This weekend I went to Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) to attend a community-based ceremony called Gratitude to the Teacher at Ratanawan Monastery. Located on a hilltop amid perennial green forest, it is considered a forest-tradition temple, a sub-category of Theravada Buddhism. This type of tradition is interspersed throughout Isaan — you may be familiar with Luang Pu Man Phurithatto, who made a debut of forest-tradition Buddhism in the region. Exceptional is the fact that roughly half the monks are of non-Thai origin, a number of whom are Caucasian. As such, the locals always call Ratanawan “wat phra farang” (temple of foreign monks). I have come here several times and am moved by the rites, be it monastic or lay.
What stands out the most is the racial diversity there. I noticed young ceremony-participants—in teenage years—who appeared Caucasian while their female parent looked Thai. They must have been children of couples with transnational marriages. The picture evokes part of the books on the Vietnam War I had been reading prior to settling this anthropological field trip. Historically, it was through the concentration of US bases in Isaan that allowed for intimate bonds with the locals. Since then transnational marriage, preferably with Western-looking men—or “farang” in Thai vernacular— has become ubiquitous to the extent that plenty of female villagers wish to marry “farang.”
The abbot of Ratanawan is a foreigner, as are plenty of monks there, and can speak English — the main lingua franca. To me, he acts as a cultural intermediary, ushering in people of the West and the East together into the same community. Mixed-blood families, as observed, are keen to lend a helping hand to monastic chores; informed of special ceremonies where the crowd is expected, they organize makeshifts almshouses, giving out free foods to attendees and visiting nearby villagers. It shows a growing locality derived from international co-operation. In addition, there were 10-odd Chinese-speaking people. Knowing Chinese and overhearing their conversation, I recognized their accent, which suggests their homeland was of the South Sea, namely Malaysia and Singapore. They communicated with the abbot in English. I realized that they were the same group I had seen at Ratanawan in early May this year when I had visited. Not only are they spiritually committed to forest-tradition Buddhism, but they also furnish support. I recognized the Chinese name as the chairman of the ceremony, an acolyte, acclaimed throughout loudspeakers on that day.
Isaan in fact comes to my attention since the community is expanding to embrace cosmopolitanism. And because its people account for majority of Thais, I believe, the region is significant in determining Thailand’s trajectory. Here, the factor of “temple” is important. Important, because, referring to Ratanawan, it is now taking a vital role in globalizing Isaan. The locals themselves can entertain global elements, from language to ideology, while at home. I am often very surprised that more and more Isaanners can speak English—good English. It is decent proof of Isaan approaching globalism.
Patrick Huang, Bangkok
For 35 years, Thailand’s primary healthcare system has rested on the shoulders of a legion of Village Health Volunteers. Now that Thailand has had universal healthcare for some years, is this model – which was originally established to boost poor rural communities’ access to essential healthcare – obsolete?
By Zoe Swartz, Mariko Powers, and Katie Mathieson
KHON KAEN – Mekhala Nonsiri sits in the doorway of her two-room rented home in a slum community of Khon Kaen. She suffers from a calcium deficiency in her bones that makes walking nearly impossible. Living with a disability in an urban slum is already a challenge, but without the daily visits of a Village Health Volunteer (VHV) her life would be much harder.
Ms. Nonsiri lives in Theparak 5, one of Khon Kaen’s shanty communities. Set back from the slum’s narrow thoroughfare by an even narrower alley, her home overlooks the train tracks. Like everyone here, she is accustomed to pausing conversations amid the deafening clamor of passing trains.
Ms. Mekhala has plenty to fret over, but one thing she does not have to worry about is eating lunch. Each day, Uthumporn Srichai a Village Health Volunteer, checks on Ms. Mekhala and brings her a meal, free of charge. The 52-year-old has been a VHV for six years and looks after 15 disabled residents in Theparak 5 and its neighboring slums.
In her community, Ms. Uthumporn and the other nine VHVs serve as liaisons between villagers and the formal health sector. They provide basic services such as checking blood pressure, health consultations, first aid, and sometimes transportation to the hospital.
Thailand established this healthcare delivery system in 1980 after the country’s ratification of the Alma Ata Declaration, an international agreement to promote the health of all people.
In the 1980s, transportation in rural areas – where the bulk of the population lived – was difficult. Medical care was costly – prohibitively so for the poor. It made sense for communities to develop ways to take care of their own health.
Thailand in 2015 is quite different. According to the United Nations Development Programme, the number of impoverished households in Isaan dropped from 3.4% in 1996 to less than 1.3% by 2009. Northeastern people are more educated and urbanized.
Most importantly, a low-cost universal healthcare system was put in place in 2002.
Nevertheless, the VHV program continued to expand. There were 700,000 VHVs in 2005; now there are more than a million, each working with seven to twelve families in every community in Thailand. VHVs are expected to systematically coordinate their work with government public health policies.
The national budget for the VHV program is over 7.2 billion baht (US$240 million) annually, which includes funds for the 600-baht monthly stipend volunteers have received since 2001.
Given the changes in Thailand’s poverty demographics and the expansion of access to the healthcare system, are VHVs still necessary?
