Freed anti-junta activists from the Dao Din group talk to Prachatai about their experience in jail and how they learned about the value of freedom.
By Panida Dumri and Nattamon Krajangdararat
First published on Prachatai English
On Wednesday 8 July, the 14 anti-junta activists from the New Democracy Movement (NDM) were released after being detained for 12 days as a result of their peaceful anti-junta protests. The charges against them still stand.
Prachatai talked to seven student activists from Khon Kaen University about their life in prison and what they learned behind bars. They had all had their heads shaved in protest at being separated inside prison, but their determined gaze was still unwavering.
During our talk, the activists who were waiting to be interviewed wandered off to play soccer. It was probably their first match together after being released.
“Noi” – Apiwat Suntararak
What was life in prison like?
When I first walked in and saw the high walls, I was worried that what I had heard about prison was true, that it was just gonna be full of criminals and gangsters. We arrived at 2 am after we were arrested, and the wardens took good care of us from the first day.
When I woke in the morning, though, I was shocked at how everyone showered together, and I was too shy so I didn’t shower at first. The bathroom is really low, you have to sit down and stick your head out. There’s a guard watching the whole time, so I felt really pressured. There’s also a lot of people lining up for the bathroom so you have to do your business real fast.
After a while we were separated into different zones of the prison. I was put into zone 3 with Pai and Triangle [Base’s nickname]. They still took good care of us. The warden was vigilant but nice. He let us stay in a room with 11 people. The lights were always on, even at night, and it hurt my eyes and I kept waking up. It was also hot and crowded.
I also started to see what friendship between inmates was like. Wherever I walked, people would greet me and ask how I was. They found sleeping arrangements for each other. On the first night I was there, I saw that when an inmate had no place to sleep, another would share his cot.
Some inmates don’t have any relatives, so their life is really hard. They have to work really hard to trade for food and other stuff. For example, they might do someone’s laundry for a week in order to get a single cigarette.
Inmates also make a lot of stuff in there, everything from birdcages to paper bags. They’re really beautiful and well-made, actually. We share the work. The sweets made in there are also really good. Zone 3 sweets, I guess, only available to a select few. They’re sticky, chewy, wrapped in paper, and very delicious.
Did you get to meet other political prisoners?
No, I don’t think so. Mostly I met those in robbery or murder cases. I don’t think they’re evil people; they’re just regular people who made bad decisions at the moment, which ruined their lives. One of the inmates I talked with regularly told me his story. He went out to help a younger friend in a bad situation, and accidentally killed someone. He had just finished university and didn’t know what he wanted to be yet. There’s no one who is completely evil; society just needs to give them a chance. Most of the released inmates are rejected by society and they can’t find a job, so they go back to doing what they did before, and end up in here again. It’s a vicious cycle.
There’s this other guy who’s tattooed all over. It doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy. He’s actually really goofy.
After the court said we would be released, all the other inmates were like, “You guys are going already? It’ll be lonely here without you.”
How did you feel when you came out to see your friends waiting for you outside the prison?
I wanted to cry, I was so happy. They’ve been fighting for and encouraging us from the outside the entire time. Fighting from the outside might be even worse than being in jail. They helped us with whatever they could, whenever they could. They brought so many gifts for us too. When I got to see their faces my heart was so full.
Anything else you want to say?
We’re confident we did, and are doing, the right thing. There might be both people who support us and people who don’t, but we still believe that our society should be free and our five values should be re-established in society.
I was moved to Zone 5 with Rome and Nui. That made me feel really lonely. When all of us were together it was a fun team atmosphere, so I felt devastated when we were separated. I lived for the 20 minutes a day when I got to see the others and our visiting relatives. Twenty minutes a day to sustain me.
I was put in the area towards the front of the Zone. The prisoners from different Zones would eat together. I think Zone 3 operates like a socialist state, with the wardens doing whatever job they are most fit to do. Wardens get social welfare benefits, food, shower facilities, and equal pay. Of course, there’s a lot of marginalized prisoners who don’t have anyone to visit them.
