Inspiration from a new generation

Jonathan's second report from Thailand and the story of a young woman who devotes herself to that co

Still at the Wongsanit ashram, just outside Bangkok. The two meetings that I have come here to attend, along with around 25 other ecovillagers from around the world – a mid-term review of the Gaia Education project (www.gaiaeducation.org) and a Board meeting of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) – have just come to a close.

Now, most of the meeting participants have scheduled in a few days of sight-seeing and travels. A small group of us leave in the morning for a two-day tour of several of the villages with which the ashram is working. The ashram really is a remarkable centre of spiritual exploration and social activism. It plays home to a community of around 30 mostly young people who are devoting their lives to spiritual practice and to empowering poor and marginalised communities throughout the sub-region – including Burma, Lao and Cambodia as well as Thailand.

The entire community is rarely on site at the same time – generally, a number of the members are always out in the villages working on community development initiatives or in formal training programmes. At present, a group of grassroots leaders from Burma is being trained by ashram members in leadership skills in a training centre in Bangkok.

Let me introduce you to one of the community members, a young woman by the name of Om. Om is 27 and has lived here in the ashram for around four years. Previously, she worked as a research assistant with Japanese academics in the villages of north-east Thailand, the region where she was born.

Growing dissatisfied with the sterility of academic research, she spread her wings and began working as a volunteer for various organisations, looking for a deeper sense of meaning. When she came to work as a volunteer here at the ashram for six months in 2003, she was introduced to Buddhist meditation and became progressively happier and clearer about what she wanted to do in her life.

Now, she travels between ‘alternative’ communities in Thailand, helping them to identify and satisfy their needs and to network with each other. The alternative communities scene in Thailand covers a fascinating mix of types. There are middle-class urban folk who have left the hassle of the city to reconnect with the land and a simpler, more land-based lifestyle.

There are also traditional communities that are seeking to resist the incursions of the ‘modern’ world that dismantle their local economies and cultures and that lure their young people away. A good number of these are ‘tribal’ communities, peopled by indigenous people who have lived in forest communities for centuries. Finally, there are Buddhist monastic and other alternative education centres that are also seeking to retain what is best in traditional Thai culture.

Om spends up to a month at a time, living in these communities, building relations of trust with their inhabitants and helping empower them to resist the steam-roller of modern, urban culture. She is especially devoted to helping young people create lives for themselves that are meaningful and satisfying.

Most recently, Om has also been active in international youth networking with NextGEN, the Youth Council of GEN. She was one of 20 young people who met in mid-2006 in an ecovillage in Mexico to build global networks of solidarity and exchange among young people devoted to a shared vision of sustainability.

Om is one of a new generation that is devoting itself to a life of service in the cause of social and ecological healing. Within the ecovillage movement, a new generation of leaders is emerging, under the umbrella of NextGEN, answering the call of the tumultuous and startling times we are moving into.

All these words, of course, represent only the menu. The meal will be served over the next two days as we move among the people and the projects in the villages with which the ashram is working. How many rich and inspiring stories wait to unfold for our delight and inspiration?! More next week – watch this space.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue