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Foreigners on Buffaloes Plow the Way to Restoring Thailand’s Public Image

2014 October 22
by The Isaan Record
Local foreigners ride albino buffalos as a part of this past weekend’s Foreigner Friendship Festival in Khon Kaen.

Local foreigners ride albino buffaloes as a part of this past weekend’s Foreigner Friendship Festival in Khon Kaen.

In an effort to restore Thailand’s image abroad after a May 22 military coup, a coalition of local organizations hosted its first Foreigner Friendship Festival last Sunday in front of Khon Kaen University’s Golden Jubilee Convention Hall.

The lighthearted event featured Isaan-themed activities such as buffalo riding, eel catching, displays of Thai boxing and sepak takraw.

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According to organizers, the festival aimed to show that Khon Kaen is friendly toward foreigners and to provide foreigners with information from government offices and local businesses.

The idea for the festival originated in Bangkok tourism business circles, according to Josh Macknick, a 34-year-old member of the Khon Kaen Expat Association who served on the festival’s planning committee.

Similar festivals were intended to take place in every province shortly after the coup. But after several months of waiting for funding from Bangkok, organizers in Khon Kaen decided to sponsor the event locally to showcase Khon Kaen as a tourist destination. They reached out to Khon Kaen University, local businesses and private hospitals in the city to help.

Nationally, Thailand’s tourism market has fallen by 20 percent since the coup in May.

International perceptions of Thailand as a tourism destination were further hampered by the botched murder investigation of two British tourists on Koh Tao in September. The military government has responded by trying to market martial law to domestic and international tourists through campaigns such as “Martial Law Tourism” and “24 Hours Enjoy Thailand.”

Larry Bright, 57, an American expat living in Khon Kaen, is curious whether the festival’s approach will help spark more tourism. “Martial law appears to be subduing tourism a lot, but we are entering high [travel] season so it will be interesting to see if these types of events help encourage people to keep visiting cities,” he said.

The goal of the event was “to have foreigners help spread the word that Khon Kaen and the Northeast of Thailand are peaceful and orderly, and that Khon Kaen is a good place to live and a good environment for investment,” said the Chairman of the Tourist Business Association of Khon Kaen, Kemchart Somjaiwong, a key organizer of this event, in a bulletin issued by  the Public Relations Office of Khon Kaen Province.

Original predictions of the budget were estimated above 10 million baht, when initial plans were to include all of Isaan. The festival’s cost is estimated at around 200,000 baht, though it was mostly covered through in-kind donations.

Mr. Macknick was skeptical at first, when he heard in the original plan organizers “wanted to have a blonde- haired dinosaur and a brown-haired dinosaur to represent white people and Thai people.”

Only about 75 people attended the event, far short of the targeted 300. Volunteers attributed low turnout to the lack of advertisement.

Pasuta Sukmamop, 36, a volunteer from Rachawadee Hotel, said that the festival’s biggest shortcoming was the lack of time organizers had to promote the event. But she felt confident that the festivals would be more successful in the future. “Next time it will be huge,” she said.

Mr. Macknick was not bothered by the low turnout. In his view, the festival was “actually very successful in the sense that Thais [in Khon Kaen] are making an effort to create a community with foreigners. Khon Kaen is a small town with a lot of foreigners who don’t go out of their way to interact.”

 

Guest contribution to The Isaan Record by Jane Okerman and Hannah Thompson

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Isaan Poor Targeted by Junta’s Forest Policies

2014 October 19
by Evan Gershkovich

Guest contributor, Evan Gershkovich, reports on how the government’s new forest policy impacts the poor far more than the rich landowners and resort operators the government claims to be targeting.

SAKON NAKHON-On October 1, 37 villagers of Jatrabiap village were arrested and held on bail for charges of illegally reclaiming and occupying a section of Phu Phan Reserve Forest. This past June a task force of park officials, soldiers, and police cut down 18 families’ rubber tree farms totaling 383 rai (151.4 acres), in Non Jaroen village in the same reserve. According to a local activist, officials plan to clear-cut a total of 10,000 rai of rubber trees in the area by the end of the year, a move that could deprive 700 households of income.

These actions are in line with a policy of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) which came to power through a coup in late May. According to Laothai Ninuan, an advisor to the Assembly of the Poor and to the Northeastern Network for Development of the Poor on Land-Forest Issues based in the area, state authorities are in the process of evicting more than 50 Northeastern communities from forest areas.

The increasingly aggressive attitude on the part of state authorities is part of a trend that has either removed or aims to evict more than 50 Northeastern communities from forest areas and threatens the livelihoods of what one forestry official has estimated to be as many as two million people throughout the country.

A Jatrabiap villager surveys the remaining and destroyed rubber trees; authorities plan to cut down the rest by the end of the year.

A Jatrabiap villager surveys the remaining and destroyed rubber trees; authorities plan to cut down the rest by the end of the year.

In June, the NCPO issued Order 64, which calls for an end to deforestation and forest encroachment. The order aims to regulate corrupt and large-scale commercial operations in reserve forests. Order 66, issued three days later, requires that the poor or landless people living on reserve land prior to Order 64 not be adversely affected.

The attorney representing Jatrabiap villagers, Tanom Sakrawaschai, does not believe that Order 66 has actually functioned as an effective check on Order 64.

“In practice, Order 64 has mostly been enforced against common villagers rather than large-scale investors,” says Mr. Tanom.

Villagers have little way to respond to evictions. With the help of Mr. Laothai, Non Jaroen villagers sent a petition to the Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) demanding the NCPO call off plans to destroy the remaining rubber trees. The NHRC has received over a dozen of such petitions.

A meeting in Bangkok with the NCPO and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment on August 10 where the NCPO was urged to change its policy regarding forest encroachment.