As a law student, what do you think of political prisoners in jail?
It’s a normal thing in our polarized society. Of course they’d get jailed. Their freedoms are restricted. They’re not criminals in the sense that they did something violent like killing, raping, or stuff like that. They’re prisoners of conscience. If they’re gonna continue having this law, they should have a separate prison for political prisoners. In there, they’re treated the same as the rest of the other inmates in a way that’s way too violent for people who just think differently.
How did you feel when your friends came to pick you up from prison?
Only then did I really appreciate the value of freedom, after being in there for 12 days. I felt freedom as a tangible thing.
I profoundly understand what liberty means after I was there for 12 days. The experience of life without freedom is very concrete. My mom came to wait for me. I’m touched. I was surprised that there were so many media. I believe we were released because I have fought for grassroot activists who are oppressed in the villages. There’s a clear picture of what we’ve done. Today we’re oppressed; we really felt it during the past 12 days. My feeling is even stronger when we’re separated. We really feel it now that we’re freed.
I’ll keep reminding myself of this: no matter how much my freedoms have been suppressed in these last 12 days, I learned that my ideals could be transformed into tangible things. And the ideals that I stand firm in can’t be stopped by fear.
I’ll keep on fighting. It’s a beautiful thing, is freedom.
“Pai” – Chaturapat Boonyapatraksa
How do you feel now that you’re released?
It was wrong for me to be punished in the first place. It’s an issue of expressing differing opinions. Society is full of different people; it’s impossible to force everyone to think identically. If there are people who think differently from you or from the state, they shouldn’t be punished for that. They wouldn’t become political prisoners, but prisoners of conscience.
It’s really important that people be more open-minded, listen to reason, and look at the facts before making up their minds. People are capable of seeing what’s just and what’s not, what’s true and what’s not. Different kinds of thought must be allowed to circulate in society, and then after that they can make up their minds however they want.
Jail is for people who broke the law, not for prisoners of conscience. The only tool a tyrant has against them is to physically bar them from communicating with society.
Did you exchange any ideas from the other inmates?
Yeah, but I can’t say it to the press. They have valuable ideas which society should hear. But since these prisoners are locked away, their ideas are too.
What were living conditions like after you moved from Zone 1 to Zone 3?
At first we were in Zone 1. I tried to adjust myself but I really couldn’t. It was the lack of freedom, realized in a physical form.
I’d say that being inside and outside the jail are no different. They really are not different. Having us in jail helps to prove my point.
Now that I’ve experienced both sides, I say that even more. On both sides of the bars, we have to stay inside a square box.
They took really good care of us since the wardens were informed that we were special prisoners. They fenced us off from the rest of the Zone and let us shower after other inmates.
We assume that inmates are the scum of the earth, the bottom of the barrel. But inside, it doesn’t matter who you were before, everyone’s equal. Underneath the tattoos and uncouth manners they still have the beauty of their humanity. Each human will always retain that beauty, but society often taints it.
All the inmates have their beautiful humanity, and I could see it. They were kind to us, took care of us.
You guys were put in the front part of the Zone instead of the back, could that be part of why the jail society wasn’t so bad?
When I went for a smoke, other inmates would come up and talk to me, asking me what I was arrested for. We would exchange our cases. They’re even more knowledgeable than judges regarding legal cases. They can tell the sentence just from hearing a case of an alleged crime.
They’ve got first-hand experience, that’s why. As a law student, I think that judges should come and experience life in the jails, so they know what happens after the sentence is doled out, what the prisoner’s life will be like. The Thai judiciary system is focused on punishment, and some people shouldn’t be in jail at all while others carry sentences that are way too harsh.
I was glad to be with the other 13 in Zone 1. It raised our morale, and we exchanged jokes and laughs. We also held meetings to monitor our situation. Then they separated us, it was to weaken our resolve and perhaps force us to beg for bail. They didn’t succeed, however.
We were in separate zones but our hearts were connected. Come what may! We don’t need bail. That’s what held us together, even as we were far apart.
