Summer School on land governance convenes Mekong researchers online

Since 2016, the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD) of Chiang Mai University has run and hosted annual summer schools on land in the Mekong Region. Despite the constraints of COVID-19 border closures, 25 participants from Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam managed to “meet” online for the first virtual version of the program, which ran from 7 to 18 June 2021.

RCSD continues to develop innovative ways to meet the needs of researchers and advance a better understanding of land issues in the Mekong region. “While organizing an online course took more time and effort to prepare, careful adaptation of the program to an online format resulted in a successful and lively two-week program” said Professor Emeritus Philip Hirsch, the summer school convenor.  “The course combined a stimulating series of short lectures by specialists from around the region with online resources on the Mekong Regional Land Forum platform, which allowed participants to choose the resources based on their research and interests. In certain respects, it worked even better than in-person instruction, for example in group work where participants were able to develop presentations collaboratively and in real time using GoogleDocs and other online platforms”

The purpose of the summer school is to equip participating researchers with a deeper understanding of land relations and land governance in the Mekong Region, including through the sharing of experience and perspectives among participants from different countries and different sectors. The program brings together knowledge of current land issues at local, country and regional levels, drawing on a wide range of new and existing research. It seeks to strengthen individual and networked research that is geared toward securing access to land amongst the rural and urban poor.

The topics for each summer school are based on interests of the participants, with group work and individual exercises organized around these interests and sharing experience of land issues in participants’ respective countries.   Topics of the 5th Summer School included current issues in rural and urban land governance, land tenure, dispossession and others.  A virtual field trip on land conflict and inequality in Thailand was also organised, which examined subtler land conflicts in and around Chiang Mai province in Thailand. The virtual field trip included local voices through interviews pre-recorded by the program convenors.

A key concept explored during the Summer School was the ways in which land serves as a social object in land-relations. “Land has often been treated simply as a material object and primarily as a means for food production, but with the agrarian transitions and social changes, land takes on multiple social meanings and defines local and wider social relations between different groups” said Dr Tubtim Tubtim, the course instructor for agrarian change and peri-urban development.

One of the key issues at play in contemporary land relations is the issue of land grabbing. While this has been an issue for some time, few understand the diverse ways it occurs in society.“When we talk about land grabbing, people tend to think about colonization or more recent large-scale land acquisitions, but land alienation can also happen within the family, village or with smaller scale means of achieving control such as through contract farming” said Hirsch. “While there is much existing literature on land-related issues, it is important to constantly ask new questions, consider what is not known.  By the end of the course, the participants should be able not only to answer but also ask questions in new ways.”

One of this year’s Summer School participants, Dr Nguyen Dang Anh Minh, a historian from Vietnam, shared her impression that, my original interest in the question of land property in the history of the ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands of Vietnam has gradually grown into contemporary land issues after archive researches and field trips in the region. However, the lack of theories, concepts, and knowledge of the updated studies on land has limited the productive pursuit of such research. Upon the suggestion of my friend, I applied for the summer school and fortunately received acceptance from the organisers – MRLG and Chiang Mai University. The very well-organised program and diversity in contents provided me with a panorama of land research in the Mekong region and the main current emerging land issues. I was equipped with new concepts and methods in doing research on land through the summer school course.”

For Dr Minh, the Summer School opened up new lines of thinking that complemented and expanded on her current work.The most valuable thing that I gained from the course was actually the change in my way of thinking in two ways. First, land as a research object – for me, it used to be a fixed thing. After the course, I see land living its own life, and I am overwhelmed by a variety of possibilities to proceed with new research on land. Second, as an historian, I really appreciated the understanding of the past as a foundation for a better understanding of the present. Moreover, over the course, my viewpoint has been complemented with a new insight that an understanding of the present itself will bring about a better interpretation of the past.”

As part of the effort to improve and strengthen land governance in the Mekong Region, the Mekong Region Land Governance Project (MRLG) has since 2015 collaborated with the RCSD at Chiang Mai University to organise and sponsor other educational activities, including a land specialisation within the existing Development Studies stream of the International Masters Program in Social Science. In addition to hosting conferences and organizing the Summer School, RCSD offers various platforms for academic and public discussions and debates, as well as a regularly updated online resource of land-related publications and news announcement (

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