Apparently unsuccessful, four days after the Bangkok meeting, Mr. Palinchai Sonsoe, the head of Phu Phan District, issued an order for Jatrabiap villagers to vacate the land they used to grow rubber trees. When they refused, Mr. Palinchai issued a warrant for their arrest.

There is question as to who benefits from the rubber trees. Local authorities claim that investors hire the farmers to tap the rubber. Mr. Palinchai does not believe that the villagers can afford to grow rubber trees on their own.

“Growing rubber trees is not done by the poor,” he said. “It is done by investors who hire the villagers to work for them.”

When asked for evidence that investors had hired the villagers to work for them, Mr. Palinchai could not produce any.

Local villagers used to grow cassava and sugar cane. In 2001, local authorities introduced rubber saplings into the area as part of the agricultural policy of the first Thaksin Shinawatra administration.

Contrary to government claims, villagers say they own the trees and now the income of many families depends solely on rubber.

Ms. Sunan Singwong, a 28-year-old farmer in Jatrabiap village, says that families started with one rai and then gradually added one rai at a time. Ms. Sunan claims that relatives working in other provinces provide money to help grow more rubber trees.

According to Mr. Laothai, an average family in Jatrabiap village has a modest holding of about 15 rai. Each month, a family typically makes about 1,000 baht per rai from the harvest of rubber. With two people working the average of 15 rai of trees, they can expect to earn less than 300 baht a day.

While not the poorest of the poor, these families are not getting rich either. It is for this reason that Mr. Laothai argues that villagers are by no means the wealthy landholders that NCPO Order 64 aims to target and ought to be protected by Order 66.

Although the Non Jaroen and Jatrabiap villagers claim to have been living on their land for generations, the area was named Phu Phan National Park in 1972. After negotiations with villagers and NGOs in 1993, cabinet ministers issued a resolution allowing the Agriculture Land Reform Office to allocate land to villagers.

But now the government seems to be revoking that resolution. Mr. Palinchai insists that he will follow the NCPO’s order. “I have to seize all reserve forest area,” he says. “The rubber trees must be cut and destroyed.”

The NCPO policy, though, has made land tenure uncertain and threatens the livelihoods of two million people throughout the country. Ms. Sunan has little doubt about the resolve of the government. “I think the government will cut down more of our trees and seize our land,” she says. “But we are poor. From what I’ve heard about [the NCPO] order, they say that if we are poor we should be able to keep our land.”

Dr. Komsan Rueangritsakul of the Royal Forest Department’s Bureau of Community Forestry Management acknowledged the problems with the NCPO order in a previous interview.

“This problem is an old, old problem, but our first priority is to ensure that no more forest land is converted for commercial use,” he told Khao Sod English. “There are two million people in protected forested areas in Thailand, and they are not criminals, they are farmers.”

Mr. Laothai fears that the criminalization of villagers in the Northeast will continue. He also worries that he himself might be arrested.

“It’s not that I’m scared for myself,” says Mr. Laothai. “I’ve been fighting dictatorship for a long time. We’ve had a lot of coups in Thailand. But if I go to those areas, the villagers will be in even more trouble than they already are; the military will think that I’m trying to spark a political movement in the area.”

His fear is not uncommon in the climate of martial law. The ban on discussion of politics in groups of five or more and the frequent “summons” of other AOP leaders has given many like Mr. Laothai pause.

“I just need to be careful,” he says.

Dr. Sataporn Roengtam, a professor of Public Administration at Khon Kaen University, believes that the targeting of villagers by district officers will continue unless the government’s policy is clarified and protects the rights of the poor.

“In Isaan, there are a lot of poor farmers who only plant a few rai of rubber trees, but the local authorities don’t make a distinction between the poor and the large-scale businesses run by corrupt people who are taking land from the state – that’s who the policy was meant for,” he said in an interview.

Like villagers, Dr. Sataporn feels there is a disconnect between policy makers and people on the ground. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people about this, and I really do think that higher government officials really mean this policy for large commercial operations; it’s the lower level government officials who are using this policy to take advantage of poor people. And this is a big problem in Thailand right now.”

The first court hearing in the case against Jatrabiap villagers is scheduled for November 21. The attorney, Mr. Tanom, is uncertain about the outcome of the case; Ban Jatrabiap is located in Phu Phan National Park, he notes, and the 1993 Cabinet resolution does not allow the growing of rubber trees.

Mr. Tanom worries that the court may decide to issue severe penalties, which could include up to fifteen years in prison, confiscation of land, and fines of up to 150,000 baht per rai in violation.

––

Phinitnan Chanasabaeng contributed reporting.

Evan Gershkovich is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. Follow Evan on Twitter @EvanGershkovich

Reconciliation Trainings Target Northeastern Villages

2014 September 28
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – Under a temple pavilion, 60 Red Shirt villagers watched a projected image of a candle on a screen. A military staff member asked everyone to close their eyes, sit silent and meditate while she read aloud.

“How was it that we kept a hold on our country and avoided being colonized by another country? It was because our king protected our nation,” she recited.* “If any outsiders come to destroy our country, we will fight until we die. We need to protect our land and we need to love each other as a united country.”

After the brief meditation, a group of soldiers led the villagers in a synchronized dance, chanting the names of fruits and swaying their hips from side to side.

These activities were all part of a training recently conducted in Khon Kaen as part of an extensive tour of three-day events in villages across Isaan. The military government has convened these training camps, complete with lectures, performances, and physical exercises, with the aim of dissolving the political tension that they cite as the reason for the May 22 coup. But villagers here say the event avoided discussing the country’s political rift altogether and failed to address the economic concerns of the people of the Northeast.

