the school but back to their countries as well.

The students are a charismatic crew.  An outsider at the welcoming party would never guess the students met less than a week prior, as their jovial interactions with one another are like those of life-long friends.  They come together all the countries that border the Mekong River, including China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The bonds they create with each other over the next seven months will strengthen relationships between their communities throughout the region for decades to come.


As the students reflected on their first impressions of the school and Chiang Mai, a Tibetan student wrote:

“I was wondering how it is possible that people from different countries can study, eat and live together. Well, I’m thinking it may be the power of love, the power of human compassion or just people from all over the world coming together to save the Mekong River.

A Thai student stated:

[W]hen I meet my friends and staff in the school, I find that it does not matter whether we speak English well or not. There is no right or wrong. We just want to express what we feel, try to understand each other, and laugh together. This environment is really impressive.”

A Vietnamese student said:

“In the future, I hope we can share information, reinforce trans-boundary relations and find the best solutions to address the main issues in the region”

The first lessons were about  conflict transformation and peace building,  followed by a seven day workshop on Forum Theatre.  Hjalmar Joffre-Eichhorn, who has worked with theatre as a peace-building technique in communities all over the world, facilitated the workshop.  He lead the students and six EarthRights School Mekong alumni through a series of games, activities, and discussions that developed their ability to perform as both an actor and an activist.  Speaking about Forum Theatre, Hjalmar Joffre-Eichhorn says:

“It’s a true people’s tool.  It’s a theatre for and with and by and of the people, which makes it quite different from more traditional theatre approaches, which are often top down, slightly more preachy and of a teaching nature, where as theatre of the oppressed and forum theatre are true tools of analysis, true tools for bottom up dialogue, for community-led conversations about very very important issues and problems that exist in the community, a tool where we really believe that people power is something real and that has a deep trust in people, that is sure that every human being in this world can make a contribution to positive change, and where we believe that the theatre (and that this particular form of theatre called Forum Theatre), can create a space for people to self-mobilize in their struggle for a more dignified life or a better life a more beautiful life or a more just life.

Forum Theatre workshop facilitator, Hjalmar Joffre-Eichhorn invites the audience to intervene during the performance to test a solution to the problem

After a week of exploring the earth rights abuses in their communities, the common threads that connected their regions, and the ways in which these issues can be expressed, the participants developed a script.  They rehearsed and revised and refined their plays until concluding the process with a performance that was opened up to ERI staff and students of the NEED-Burma Organization. The participants acted out scenarios of conflict between companies, local authority, and community members.  The play ended as the conflict unfolded, at which point audience members were asked to intervene in the scene and experiment with possible solutions.

EarthRights School teacher Nikki Richards says:

“Forum Theatre enabled the students to create a performance that drew on their personal experiences of how community consultations and power-imbalances work (and don’t work!) and to then invite their audience to explore potential solutions. The students had full authorship over the preparation, including what issues they wanted to present, how they would portray their characters, the divisiveness between the community, the conflict with the company. The theatre workshop itself really was an exercise in participation and empowerment where all decision-making was put in their hands. Even though it was only a week-long workshop, we saw a powerful transformation in each student.

Forum Theatre workshop participants study a practice script to perform in preparation of their performance

The transformation has only just begun.  With a group so passionate and dedicated to learning, one can only imagine the power each student will possess as an activist after six more months of intensive training they will receive here at the EarthRights School Mekong.