Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Editorial: Mango Diplomacy(inspired by Dr Singhal's link)

Promote fruit for good health and better business

Published on July 28, 2010
Thailand is blessed with an abundance of fruits, but we often take them for granted without realising their true value
During US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's recent visit to Pakistan, she pledged to assist Pakistan in exporting mangoes to the US. The export of this sweet fruit is no small issue. If the US opens to Pakistan mangoes, it could help reduce anti-American sentiment.

The press hailed this mango story as "mango diplomacy", even though no Pakistani mangoes have made their way to the US yet. Clinton didn't make any commitment on the deadline, but her positive gesture shows that one cannot underestimate such diplomacy. In fact, it is a shrewd effort.

Pakistan doesn't view the mango as simply an export item. In fact, the country takes pride in this national fruit. It is believed that mangoes originated in South Asia before Buddhist monks and Persian traders took the plant to other parts of the world, including Thailand, where our version of the fruit is perfect served with coconut milk and soft sticky rice.

The mango commitment is important for US diplomacy with South Asia. Pakistan saw the possibility of the US market for their mangoes after the US agreed to take Indian mangoes three years ago, in exchange for allowing Harley-Davidson to sell its motorcycles in India. Although the initial sales volumes for both mangoes and Harley-Davidsons were not robust, due to tax and other technical issues, the deal generated goodwill between the US and India.

The mango news comes as Thailand faces a glut of various fruits on the domestic market, including rambutan, mangosteen, durian, lychee, longan and coconut. The Commerce Ministry forecasts that this year's production of many fruits will increase over last year - rambutan, for example, from 271,000 to 285,000 tonnes, and lychee from 53,200 to 82,800 tonnes.

This is good news for Thai consumers, as they can enjoy our flavourful fruits at a more affordable price. But it's bad news for farmers, who are facing depressed prices as the supply of fruits is far above the demand. Perhaps now is the time to help absorb the supply of our home grown products.

We can take our pride in our great variety of fruits in the same way Pakistan and India do their mangoes. Thai fruits are second to none in terms of taste and quality, and are now more affordable for the majority of Thais. A decade ago, the prices of many home-grown fruits such as durian, mangosteen and lychee were too high for many people. But nowadays, anyone can enjoy these fruits without having to rob a bank.

We should continue to promote home-grown fruits not only as products, but to promote health. Fruits have a much higher nutritional value than processed foods and junk foods. Let's face it, our ancestors did not face the obesity problem we are facing today, because they ate fruits for dessert or a snack, instead of candy, chocolate or potato chips. We can all promote our fruits by including them in meals, instead of processed products with a high sugar content - most of which are generally more expensive than home-grown fruits.

Besides the health factor, we should be thankful that our home-grown fruits have generated revenue from trade - another good reason why they should be promoted. There should be direct links between farmers and consumers in every area, to absorb the supply while cutting out the middlemen who force farmers to sell produce to them at too low a price.

In the meanwhile, the government should make a greater effort to promote our national pride in order to boost exports of these products around the world. After all, how can we promote our fruits overseas if we cannot promote consumption domestically?

It shouldn't take too much effort to persuade people to enjoy these flavourful fruits. Thailand is blessed with natural produce, yet we sometimes take things for granted, while others don't take their fruit so lightly. Witness how Indians and Pakistanis often argue over who grows the best mangoes.

While Thais may leave the mango debate to South Asians, we can close the argument over who grows the best durians, rambutan and lychee, among others, by promoting the consumption of these "secret weapons".
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VIP Treatment

I was back to Jhuwani again for the third time during my two-month visit. This time, I accompanied READ Nepal’s trip to bring a group of VIP guests, including Mr Deependra Bickram Thapa, Secretary of Education Ministry who is equivalent to Assistant Secretary of Education in the US, and Dr Chheweng Namgal Lama, General Secretary of the Social Welfare Council, the top official in the council which is in charge of nonprofits, to visit three libraries supported by READ. The three libraries were selected because they have successful sustainability projects. Besides, these three also received the funding by Norway recently. I was quite familiar with these libraries because I have been involved in the survey of community needs. Therefore, I was happy that the officials at this high level agreed to visit these libraries which are seven-hour drive from Kathmandu.
This is the first time that the top government officials have visited READ libraries. And I was impressed by the officials’ easy-going style. They didn’t mind sitting on the floor of the libraries. The weather that day was very hot and the road was muddy and bumpy. But they didn’t complain and they spent time to look at the libraries and talked to local people about their needs. At the end of the day, they committed to assist READ Nepal by for instance providing small grants and tax measures.
These two pictures were taken during our visit to Harnari Library. You can see the Secretary of Education on the right side of the picture, wearing light blue shirt. On the other picture, if you look carefully enough, you may see me sitting among the crowds.