This “Project to Strengthen Stability at the Village Level,” organized by the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), kicked off each morning at 8 a.m. with a salute to the national flag. Military staff and speakers gave lectures on topics covering their aims for reconciliation and the importance of the monarchy in Thailand. At night, the military held villager-versus-soldier soccer matches, served dinner, and screened the nationalist movie “The Legend of King Naresuan.”

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Soldiers play music for villagers during a Northeastern reconciliation tour.

The village-level events comprise the second phase of the military’s campaign to unify the country. In late May, the junta ordered the creation of so-called “reconciliation centers” in every province in order to help stabilize the political situation. They have now taken their reconciliation efforts to the doorsteps of the former government’s supporters.

“The intention of the event is to dispense with the colors in the community and provide a unity program,” said the head trainer of the event. He estimated that the sixteen trainings he presided over had been 80% successful.

When asked whether any participants expressed opposition to the coup or military government, he replied, “They wouldn’t dare!” And, if any do, he said, “Well, we’d just go back and do it again.”

Villagers and community leaders, however, said that the event did not address their most pressing concerns.

“All we want is democracy and there’s never going to be more democracy that results from a coup,” said a community leader after the reconciliation training. “No government born out of a coup has ever governed democratically.”

Representatives from three villages attended the event, and nearly all the villagers present were Red Shirts who no longer feel free to express their political views. Red flags, t-shirts and posters are no longer on public display in their homes, but the villagers have not given up their loyalty to the self-described pro-democracy group.

Though the head trainer claimed that the event was held in order to end the Red and Yellow divide, the speakers did not once address color-coded politics.

“The military wanted people to know what they were doing and ensure that people don’t oppose them. That’s their version of ‘reconciliation,’” said a village leader who attended the training. “The other activities were secondary, like relieving stress by singing songs.”

The training also failed to answer the villagers’ questions about the new government’s stance on agricultural subsidy programs and other welfare policies that these villagers consider pivotal to the process of reconciliation.

“What are the people’s problems in Isaan? The price of rice and the prices of the other crops they produce. If we can sell these well, then we have liquidity,” said one fruit seller in the village, who asked to go by the name Joy.

The soldiers devoted one session to the Sufficiency Economy, a royally-backed initiative that encourages farmers toward sustainability and moderation. They booked Martin Wheeler, an Englishman who lives as a farmer in Isaan, to charm the crowd with slapstick jokes as he praised the farming model in fluent Isaan, the regional dialect.

But according to the community leader, his village knows well the tenets of the Sufficiency Economy, and he and his neighbors are impatiently waiting to hear how the new government will support their agricultural work. With rice now selling for as little as 12 baht per kilogram in the local market, many rice farmers here are just breaking even.

“Villagers don’t know who to depend on now,” said the community leader. “We don’t see any transparency in the way the military rules and we have no way to scrutinize this government.” At the same time, he does not feel he can speak openly about his opposition to the coup.

The military will conclude their village-level reconciliation trainings at the end of this month. According to the head trainer, the next phase of reconciliation will entail an internal review of the villagers’ evaluations of the events.

 

*Note: Names were removed from this piece to protect the sources.

Eviction on the Horizon for Chaiyaphum Community

2014 September 1
by The Isaan Record
Baw Kaew villagers recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of their community’s re-establishment. Standing in front of their eviction notice, villagers intend to continue to fight peacefully for their land.  Photo credit: Wilder Nicholson, Bowdoin College

Baw Kaew villagers recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of their community’s re-establishment. Standing in front of their eviction notice, villagers intend to continue to fight peacefully for their land.
Photo credit: Wilder Nicholson, Bowdoin College

CHAIYAPHUM—As part of the military government’s new forestry policy, the 277 residents of Baw Kaew village in Khon San District received a thirty-day eviction notice on August 26.

The notice, issued by the Forest Industry Organization (FIO), cited Order 64/2557 of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), which seized power in May. The order instructs government agencies to eliminate deforestation and incursion on forest reserves nationwide.

After villagers were originally removed from the Samphaknam Mountain Reserve Forest in 1978 by the FIO, the area was replanted with eucalyptus trees, used primarily in the paper pulp industry.

Sixty-four households returned to the Khon San Forest Project in 2009 to re-establish a village. Their protest of FIO policy highlights the plight of thousands in the Northeast and throughout Thailand facing eviction.

The community had been actively involved in working with a community land title scheme under the Abhisit and Yingluck administrations.

In the few days following the eviction notice, the villagers from Baw Kaew have submitted petition letters to six organizations, including the NCPO, the Secretary of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the Office of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC), the Chaiyaphum Provincial Governor, and the Commander of the Second Regional Army. More than eighty-percent of residents signed the petition, which calls for a cancellation of the eviction notice and for recognition of the community’s right to their land.

In July, the military used threats and arbitrary arrest to evict more than a thousand villagers in Buri Ram province. International human rights NGOs at the time voiced concern at the worrying trend. The Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams, condemned the evictions.

“Instead of resolving a land issue through legal means, the military is using its wide-reaching martial law powers to bludgeon human rights protections,” he said in a statement released on July 19.

There is no compensation or assistance for relocation available to those facing eviction. If the villagers choose to stay when their thirty-day notice has passed, they will likely face arrest.

Baw Kaew villagers claim this is the third eviction threat they have received since 2009.

Community members have no intention of leaving the land they believe is rightfully theirs, and plan to engage in nonviolent protests to fight eviction.

While the country is under martial law, it is unclear whether protests will be tolerated by the military government.

Among those who established Baw Kaew in 2009, Suwan Daiphukieow, a woman in her sixties, says, “Where should I go? I have nowhere to go. I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing for as long as I can.”

Suwan Daiphukieow has lived in the Khon San Forest Project area for over sixty years, five of which have been in Baw Kaew.  Photo credit: Emma Tran, Tulane University

Suwan Daiphukieow has lived in the Khon San Forest Project area for over sixty years.
Photo credit: Emma Tran, Tulane University

Ms. Suwan has no family or friends outside of the area to turn to.

