Thai Activist Brings New Perspective to Harvard

Sulak Sivaraksa opens the door to his two-bedroom flat, wearing hand-woven garbs entirely incongruent with the jeans-and-t-shirt population shuffling down Porter Square’s sidewalks outside.

“Don’t take off your shoes, just come in—and would you like some tea?” asks Sulak as he walks towards his sparsely furnished living room in his brown Thai sandals.

Wrapped in a traditional, woven vest cinched at the waist by a colorful silk sash, Sulak looks like a combination of a character in a Thai painting and any kind grandfather—but he is also a prominent Thai social critic, author and activist who has made headlines worldwide by his involvement in everything from peace marches to court hearings and counts the Dalai Lama among his friends.

Compared to his usual activist schedule, his itinerary for the past week has been quiet. When not talking about his views and ideals at a public lecture in Cambridge or a speech at the Harvard Divinity School, the 69-year-old claims to enjoy his free time in a “pre-modern world”—one without TV, the Internet or PINE.

“I meditate,” Sulak says with a merry twinkle in his eye as he draws his hands together, palms facing up and resting lightly on top of each other, striking a contemplative pose. “I also read and take many walks. The campus here is so beautiful.”

This way of living—a blend of classic Buddhist introspection and contemporary social activism—is actually the essence of what Sulak, who goes by his first name in private as well as public, has tried to share with his compatriots and others around the globe in more than four decades of writing and public speaking.

Meditating on Harvard

Sulak has been a Visiting Research Scholar at the Harvard-Yenching Institute since January and will depart Cambridge tomorrow. He was invited because of his status as a public intellectual from Asia, according to a press release from the Yenching Institute.

This detour into academia is certainly not Sulak’s first. Well-known as a proponent of socially engaged Buddhism, he has taught previously at numerous U.S. institutions, including Swarthmore College, University of California at Berkeley and Cornell University. In fact, two of his former students at Swarthmore came to Cambridge last week to hear him speak.

“I was very touched to see them. Professors and students form wonderful relationships at Swarthmore,” Sulak says.

But he speaks more equivocally about Harvard, saying that his times here have left him with both “positive and negative” impressions. In particular, Sulak is struck by students’ hectischedules, observing that “everyone at Harvard is too busy.”

“One needs time to breathe properly, read properly, enjoy the Charles, enjoy the trees, the blue sky. It’s fundamentally wrong to rush through things,” he says.

But for Sulak, a slower pace does not lead to less productivity—just more deliberation. A prolific writer, he has authored dozens of books and contributes to numerous magazines and newspapers. He sees Harvard’s brand of work ethic as something that strays from its goal and conforms to what he calls the “mainstream McWorld syndrome.”

“I think ‘Veritas’ is just a motto. Many don’t pursue the truth: they just pursue their own advancement,” Sulak says, adding that “the hidden syllabus here is that you must be successful, you must be great.”

But Sulak is also quick to point out Harvard’s positive aspects. Among the most memorable people that he says he has met at Harvard is Christopher Green, a lecturer on religion and dean of students at the Division of Continuing Education. Green teaches socially engaged Buddhism to a “growing minority” of “idealistic students,” Sulak says.

He says that he has also been especially impressed by the students at the Kennedy School of Government responsible for organizing “Bridge-Builders: 21st Century International Leadership Development,” a series of four events that will be held around the world to foster connections linking the business community to existing efforts to fight the AIDS epidemic. The first of these conferences was held at Harvard last month.

“They invite oppressed people to speak at this school in order to understand the truth. They want to learn from the poor and understand their suffering—this is the most wonderful thing,” he says. “Things always start with a small number, but I hope the students will make a big impact.”

Sulak has made quite an impact himself, over the course of his life.

Born in 1932 in Siam—his preferred name for his homeland—Sulak graduated from the University of Wales. Upon returning home, he founded the Social Science Review as part of his own attempt to understand the issues facing his country and its poor. The publication became Thailand’s leading intellectual journal in the 1960s and 1970s.

Since then, Sulak has been an outspoken social critic—and not just of his own homeland, though his voice becomes energetic and urgent as he talks about what he thinks must be changed about his native country.

“We claim to be a democracy, but press freedom must be real by allowing the dissent to voice their opinions,” Sulak says.

His persistent voice in promoting the rights of assembly and expression antagonized the government; anti-state charges forced him into exile overseas in 1976 and again in 1991. During that time, he continued to write so that his views could drift back home, he says.

But opinions were changing. When he returned to his homeland in 1995 to face trial for criticizing the government, he not only won the case but was praised by the judge as a “defender of the crown.”

