All eyes were on the young Lao woman as she opened a letter informing her that she’d won a scholarship to study human rights law in Australia. She ran over to share the good news with her parents, who were just sitting down to dinner. Her mother’s pride was quickly overcome by her father’s anger. “It’s not proper for a young woman to travel abroad alone! I’m getting old, and I need you here to care for me. Go to your husband- he’ll talk some sense into you!”
The young woman gently approached her husband, who was furious. “We’ve already been married for two years, and you haven’t produced any children. It’s your duty to give me a son! Hand over that letter!” The young woman reluctantly gave up the scholarship letter, crying as her husband tore it to pieces.
As the conflict reached its climax, our facilitators, or “jokers” stepped up, inviting the audience members to intervene by shouting “Stop!” and approaching the stage to replace the protagonist and try out a possible solution.
The actors on stage were EarthRights School Mekong students, who had arrived in June from six Mekong countries for a seven-month training on human rights, environmental law, and advocacy and campaigning. The jokers were their peers from Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, China and Vietnam, who had graduated from our school in previous years and had returned to share their experience with our new class of 2016. The audience was comprised of students from partner schools, local civil society organizations, regional activists, and a group of monks and nuns from a nearby Buddhist university.
The students replayed the scene, and as the husband tore up the scholarship letter, an audience member from Kachin State in Myanmar put up her hand, shouted, “Stop!” and approached the stage. Our alumna joker from China invited her to introduce herself, and to replace the protagonist and try out a new solution to this familiar situation, faced daily by young women in the Mekong region.
The next play was about land grabbing, an issue identified by our ERS-Mekong students and alumni alike as critical in the region. Our indigenous Cambodian student played the role of an armed guard, sent by a foreign-owned hydropower company to evict a farming family whose land had been sold out from under them by a corrupt government officer. Our Hmong and Vietnamese students played the roles of mother and daughter, who gathered to burn incense at their ancestors’ grave before taking up sickles to harvest rice. As the company representative and armed guard approached the farmers with an eviction notice, a young audience member from Shan State, Myanmar shouted, “stop!” and approached the stage, taking the place of the mother. “I have my land title here,” she said, waving a paper at the company rep. “I know my rights under the constitution. I’m calling my lawyer!” She waved at her friend in the audience, who jumped on stage to play the role of public interest lawyer as the audience cheered.
This year’s forum theatre workshop was organized with support from a special grant from Oxfam Australia. The long-term goal of the workshop was to train a group of facilitators, “jokers,” who will work together to bring forum theatre to communities throughout the Mekong region, thus strengthening community solidarity and promoting creative problem-solving and participatory decision-making.
To prepare for the performance, eight ERS Mekong alumni and “joker trainees” from throughout the region had trained intensively with Hjalmar Joffre-Eichhorn, who has used theatre of the oppressed as a peace-building technique in communities throughout the world. Together, they designed a workshop for our new Mekong School students focusing on the principles of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC), particularly in the context of land grabbing in the Mekong region, with special emphasis on gender. The joker trainees learned how to use forum theatre to promote interaction with the audience, so that audience members are involved in creating solutions to the challenges presented on stage.
After spending six days gaining the skills to design and deliver FPIC workshops of their own, the joker trainees led a week-long FPIC workshop from June 16-22 for our new class of 2016. In addition to giving the new students thorough knowledge of their rights to FPIC, this provided an opportunity for alumni and students to bond and form mentor relationships that will be valuable for future field work and joint campaigning endeavors.
Through the workshop, the Mekong School students spent a week exploring the ways in which the principles of FPIC have been violated in their communities, and the joker trainees worked with our class of 2016 ERS Mekong students to develop a script and accompanying songs. The story the participants performed was based on their personal experiences as activists in the Mekong region. Having rehearsed and refined the story, the students held a final performance for an audience of nearly 100 friends and supporters in a large clearing in a nearby national park.
The joker trainees displayed strong capacity in designing and delivering the 6-day workshop for the Mekong School students, and did an excellent job in leading the final performance. As one student reflected, “I think the new jokers are good trainers because they train us with feelings and emotions. I am surprised and proud of them.”
Other students shared their experiences after the final performance:
“I feel like I learn many things from the new jokers. It’s a very good chance for the alumni to be the jokers. I really like the process of forum theatre… It’s not just about theatre but also about developing relationships. It’s the time for us to listen to the people.”
“Such a powerful and strong experience. Even just observing I feel empowered.”
“This is my first time to experience the forum theatre. I cannot wait to try it with my organization and then with my community. How will it work in my own country?”
“This is the first time for me in the forum theatre. I always write stories and help youth act but forum theatre is not like that. We cannot tell someone you must act like this or that. When I come back I will apply forum theatre. We have done a great job. We can find the same problem. Usually we have to find the solution by ourselves but in forum theatre, we can learn from participants and come up with solutions. It’s really great. I can learn from people from different countries.”
The workshop was also a powerful experience for the joker trainees. As one Mekong School alumnus reflected, “I am a new joker. You have to de-mechanize your body and your thoughts in order to understand. I have a concern about myself that I learned here. Being a joker is not easy. We have many jokers here, but what happens when I am alone in Cambodia and I want to do forum theatre? Let’s see…Thank you for coming here and for teaching us about forum theatre.”