“I am quite scared, but I don’t know what to do because we have no other land,” she continued. “If they want us to leave, they must find us a place to live.”

Pramote Phonphinyo, adviser to the Land Reform Network of the Northeast, states that villagers may have evidence that could help prove they own the land. Even with the evidence, there is no guarantee that villagers will be permitted to stay. He says their future remains uncertain.

Mr. Pramote estimates that as many as fifty communities across the Northeast are vulnerable to the military’s new eviction policy.

 

On September 25 families who have lived in the Khon San Forest` for generations are scheduled to be forcibly removed. Photo credit: Wilder Nicholson, Bowdoin College

On September 25 families who have lived in the Khon San Forest for generations are scheduled to be forcibly removed.
Photo credit: Wilder Nicholson, Bowdoin College

 

On August 26 the FIO posted eviction notices on villagers’ homes, citing NCPO Order 64/ 2557.  Photo credit: Kate Cowie-Haskell, University of Rochester

On August 26 the FIO posted eviction notices on villagers’ homes, citing NCPO Order 64/ 2557.
Photo credit: Kate Cowie-Haskell, University of Rochester

 

Emma Tran is an undergraduate at Tulane University and Jenny Dunn is an undergraduate at the University of Washington-Seattle. Both study International Studies and are presently studying at the Council Study Center at Khon Kaen University.

Khon Kaen Model Raises Questions in the Northeast

2014 June 12
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – Since the May 22 coup d’état, Thailand’s military has tried to sweep the country clean of weapons to quell fears of a violent uprising. But in Isaan, the heartland of the Red Shirts, some of the soldiers’ actions have raised doubts about the military’s intentions. Red Shirts here believe that the military may be wrongly framing peaceful Red Shirts as violent terrorists in a high-profile legal case, which could set the stage for a wider crackdown on Red Shirts in the region.

On May 23, soldiers raided an apartment building in Khon Kaen city and arrested around twenty people allegedly involved in a terrorist plot. The military claims the plot, known as the ‘Khon Kaen Model,’ was designed to incite violence in Khon Kaen. In the following days, they arrested additional suspects in their homes, bringing the total number of the accused to twenty-four.

Soldiers reported that they seized grenades, ammunition, and gas tanks at the site of the apartment building. After interrogating the suspects, the military announced what they found to be the Khon Kaen Model’s master plan: mobilize anti-coup supporters, disarm authorities, force financial institutions to give money to the poor, and declare a nationwide “zero debt” policy.

It’s the kind of story that plays right into the conservatives’ two biggest fears: militant Red Shirts and Thaksin’s populism.

The Khon Kaen Model case preceded the military’s nationwide call to civilians to dispose of all firearms. On June 3, the military ordered that all handguns, legal or illegal, be surrendered or thrown away within a week, or else gun owners risked facing up to 20 years behind bars. According to one 2011 report, there are an estimated ten million civilian firearms in the country, which lands Thailand in tenth place worldwide for the most guns in civilian possession.

Red Shirts and those close to the accused in the Khon Kaen Model case insist it is not a clandestine plan of a militant revolt, as the military claims, but part of a broader campaign for social justice and equality. A relative of one of the arrested explained that the group only gathered that day to discuss Red Shirts’ peaceful responses to the coup.

She and many others interviewed by the Isaan Record asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

A staff member of the apartment building, who saw the arrests take place, also said the group seemed to be meeting peaceably. “In the media, the reports were overblown. What happened from what I saw was they didn’t rent a whole floor, they weren’t staying two months, they just stayed one day, and weren’t even sleeping there. There was never any plan to stay for a long time.” The staff member never saw any weapons enter or leave the apartment building.

A relative of another of the accused described how more than a dozen soldiers arrived at her house in a village outside of the city a few days after the arrest. The soldiers did not produce a warrant, but they searched her entire house. They left without finding any weapons but confiscated only a red hat and a United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) form, she claimed.

Relatives and villagers close to the defendants told Benjarat Meethien, the lawyer of the accused, that soldiers have been searching the homes of at least some of the men awaiting trial. The wives feel threatened by these unexpected visits, and they think their husbands are innocent. “The villagers told me that when soldiers armed with guns enter the villages unannounced, it terrifies them,” said Ms. Benjarat.

Beyond the families of the accused, other Red Shirts around Khon Kaen wonder about the implications of this case. “The news accounts of the ‘Khon Kaen Model’ have gone overboard,” said one Red Shirt organizer, who knows a handful of the men involved in the case. “But the military has never been on our side.” He fears that cases like this one could give credence to more arrests of Red Shirts in the region, even though the majority of Red supporters are nonviolent.

Still, a number of small Red Shirt groups that organize “defensive trainings” have cropped up over the years, which the military could perceive as a threat to their rule. One source explained her anger over the arrests on May 23, but she also described her involvement in an underground defense training that taught her and a hundred others how to use BB guns, in case of attack.

The defendants’ lawyer expects the trial to take place at the end of June. At the time of writing, none of the accused had been released on bail. In the military court system, there are no appeals.

Opposition to Military Coup in Khon Kaen

2014 May 25
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN—On May 24, the second full day after the overthrow of the caretaker government by a military coup, there was a greater military presence in Khon Kaen, as well as signs of resistance to the  National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). In the span of three hours, at least three independent anti-coup activities took place around Khon Kaen, including two at Central Plaza shopping mall and one at Khon Kaen University.

On May 23, it was reported that about 100 soldiers were visible midday at key intersections of the city. Yesterday, military security appeared to be significantly heightened, with as many as an estimated 500 soldiers in the city and almost 100 posted outside of Central Plaza alone.