Dr. Amorn Nondasuta, Thailand’s former Permanent Secretary of Public Health, was in charge of the national primary healthcare program from 1983 to 1986. Now 87 years old and retired, it was under his watch that Thailand’s community health volunteer program was initiated 35 years ago.
The mission of the program has always been to expand “community access” by placing primary healthcare into the hands of villagers and creating “health autonomy,” Dr. Amorn says in an email to The Isaan Record. He originally hoped to see “the people fully in control of their own health, via behavior change or health planning and management.” But this mission, Dr Amorn admits, “has not been fully realized so far.”
A 1997 report found that the use of VHVs declined as Thailand urbanized and access to medical services improved. As a result, “more and more people self-refer into this level of care,” the report states.
“City people have many choices to visit doctors, so they don’t use VHVs,” says Vanarat Kongkam, who oversees the VHV program in Khon Kaen municipality.
Proponents of the program point out that the VHV program is closely tied to community development, a role that cannot be fulfilled by formal health services alone.
“VHVs are the role models of people in the communities. They are dedicated to many social causes. They become respected and may be elected headman,” says Waraporn Chukhanhom, Secretary to the Director of Public Health for Khon Kaen City District.
Government officials working with VHVs echo this sentiment and insist that the program still plays a crucial role for Thailand’s healthcare system. From the beginning, says Ms. Vanarat, the program was “exclusively designed to give poor people access to healthcare.”
In many cases, lack of transportation is an additional barrier to medical care. For rural residents in remote communities in Isaan, traveling to the hospital can be particularly burdensome. In order to tackle this problem, the VHV program in Isaan has established “Happy Pavilions” – small healthcare stations where volunteers provide basic care close to rural residents’ homes.
“The Happy Pavilion program works well,” Ms. Waraporn says, adding that it helps vulnerable populations “reduce the cost of hospital visits.”
As VHVs are members of the communities they serve, they know the day-to-day struggles of their neighbors and can track the general well-being of the families under their care. They can support people with mobility challenges by assisting them, giving baths, or providing diet-appropriate meals.
Most important, say proponents, the volunteers help villagers navigate the medical bureaucracy and personalize healthcare. When Ms. Mekhala first started to have trouble walking, she couldn’t afford to buy a wheelchair. With the support of her VHV, Ms. Uthumporn, she was able to secure municipality funds to purchase one.
The VHV program also provides basic healthcare training to selected villagers. In this way, they can serve as a bridge to the formal health system and actively support preventive healthcare in their communities.
This role as a bridge is especially profound for Somphaan Sonphromma, a 50-year-old resident of Khok Si, a village eight kilometers outside of Khon Kaen City. She is one of the village’s twenty health volunteers educating people on how to prevent mosquito-borne illnesses, such as dengue. One of Ms. Somphaan’s weekly tasks is to visit her assigned families and distribute fish and chemicals that destroy mosquito larvae.“VHVs and villagers live in the same community, so volunteers know people’s problems better than the doctor and can work to help one another” says Jitti Chertchoo, the headman of the slum community Theparak 5.
The localized volunteer service model is effective in Thailand because it mirrors what is already culturally practiced – villagers taking care of family members and supporting the well-being of the community.
“My life is hard but then I look around and see that other people have it worse than me,” says Ms. Uthumporn. Her budget request letter to the municipality did not ask for much in the way of resources. She knows that the most valuable thing she can offer is her time. Here, she checks to make sure the food that the school donates will not be too spicy for her patients.
Amphon Phosanit used to work transporting and selling vegetables in remote provinces. Five years ago he lost his left arm in a car accident when he swerved to avoid a shipping container that fell off an eighteen-wheel truck in front of him. Now he drives Ms. Uthumporn to the places she volunteers. He earns 50 baht to cover the cost of gas, and 5 Baht for every meal they deliver.
Knocking on the door of each patient's house every day can take a long time, but that closeness is what Ms. Uthumporn thinks makes this program important. “We are closer to each other than we are to doctors. We see the real conditions of the community, but doctors and nurses see the patient only at that moment,” Ms. Uthumporn says.
Ms. Uthumporn smiles, saying “seeing people in the community healthy makes me happy. If I had to choose between helping the community or helping myself, I would help the community.”
Phanom Seemuang, 76, has problems with her vision. Like many of Ms. Uthumporn’s patients, she lives alone and doesn't have family around to take care of her. In the corner of the house, Ms. Phanom has a small stove for cooking on days when Ms. Uthumporn cannot bring her meals.
Ms. Phanom lives here alone. The railroad connecting Nong Khai to Bangkok runs 15 yards outside her front door. Many houses here are dilapidated structures made of plywood and sheet metal, but the community has made some improvements. After petitioning the government to be recognized as a legal settlement, the community was granted legal status ten years ago. Jitti Chertchoo, the headman of Theparak 5 community, says the challenge these days is “the government thinks that children should not be here in the slum.”
