Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Negotiating Happiness: real life and research in Laos

PhD researcher Christina McMellon has recently returned from an extended fieldwork trip to Laos, where she has been exploring subjective wellbeing

I’ve been a member of Amnesty International for more than 20 years and have written many letters to governments on behalf of people held against their human rights.  I never thought that one day I would be writing letters on behalf on somebody I know personally; but that is how I have just spent my morning. 

I first met Sombath Somphone, briefly, in 2008 when I was in Laos doing fieldwork for my masters dissertation. I’m sure that he doesn’t remember that meeting but Sombath told me about PADETC - the community development organisation that he had started and of which he was then Director - and I decided that if I ever had the opportunity to come back to Laos I wanted to connect with him and with PADETC. In 2010 I returned to Laos to start fieldwork for my PhD, looking at how young Lao volunteers with civil society organisations understand and experience happiness. At that point I was unaware of Sombath’s long background of promoting the role of happiness in development, but I made contact again and we connected over a couple of long and inspiring conversations. 

Sombath is a gentle, determined and inspirational member of the development community in Laos, an advocate for mindful community-based development processes with people and their views at the centre. He supports young volunteers as agents of change and passionately promotes alternative models of development that balance economic development with social, environmental and spiritual development. 

Sombath and I started to work together on a number of small side-projects related to my fieldwork and in February 2010 we had the idea to produce a short film for Lao people about Lao people’s view of happiness. Over the next few months the idea took off and started to occupy a significant amount of my time. The scope of the film was broader than my research and I struggled with questions of how it fitted into my fieldwork. Sometimes it felt like an interesting but largely tangential piece of development work, but as it progressed it increasingly felt like an important part of a participative research process which emphasized the benefits of opening spaces for people to think and talk about their own happiness. If you are interested, I wrote more about some of these issues in my personal blog here:

I am very pleased with Happy Laos, the final 17-minute film, which suggests that development requires us to reflect upon the things that are most important in our lives and make changes that move towards these things.  It was shown, amongst other places, at the closing ceremony for the Asia Europe People’s Forum in Laos last October and was very well received. Since then we have been looking at how to make the film accessible to as many Lao people as possible.

I would encourage you to watch the film here and to pay particular attention to the gentle mannered grey-haired ‘happiness advocate’ who talks about (among other things) how we need to stop looking outside ourselves to find happiness. This is Sombath, and he has gone missing.

Sombath has now been missing, presumed abducted, for over a month with absolutely no word from whoever is holding him and no update on the promised government investigation into his disappearance. He is internationally well-respected and loved, and the circumstances around his disappearance have been well reported in the international press. Rather than go into details in this post, I offer you a couple of articles from the New York Times and The Economist which give the background and some context to the case.

I am writing about this on the CRFR blog to raise two issues. Firstly, and most importantly, because a wise, kind, determined, gentle, sometimes infuriating, always inspiring man who, over the last twenty years, has consistently worked to make Laos a better place is missing, and I want to raise awareness of that fact. I would be extremely grateful if anybody reading this would be prepared to contribute by writing a letter to the Lao Government as detailed in the Amnesty International campaign.

Secondly, and much less importantly, this situation potentially changes things for my research. I returned from Laos on December 4th to write up my thesis and now, to some extent, I feel that the ground has been pulled from under that thesis. This has partially manifested in ethical questions about how I can use my uncompleted research to support the campaign to help find Sombath. There are also impossible to answer questions about the meaning and implications of the disappearance of a man who advocates for a role for happiness in development. No-one knows whether Sombath’s work on happiness has anything to do with his disappearance, but I do know that writing about perceptions of happiness in Lao civil society without writing about recent events will be like ignoring the elephant sitting in the corner of the room. And so, while I anxiously wait for news, these are some of the questions with which I am grappling.
For a more personal reflection on Sombath’s disappearance and an extract from my interview with him about happiness please, again, see my personal blog:


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