26 May, 2011

Together in Chiang Mai

Published in the Kathmandu Post, 12 Jun 2011

To the traveller’s eye, Chiang Mai is a gracious little city. It is cut through at the centre with a medieval brick wall, reminding the traveller that this city, unlike Bangkok, has an architectural heritage. Bangkok’s bold and brash embrace of modernity and capitalism has made it a city of dreary concrete skyscrapers. Chiang Mai, on the other hand, shows off its Thai architectural heritage with verve, although their wooden houses and sloping roofs may soon vanish in a sea of concrete and glass condominiums and malls. Running next to this great

wall is a canal, filled with water and fountains. The water is clean. The fountains twinkle with rainbows in the summer rain. On the roadsides, which still roar with Vespas but driven by less manic drivers than those in Bangkok, there are green trees.

“Bangkok no good!” says my tuk-tuk driver. This is a term I’ll hear echoed over and over, not just in Chiang Mai but Bangkok itself, by edgy taxi drivers living on the razor’s edge of survival, where one mistake can cost you your livelihood. Perhaps this slower pace of life away from the hectic madness of the capital city is one reason about 200 Burmese Nepali people permanently moved to Chiang Mai. Many of

them now own their own homes, and their own tailoring shops are stacked with fabric. All say they learnt their trade in the hustle and bustle of Bangkok before settling in Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai is close to Mae Sae, which borders Burma, and where Nepalis of Burmese origins have historically come to trade. Wealthy Nepali business families live here. Chiang Mai is also close to Mae Sot, which many Burmese political refugees use as a port of entry to Thailand. Most Gorkhalis, it appears, come to Thailand for economic reasons—to find work and support their families. They say they always intended to return to Burma, but one year stretched into another, and before long they had spent decades in Thailand building houses, starting tailoring shops, getting married and having children.

Most people hold on to a strong community ethos and family ties. For instance, one tailor shared this story: he has five brothers. The eldest is a doctor in the Indian border town of Tamu who makes the most income. The second one is a teacher, in Nepal. The third one is a pharmacist, in India. The fourth works with machinery in the

Gulf. And the sixth is a farmer in Nepal. At the end of each year, the older brother totals up the income of all, and divides it equally—all six end up getting the same, even though some earn a lot more than others. This seemed to me a smart way of using family as a communal support, so that family itself supports professions that are not financially viable. He also explained this revolving family fund allowed them to kick-start businesses for younger members of their family.

I asked the man if he would share his story on camera so people in Nepal could learn from it. He laughed and replied: “This system doesn’t work in Nepal.” The people of Nepal, in other words, are too individualistic, too centred on their own selves to think along these sacrificial lines.

Looking at his shiny storefront, from which he makes around four lakh Baht in profit monthly, I wondered how Nepal’s economy would be transformed if there was more of this economic co-operation, even just within the family unit. For this family, co-operation has clearly brought prosperity.

Realising this same need for co-operation, the Burmese Nepali community in Thailand recently started their own branch of a larger network. Headquartered in Mandalay, the Burmese Gorkhali Hindu Sangh has branches all over Burma, and with their help, the Thailand diaspora started their own network about two years ago.

Of course, all this co-operation was too good to be true. Wherever a group of Nepalis gather, there is conflict. And sure enough, I found it.

On Buddha Jayanti, I went to see the newly built Nepali temple of Chiang Mai. It is a tiny one-roomed building with a tin roof. Built from donations raised from its members, the temple is a meeting place where there used to be none. On Buddha Jayanti, a small crowd gathers to listen to the teachings of monks from Burma invited for the occasion. Inside, I saw Hindu sculptures alongside the sculpture of the Buddha.

It was not obvious to the casual eye of the outsider, but soon I realised a conflict was raging within this tiny community. A few people had decided to leave this committee. Money was initially raised for the purpose of building a Hindu temple. Everyone happily pledged a donation. A few years later, a few members converted to Buddhism. Soon, the idea of being associated with a Hindu temple became abhorrent. Hinduism lacked the ethics and morality of the Buddha dharma and they could no longer be part of this community, they felt. They proposed building a secular community meeting hall instead. This proposal was rejected.

Each side has its valid point. The Hindus say their dharma is all inclusive and that Buddha is accepted inside the temple. The temple, they say, does not belong only to the Hindu images of divinity but is a space for an all inclusive Vedic spirit of oneness, of which Buddha is of course a part. The Buddhists say this is a hokey argument, and that it appropriates Buddha dharma through the general muddling of boundaries that Hindus have a way of doing. The Buddhists, with the ardour and zeal of new converts, also accuse Hindus of lacking the same morals as that they do.

Both sides have religious leaders who give me fascinating discourses on their chosen Dharma. As a layperson, I find both sides entirely convincing. How, then, can an ordinary person choose a side in this conflict?

In the general clamour, the greatest voice of sanity that I heard was Rajan Limbu, the chairperson of the committee. He said, “To tell you the truth, I am also a Buddhist. But I still come to the temple. Why, you ask me. Before, we did not have a space to call our own. Now we do. Now we can call the monks and the people can listen to their words of wisdom. The biggest thing is the community, and to serve it. We were able to rescue a Nepali woman who was trafficked and forced to work in a chicken farm. We worked together with the Muslim community who tipped us off about this case. We can do our work so much easier now that we have this place to come together.”

And this, perhaps, is the lesson—more than any Dharmic one— that comes out from the Nepali diaspora in Chiang Mai.

Joshi is currently an Asia Fellow writing a book about Nepalis in Burma and Thailand