Mekhala Nonsiri’s husband works as a gardener in downtown Khon Kaen and her children work at a store, so Ms. Uthumporn helps take care of her during the day. With Ms. Uthumporn’s assistance she is in the process of registering for a disability card and received money to buy a wheel chair. Many of Ms. Uthumporn’s patients receive 800 baht in disability benefits a month from the municipality.
Sustained declines in birth and death rates during the last three decades of the 20th century have left Thailand facing a rapidly growing population of older persons. Almost a third of Thailand’s population will be over the age of 60 by the year 2050. Women constitute the majority of Thailand’s older population and face disadvantages relative to men, including lower levels of literacy, longer periods of widowhood, living alone with significantly lower household income, higher levels of morbidity and disability, and lower likelihood of receiving formal retirement benefits or social security support, according to the United Nations. [Pictured above Ms. Uthumporn visits her patient Amphorn Khanwijit]
Basket weaving is a common source of income for the elderly and disabled of Theparak 5. A basket takes a whole day to make and might sell for 50 baht, less than .50. For elderly residents living alone, like 75-year-old Samai Moongjuaklang, these baskets are means to a livelihood.
“After I got in the car accident, I didn’t want anyone in my family to take have to care of me, so I moved here to Khon Kaen. I would be a burden to my family and I didn’t want my grandma taking care of me and washing dishes for me - I wanted to take care of myself” Mr. Amphon says. Encouraged by Ms. Uthumporn, Mr. Amphon took up singing. Some nights he can make up to 1,000 baht singing in the market for coins. A true caregiver, Ms. Uthumporn sees the potential in everyone she works with.
Despite living in the center of the city's activities along the rail road tracks, access to public services can be confusing, especially for those not living near extended family.
The Isaan Record is happy to announce a new section in the publication: Letters to the Editor. We invite readers to share their thoughts by sending comment to email@example.com. Please be aware that any published letter or comment might be subject to editing for clarity. (We apologize for republishing a Letter to the Editor from the other day, but The Isaan Record wanted to better highlight this new section.)
Observations about Northeasterners and Ethnicity
I have been traveling to Isaan quite often, especially during the past few years. But I do not consider myself a traveller, but a traveller-cum-anthopologist. I love observing, jotting down, and, most importantly, talking with the locals. I could notice a big difference in various parts of the region.
Northeastern Thailand, or Isaan, is a most squabbling territory where the issue of inter-ethnicities, primarily against central Thai ethnicity, comes into sight. Northeasterners are of more ethnically related to Laotians as shown in cultural manifestation of language and rituals.
The people in those days may have appreciated a more patriotic sense of being Lao than Thais. However, when Marshall Pleak Phibunsongkhram was in office, Thailand declared a nationalist propaganda through state decrees or rattaniyom (รัฐนิยม). Non-Thai people were pushed to be Thais. Northeasterners underwent ethnic persecution in that the Thai government terminated their ancestral identities, yet cultivating central Thai practices. For instance, schools could only teach Thai, not Lao.
Chon-klum-noi (ชนกลุ่มน้อย) or ethnic minorities are pervasive in Isaan. The word chon-klum-noi is pejorative, implying that the people lack ability to survive by themselves, considered government’s liability. As for main occupations, “previous” Northeasterners depended largely on agriculture and sadly, as the terrains are arid, here comes emigration. Those who are “breadwinners” move to Bangkok where they are promised a higher income or high enough to send remittances home, even if their jobs are often of the working-class.
A number of agricultural communities have been transforming into industries, small or middle-sized. The emergence of a nouveau riche is observed too. People, inclusive of ethnic minorities, get higher and higher educations.
I speculate that because of the readjustment of social construction, there comes the new middle class, who are self-reliant and even can give the nation substantial economic contributions. Their way of thinking is also changing in that, since they are already have that “potential,” they need more of self-government.
The problem is: our military regime now assumes “centralization” in which the power is monopolized by the government. I opine that it is contradicting to social reality of the present-day Isaan.
KHON KAEN – In the Northeast, most people were always doubtful. They laughed at the reconciliation trainings that came to their villages. They mocked a constitution drafting process that purported to include their voices. Very few here believed that the military had any intention of swiftly returning Thailand to a democracy. The news that the military rejected its own constitution draft comes as just another sign of the junta’s insincere rule.
Last Sunday, the military government’s hand-picked National Reform Council (NRC) voted down the blueprint for Thailand’s new political system in a process that the military itself had initiated.
After overthrowing an elected government last year, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has argued that constitutional reform is necessary to lift the country out of its chronic cycle of political instability. While the need for reform is recognized across the political spectrum, critics throughout the country and around the world question the military government’s commitment to returning the country to democracy.
The defeat of the charter draft is salt in the wounds of those who saw the drafting process as illegitimate and regarded the government’s efforts to seek citizen participation through public forums as nothing but a false front.
In March, one chairman of a public forum in the Northeast revealed to The Isaan Record that he saw the public participation campaign as “just window-dressing” and expressed no hope for genuine inclusion of people’s voices.
Others embraced the chance to give input to the drafting process, even while admitting that there were little chances that the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) considered their suggestions.