Any other comments?
Jail isn’t a scary place, just a boring one. Don’t be afraid of it. I want everyone to experience it just once. Being in jail is just a prerequisite for fighting righteously against the NCPO. If we fight, then we get jailed.
But jail isn’t scary at all.
The real scary thing is if we let the dictatorship—as well as the cultural strains that permit it to stay—to continue its tyranny in Thai society.
“Tong” – Wasan Satthasit
What was prison life like?
When we were all together in Zone 1, I wasn’t lonely at all. We would update each other on our relatives’ visits and analyze our situation together. The wardens took good care of us. There was always someone trailing or guarding us when we went to the bathroom, to smoke, to eat, or to shower. It was like they didn’t want other prisoners to interact with us.
At that time, we weren’t bored, even though there were no books to read. After we were separated into different zones, we weren’t completely lonely since there were still visiting hours for our relatives and lawyers. After we were moved, they continued to take good care of us, in a way that I would even say was careful. It was like we were special prisoners. I would say that our status as university students also helped to protect us. Our youth too, even if I don’t look it.
After we were separated into different zones I had to get to know whoever got to go with me. I was with Dave. I didn’t know him before this, so we got to know each other’s behaviour and personality.
A part of me secretly wanted us to stay longer, since I was adjusting to the situation inside the jail, including the food and living conditions. I also prepared myself to stay there for at least 48 days. But of course, I’m really happy to be out of there too.
The second you stepped out of jail, how did you feel?
I might be exaggerating, but I felt like I could smell freedom. Outside, I’m able to do whatever I want but inside I have to follow prison rules. The rules really regulated my body, and what I could do. I tried to think of the 12 days as a camp, monk ordination, or conscription. I didn’t want to stress myself out. While we were all together in Zone 1 there were a lot of ways to relax. We would tell jokes and funny stories from our own lives, and whoever told a lame joke would have to knock on the floor three times.
Did you meet any political prisoners in jail?
A lot, actually. Most of them are inclined toward the red side. They’d come up and greet me. They follow current events, since usually there are newspapers available in the prison. But when I went into the prison, they took away the newspapers, and the TV channels were changed from news to soap operas. They tried to do all this because they didn’t want us to talk to the political prisoners very much. They were probably afraid we were gonna cause some kind of protest in there.
For example, we all agreed to shave our heads if they separated us. When we did, other inmates who agreed with us, mostly political prisoners, shaved their heads to show support as well. The warden got in hot water with his supervisor since it was against prison protocol. But we weren’t trying to protest against the prison, we just wanted to communicate with the outside.
What do you think about the incarcerated political prisoners?
I believe no one should be jailed for expressing their opinions. There’s this inmate who’s been in there for 11 months although he has not been charged yet. The police just keep holding him. Each time he goes out to court, the case hasn’t been filed. They always say they haven’t finished drafting the case file. It’s been almost a year already.
He’s been there for almost a year although he’s done no wrong. It’s way too unjust towards him.
Regarding the behaviour of the wardens towards inmates, even if the inmates are wrong, even if they’re a danger to society, they’re still people. They shouldn’t be screamed at, beat up, or verbally abused.
This extends to the medical staff as well. No matter what inmates are suffering, they all receive the same set of pills: antibiotics, cold medicine, and paracetamol. The nurses act just like the wardens, often oppressively towards the inmates. I understand that they have to be tough to keep inmates in line, but sometimes they go too far, treating them as if they aren’t human.
Before you got arrested, you said you’d hold up one of your cloth protest signs in prison if anyone asks what you did to get jailed. When you got arrested for real, did anyone ask you about the charges against you?
The other inmates knew it was a political case, so they asked me if I had held protests. I had imagined before going in that it was probably going to be a funny situation, but when I went in for real it really wasn’t. It wasn’t funny at all.
The wardens also tried to make it hard for us to interact with other prisoners, so I didn’t get to talk to them or exchange views with them very much. From what I could tell, though, the inmates who took care of us wanted us to get out on bail because to them we didn’t seem like thieves or dangerous people.
