Weekly Local Biography

  Dr. Heike Loeschmann

The director of the Heinrich Boell Foundation for Thailand and SE Asia is Dr. Heike Loeschmann, an earnest young woman from Germany. She has been involved in the rebirth of SE Asian nations, drawing in some ways from her own experiences following the re-unification of Germany, and the resulting insecurities that followed.

Born in post-war East Germany and part of the “other side”, Heike’s father was a foundling (presumed to be gypsy) but by then the director of a vocational training center for forestry workers, and her mother a teacher. “I wanted to study,” she said, explaining her insistence on schooling, even though it necessitated a 20 km hitchhike to school and return each day for her final three years of high school.

It was at this early stage that she began her first contact with SE Asia. Laotian and Vietnamese people were being sent to East Germany for training under the Polytechnical system, and around 20 ended up in her father’s scheme. “I regularly met young people from Laos and Vietnam, and would play tennis with them. After a while I got the idea to work on a dictionary of forestry terms and translate them into Laotian, Russian, French and English.” As part of this project she sat in with the Laos people, saying, “It was quite exciting to see how words are made.”

This contact with SE Asia led her to enrol for SE Asian Studies in Berlin. There she specialized in the Khmer language, culture, history and religion, during her five years of study. She did a course in Atheism, which led to Hinduism and Buddhism. She liked the choice given to each person in Buddhism, “Karma places the responsibility back to the individual,” she said; however, she has not become a Buddhist herself, despite her positive thoughts about the religion, and its aptness to the SE Asian situation.

The suggestion that she do postgraduate studies leading towards a Ph.D., in turn led her to her thesis on the re-establishment of Buddhism in post 1979 Cambodia.

The choice of Cambodia was in itself somewhat serendipitous, as her interest had been sparked by a native Cambodian speaker in her course in Berlin, but by this stage Heike was fluent in both spoken and written Cambodian. She was able to travel to Phnom Penh, as she was not able to travel to many other countries, East Germans being denied access to the West. In Phnom Penh she enrolled at the university and again studied Buddhism. “It was interesting to see how the new rulers re-established Buddhism.”

She returned to East Germany to what must have been ‘interesting times’ (remember the old Chinese curse - May you live in interesting times!). In Heike’s words, “I gave birth to a child, did my Ph.D., the (Berlin) Wall came down and I could get my own passport.”

While for the Western world, this was re-uniting Germany and ‘freeing’ the East Germans, for the East Germans themselves there was a different perspective. “The re-unification of Germany was a take-over. You were a 2nd class German when you were from the East. I initially had a feeling of insecurity, and we had no entitlement for social benefits.”

So this young woman, with experience and abilities encompassing SE Asia, was now jobless in almost an alien world. This could have been an insurmountable challenge, but the daughter of a gypsy foundling had untapped reserves. She made contact with Cambodian refugee communities in Berlin and became their liaison person. In fact she had created her own job, and the West German authorities took over the refugee community. “I got to know the West German institutions, and when the German army was sending unarmed UN missions to Cambodia, I contacted the training institute for these people and became involved.”

From there it was a simple matter to become involved with the re-integration of the Cambodians themselves. “I had been through the same experience myself (the Berlin Wall) so it was easy to relate to the Cambodians’ problems.”

That led her to the development and aid agencies in Germany and in turn to the Heinrich Boell Foundation. The Foundation had been approved to assist in the redevelopment of Buddhism in Cambodia and they needed a Khmer speaker who knew the country. It would be difficult to imagine anyone better qualified for this position. She had lived there, studied there, was fluent in the language and had studied the religion.

Travel became second nature to her as she (with passport) commuted between SE Asia and Germany. She described that period of her life as “dynamic” and in 1997 she was promoted to become head of the Asia desk for the Heinrich Boell Foundation, based in Berlin.

Whilst the foundation was an affiliate of a German political party, it made more sense to be closer to SE Asia and have, as Heike says, “local dialogue”. Thailand was chosen as the SE Asian base, and in line with the Thai government’s decentralization policy, it was decided to make Chiang Mai their headquarters. She arrived here late in 1999 and in February 2000 the Heinrich Boell Foundation had its official opening. Now she still commutes, but from Chiang Mai as home base.

As a young woman, she had personally experienced inequality, “We were looking for a society with equal rights for people. When the Wall came down, I was already running against it.” She has translated that need for a just society to the Asian model. “We had to re-establish Buddhism. It was obvious. They (the Cambodians) needed to re-establish their identity,” she said emphatically.

When I asked her about her aims for the future, she was equally as forthright. “I’m on top of what I want already. I have freedom and (liberty in) independent thinking.” That is patently the message and her aims for the people of SE Asia as well.

Is Dr. Heike Loeschmann a child of our times, or a child for our times? Probably both, I think.