'Little people' prove change is possible

'Little people' prove change is possible

Buckets of fresh blue sea crabs and transparent sea prawns bigger than our palms are among a myriad of huge catches that are the reason for the giant grins on the sun-drenched faces of the people who live in a fishing community.

Marine conservation activist Banjong Nasae posts these happy images from a Songkhla fishing community on his Facebook page every day. His message: "It's so easy and quick for sea abundance to return if we can only keep the environmentally destructive trawlers from our coasts."

Every time these happy photos pop up on my screen, I always stop to take a good look at them and rejoice at their hard-earned success. The photos bring back a lot of memories from when I covered their early movement to stop the trawlers, which at that time enjoyed backing from corrupt officials and powerful politicians. Back then, the battle seemed an impossible one. Yet the Songkhla fishing community persisted because saving the seas is saving their children's future. 

It was a long and hard battle which had its fair share of violence and bloodshed. The fishermen and women were not afraid to venture out into the seas with guns to stop the trawlers themselves when the marine authorities turned the other way. 

It would be a lie to say that the country's long coasts are now free of trawlers. They are not. This week, we found out why trawlers were allowed to operate their illegal activities under the authorities' noses. The marine police chief was arrested for taking bribes in the country's biggest police corruption scandal. 

Still, strong communities with determination and support from local administrative bodies such Tha Sala and Hua Sai in Songkhla can keep trawlers at bay, thus allowing the degraded sea to regenerate itself.  

For me, the Songkhla fishing community's happy ending is more than a successful save-the-sea story. It reconfirms my belief in little people's power to bring about change for themselves, by themselves. It is a story of hope when such inspirational stories are in short supply in our current political climate.

This week saw another landmark event that has also sustained my belief that we should never give up hope in spite of the seemingly insurmountable oppressive system. The Thai Theravada Sangha outlaws female monks. According to the elders' draconian rule, any monk who ordains a woman will be severely punished and the woman will be defrocked. When Buddhism scholar Chartsumarn Kabilsingh was ordained in the Sri Lankan Bhikkhuni order, first as a samaneri, or novice nun, in 2001 and as a fully ordained Bhikkhuni in 2003, she was fiercely criticised by the elders and the conservative public. But they could not do anything to defrock her because she does not belong to the Thai order.

Other weaker souls might have quit. However, she quietly continues practising as a monastic nun under the name Dhammananda. Using her as a role model, and with her impeccable practice that quickly attracts followers, other women have followed in her footsteps. Now there are more than 100 female monks and novices in the country. Before, they had to go to Sri Lanka to be ordained. Not any more. Last Saturday was an important day for female spirituality in Thailand. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni was appointed a female preceptor by a Sri Lankan preceptor during a group ordination for female monks in Songkhla. 

According to the monastic codes of conducts, a preceptor must have spent at least 10 years in the robes before they can ordain and teach others. This means women who cannot afford the expense of going to Sri Lanka can be ordained in Thailand. Now we have Dhammananda Bhikkhuni as the only preceptor here. But female ordination in Thailand will be a common thing when other female monks become eligible too.

The abbess of Wat Songdhamkalayani once told me that there is no point paralysing oneself by focusing on obstacles. Despite fierce resistance from the elders, if female monks practise well, public acceptance will grow and nothing can stop the wheel of change.

Many fishermen and woman in Songkhla told me the same thing. Fear and hopelessness may stop the other fishing communities from joining hands to fight trawlers. But once they see how quickly abundant catches return to the sea then nothing can stop them from taking matters into their own hands.

Their message is clear. There is no point burying yourself in hopelessness, though national politics offers no hope. When small people finally join hands for a common cause, big changes will occur.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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