IS student Carissa Gelinas explores policy in a nation under lèse-majesté law

October 24, 2023

Carissa Gelinas is a recipient of the 2023 International Studies Travel Grant and was able to participate in an academic exchange to Thailand. Now that she’s returned, she dives into an account of her experience abroad.

By Carissa Gelinas 

As an International Studies student at Simon Fraser University, my academic journey has frequently led me to delve into the complexities of politics, social policy, and colonialism. In January 2023, I embarked on an extraordinary adventure supported by the International Studies Travel Grant to explore social policy at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand.

Thailand, a nation that was neither officially colonized by an external power nor established colonies of its own, offered a captivating case study for academic discussion. I was eager to comprehend the academic perspectives on development for this unique ASEAN country. This, combined with my desire to immerse myself in a culture vastly different from my own, led me to select Thailand as my destination for educational exchange.

One of the compelling aspects that drew me to study in Thailand was the kingdom's political landscape under lèse-majesté law. This law, under which a person who criticizes the king or the royal family could face jail time if charged, made discussing politics in public spaces and even university classes risky for those involved. Even at Thammasat University, renowned as the second-largest university in the country and equipped with a reputation for protest movements, there is a reluctance to criticize the monarchy and government decisions. This stands in stark contrast to the classes at SFU, where critical political discussions are encouraged in a constructive manner.

The reason I chose to study at Thammasat University's Tha Phra Chan Campus was due to its history of political movements and protest. These student-led political movements continued to operate despite the laws, albeit in different forms than what I've witnessed in Canada. This provided me with insight into the nature of grassroots political resistance movements and the role that students and professors play in grassroots protest culture.

With a specific interest in social policy around the world, I enrolled in classes at Thammasat's Faculty of Social Administration. I had the opportunity to study how entrepreneurs initiate social enterprises, the role of communication and digital media in driving social change, and how Thailand addresses rural and urban poverty. These classes not only enhanced my analytical and problem-solving skills but also offered a broader perspective on what "development" entails. I also had the pleasure of taking a class on the connections between Thai cuisine and globalization, which was a great deal of fun. 

This most valuable part of the experience for me, however, was in the relationships and experiences I built outside the classroom. Thailand challenged me as the culture places a strong emphasis on community kindness and relationships and encourages people to relax and operate on a flexible schedule. Venturing out with my Thai classmates and adapting to "Thai time" taught me to be flexible, spontaneous, and, of course, improved my intercultural skills.

Simultaneously, I was experiencing a semester abroad and seeking a co-op job for the summer semester, which made it evident how studying abroad had a significant impact on my career prospects. It allowed me to demonstrate my responsibility, effective communication skills, and the ability to collaborate with diverse groups of people, each with their unique values and experiences.

I would not have been able to experience and learn all these things without going abroad. My semester studying social policy in Thailand provided me with firsthand experience in grassroots mobilization under strict censorship laws, introduced me to different approaches to understanding social policy, improved my personal character, and taught me how to communicate more effectively across cultures. None of this would have been possible without the International Studies Travel Grant, which allowed me to learn and thrive in a new environment.