“My voice in the last 40 years is now being taken seriously,” says Sulak, “perhaps not by the present government, but the establishment relies on me, because they see that there is a lot of value to what I have to say.”

A Buddhist’s Diagnosis of the World

More than specific rights, Sulak says he believes that “the government must have moral legitimacy.” In other words, the Thai government must look to its cultural roots and prioritize the interests of its people.

“I’m against multiculturalism dominated by American consumerism, or what I call the ‘Coca-Cola–and-jean syndrome,’” says Sulak.

But he says that being true to Thai roots is not equivalent to turning away from technological and economic progress. According to Sulak, “as long as the support is there, the transparency is there, the accountability is there and the compassion is there,” legitimacy in government actions will follow.

“The word ‘development’ is an imperialistic term; the more we are American, the more we are ‘developed,’” says Sulak. He points to the gas pipeline being laid throughout Thailand as an example of an investment that, in the name of “development,” is really just generating paybacks to high governmental officials and a company linked to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney.

“Villages 700 to 800 years old will be uprooted,” Sulak says. “Most people don’t even know what’s going on, and the government does not care. This is just sad.”

And yet, he says that he is optimistic about social changes already underway and believes that activists like himself can make a difference.

“I hope to empower the people—already half a million Thai people have gotten together to form a nonviolent assembly, and the government has to listen,” says Sulak.

And Sulak says that instances of government abuse are not exclusive to developing countries. He also lists the U.S. government, corporations and mainstream media as offenders and accuses the upper class of committing what he calls “structural violence.”

“If I have too much and you have too little, and still I suck off your money, that’s structural violence,” says Sulak. “It is when the big corporations release workers by the thousands but still pay the top CEOs millions in bonuses.”

But his most timely criticism goes to President Bush’s policies on Iraq. He says that Bush has a vested interest in a war against Iraq.

“He obviously collaborates with big defense corporations, and he doesn’t listen to anyone,” Sulak says. “This does not look like a democracy to me.”

Sulak drew parallels between Bush and top Thai government officials, and accused both of neglecting the interests of the people.

“Our president stole the election, just like yours, and our prime minister recognizes the oppressive Burmese government because he only wants to build five-star hotels and sell his satellites,” says Sulak. “He doesn’t care about the Burmese people.”

He also challenges the realistic amount of press freedom in mainstream media in the U.S.

“Noam Chomsky is a very good man and he says true things about America, but you don’t hear him,” says Sulak. “Critics of America are silenced by mainstream media.”

Bringing Buddhists into the Real World

In contrast to the current U.S. attitude toward Iraq and terrorism, Sulak encourages an alternative approach inspired by his Buddhist ideals.

“The response to the 9-11 tragedy should be more compassionate—not just ‘an eye for an eye,’” Sulak says. “If you look at those countries, they have nothing.”

He says that a fundamental change in is in order if the U.S. hopes to curb terrorism.

“The biggest enemy is within—from the Buddhist point of view, they are fear, anger and insecurity,” Sulak says.

He says he hopes that people will try to “see everyone as friends and should have compassion for Bush, too.”

This kind of socially engaged Buddhism—in which the Buddhist ideals of compassion and justice are not only internalized but also actively extended to the outside world—is a movement Sulak has strongly and consistently supported.

He says that although Buddhism’s increasing popularity among Westerners is an encouraging sign, Buddhists should not limit themselves to personal fulfillment.

“What do they do once they become Buddhists? They become calm and find peace by meditating. But they are often the upper middle class, and they don’t realize that by being calm and peaceful, they are not questioning their lifestyle—or the fact that they unknowingly exploit the poor,” he says.

Sulak says his dual role as both a Buddhist and an activist reconcile naturally.

“One day of serving is better than one hundred days of exploiting,” he says.

For now, Sulak says he hopes that he has more right views than when he was young and less traveling in store for the future.

“I’m not young anymore, and I believe that flying business class is wrong because it fattens the airlines, but you can’t move in those economy seats,” he says, compacting his frame to a rigid seating position to demonstrate his point, his eyes sparkling with a playfulness that defies his age. But he says he does look forward to flying home to Bangkok for the summer to celebrate his 70th birthday, which he says will be a small family affair.

And looking around at his temporary residence provided by the Yenching Institute, he smiles contentedly at the prospect of jetting to yet another destination tomorrow.

“Places have secondary importance to me—having so many friends in so many countries is the most important thing,” he says, sweeping his arm vaguely outward. “Soon, I will leave this country, too, to be reborn elsewhere.”

—Staff writer Yingzhen Zhang can be reached at zhang9@fas.harvard.edu.