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Jana Frey | 21.05.2020 | 628 Aufrufe | Interviews

Panitda Saiyarod | "The Clash of Connectedness: Local Responses to China’s Transnational Infrastructure Projects in a Border Town, Thailand"

Lisa Maskell Fellowships in Southeast Asia

In 2014, the Gerda Henkel Foundation initiated a scholarship programme supporting young humanities scholars from Africa and Southeast Asia in honour of the foundation's founder, Lisa Maskell. It is the largest international support programme for PhD students in the history of the Foundation. The Lisa Maskell Fellowships aim to strengthen universities in the partner countries, to counter the outflow of qualified young scholars and to ensure the doctoral students enjoy excellent academic training.

Since 2018, L.I.S.A. has been publishing interviews with the Lisa Maskell Fellows from Subsaharan Africa and from Southeast Asia, in which they talk about their research projects as well as their experiences during their academic career and the Lisa Maskell fellowship.

This week, we welcome Panitda Saiyarod from Thailand. After completing a Bachelor's degree in Sociology at Fudan University, China as well as a Master's degree in Development Anthropology at Durham University, Great Britain, she started her PhD in Anthropology with the thesis The Clash of Connectedness: Local Responses to China’s Transnational Infrastructure Projects in a Border Town, Thailand at Cologne University.

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"The humanities are struggling to maintain their prestige status in the commercial academic world"

L.I.S.A.: What is the status of the humanities in Thailand, your home country?

Panitda Saiyrod: In my opinion, the humanities are struggling to maintain their prestige status in the commercial academic world. It is common for humanities students to be questioned on their future career after graduation. The job market for graduates of the humanities is precarious. It is also challenging for humanities scholars to keep their career secure in the university nowadays. The humanities studies seem to be not very convincing for the Thai government on what it can offer for market-oriented policy. The high unemployment rate of graduates from the humanities has been used as an excuse to squeeze the size of the humanities faculty. They are following with cutting budgets to support humanities research. This pressure has painfully attacked the humanities in Thailand.

"The university contract requires that I have to be accepted as a PhD student within three years"

L.I.S.A.: Have you ever encountered problems in the realisation of your academic career?

Panitda Saiyarod: Before I started to work at the university, I expected that my working life would mainly focus on giving lectures, doing research and writing papers. After I began to work as a lecturer, I realised that it was just an illusive imagination of a naïve young employee. My working day has been packed with attending meetings, organising workshops, writing curricula, preparing documents for quality assessment and other administrative tasks. These are very time, energy and emotion consuming tasks. After a few years of being overwhelmed with a heavy workload, the deadline of my PhD application was coming close. The university contract requires that I have to be accepted as a PhD student within three years. Without financial support, it was challenging to receive an offer for a PhD position in a foreign country. Particularly, doing research in the humanities and social sciences is far more difficult than in other areas. Fortunately, my colleague Dr Chayan Vaddhanaphuti introduced me to the Lisa Maskell Fellowship. It has provided me with an excellent opportunity to continue my career and support my research in Germany. I am very impressed and appreciate the generosity provided by the Gerda Henkel Stiftung.

"Transnational infrastructure projects as a process to materialise political aspiration and political ideology"

L.I.S.A.: What is your PhD project about and what got you interested in the chosen topic to begin with?

Panitda Saiyarod: My research title is “The Clash of Connectedness: Local Responses to China’s Transnational Infrastructure Projects in a Border Town, Thailand”. I would like to approach the transnational infrastructure projects in the Upper Mekong Sub-region as a process to materialise political aspiration and political ideology. I am trying to explore how the infrastructure projects have reformulated relationship among these communities along the Mekong river and China.

I began to be interested in the infrastructure topic since I heard about the Belt and Road initiative. It is an ambitious strategy to connect China to the world. Since the official announcement, it has resulted in many enormous infrastructure projects across the globe, including Southeast Asia and Thailand. The central government of Thailand has generally welcomed these infrastructure investments; however, the responses seem to be different at the local level.

As a young researcher, I have an excellent opportunity to work with the senior researchers in the social science faculty. We have a great team to study Chinese influence in South East Asia. We found that Chinese investment has a significant impact in many sectors in Thailand such as tourism, agriculture, education, energy etc. However, it seems that we still have limited knowledge about China. Thus, I would like to explore more what is actually going on in the region.   

I have my Bachelor degree in Sociology in China. I have spent around six years in Shanghai. The speed of economic development and social changes in China always catches my interest. When I started my career at the university, I intended to link my knowledge about China to my work and of course, my beloved PhD project. 

"The vital academic environment in the university has fulfilled my PhD life"

L.I.S.A.: What has your experience in Germany and at Cologne University been like? Have there been any differences to institutions you have previously attended? 

Panitda Saiyarod: I did my B.A. in Fudan University, China, and I have my MSc in Development Anthropology at Durham University in the U.K. I admit that I have minimal knowledge about Higher education in Germany. When I started my PhD at Cologne University, I hadto learn to adapt to the German system. Importantly, I learned that the way of doing a PhD here is very self-reliant. The doctoral program encourages us to attend classes and seminars, but it is not an obligation. Thus, I mostly work in my office under my Professor's supervision. However, the vital academic environment in the university has fulfilled my PhD life. There are many exciting courses, seminars and training workshops provided by the Social and Cultural Anthropology Department and the Graduate school. Cologne university has the Global South Studies Center which always organises a variety of seminars with distinguished guest speakers. These academic activities have expanded my knowledge and enriched my academic life.

Moreover, the Global China program led by my Supervisor provides a great chance to learn from China experts. I feel very privileged to attend two summer schools in China sponsored by the program. Importantly, the international office and the Graduate School for the Humanities Cologne have provided great assistance for new PhD students. I always get a prompt response from them on any inquiry. 

"Many universities are forced to look at the incoming student as a customer"

L.I.S.A.: What are the opportunities in Thailand to pursue different degree options (BA/MA/PhD)?

Panitda Saiyarod: The opportunities in getting a B.A. for Thai students is high as there are options for them to choose between open universities and private universities. Of course, the top universities have limited seats and the competition is high. However, there are still many choices for them to choose depending on their preference and financial condition. The Thai government also provides an academic loan for B.A. students. But, I cannot say that their opportunity to access quality education are equal. The situation of M.A. student is slightly different; the competition among universities to survive under the university-industry in Thailand is very high. Many universities are forced to look at the incoming student as a customer. The opportunity for an M.A. student depends on his/her financial condition. In the job market, M.A. graduates have prevalence in income in comparison with B.A. holders at the beginning of their careers. Some B.A. students might choose to continue their study to M.A. directly. Still, some of them might get into the job market for a few years before starting their M.A. The opportunity for PhD positions with financial support is scarce in Thailand. I think many young scholars find it difficult to continue their academic passion without a scholarship.

"Connecting Thai, German and international scholars to initiate academic activities together"

L.I.S.A.: What are your plans concerning your future career once you have obtained your PhD?

Panitda Saiyarod: I have a contract with Chiang Mai University to continue my lecturer position after I obtain my PhD degree. When I go back, I hope I can contribute to China studies at my university by connecting Thai, German and international scholars to initiate academic activities together. I believe that the academic partnership among scholars/institutes in humanities, social science and dialogs across disciplines would strengthen our capacity in conducting excellent research and make contribution to society.

Panitda Saiyarod has answered the questions in written form.

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