At approximately 5 p.m. on May 24, witnesses say a student group was halted by the authorities at Central Plaza. At least six of the students were reportedly detained. Shortly after, a loud altercation between two female activists and military authorities ensued, attracting a large crowd of onlookers inside the front entrance. The incident only quieted down after officials assured the activists that the students had been released.

At that same moment, another group of protesters attempted to unroll an anti-coup banner reading, “No to the Coup Constitution of 2007. Bring Back the 1997 Constitution.” Military officials wrestled the banner away from protesters and confiscated it.

One onlooker shook her head and said, “The coup will never end, it has happened more than fifteen times [in Thailand] already.”

Ms. Suratda, a thirty-seven-year-old small business owner, expressed frustration, saying that she thought a lot of people in Khon Kaen are unhappy about the coup but are too afraid to come out.

Ms. Chawthip, a forty-nine-year-old owner of a tutoring center, said, “I don’t like the coup.” More people would be protesting, she said, but “we are afraid of guns. Soldiers have guns, but the people don’t.”

Military officials at the scene refused to make any comment to The Isaan Record.

A second protest group relocated to a restaurant in the mall where they displayed a sign that read, “Get out military, give back democracy.” This declaration led military authorities to rush and intervene. A protest leader refused to accompany authorities for talks elsewhere, prompting a military official to sit with the leader at an adjoining table in the restaurant.

A member of this group said their protest was to bring back democracy. “Our demand is for elections and equality of all votes regardless of who the person is. We don’t want a constitution that further limits democracy. The people have to be the sovereign power.”

A third group had travelled down from Namphong District and had planned to assemble at the park across from Central Plaza. They were unable to carry out their demonstration due to confusion between the various protest groups. The leader of this group said, “The age of dictatorship is over. Any advanced country is democratic, like Japan, Germany, or the US.”

Thailand is rated in the top eight countries in the world for number of coups; it is once again caught in the vicious cycle of coups, new constitutions, elections, and now another coup, he explained.

A fourth protest group met at Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Law. It included members of the student activist group Dao Din, as well as several members from the Namphong group. Together they performed a Thai version of The People’s Song in front of a bust of Pridi Phanomyong whom they recognize as the “Father of Thai Democracy.” The performance was recorded and will be posted on social media outlets.

Mr. Jatupat, a leader of the group, said the goal of the video is to encourage people to be brave. “In this situation, we have to wake up the people; this is a song for those who are oppressed.”

There were other signs of opposition to the coup in the city. Along Chonnabot Road outside of Khon Kaen University, one piece of graffiti showed a broken peace symbol and the words, “Resist the Coup.” Another said, “MILITARY: Don’t Mess [in politics].”

None of the groups protesting in Khon Kaen seemed to be connected to the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). Many, however, identified themselves as red shirts or as sympathetic to the UDD cause.

There appeared to be little coordination between the groups yesterday. Among those protesting, there was some surprise to see other groups protesting as well.

Yesterday’s anti-coup activities come in the wake of twenty-one people who were arrested for allegedly preparing violent acts in Khon Kaen on May 23, as reported by the Mass Communication Organization of Thailand (MCOT).

There is reportedly an anti-coup protest scheduled for 4:30 p.m. in Khon Kaen on May 25.

Gold Mine Protesters Hurt by Armed Mob and Shady Deals

2014 May 20
by The Isaan Record

 

On the night of May 15, 300 armed men allegedly beat and bound forty villagers in Na Nong Bong community in Khao Luang district of Loei province. On the morning of the May 17, police came for the initial investigation of the attack on the community and Tungkum Ltd. mining site.

On the night of May 15, 300 armed men allegedly beat and bound forty villagers in Na Nong Bong community in Khao Luang district of Loei province. On the morning of the May 17, police came for the initial investigation of the attack on the community and Tungkum Ltd. mining site.

LOEI—Charging with clubs, broken bottles, slingshots, and guns, approximately 300 masked men descended on Na Nong Bong community at 10 p.m. on May 15, villagers claim. Moving under the cover of darkness, and suspected of cutting power to the village, these men had the tactical edge over community members keeping watch at three checkpoints along the road to a controversial mine in Khao Luang District.

The assailants, whom villagers call “Blackshirts,” allegedly beat and held captive forty members of the Na Nong Bong anti-mining group, People Who Love Their Hometown (PWLTH), for six hours.

One hundred Blackshirts raided each checkpoint, which was staffed by about ten village volunteers, community members stated. Villagers claim their feet were bound together and their hands tied behind their backs with strips cloth, zip ties, and handcuffs. Images of the wounds show battered faces and limbs. The Environmental Alert and Recovery Thailand (EARTH) activist group reported at least 20 people sustained injuries from the attack.

PWLTH has been protesting Tungkum Ltd.’s mining operation near their village since 2008 due to the mine’s alleged environmental and health effects.

After six years of protesting against Tungkum Ltd., PWLTH ramped up their strategy against the mining company as a response to being excluded from a public hearing event in September 2013. In October 2013, PWLTH installed three checkpoints for monitoring the operations around the Tungkum Ltd. mine site.

At the final checkpoint, villagers constructed a blockade in an intersection between a public road and Tungkum Ltd.’s access road. The blockade’s location in relation to the Tungkum Ltd. property line is in dispute. Mr. Lertsak Khamkongsak, a community organizer working with PWLTH, states the road was built to cease the transportation of illegal ore after the Tungkum Ltd.’s mining license expired at this site. Since then, approximately ten community members have stationed themselves at each checkpoint for nightly shifts of guard duty.

Prachatham reports that Tungkum Ltd. has since filed seven lawsuits against PWLTH, all of which are pending in court. The cases include three criminal cases of alleged trespassing on Tungkum Ltd.’s property, three civil cases regarding Tungkum Ltd.’s financial losses due to blocked access to the mine, and one case for building an obstruction on the road. In total, Tungkum Ltd. is suing the villagers for over 270 million baht plus 10 million baht per day since September.