Life in Nepal: Lord Buddha is Nepali

Caption (1) Inside Patan Museum (2) Lumbini
Somehow, I used to believe that Lord Buddha was Indian. But after my recent visit to Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha, I was enlightened. Lord Buddha is Nepali because he was born in Nepal, even though the place where he was born not so far from India. The birthplace of his mother Maya is not far from the Lord Buddha’s birthplace. Now I am absolutely convinced that Lord Buddha is Nepali. I saw the exact location where he was born.
In fact, Thai Buddhists didn’t think much about the nationality of Lord Buddha. In Buddhism, we have been told to focus more on Lord Buddha’s teaching not his life. I never thought much about Lord Buddha’s history. But I must confess that I was very excited to see his birthplace.
I was lucky that I accompanied READ Nepal’s staff to a community resource center’s training in Butwal, which is around 1 hour and a half from Lumbini. On a Saturday’s afternoon after the participants went on a field trip, I decided to take a personal journey to Lumbini to see where Lord Buddha was born.
There I saw traces of old stupas, constructed by the Great King Asoka who was a devout Buddhist. There were many new temples constructed by various embassies in Lumbini compound. One of the highlights is of course Thai Buddhism temple. But I could not walk or rickshaw (I didn’t have a car) to Thai temple site on the day of my visit because of the heavy raining. It was impossible to walk or rickshaw through the muddy road on that day.
Although majority of Nepali are Hindu, the presence of Buddhism influence in Nepal is still widely evident. There are many Buddhism temples; most of them are Mahayana school. Thai Buddhism belongs to Theravada. In fact, I can also relate to Hinduism because Thai students studied Ramayana, a Hindu scripture. Therefore, I learn about Hindu God and Goddesses and, in fact, many Thais also worshiped these Gods. My Nepali friend here was surprised the extent to which Thai students have to study Ramayana. She told me that Thai students seem to study more Ramayana than Nepali students are required to because she told me she was required to study only two pages of Ramayana during her school years but I remembered that when I was a student, I had to read almost the whole (more simplified) text of Ramayana. (I assume that because Nepali curriculum is based on British education.)
Another must-see destination of whoever interested in Buddhism is Patan Museum in Patan Dhoka, which is 30-hour drive from Kathmandu. Located in an old town of Patan, the museum is simple yet spectacular. There are statues of Sakyamuni Buddha and Maitreya or Buddha who will come in the future.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Life In Nepal (Back to Kathmandu)

Caption: A Jhuwani lady that we surveyed her. You can see goats wandering around. When I touched its forehead, the goat loved it and he acted like a tamed dog. These goats don't know what people raised them to eat!

Dear Friends, I would like to thank you for reading my blog. Here’s what’s happening next. To cut a long story short, I decided to take public bus back to Kathmandu after spending four days in Jhuwani.
Nepali bus is convenient and cheap. Non air-con bus costs me around 10 dollars from Chitwan (the closest spot to take bus from Jhuwani). I entered the bus station which is nothing but a field where many buses were parking around 9 am. I was supposed to arrive Kathmandu on 4 pm. But it was not the case, I arrived Kathmandu after 10 pm because of unexpected landslides at two locations on the winding roads on the hilly mountains.
When the traffic stopped along the small road winding along the mountains, there were two assumptions: first, there may be an accident and the locals stopped the car that caused the accident and smash the driver (I’ve seen it twice. It’s common) or landslide. On that day, the bus, along with other vehicles, stood still for hours. When the traffic people managed to remove the dirt and rock from one side and the traffic started to move, there was another accident where rocks from the dug vehicle were accidently dropped into the vehicle passing on the opposite side. The driver was unconscious. The traffic stopped again, waiting for the ambulance to get the unlucky driver.
Overall, I was fine. When the bus stopped, the passengers left the bus or vehicles to stretch their legs. There were several dozens of people walking around. My only problem was that I could not find proper toilet. When I asked where I could pee, local people pointed to woods on the sideway.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Life In Nepal: Back to Jhuwani

After one month of orientation workshop, READ Nepal’s staff members, including me, went back to Jhuwani to conduct survey and focus group discussions.

