chiang mai classApollo had just landed on the moon and the United States was exploring the "new frontiers" of outer space when a young nurse named Marjorie Mueckefirst traveled to Thailand, a country that was to become Muecke’s own "new frontier" of discovery in the years ahead.
"Even as a young nurse, I could see a lot of the disconnect between the best intentions of the philanthropic organization I was working for and what people really wanted and needed," Muecke recalls. "I also knew that just learning the language wouldn’t be enough to really understand Thailand’s very complex culture, which was so different from anything I had known."
A year after Muecke returned to Thailand as a doctoral student in anthropology, students in Bangkok staged an unprecedented revolt against the government. Although Chiang Mai, where Muecke was living, was hundreds of miles away, everyone knew about it.
"Students in Thailand had always been revered as the hope for a better future. And now they were demonstrating against the government for being too dictatorial and corrupt. To this day anyone who was alive then speaks of it," Muecke explains. "People would come to my house and be crying one minute and exulting the next… Taking a stand and being heard by the nation was powerful stuff."
That revolution changed Thailand. A new government was established, and with it many new freedoms. Family planning empowered women with unprecedented control over their bodies and lives. However, many poor and uneducated women had few ways to participate in the changes taking place.
"One of their options for employment was entering the sex trade," Muecke explains, "even though it exploited women in horrendous ways." Caught in the need for cash to support their families, women who became prostitutes also were branded as the cause of the spread of HIV/AIDS. "For these women," Muecke comments, "the country’s ‘development’ was oppressive."
In a longitudinal study begun in 1973, Muecke focused on the socio-economic well being, health and reproduction of urban families in Chiang Mai and its impact on children. Today, the elementary-age subjects from her original study are age 34-35 and their mothers are post-menopausal. AIDS has taken the lives of sons in these families, and has affected mostly women with care-giving responsibilities.
"Some mothers feel that all this modernization has left them behind," Muecke notes. "Unless children can get some comprehensive sex education, and unless the sexual bias that prioritizes men over females can be reduced, Thailand is going to head into an even graver situation as sexually-transmitted diseases, AIDS and related problems spread unchecked into society."
Because Thailand is so small compared to us, Muecke explains, the effects of poverty are felt more deeply. While some of her research families are wealthy, she observes that "there is a beauty in the resilience of many of the very poor, their determination to maintain their integrity and provide for those they love." And because her research families include both poor and rich, her analysis also reveals differences associated with socio-economic status.
"I write about Thailand, but I learn about our own society in the process," says Muecke. "Because of our natural richness and highly diverse population, we are one of the major human experiments in the world, and the world is watching. We need to start recognizing that the need for health, love and companionship in everyday life are things that everyone needs. We also need to recognize that our quality of life depends upon people working in developing countries. The world can no longer coast along with each of us tucked inside international boundaries. We are profoundly interlinked globally."
CREDIT: In 1973, children from this public school in Chiang Mai were recruited for Dr. Marjorie Muecke’s longitudinal study of the socio-economic well being, health and reproduction of urban families in Thailand.