Once the checkpoints were secured, the Blackshirts bulldozed the blockade obstructing access to the Tungkum Ltd. mine site. Over the next six hours, the unknown assailants worked to move thirteen trucks full of ore out of the Tungkum Ltd. mine, claim witnesses.

Tungkum Ltd. did not respond to requests for comment.

At 4 a.m., after the last truckload of ore exited the mine, captives and eyewitnesses reported that Blackshirts began untying the hostages.

Community members say it was clear that the attack had been planned. “They had prepared a strategy, they knew how many people we had at the checkpoints,” said Mr. Samai Phakmi, a leader of PWLTH and head of the Subdistrict Administrative Office Council, “The hostages couldn’t have asked for help because they had no time. [The Blackshirts] were so organized, they knew how to disable our checkpoints, they knew our leaders, and they knew when to break down the blockade.”

Witnesses claim they began calling the police at 10 p.m. on the evening of May 15. It was not until three hours after the initial seizure that two police officers arrived.

However, realizing they were outnumbered, the two police officers reportedly left. At 2 a.m., villagers went to the nearby Wang Saphung police station to report what was happening, but according to PWLTH leaders, police did not arrive to investigate the situation until Saturday morning, thirty-six hours after the initial call from the community.

Mr. Surapan Rujichaiwat, another PWLTH leader, visibly shaken by the events, stated that, “In a situation where the law is being broken, we have to fight to get the police involved. It shouldn’t be like that, we shouldn’t have to beg for the police to take action.”

Mr. Samai adds, “If the tables were turned and we attacked the company, we would’ve already been in jail.” There has been no confirmation from authorities that the attacks came from Tungkum Ltd.

Mr. Surapan recounts that on the way to his shift at the checkpoint, “They knocked me off of my motorcycle, kicked me in the face, and asked me over and over ‘Where are you going? Where are you going?’ It was then that I realized my friends were tied up lying face down.”

Mr. Yon Khunna, a leader of the anti-mining group in the Na Nong Bong village area, suffers from blows to the face. He was one of many group leaders who says he was beaten and threatened that night.

Mr. Yon Khunna, a leader of the anti-mining group in the Na Nong Bong village area, suffers from blows to the face. He was one of many group leaders who says he was beaten and threatened that night.

At one point, when he was on the ground, Mr. Surapan claims, “One of the Blackshirts said, ‘Oh, this is their leader,’ and then they started to beat me. They dragged me away from the others and I could hear them counting people by hitting them on their bodies with their wooden clubs.”

Mr. Samai stated, “It seemed like we were in a battlefield.”

Members of PWLTH also claim they were threatened as they were beaten. Mr. Surapan stated, “They threatened me, told me it’s not safe for my wife and kids. They said, ‘I know you well, if you keep doing this, it will not be good for your family.’”

Many people who watched the situation unfold felt helpless. “We couldn’t do anything,” explained Ms. Wiron Rujichaiwat, wife of Mr. Surapan. Disheartened, she continued, “The Blackshirts made it seem like if we attacked them, they would beat or kill those held hostage.”

Ms. Wiron sat and gazed at her husband, who was standing near the road. “My husband was captured,” she said. “He said he could hear them saying, ‘If the people try to charge us, capture them and put them in the trucks, drive away, kill them, and dump the bodies.’”

The most common injuries to those captured were cuts from knives and glass, scrapes, beaten and bruised faces, and one individual reported blood in his urine. Of the forty hostages, seven have filed complaints to the police and only one person could provide the name of an un-masked Blackshirt whom he recognized.

Mr. Surapan explained, around 4 a.m. on May 16, he was untied by a captor who then began to apologize for the violence inflicted upon the community. The captor then attempted to bribe Mr. Surapan. “He offered me a car, money, and a job with [Tungkum Ltd.] if I stopped our protest movement.”

For villagers, this has been a serious turn in their battle against the mining industry. “This conflict is not about making a profit for us, it is about protecting our livelihoods, our food sources, our security… It is not a business conflict, it is about protecting our environment which affects our life, our health, our children, and our family,” said Ms. Wiron.

Recently, on April 22, Mr. Surapan stated that a retired high-ranking military official came to his house, allegedly claiming to be a Tungkum Ltd. buyer and asked if the copper ore from the company mining site could be transported. Mr. Surapan deflected the retired military official’s request and said that he needed to talk to the members of PWLTH.

Mr. Surapan stated that on May 5, he received another visit from the same retired military official, this time accompanied by his son, again requesting to transport the copper ore. Purportedly, they questioned Mr. Surapan, stating, “We just want to buy the copper, why are you making this so difficult for us?”

Ten days after the last contact with the retired military official and his son, the blockade obstructing Tungkum Ltd.’s mine was torn down and pieces strewn about.

Villagers claim the 300 attackers bulldozed the blockade obstructing the access road of the Tungkum Ltd. mining site and transported thirteen trucks of minerals.

Villagers claim the 300 attackers bulldozed the blockade obstructing the access road of the Tungkum Ltd. mining site and transported thirteen truckloads of minerals.

During the events of May 15, villagers claim that they recognized the retired military official from his previous visits to Na Nong Bong and heard references to his son on walkie-talkies. It is reported by captives that the mask-less retired military official had physical altercations with a villager and his son was controlling the transportation of ore from the mine that night.

“People were mentioning [the retired military officials’ son] on the walkie-talkie the whole night,” stated Mr. Samai. Those uninvolved with the anti-mining movement know little of the son’s identification otherwise.