Tul Prasertsilpa, President of the Citizen’s Anti-Corruption Network Khon Kaen, participated in the public forums and is incensed over the defeat of the constitution draft.
“In the Five Rivers, some members are using the reform process to their own benefit,” he claims, referring to the military government’s five major bodies, two of which – the NRC and CDC – are now defunct after the rejection of the charter draft.
He suggested that Prime Minister Prayuth was not decisive enough in his leadership and failed to control the voting process. “Now he can’t follow the roadmap as promised and in the future no one will listen to him anymore,” Mr. Tul said in an interview with The Isaan Record.
The majority of military members in the NRC voted against the constitution draft, leaving the CDC’s Chairman Borwornsak Uwanno to thank the sole three military members who gave their support to the draft. He hinted at pressure from military superiors to vote no.
“It really should have passed, it was a solid draft,” said Wasan Chuchai, Secretary and Committee Member of the Khon Kaen provincial branch of the Lawyers Council of Thailand. He reflects concerns that political meddling played a role in the rejection of the draft and accused “some politicians” of influencing the vote.
However, many suspect the rejection of the constitution was orchestrated by the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) in order to postpone handing power back to a civilian government.
“The constitution draft wasn’t democratic and neither was its down voting,” said Siwat Sriphokhakun, a lecturer at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University. He believes its rejection was coordinated to extend the NCPO’s rule.
The substance of the charter draft had drawn criticism from both political camps as it allowed for an appointed prime minister and included a provision for a “crisis panel” empowered to overrule executive and legislative decisions.
“The charter draft was a tool of military dictatorship and not a vehicle for the will of the people,” said Dr. Wiboon Shamsheun, a former Pheu Thai vice minister from Kalasin. “Constitutional reform must ensure people’s liberties and rights and establish the rule of law,” Dr. Wiboon said.
“That’s what real reform must look like – and not what the PDRC thinks reform is,” he added.
The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) staged mass protests against the former elected government demanding the implementation of a vague set of reforms before elections. The movement’s leaders argue that Thailand is not ready for electoral democracy, a claim that conservative forces have historically clung to in their opposition to a democratic system for Thailand.
For Sutin Klangsaeng, a member of the Pheu Thai party-list from Maha Sarakham, the rejection of the charter draft comes as a mixed blessing. “At least now we don’t have to vote on an undemocratic constitution in a referendum,” he said.
In the run-up to the NRC’s decision on the draft, pro-democracy activists across the country had started to prepare a strategic response in the case of a referendum. Some called for an outright voting boycott, while others argued it would be better to participate by voting no or spoiling the ballot.
On the downside, said Mr. Sutin, the country now has to tolerate extended military rule, which might send Thailand’s economy into a downward spiral and further taint its international image.
“The longer their rule lasts, the more they want to stay in power and the country will keep straying off its democratic path,” Mr. Sutin added.
According to the military government’s rules, it must set up a new constitution drafting body within 30 days, which will have to present a new charter draft within 180 days. The NCPO postponed national elections to 2017 the earliest, after it had pushed back the election date several times.
Mr. Siwat expressed little hope for the new draft to be more democratic than the failed one. “It will limit people’s power again and if it fails a referendum, the process will just start all over again,” he said.
In the Northeast, many would like to see a return to the so-called “People’s Constitution” from 1997, which some regard as Thailand’s most democratic charter. This seems unlikely as the military government regards this constitution as the precondition for the rise of what the NCPO sees as corruption-ridden, populist governments.
The military justified its coup against a democratically elected government with the imperative to end an alleged political deadlock that paralyzed the country’s constitutional bodies. However, now the military seems to be trapped in its own cul-de-sac while desperately seeking ways to legitimize its rule.
For Dao Din student activist Chaturapat Boonyapatraksa, who is awaiting trial for his participation in an anti-coup protest, the rejection of the charter has proven military rule a dead-end street. Its claim of working more efficiently than a civilian government has been reduced to absurdity, he said.
“Their image is damaged now and people will begin to understand that the NCPO can’t keep promise,” he said. Mr. Chaturapat hopes that an organized opposition movement will help bring the military rule down.
“Society is slowly realizing that the military dictatorship is limiting people’s freedom and rights. It will take some time, but eventually, we won’t be able to take it any longer,” he said.
"I agree with the rejection of the draft constitution, because it was not democratic anyway. I was a soldier myself and I don't agree with this all. They were drafting the constitution for themselves but it should be for the people. We don't need a drafting council, what we need is elections."
"It's good that it was rejected. It just wasn’t democratic and it allowed for an unelected prime minister. They should just use the 1997 constitution, it's probably more democratic than whatever they can come up with."
"It really doesn't look good now, it was a waste of time and resources to set up this drafting committee and then reject the charter. I want Thailand to become a fully developed democracy without this never-ending cycle of coups. People are sufficiently educated for a democratic system."
"I support that they rejected the draft constitution because if we had elections now the old politicians would come back. But I want new politicians and not the ones who started this whole mess. That's why we need to reform the country first. It might take quite long, maybe two years."