Anything to say to the public?
In the future don’t be sorry if you didn’t rise up to fight with us today. We don’t know how long we can survive in this sort of atmosphere, so you have to do something, no matter who.
“Base” – Suvicha Tipangkorn
How did you fare in prison?
When we were all together in Zone 1 we got to know each other better. Some of us hadn’t met before and only got to know each other in prison. It was fun and rowdy, and we adjusted ourselves to the prison bathrooms. When I was moved to Zone 3 I was so sad, I cried. They separated me from my friends so unexpectedly.
I had to readjust myself in Zone 3, and learn new things. They took good care of me and let me stay towards the front of the Zone. I went into the bedroom at 3 pm each day to sleep, meditate, watch TV, and watch the news. There was at least some news to watch. I had to wake at 6 am each day to shower and use the bathroom before coming back to the cell, hoping that my relatives would come visit me that da. After a 20-minute visit, I would eat, shower, and enter the cell again. This cycle would just keep repeating. The bedroom was clean, and I slept with 11 other people, all elderly men. We were so crowded our feet touched when we slept. They let me sleep there because there was a camera in that room.
Did you get to talk much with the other prisoners?
I got to know guy who got hit with the Criminal Court bombing case. He’s also an Isaan person, like me. We talked about how only Isaan people were getting arrested, and we spoke in Isaan too.
I want to say that it’s not scary in prison like you think. If you know how to survive and don’t pick fights with others, then it isn’t that bad. Even after being there for just a few days I exchanged addresses with some other inmates. I told him that he could come hang out at Dao Din meeting house (บ้านดาวดิน) since he was getting out next year. He said he didn’t have any relatives since his father and younger sibling was dead, and his mom had a new husband. He didn’t have a place to live either, so I said he could come to us.
Do you have anything to say to the public?
I have something to say to people with strong prejudices against prison inmates. They might be heavily tattooed but that doesn’t mean they’re just gonna harm people easily. They have their own reasons for getting in prison. In prison, everyone’s equal: it doesn’t matter what age you are, you can all be friends. There is no ranking or hierarchy in there. It doesn’t matter if you were some big hot-shot godfather on the outside, but inside, everyone’s just another inmate using the same bathrooms and eating the same food.
What was prison like for you?
Before going in I thought it was gonna be a horrible place full of gangs and hazing. When I arrived there around 2 am the atmosphere was much different than what I initially thought. We slept, then when we woke up there were these wardens guarding us. The supervisor told them to take special care of us and barred us from talking to the other prisoners.
After we were separated into different Zones we agreed that we had to try and meet each other more, so we told our relatives to visit us during the same 9 am visiting rounds. That way, we would get to meet and discuss. The difference between Zone 1 and 2 is, Zone 1 mixes both inmates waiting for a verdict in their cases as well as those who have already been sentenced, so there are inmates of all ages in there. In Zone 2, there are only young people from 19 years old to no older than 25. So since young men aren’t as responsible in some areas, Zone 2 is really dirty. (laughs)
Before going into Zone 2, a Zone 1 senior inmate told me to watch out or tum moy. What is tum moy?, I thought. I knew soon after going into Zone 2. It’s similar to chickenpox or German measles, and it’s really scary. People infected with it are in trouble. Their limbs are swollen and their blisters ooze pus.
People in Zone 2 are divided into cliques quite systematically. Gangsters and bullies bring their group members to fights, and the Zone is divided into gang territory. Friends will stick to their groups. The Zone is also divided by sexual orientation. Ladyboys run the Yaowarat [Chinatown] zone.
How did you feel when you got out of prison and saw your friends?
I felt like I got to see them a lot in prison, but this time it was different because we were free. We could walk anywhere we wanted without high walls fencing us in, and I could feel that we were free. When meeting other groups of friends I was also happy, since I got to talk to them and hold their hands.