Mr. Thanawoot Pimsuwan, Head of the Provincial Administrative Office of Loei province, explained that the retired military official’s son came to his office before the Songkran holiday claiming Tungkum Ltd. would make the retired official’s son the Managing Director only if they transported the copper ore from the site in Na Nong Bong. Mr. Thanawoot advised the son to work through the legal cases with Na Nong Bong by negotiation and more communication with the villagers.

According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, Mr. Thanawoot has appointed himself as a broker to buy copper ore from Tungkum Ltd. Mr. Thanawoot denies this allegation. “Why would I want to be a part of this smuggling business?” he said.

Mr. Thanawoot explained that the moving of minerals from the Tungkum Ltd. site on May 15 is illegal unless the company holds the proper permits from the Mineral Transportation Office.

He urged the villagers to go to the Office of the Governor and request to view the mineral transportation documents to find out if the copper was legally or illegally taken out of the Tungkum Ltd. mine on May 15. Community organizers and members state that the Tungkum Ltd. transportation documents are registered for May 16 and 17, which excludes the transportation of ore from 10 p.m. to 11:59 p.m. on May 15.

“What’s going to happen when it happens again?  It will when they want more copper,” claimed Ms. Wiron. Villagers described a sense of injustice throughout the investigation process and a fear of being ill equipped to handle more violence from gangs and mobs.

She explained, “We have our own way of dealing with finding justice, and it is through the courts, not through violence.”

A local community organizer, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, said, “This is a collaboration of three parties that work as an organization. You can’t say that this is just the company, or just the gangsters, or just the administrative offices, but it is a conflict over the rights to resources and who will benefit most from them.”

Thanawoot, for his part, believes this conflict may be the end for Tungkum Ltd. Shaking his head in disappointment, Mr. Thanawoot said, “[Tungkum Ltd.] has done itself in through this violence against the community.”

 

 

Senate Candidates Campaign Without Politics

2014 March 30
by Sally Mairs
senate rally

Crowds gather at Khon Kaen’s provincial hall to hear senatorial candidates speak.

KHON KAEN—When Komet Teekhathananon took to the stage outside the provincial hall on Thursday, he described his experience as a business owner and a local politician. Mr. Komet is running for senator, and this was his sole chance to speak to voters before Sunday’s senatorial election. But there was one catch: he was not allowed to talk about politics.

“As a senatorial candidate, there are many laws that control what I can say,” said 57-year-old Mr. Komet, whose family owns a marketplace in Khon Kaen. “So it’s hard to explain what I really want you to understand.”

Mr. Komet is one of seven candidates running for senator in Khon Kaen Province. Strict rules aimed at maintaining a non-partisan Senate in Thailand bar candidates from carrying out many common campaign practices, including discussing current political issues.

The few permissible activities include posting billboards with their names and slogans on government offices, and submitting photos and short biographies to be circulated by mail and broadcasted over government radio.

On Thursday, each candidate in Khon Kaen was also given 15 minutes to speak on stage before a crowd of approximately 2,000 people in front of the provincial hall.

Because senatorial candidates are prohibited from discussing political issues, most of their speeches focused on personal qualifications.

Like Mr. Komet, prominent radio D.J. Wan Suwanphong, 75, also addressed the limitations placed on his campaign speech.

“I believe that we still need to amend the constitution, but I am not permitted to speak much on what I want to see change,” said Mr. Wan.

Instead, Mr. Wan discussed his background as a lawyer.  Yet he did finish with a comment that made clear his view of the Constitutional Court’s recent ruling to void the February 2 election of MPs.

“I am afraid that the March 30 election could end up the same as the MP election on February 2,” Mr. Wan said. “If it becomes invalid again, I will be the lawyer that sues whomever invalidates it.”

Mr. Thitinan Saengnak, 53, also gestured towards his political position without being explicit.

“We have to work with people from the bureaucratic system, like the Office of Ombudsman. We have to work with these people. You know who they are and what they believe,” said Mr. Thitinan.

The Office of Ombudsman is one of several government agencies considered to be aligned with the anti-government camp.

“I want to stay with you on your side,” Mr. Thitinan told the Khon Kaen audience. “I believe that we have the same position, the same point of view.”

Other candidates avoided politics and focused on more neutral issues.

Suwit Namboonroeng, age 62, cited a lifelong commitment to democracy and stressed the importance of education.

Forty-seven-year-old Suthon Sornkhamkaew, who has a background in accounting, stressed his personal impartiality.

“I’m totally independent, I am not interested in backing up any color in particular, “ said Mr. Suthon. “I think the most important thing for the senator is to be honest and have integrity.”

Senatorial candidates cannot be affiliated with a political party, so it is especially valuable to have high name-recognition.

“You cannot be just anybody and run for senator,” said Khon Kaen Election Commissioner Thitipol Thosarod. “There are always some unknown candidates who use this situation to introduce themselves to the public, but usually the people who run for Senate are already very well-known in the province.”

Although anti-government protesters have vowed to block any MP election that is held before a series of national reforms are implemented, they say they will not interfere with Sunday’s Senate election. This is likely because the Senate, which holds the power to impeach the Prime Minister with a three-to-five vote, is essential to any effort to oust Prime Minister Yingluck.

As a result of the 2007 constitution, Thailand’s Senate is only half-elected; the other half is appointed by judges and government officials who are widely considered to be members of the anti-Shinawatra establishment.

The committee that appoints senators includes senior leaders from the Constitutional Court, National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), Election Commission, State Audit Commission and a representative of the Supreme Court.

With a strong influence from these agencies, the Senate is expected to back a decision to impeach Prime Minister Yingluck if the NACC recommends it.

The NACC has charged Ms. Yingluck with negligence of duty in overseeing the government’s controversial rice-pledging scheme. The Prime Minister is scheduled to appear before the NACC on March 31, and the corruption commission is expected to announce its verdict early next month.