"I want them to set up a new drafting council but it shouldn't take them longer than 6 months to write a new constitution. Thailand is a weak democracy, and I want it to grow stronger soon,” said Ms. Phonpichaya
"I just got the news and I am so happy that it was rejected. It just wasn't a good constitution and we grassroots people and farmers would not have benefited from it."
KHON KAEN – Despite their relief about the rejection of the constitution draft, people in the Northeast are dismayed by the undemocratic drafting process and the prospect of extended military rule.
On Sunday, the military-appointed National Reform Council (NRC) voted down the charter draft that the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) had been writing for almost a year. According to Prachatai, at least 85 million baht (about $2.35 million) was spent on the entire process.
In Khon Kaen, people support the rejection of the draft constitution, but criticize the delay of a return to electoral democracy. In March, people in the city voiced their skepticism of the drafting process and some called for a return to the 1997 constitution. This sentiment was echoed by many when The Isaan Record talked to people at the city’s new bus terminal about the failed constitution draft.
“I just got the news and I am so happy that it was rejected,” said soft-spoken Sirilak Phonsuwan, a 60-year-old rice farmer from Sakon Nakhon. “It just wasn’t a good constitution and we grassroots people and farmers would not have benefitted from it,” she said, describing herself as “grassroots” despite Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s insistence to replace the term with “people with little education.”
Surasak Baojanya, a 53-year-old veteran and security guard at the city’s new bus terminal also agrees with the rejection of the charter. “It was not democratic anyway, and they were drafting it only for themselves and not for the people. I was a soldier myself but I am not agreeing with what they are doing now,” he said.
He criticized the high number of constitutions that Thailand has gone through without ever becoming a full democracy. “It might be a good idea to go back to the 1997 constitution and amend it, that’d be more democratic. We don’t need another drafting council, what we need are elections,” he said before raising his hand in a military salute.
Retired civil servant Thanatat Satanakho also favors a return to the so-called “People’s Constitution.” “Whatever they can come up with, it won’t be more democratic than the 1997 constitution,” he said. “And there still is no reconciliation, the country is as divided as ever. I see more problems in the future with this current government,” he added.
Another retired civil servant, Wanna Koetsiri agrees with the rejection of the charter but for different reasons. “If we had elections now the old politicians would come back,” the 67-year-old said. “I want new politicians and not the ones who started this whole mess. That’s why we need to reform the country first. It might take quite long, maybe two years,” she added before walking away to buy a bus ticket to Bangkok.
“I want them to set up a new drafting council but it shouldn’t take them longer than 6 months to write a new constitution, said 21-year-old Phonpichaya Phiriya-anatakun, a Local Administration student at Northeastern University in Khon Kaen. “Thailand is a weak democracy, and I want it to grow stronger soon,” she added.
Most interviewees agreed that the state funds used for the drafting process were poured down the drain. “It was a waste of time and resources to set up this drafting committee and then reject the charter,” said retired teacher Surasak Samroeng.
“I want Thailand to become a fully developed democracy without this never-ending cycle of coups. People are sufficiently educated for a democratic system,” he added.
The Isaan Record unveils today a new section called “Isaan Lives.” It will feature the stories of Isaan people—the low, the mighty; the rich, the poor; the actively engaged and those just carrying on with their work and lives.
We debut with the work and life of a Village Health Volunteer who takes care of the underprivileged in a slum community that is both in the center of Khon Kaen City and yet still on the margins of Thai society.
By Zoe Swartz, Mariko Powers, and Katie Mathieson
KHON KAEN – “My life is hard but then I look around and other people have it worse than me,” says Uthumporn Srichai standing in a narrow alley of the slum community she calls home. To make a living, she works nights as a cleaner, but she spends her days as a Village Health Volunteer (VHV) looking after the people of her community.
On a daily basis Ms. Uthumporn visits the elderly, the sick, the crippled, and the mentally ill. She sees infants, children, and alcoholics. She also sees a community that is becoming more developed and unified.
Ms. Uthumporn thought her life would turn out much differently. Growing up in a rural village near the Cambodian border, she always wanted to become a teacher. But after she graduated with a BA in Education she could not pass the teacher certification test after computer skills were added to the requirements.
Ms. Umthumporn, who is single and without children, could have lost heart when her dream did not come true. Instead, she measures her life not as the teacher she could have been, but by the lives she impacts today.
“It is better to give than to receive,” says the 52-year-old, who has been a VHV for six years and receives a monthly stipend of 600 baht. She says the service she delivers to her community makes her happy and gives her confidence.
Each day, Ms. Umthumporn begins her work by delivering free lunches, donated by a local school, to disabled residents in her community and nearby neighborhoods. Amphon Phosanit, her friend and patient, is always with her providing her transportation and company.
“I realized that there were many people with disabilities who I could help, so I wrote a proposal for a budget to deliver food,” says Ms. Uthumporn, who started the new lunch delivery program a few months ago.
But she does more than deliver meals. She also visits patients to check their blood pressure and blood sugar, reminds them to take medicine, and sometimes helps them get to the hospital.
