Using Theater to Address Social Challenges in Refugee Communities

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In the middle of April, accompanied by alumni of the EarthRights School Mekong, I travelled to the town of Sob Moei, the ‘city of three mists,’ in northwestern Thailand. We had a special guest, Hjalmar, a friendly German-Bolivian theater practitioner from Afghanistan, who joined us to lead workshop with villagers from Karen communities. The workshop participants were young people whose ancestors fled from Myanmar as a result of civil war.  Since then, their new life in Thailand has been a struggle.  For instance, it is difficult to get Thai citizenship.  As a result, their lives have been difficult in terms of practicing their human rights. This time, we organized people and discussed Free, Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) by using the special methodology called the ‘Forum Theater’.

“What do you know about Forum Theater?” was the first question Hjalmar asked. Confused, we waited for Hjalmar to explain more about the “Forum Theater”. According to him, the Forum Theater is one of the various methodologies of ‘Theater of the Oppressed’, initiated by Brazilian theater practitioner Augusto Boal in the 1960s, during Brazil’s dictatorship. The purpose of Forum Theater is to help those whose rights have been violated find space, to reveal how much people know about their situation. This is important because during Forum Theater, the audience could stop any scene to try and change the situation. Different from traditional plays, Forum Theater always stops at climax. The climax and problems must come from real situations, allowing them to clearly understand their problems.

This time, our participants were young adults from eleven to nineteen years old. It was a challenge for them to understand the root causes of the problem and impacts of the problems, and understandably so: this is a complex issue. Even though Forum Theater is a kind of performance (hence “theater”), it still requires discussion and sharing (hence “forum”). At first, they were quite shy; many of them did not know each other previously. They came in groups and communicated in Karen language.  While they can definitely speak Thai, it does not come naturally for them.

Participants preparing for their performance

It was quite hard for us to decide which language to use for the performance. The situation there made it difficult to talk about Free Consent as we had planned to, so we decided to base our Forum Theater on our participants’ real experiences. Various interesting topics were shared by the young Karen participants, such as domestic violence caused by alcoholism, issues of statelessness and violation of land rights. The most interesting topic chosen by all workshop participants was the conflict between the Thai Government authority and Karen villagers on National Forest Law. Our young Karen participants showed big effort and creativity on preparing their performance, writing the story scene by scene, composing the songs for opening and closing and also creating a very interesting critical commercial between the scenes.

We held the performance in the afternoon of the last day of the workshop. The families of participants and staff of local NGOs were invited to be the audience. Even though our actors did not have much time to prepare and practice, the play was performed perfectly.

An audience gathers to watch the performance

The end of the play is the most important moment in Forum Theater.  The audience was invited to solve the very problematic scene by choosing one character to help change the situation. Our actors did a very good job when they tried to present their ideas and perspectives in front of the director of a local NGO (he acted as the Karen people farming in a national park). With his expertise and experience, the local NGO director successfully solved the problem. Although it was a very hot summer day in April, I could feel how the play excited the NGO staff and the participants’ family members. Obviously, the performance got much sympathy and support from its audience.

As a result, we found that young people are very much concerned with the problems taking place in their community. They are active community members and have a lot of power and creativity to raise these problems in very soft but touching way. Why does this approach from Latin America also work with Karen youths in Sob Moei? It is perhaps because oppression is universal and we, as human beings, have shared attitudes toward our future—we all hope to live our lives freely. That is why we need the FPIC principle to be fully applied to ensure the rights of people and the sustainability of the community.

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