We prepared written survey and planned to include some local people in our volunteer team. Surveymonkey does not work here because not many had an internet access. One of the people I met didn't have a clue on what is computer.

On the first day, we met with a group of community people to orient them of the objectives of the survey. Some were not skeptical, questioning our motives. They said none would reveal their assets. Some questioned why the representation of the lower caste people was low in the meeting. The other was still in a bad mood because one of his cows was suddenly dead one day before.

Eventually, they were cooperative. We told them that our goal is to build community libraries and the community people would decide by themselves the persons to run the library or what to do with the library. We were there just to provide support. facilitate the assistance. Besides, I think people should be convinced that we were there to listen to them. My presence might light up the mood a bit because I looked like a stranger from the other planet, I was the only foreigner and I made them languge at my clumpsiness many times.

Before the survey, we made a social mapping in each village. A couple of dozens of village people gathered up at a meeting place help us draw the map of their village and who are residing in those houses. This social mapping is quite effective in surveying the economic status for our sampling because here everyone knows everyone. They can tell you how many cows their neighbors have, for instance. Then, the village people would select the random sample for us. A village has some 50 households. Our survey is one to five. Therefore, we conducted some 10 surveys by visiting to different households in each village.

Then, we conducted focus group discussions with smaller groups of people such as women’s group and librarians to find out what are the issues they face and what can be done to improve. I have been familiar with some people because I have been here before and also I met some of them in other places during the previous trainings. Two local people whom met me during my previous visit one month ago greeted me with “You are fatter!.” Yes, I told them that blame it on Nepali Dalbhat. Here, I eat more than I did in the US. I had breakfast, lunch and dinner at 9.30 pm. Nepali had dinner quite late. Although I get used to skipping dinner, I joined their dinner because I didn’t want to miss the discussion. By the way, unlike Western culture, telling people fat does not have a negative meaning. It is a matter of fact, I think.

I accompanied local people to visit people door to door in three villages. Nonetheless, I must confess that this is the toughest trip I had so far in Nepal. One day before this Jhuwani trip , I just came back from a two-day visit to Banepa. There, I had “King Curd”, the locally-made yoghurt that was contained in a pottery to keep the temperature cool. Nepali don’t keep King Curd in the fridge. I tasted it and found it very tasty that I finished a very big bowl of King Curd on my own. (even Nepali was surprised by my greed!). It was the best yogurt I’ve ever had. But the next day, I had a very painful stomach age. It was the day that I had to take off for my Jhuwani trip.

I was hesitant to go to the hospital after a librarian told me that her husband mysteriously passed away after being admitted to the hospital after having stomachache. So, I took Augmentin medicine that my sister told me it would kill whatever germs I may have. It worked in killing the germs in my stomach but it made me weak all day that I felt asleep many times during the first day of our meeting with the community. I thought people saw it but they seemed to forgive me. When I apologized, they said they thought it was natural to fell asleep because I didn’t understand Nepali language. Besides, the weather was very hot and humid. The next day, I decided to stop taking the drug. I would not have a chance to sleep because I had to walk all day. It was raining, which cooled down the temperature. But walking on the rice field with mud and smell of dongs of goats and buffaloes was quite an experience. Stay tuned for what happened next in the next post.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Is it too late for us to mend our corrupt ways?
Published on July 7, 2010 Corruption is now accepted as a part of everyday life. If we don't do something to combat it, it will become a part of our national character.

A recent survey by the Thailand Management Association (TMA) and the Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration at Chulalongkorn University illustrates a deep-rooted problem in Thai society. The survey, conducted from May 10 to June 21, shows that most respondents believe that corruption and nepotism remain the critical issues that will drag the development of Thailand away from the desirable vision that we wish to achieve in the future.

In spite of every government's pledge to fix the problem, corruption and nepotism are as prevalent as ever. Allegations of corruption are headline news on a daily basis but very few cases are pursued to a final conclusion. The failure to take serious action encourages people to continue to abuse their power, leaving those who refuse to condone such malpractice, and those who speak out against it, out in the cold.