As Ms. Uthumporn and Mr. Amphon walk the narrow streets of Theparak 5, the pair are recognized and greeted with warm smiles and small talk from everyone they pass. While many VHVs only volunteer a few hours a week, Ms. Uthumporn dedicates a large portion of her day to serving her neighbors.
Theparak 5 is a slum community alongside the railroad tracks in Khon Kaen, tucked away on the margins of urban society. Many of the residents here make a living weaving baskets that sell for 50 baht apiece. Once a squatter settlement, it is now legally recognized by the government and residents have access to running water and electricity, although some still cannot afford them.
Like many other residents of the community, Ms. Uthumporn left her home in Buriram sixteen years ago to look for work in the city, eventually finding a home in the slums along Khon Kaen’s railroad tracks.
Without family networks to support them, many slum residents have limited options for home care when they become sick or immobile, a need Ms. Uthumporn recognized. “We treat each other like family members. I don’t treat them as a patient,” she says.
Ms. Uthumporn received VHV training six years ago and completed a six-month certification program in which she learned how to take care of peoples with disabilities and how to lead the blind.
This training also taught her the confidence to act proactively during crises, she says. One time, when a neighbor suffered a brain aneurism, she was the first to respond.
While eating breakfast together, the neighbor told her that he had a headache. She recalls that he had already drunk a small bottle of rice whiskey that day. He then sat down and coughed up blood. She called an ambulance and other VHVs to assist her. They administered first aid for thirty minutes before the ambulance arrived.
With no family to take care of him it was left to Ms. Uthumporn to be by his side. The man died in the hospital later that day, but Ms. Uthumporn says she “felt prepared for the situation” and is grateful that she could be there to help.
Thinking beyond how she can help others, Ms. Uthumporn makes it possible for them to help themselves– like Mr. Amphon, her driver, patient, and friend, who lost his left arm in car accident five years ago.
“I used to have a girlfriend who helped take care of me, but we broke up. We used to drink a lot,” says Mr. Amphon who rents a space in Ms. Uthumporn’s house.
She encouraged him to get sober during Buddhist Lent, and she helped him secure disability benefits from the government. “I didn’t have a disability card so I didn’t know what benefits I should be getting from the government until I started renting from Ms. Uthumporn,” he says.
In the small living area they share, Mr. Amphon pulls out a rudimentary portable speaker with his right hand and plugs in a USB drive with recordings of his favorite songs. Ms. Uthumporn bought him the speaker and encouraged him to use his talents to work as a street musician at nearby markets.
“My life is a lot better now because [Ms. Uthumporn] helped me to go out and get a job for myself. Without her I would be homeless, just wandering around and sleeping at night by the trains,” he says.
Mr. Amphon then sings a ballad into a microphone, the tinny sound of a keyboard and synthesizer drums ticking alongside his voice. He sings with confidence as Ms. Uthumporn looks on, smiling.
GUEST NEWS CONTRIBUTION: High Speed Train Plan Moves Forward Despite Community Concerns in Khon Kaen
By Kelsey Magill and Nancy Chong
KHON KAEN – On Wednesday morning, representatives of the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning met with local community leaders in Khon Kaen to discuss the development of the new high speed rail system.
The public forum was held as part of an environmental impact assessment (EIA), which requires project planners to consult with potentially affected communities before moving forward.
The Governor of Khon Kaen Province, Kamtorn Tawornsatit, and the Deputy Director-General of the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning, Chaiwat Tongkamkoon, welcomed members of the public, including representatives of the thirteen communities of the Khon Kaen Slum Network.
In his opening speech, Governor Kamtorn voiced his support for the project, saying it will improve the quality of life for local residents and reduce pollution. He expects economic integration with neighboring countries to increase since the train line will serve as a connection between China, Laos, and major transportation and tourism hubs in Thailand.
The plan to construct a high speed rail began in 2010, and includes five routes radiating from Bangkok. Khon Kaen will serve as one stop on the Bangkok-Nong Khai route, which also include stations in Nakhon Ratchasima, Udon Thani, and Nong Khai. Construction is expected to begin in December 2015 and completed in early 2018.
During the open meeting, representatives from local slum communities handed a letter to government officials in which they called for fair treatment, transparent communication, and involvement in the planning process as development moves forward.
In the letter, the Khon Kaen Slum Network proposes that “the project should consider the impact on the communities along the train track” and that “the people need to be involved in every part of the process.” The letter also advocates that the high speed rail project should use only 20 meters beyond the track, rather than the proposed 40 meters, allowing slum villagers to remain living on the rest of the land.
Jitti Cherdchoo, an adviser to the Four Regions Slum Network, said within the current plan an estimated 600 households will be displaced in Khon Kaen alone.
When asked about the necessity of 40 meters of land in areas where community members reside, Deputy-Director Chaiwat said that they “will use as little land as possible.” However, he added, the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) has the right of way to the land and in some areas settlements “are illegal.”
Members of the Khon Kaen Slum Network argue that the high speed rail system does not need the full 40 meters on both sides because the track gauge is only 1.43 meters wide, while the government insists that it serves as safety measure in case of train derailment.