With the current government hanging in the balance, the Senate candidates elected on Sunday are set to play a pivotal role in determining the course of Thailand’s political crisis.

Law Students File Complaint Against Constitutional Court

2014 March 29
by The Isaan Record
Law students demonstrate in front of of Khon Kaen's Administrative Court.

Law students demonstrate in front of Khon Kaen’s Administrative Court.

Khon Kaen University Law students filed a complaint against Thailand’s Office of the Ombudsman on Monday in regards to the recent Constitutional Court decision to invalidate the February 2 congressional election.

The student-run human rights group, Dao Din, argued that the Office of the Ombudsman did not have the authority to forward the February 2 election case to the Constitutional Court.  They  also requested financial compensation for the cost of traveling to the polls on February 2 and for the retraction of their political right to vote.

“I feel that the court has lost their legitimacy,” said Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a 23-year-old law student at Khon Kaen University and member of Dao Din. “They have made a mistake and created a dead end for Thailand.”

Before filing the complaint on Monday, Dao Din staged a skit in front of Khon Kaen’s Administrative Court mocking the Constitutional Court judges and depicting what they consider to be the court’s “silent coup.”

After the demonstration, members of Dao Din affirmed their commitment to democracy and read the group’s official position on the political crisis that has gradually unravelled Thailand’s elected government. 

“We don’t want a reformed government or one that comes from the military, through the independent agencies, or through any power which overthrows the democratic system by undemocratic forces,” the group’s official statement said.

A group of academics known as the Assembly for the Defence of Democracy (AFDD) also criticised the Office of Ombudsman’s actions on Monday. In an official statement, the AFDD argued that the Office of the Ombudsman can only forward complaints to the Constitutional Court that concern the constitutionality of legal provisions, which they argue the “the holding of a general election” does not fall under.

 

Court Annuls February 2 Poll, Khon Kaen Responds

2014 March 23
by Sally Mairs
Activists erect a banner on Khon Kaen's Democracy Monument that says, "Here there stands only a ‘monument’ but no ‘democracy,’ which has now disappeared. RIP democracy."

Activists erect a banner on Khon Kaen’s Democracy Monument that says, “Here there stands only a ‘monument’ but no ‘democracy,’ which has now disappeared. RIP democracy.”

KHON KAEN—Student activists in Khon Kaen wrapped a black banner around the city’s Democracy Monument on Saturday to condemn the Constitutional Court’s annulment of the February 2 election.

Thailand’s Constitutional Court judges ruled in a 6-to-3 vote on Friday to nullify the election because of a constitutional clause that requires voting to be held in every part of the country on the same day. Voting was not held in every constituency on February 2 because anti-government protesters prevented candidates from registering in 28 districts in southern Thailand.

The ruling raises many questions about how the country will resolve the political stalemate that has left it without a fully functioning government for months. The court’s decision may also set a troublesome precedent in which entire elections can be voided if protesters succeed at blocking voting in a single district.

Voting in the 28 constituencies that were unable to field candidates on February 2 was expected to take place at a later date, but the court’s ruling requires a new election to be held countrywide.

The Election Commission has not announced when the new poll will take place but said it could more than two months from now.

With a complete legislature even further from being formed, and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s status on the line as she faces impeachable charges from the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NAAC), Thailand’s judiciary branch is emerging as one of the most powerful players in the country’s political crisis.

“I think the [Constitutional Court] has trampled on our democracy just to get rid of this government,” said 18-year-old Chongphithack Namlao, who helped organize Saturday’s demonstration. “We cannot exchange the whole democratic system simply to chase away the current government.”

Activists took turns speaking over a loudspeaker to a small crowd gathered around the shrouded monument in Khon Kaen.

“We are not Red Shirts or Yellow Shirts,” announced a student. “We are dressed in black to say that our democratic system is dying.”

A Red Shirt rally in protest of the court’s ruling was also planned for Saturday in Khon Kaen, but it was canceled at the last minute, said radio D.J. and Red Shirt leader Bhutdhipong Khanhaengpon.

Mr. Bhutdhipong said that many Red Shirt supporters in Khon Kaen are angry over the election’s nullification, but they don’t want to cause any additional problems for the already beleaguered caretaker government.

“We are thinking more than we did in 2010 because we don’t want to lose anybody on the streets anymore, and if we do anything under this government it might just give them more trouble,” said Mr. Bhutdhipong.  “For now, we are just waiting. If something else happens, like a coup or an attempt to replace this government with an unelected one, that will be the last straw.”

“If the UDD needs them, the people here are ready to join.” added Mr. Bhutdhipong, in reference to the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, a Red Shirt political group whose leaders have made increasingly militant remarks in recent weeks.

In addition to uncertainty over when a fresh poll will be rescheduled, there is concern over how the government will avoid another invalidated election if protesters decide to blockade polls again.

Legal expert and political commentator Verpat Pariyawong expressed worry over the precedent that Friday’s court ruling could set.

“The reasoning of the court is paving ways for anyone to have the power to nullify an entire election simply by obstructing candidates from registering in a single district,” said Mr. Verpat.

Although the protests in Bangkok have dwindled over the past month, Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of the opposition movement, vowed before a crowd of supporters on Thursday to obstruct any attempts to hold a new election before national reforms are implemented.

Anti-government leader Kamol Kitkasitwat, the chairman of Khon Kaen’s PDRC chapter, reiterated the necessity of carrying out reforms before a new election is held.

“Everyone needs to accept that we have to reform,” said Mr. Kamol. “People in Khon Kaen should watch and listen to what happens in Bangkok. If anything happens that we don’t want to see, we are going to have street rallies again.”

The Democrat Party, which boycotted the February 2 poll, has not yet said whether it will participate in the rescheduled election.