Although the survey was conducted in the midst of the political crisis, a majority of business people say their main concern is not politics. In fact, many say that, in spite of the deep political differences, the economy still has the potential to grow. Seventy per cent of 378 respondents from leading companies say that in spite of the political turbulence in the second quarter this year, the overall economic prospects next year remain positive.

However, eighty per cent of respondents say their real concern is that prevailing corruption and nepotism will destroy Thai competitiveness. They believe that most business dealings in Thailand are not conducted in a straightforward manner.

These comments from the business sector cannot be taken lightly. The survey results tell what is going wrong in our society, and illustrate the fact that widespread corruption and nepotism are the seeds of the political crisis and conflict.

Of course, none of this is new in Thailand. Due to weak law enforcement, culprits are hardly ever brought to justice. Our legal institutions are weak, too. But this must be addressed urgently. Thailand is competing with other countries where transparency, efficiency and effectiveness are being promoted in business practice. Eventually these values will translate into a lower cost of production.

The elimination of corruption and abuse of power must be taken seriously. Otherwise, the government's plan to reform the nation will not succeed. At the same time, the private sector must vigorously support and take part in this effort. Private companies, especially big conglomerates with political connections, must demonstrate responsible ethics. It is true that, over the past decade, the bigger firms in Thailand have grown bigger, while many small and medium-sized companies have been squeezed out because they do not have the political connections enjoyed by the conglomerates and multinationals. It's the big fish who get the big government contracts while the small fry are left to flounder.

The business sector should also be serious in its effort to make a social contribution. Almost 90 per cent of the survey respondents note that good corporate governance among local companies is nothing more than lip service.

Nothing concrete has been done to promote social and environmental causes. Mostly such activities are merely public relations stunts. At a minimum, corporate governance must be observed by the authorities to ensure that companies are not prospering at the expense of the public. For instance, "environmentally friendly" practices must not be compromised.

The public can play a key role in eliminating such abuse of power and malpractice. Many shady politicians and businessmen are widely known to engage in dubious activities, but they are still able to operate freely without any social sanction. Perhaps we need more whistle-blowers to bring them to book.

The worst aspect of the corruption issue is the growing acceptance of it in society as a whole. It is truly disheartening that an increasing number of Thais view material wealth as the ultimate symbol of success, and that any means to achieve wealth and power is justifiable. We are basically a corrupted people who value material gain over righteousness. We are all to blame for this, and if we do not change our ways soon, the characteristics of corruption, nepotism, and abuse of power will become ingrained permanently in our national psyche.
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July 7, 2010 01:03 pm (Thai local time)

Monday, July 5, 2010

dalbhat and my nepali friends

If anyone knows how to attach more than two pix in one post, please let me know.

Here, I post the pictures of my work colleagues at READ Nepal. Left is Sanjana, the country director, and the other young lady is Aastha, the rising star whom I work closely with. They are having Nepali’s most popular dish called Dalbhat. You can see the combination of rice, bean and special treat of today is mutton. You can see the bottle of water and we share. READ Nepal’s staff members eat together every day. And hey… to enjoy Dalbhat, you don’t need fork or spoon!

The second picture is an entourage of a bride at a Hindi temple in Nepalgunj. I wanted to show you the picture of the bride but she didn’t look very happy. So, I better keep her picture in my personal collection. Nepali wedding is colourful and red is the key. And they perform the wedding ceremony in a Hindi Temple. This summer is the most popular season for wedding. So, I have run into many wedding events while I visited the temple. In fact, I will officially attend a wedding of my Nepali friend who works for READ Nepal when I come back from my field trip next week.

The Blog I Never Published

I must confess that there was a blog that I wrote in the first week of my visit. But eventually, I decided not to publish it. My feeling then would not be different from a previous Clinton School who wrote what she felt overwhelmed by what she experienced in Nepal. I thought I went through the same experience.
And here’s the wisdom that I got from my visit to Kopan Buddhist Monastery in Kathmandu. A guru said people felt angry or upset when they travelled because they had certain preconception about what they expected to see. And they will naturally be upset if things didn’t turn out the way they expected. So, here I am trying to be open-minded and learn.
I re-read that blog again and I decided to keep it in my personal folder. It came from my true feeling at that moment. But it was not that I felt now. The more I stay here and travel around, the more I feel grateful for my experience here. Here’s the picture of my adventure to the far west.
The first picture shows the” downtown” of this hilly Dadeldhura. I told you in my previous blog that this is my favorite place. The infrastructure here is not good. But people are very nice and friendly. Their mushroom soup is tasty. The weather is cooler than other parts I’ve visited because it is located on the mountain.
The second picture is only some 10 minutes by drive from the downtown. We drove up further up the mountain to see the spacious area where I saw herds of sheep and goats around. Standing on this mountain top, I want to shout, “I am the king of the world.”