Eli Elinoff, a postdoctoral fellow in Asian Urbanisms at the Asia Research Institute in Singapore, says that the space around the track deemed necessary for a high speed rail system has varied under different government administrations. Designs drawn up first by the Yingluck administration stipulated the project would only use 20 meters on each side of the tracks. The military government’s plan encompasses 40 meters of land on each side.
Villagers are worried about facing eviction if the high speed rail system project moves forward. Yom Aedaeng, a resident of the Theparak 5 community, expressed concern as her home is located within 40 meters of the existing track. “I’m not sure where to move,” she said, “I just want a place to stay.”
As the timetable for the project’s completion and possible eviction of surrounding communities remains unclear, Mr. Jitti said, “it feels like we’re being pressured. It’s not fair because when the government wants to do something, they should ask the people first, not the other way around.” He plans to travel to Bangkok to voice his concern to higher authorities at the Ministry of Transportation.
Kelsey Magill studies at George Washington University and Nancy Chong studies International Relations at American University. They are student journalists studying in Khon Kaen for a semester.
If Ethnologue says 67% of Thai speakers speak it as a second language, what language are those people speaking as their first language? And what does this mean for Thailand’s divided politics?
By Karl Victor
The organization Ethnologue has a peculiar statistic in its 2015 report on Thailand. The Thai language comes in 22nd in the highest number speakers (Figure 1), depending on the rendering. This is not surprising, but the figure showing that there are twice as many second-language Thai speakers than first-language Thai speakers is.
In fact, compared to the other major languages in the world, Thai is in a class by itself, with 67% of Thai speakers speaking it as a second language. The next closest is German with 56%, followed by French at 48%, Russian at 43%, and Urdu at 41% (Figure 2).
Broadly speaking, we might the ratio between those who speak a language as their first and second languages, according to three categories:
1) Coterminous formations
2) Imperialism and lingua franca
3) Multi-ethnic empires
Examples of the first type are Japanese, Polish, Korean, and Italian. These languages are spoken almost exclusively as a first language and the percentage of those speaking it as a second language is less than one per cent: the language virtually does not extend beyond its geographical borders.
An example of the second type is French, which became a lingua franca for the nineteenth century through imperialism and its influence in law. English is another, with a third of all English speakers using it as a second language. Its spread can be attributed to English and American conquest, both in terms of colonialism and cultural production. German is notable as more than half of those speaking it speak it as a second language.
A third type results from pre-modern empires established over what we would call now multi-ethnic polities. Russian is a good example, as there are second-language Russian speakers strewn across the former Russian Empire and then USSR. It is an empire whose borders disintegrated and ended up merely as “Great Russia” or “Russia Proper.”
Siam/Thailand stands out within Southeast Asia. Avoiding direct colonialization allowed the traditional elite to retain their power unhindered. The ability of the Bangkok elite to adapt the European concepts of race and the mechanism of the census has masked non-Thai ethnicities to create the impression that the vast majority of the population was safely and clearly of one race.
Siam/Thailand imposed Thai as both official language and language of instruction. The highly centralized state made Bangkok the focal point of the culture and national life. Thai-ification has always been hierarchical. Other Tai-speaking people in the kingdom were and are looked on with a certain level of suspicion. They could study upward, go to the best universities in Bangkok, attempt to hide their accent and background, profess enduring love for the monarchy, and even, sometimes, take high positions in government—but yet at the end of the day, they were something less than the pure Thais of Siam Proper.
Despite the resurgence of values of hierarchy since the new rise of the royalists from 2005 on, there is a belief held by many Thais that if they are part of the same race, then all within that race should be treated with respect.
Thai-ification worked for a century, and there have been just enough families in the past that have benefitted from the present system that potential non-Thai ethnic identities have remained dormant. However, there is within it a promise that all Thais will benefit more equally, that their votes will be held in respect, and that there will or should be a reversal of the kind of centralization that benefits those outside of Bangkok and nearby provinces. If fulfilled under Thai-ness, then the tension of a submerged, latent ethnic conflict subsides.
As to the question of what language those people speaking Thai as a second language are speaking as their first language, the answer is “Lao.” Ever since the first census in Siam in 1904, there has been an attempt by the Thai state to deny that the people in the North and Northeast are Lao.
It is understandable in a way because had “Lao” been a racial category in that 1911 census, there would have been no majority “race” in the country. Instead, the population would have been officially divided into two very large groupings—the Thai and the Lao (Figure 3). There would not have been a “minority problem.” If claiming Lao ancestry were to suddenly become popular, the Thai state’s survival, the status quo would itself be in question.
Speakers of Lao in the North and Northeast have seen the prime minister they elected into office dismissed by the courts twice, overthrown in a coup twice, and election results nullified twice. Such antics, if continued, could provoke resistance and rebellion along age-old and not-completely-forgotten ethnic lines.
KALASIN – On August 9 at 9:00 A.M., Thailand’s Minister of Energy, Narongchai Akrasanee, visited the Dong Mun petroleum-drilling site (DM-5) in Krung Kao sub-district, Tha Khun Tho district, in Kalasin province. Around 100 villagers from three community organizations waited on the road to the drilling site, hoping to deliver a letter asking for the project to be stopped.
