Khon Kean in my mind: development is people

Development takes time. A lot of time. Meanwhile, people need to be free and we need to be kind. 

Rattana Lao
9 March 2015

Musician in Thai hotel. Photo by author.I am at the lobby of a hotel in Khon Kean – listening to Thai acoustics being sung so beautifully by a local singer. The song is very old school – it’s about love, about patience and the beauty that comes with it.

The song, the city and the region brings back a lot of memories.

I came to Esarn as a young girl. So young I don’t remember how old I was. My father took me to some temples in the forest where we visited a community of aged monks. I didn’t know them. I didn’t like it. In fact, I hated everything about it. The mosquitoes were killing me. There was no air conditioner.

I was born in Bangkok. A city girl.

I came back to Khon Kean as an undergraduate student of Thammasat University to go and do fieldwork with a group of experts on population. They were national board members of the Planned Parenthood Association of Thailand. I was the youth representative, someone who should be able to voice the concerns of the country’s youth to the adults. To be honest, I knew very little.

I was an eloquent, even outspoken debater from Bangkok, devoid of understanding. But the experience of visiting villages, listening to people’s stories and hearing children cry because their parents had been diagnosed with HIV changed my views of the world.

I became interested in development, inequality and the disparity between urban and rural societies. I began reading Amartya Sen’s polemic work: Development as Freedom.

Then I went to college in London where development studies theories were played out in front of me. Week by week, experts from various fields introduced the complex concepts of development. One professor poignantly said:

“If you want to understand development, you must begin with population.”

I didn’t get it.

It took many more years of reading, being perplexed and frustrated before I understood that one sentence.

Development is about people.

If development has meant ‘freedom’ for Sen and ‘people’ to my teachers, people and freedom must be interrelated.

Listening to the Thai song, I write this note to the world. Please be kind to the Esarn people. The farmers here are the backbones of this nation. The people here have shed their sweat and tears for decades in order to live a better life, in order to be free. While the majority might not have fancy degrees from the Ivy League or might never have heard of Oxbridge like those elites in Bangkok, it is inhumane to brand Esarn people “poor and stupid”.

No one has the right to do that and no one, no matter what, deserves such humiliation and discrimination.

Development takes time. A lot of time. Meanwhile, people need to be free and we need to be kind.


Khon Kean Pillar Shrine at night. Photo by author.

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