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Undergraduate Spotlight: Letitia Chai

Meeting with Children in Anlong Veng

Written by: Letitia Chai, '18

Bushwhacking our way through the dense Cambodian forest, my classmates, Professor Mertha and I emerged onto a rough trail leading to Pol Pot’s bunker. We climbed onto the concrete box, soaking in the humidity and the reality that this was the Khmer Rouge leader’s last home. When I first came to Cornell, I could never have imagined that I would be learning in the field, venturing into the sites and subjects of peace and conflict in such proximity. The Southeast Asia Program (SEAP) repeatedly offered me with the opportunity to gain exposure to the history and present-day issues that the region faces. From participating in Cornell in Cambodia to conducting field research on inter-ethnic relations in Myanmar, the experiences that have defined my passion for peace studies would not have been possible without SEAP’s support.

I entered the Cornell in Cambodia class with the intention to explore why and how mass violence occurs. However, I left the country with a greater interest in how Cambodians recovered and continue to strengthen their community after the genocide. For instance, my classmates and I discussed the UN’s role in peacekeeping with Benny Widyono, a leader in the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. The lessons from the peacekeeping mission revealed the importance of trust amongst and between mission leaders and the local communities. I would later learn that this is a defining factor of successful reconciliation and resilience-building for post-conflict societies.

In addition to learning about the history of Cambodia, my classmates and I saw first-hand how Cambodians are supporting the growth of their artistic culture and how urban development impacts Cambodia. Emiko Stock, our contagiously energetic TA, led us through the White Building in Phnom Penh--a historic architectural site and hub for contemporary Cambodian artists. Wandering through the urban complex of apartments and studios, we glimpsed into Phnom Penh’s quickly evolving modern culture. Designed by the Cambodian architect Lu Ban Hap and Russian-French engineer Vladimir Bodiansky, the White Building was an emblem of New Khmer Architecture that the city is redeveloping into a mixed-use building. Here, cultural and urban development wove together to offer a perspective of Cambodia beyond the context of the genocide.

Bonding with my classmates in Cambodia and exploring the region’s deep history left me eager to return to Southeast Asia. With Dr. Thamora Fishel and SEAP’s support, I returned in the summer of 2015 to intern with the Center for Diversity and National Harmony (CDNH)--a think-tank based in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). With a team of researchers from Myanmar, France, Australia and the UK, I learned about Myanmar’s complex history--nuanced by ethnic relations and a British colonial past. Together, we worked on an end-line assessment of a UN project in Rakhine State. Traveling to the border of Bangladesh and Myanmar by plane, boat, and truck, we spoke with both Rakhine and Rohingya communities. There, women from both ethnic groups shared their experiences of living in Internally Displaced Persons camps and how they were eager to regain their original social and economic lives. Our conversations left me with many questions about the resettlement of post-conflict communities and the role of aid organizations in supporting community development. I wondered, once again, how trust might be built between groups with strained pasts.

Throughout this time, SEAP provided me with the opportunity to give back as an Undergraduate Council representative and meet with others who shared the same interest in the area. Generous mentors such as Professors Mertha and Pepinksy as well as graduate students, such as Geethika, shared their perspectives over lunches and talks in Uris Hall and the Kahin Center. These experiences in the field and with Cornell’s vibrant SEAP community motivated me to delve deeper into the subjects of development and resettlement. As a senior, I wrote my thesis about refugee resettlement, incorporating some of the lessons of integration and trust-building that I had learned throughout my time involved in Southeast and South Asia. Looking back, I am grateful for the opportunities that Cornell and SEAP have shared with me and I encourage any undergraduates interested in the field to jump in. I am sure it will be an experience of a lifetime.

Temple Visit
Ankor Wat group
Bushwacking in Anlong Veng
Tour of White Building