At 10:00 A.M., over 300 police officers and military personnel formed a blockade to prevent villagers from obstructing the road, allowing the minister to pass. After Minister Narongchai safely reached the mining site, an undercover official approached the protesters and asked for two volunteers to deliver the letter to the minister. Villagers refused and asked that the minister come to them instead.
After he left without reviewing their request, the protesters went to Na Kham Noi village in Kalasin province – a potential site for the petroleum gas factory – where the minister had been scheduled to visit that afternoon. The protesters waited until the afternoon but the minister never arrived. A representative from the group commented that the organizations will go to Bangkok to deliver the letter at the Ministry of Energy and will continue to protect the community from the petroleum-drilling project.
NAKHON PHANOM – Fifty years ago, Comrade Tang fought for communism in the first violent clash between communist fighters and Thai security forces. Last week, at 88 years old, he marked the anniversary with a call for democracy.
In the early morning on August 7, villagers and local politicians flocked through the gate of Nabua’s village temple to commemorate the incident that came to be known as the “Day the First Gunshot Rang Out.” Against the military’s demands, the crowd of 250 not only celebrated the former communists, but also rallied for freedom from the current military rule in Thailand.
On August 7, 1965 Nabua, an ethnic Phu Thai village, made headlines all across Indochina when Thailand’s first-ever physical confrontation between communist fighters and Thai security forces occurred. According to eyewitnesses, eight communist villagers were involved, one of whom was shot dead during the incident after the town was surrounded by state forces.
Comrade Tang, one of these eight villagers, sits on the tiled floor of the temple’s sala and greets every newcomer with an excited glance.
“This is the second year we were not allowed to have a big celebration and our funding was cut,” he said in an interview, dressed in a pearly-white uniform and sporting black-rimmed glasses. “In the past, the military would join in to celebrate our shared political history, but now they are coming in to control us.” Before he could begin the ceremony, he rose from his seat to greet two military officers who came to observe the event.
Villagers have been commemorating the incident for the last fourteen years with large events featuring political debates, lectures, and cultural performances. But, for the second year in a row, military officials asked them to keep the event small and banned any political conversation. In addition, the event’s funding from the local government was cut by half this year, from 20,000 to 10,000 baht, according to village leaders.
Among the event’s guests were 150 students from Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University. Their lecturer, Wichan Sittitham, had organized a lecture the day before the ceremony to encourage his students to learn about their region’s political history.
“The power of the older generation here is giving me goosebumps,” said Rotchana Ngaolakon, a third-year student in the university’s Public Administration program. “Like Comrade Tang, he is only a farmer, but he followed a strong ideology against oppression. Even up to today, he is still demanding to return democracy to the people.”
Comrade Tang, whose full name is Chom Saenmit, delivered a speech to the students at the event at the university’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. He is determined to help teach students and others in his region about the often-ignored realities of the communist movement’s history in Isaan.
“It was good to have the event at Rajabhat University yesterday to talk about the political meaning of [August 7],” he says. “But, the problem is that these kind of events at universities are not easily accessible for other villagers.”
Despite the military’s order to avoid political topics, speakers at the anniversary event stressed the need for a return to a democratic system in Thailand.
Former MP and Pheu Thai politician Paichit Sriwarakham, dressed in traditional Isaan garb, praised the people of Nabua for setting an example in opposing dictatorship 50 years ago. “People should stay united in demanding democracy,” he told a cheering audience.
“We have been fighting for democracy for a long time and it’s time to deliver it to the people,” said Comrade Tang in his speech. “In the past, the state killed many people in our village, in their homes, and in their fields.” As he began recounting the anti-communist suppression in the 1960s and 70s, however, the moderator quickly interrupted him and announced the next program item, an ethnic Phu Thai dance performance.
For Comrade Tang, the annual celebration is the only opportunity to get public recognition of what he views as a decades-long struggle against dictatorship. After the collapse of the Communist Party of Thailand in the early 1980s, Comrade Tang had returned to a life as a rice farmer in his village. “We realized that without these commemorative events, the history of our political struggle would be lost,” he said in an interview.
On the temple’s lush grounds, small groups of students congregated to speak with former communist fighters. Ms. Rotchana, one such student, felt aggrieved by the absence of the communist movement in her history classes.
“The Nabua incident is not often talked about in our society, but it is an important slice of history for the Phu Thai and people in Isaan. And for us students, we get to learn about something that is not covered in our university books,” she said, adding that her parents did not want her to attend the event.
Thailand’s education system is known for its elite-focused, narrow treatments of the country’s political history. Public Administration student Anuwat Saelim said that this breeds political apathy among students. “The ones who are interested in politics and people’s movements, like Dao Din, are seen as radicals, as society’s black sheep,” he said, referring to the Northeast student group that has recently organized protests against the military government.
“In the past, young people grabbed a gun and fought [for their beliefs],” said Mr. Anuwat.
“Today, the few students who dared to write protest signs are hunted down by the state. The ruling class must be really afraid of us.”