Sunday, July 4, 2010

More pix from Nepal

First pix: Nepali ladies are colourful. I met these two lovely women while our car stopped here for on the way from Tikapur to Dadeldhura. I am fascinated by the bright colours of Nepali ladies. Most of women I met wore bright colour such as red and pink. And they paint their houses in bright blue colour. Thus, rural Nepali is quite a colourful sight.

Second pix: When I visited this Tibetian Temple, there was a rainbow on the sky. Quite a spectacular sight! I'm blessed.

Trip to the Far West of Nepal

Last week, I went to the far west of Nepal, next to the Indian border, to travel to three community libraries sponsored by READ Nepal. I flew Buddha Air, a small Beech Aircraft. Surprisingly, there are a quite a few local domestic airlines in Nepal with interesting names such as Buddha Air, Yeti Airlines and Sita airlines. Yeti is a name of a monster in Nepali methodology, while Sita is a character in the ancient Ramayana oriental literature as well.
From the aircraft, I could see tops of mountains whose peaks were emerged from the clouds and an amazing landscape. Perhaps eight of the top highest mountains in the world are in Nepal. Therefore, everywhere I went was hilly area. Many tourists loved to come to Nepal to do trekking.
I went to visit libraries in the rural area to collect information about how community libraries operating in Nepal. I spent 5 days to visit to 3 libraries because of the distance. Besides, the roads were are bumpy and winding. The “highways” are shared by herds of goats, muttons, buffalos and sheep. No kidding, the driver had to try to avoid hitting running goats and buffaloes which LOVED to stay idle in the middle of the roads. I also saw a big snake lying across the road at one point.
The first leg of my visit is Kolhapur which is close to the Indian border. Along the roads, I saw a variety of huts and cottages. The one made of mud suggests the very poor status of the residents. Nepal is still a caste society. Dalit, the lowest caste, is basically deprived of many opportunities Some boys and girls in the rural area married at very young age, say 12. During a visit to a Hindi temple, I ran across into a wedding party. But for the entire 5 minutes that I was observing the ritual, the bride looked grim and didn’t smile. I asked my friend why the bride looked so tense, and my friend said that many brides in the local never knew her future husband until days before the wedding day.
The second leg of my visit is Tikapur, which is a 4-hour drive from Nepalgunj. Tikapur could be a popular tourist city because it has a lovely lotus lake and natural park. But I wonder how many tourists, especially the foreigners, would come this far to the city. Besides, summer may not be best season to come to Tikapur if you don’t like the heat. The temperature here is over 40 Celsius. I was soaked with sweat. No complaint, though. I enjoy the privileges to become few among foreigners who had a chance to see the beautiful and vast lotus pond.
The last leg of my trip is Dadeldhura, which is located on the mountain. Dadeldhura is a small rural town with more than 150 international and local non profits registered in the city. I nonetheless doubt how many of them were active. A UN vehicle parked outside my guesthouse never left its parking spot during my two-night stay there. I saw the offices of NGO everywhere but none were in the office. Nonetheless, I think Dadeldhura is an interesting place due to its unique tribe culture. Its landscape is superb. Standing on high cliff, you can see Greenery Mountains of Nepal – a la National Geographic style.
On the way back, I stopped at the Indian-Nepali border market in Nepalgunj. I arrived there around 6 PM but the market was still buzzing with people and activities. The most popular public transport here is very eco-friendly: horses, buffaloes and donkeys. So, these buses left their dongs everywhere. There were Indian wholesale shop houses selling beautiful embroidered fabrics and vendors selling delicious food such as fried curried puff and sugar cane juice. The sight and smell of these foods were so tempting that I had to forget about diarrhea (Joe would not approve because there are flies everywhere. But what the he…!!). I confessed that I had double shots of sugar cane juice which cost only 10 rupee per cup (One dollar is equal to 72 rupee.) Guess what happens to my stomach in the next few hours!