I felt like we were being watched extra closely in the prison. I don’t know if I’m imagining it, but I think the wardens of each Zone forbad the other inmates from talking to us. Once another inmate was curious so he came up and was like, ‘Hey kid, what’re you in here for?’ so the warden came up to us, asked us what we were talking about, and ordered the other inmate to do squats. After that no one really talked to me, except in the bedroom cell.
I’m glad I’m out of prison because there’s no freedom. Each day I have to come and sit in front of the Zone for the wardens to guard me all day. I’m glad I got to come out and talk about what’s really bad about prison and the living conditions, so that people interested in this can know about it. I hope people will understand that prisoners aren’t as bad as they think. Some of them forged really strong bonds with us. They’re just like other people in society. I don’t think all of them did evil things to end up in prison, more like society pressured them to do those things. After they get out, a lot of times society won’t accept them. If anyone’s interested I would be glad to talk more about this. I’m thankful that I got to come out of prison with knowledge to spread.
“Nice” – Panupong Srithananuwat
Quite a few, actually, 4-5 people. We talked about current events. They asked me why I came out to protest against the NCPO. I explained the same way I had explained to the media. We used to work in Khon Kaen, working with farmers and miners on the issue of resources, and how state projects infringe on them. Protesting against the junta is the same issue.
We also exchanged whatever we knew. They also have their own set of knowledge. For example, I’d talk about upcountry resources and how the state was imposing on them, while they’d tell me about the political system.
I think of my incarceration as a life experience. Some people haven’t even been proven guilty yet and they’re being held in detention there for 7 months. I don’t understand how the justice system can let this happen. They need to finish the case already so at least the inmates know what’s going to happen, and can set about planning for their lives. If you don’t convict them and leave them in limbo, you shouldn’t have the right to imprison them for long periods of time like this.
I don’t want society outside to immediately brand inmates as scary jailbirds. If you open your heart a little and just talk to them, they’ll do the same to you. They have their own reasons for getting in there, such as coming from an impoverished home and getting no education. Without even a chance at education, their options of finding a living are very few. So to support their wives and kids they might turn to selling drugs.
I hope society can see them as people too. They’re much better than us in terms of having mastered the art of survival. They’re much scrappier and have struggled more. We have money and education, and our parents paid for our tuition. The inmates have nothing, so there is no choice but to struggle.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – On Monday morning, employees of the Royal Thai Consulate-General of Los Angeles and nearby pedestrians were greeted by protesters standing in support of the 14 students who were arrested in Bangkok on June 26.
The event was organized by the Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange (ENGAGE), a non-profit network of community activists based in the United States that has been campaigning alongside students from the Neo-Democracy Movement in Thailand and rural groups in the Northeast to support people’s movements and community rights.
The protesters expressed their solidarity with Thai students and villagers as they protested Article 44 of the military-imposed 2014 Interim Constitution and the general suppression of human rights since the May 2014 coup.
Seven members of the Khon Kaen University student group Dao Din were detained briefly on May 22 after holding a protest against the military junta’s one-year anniversary in power. They were detained again on June 26 after holding a protest on June 25 and formally charged for disturbing public peace and violating NCPO Order 3/2558 which bans political gatherings of five or more people. An additional seven activists from the Neo-Democracy movement are also being detained. All are awaiting a military trial where they face up to seven years in prison if found guilty.
“We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Thailand. Everyone, regardless of where they are born, should be allowed basic human rights and the freedom to organize,” said Jude Peckinpaugh, a member of ENGAGE who recently returned from Thailand. “This action is to show that we support the students’ recent non-violent civil disobedience and demand that they are released from prison.”
The protesters delivered six demands to Consul General Jesda Kataventin in order to show support for the detained Thai students and Na Nong Bong villagers in Thailand’s Loei Province. Among their demands are the repeal of Article 44, an end of military court trials for civilians, release of the student protesters, and an investigation of the activities of the Tungkum Limited Company gold mine activities in Loei Province.
Protesters also called for an end of military harassment of villagers in the Northeast fighting for their right to livelihood and a safe environment.
ENGAGE received a response from the Consular General in Los Angeles on June 30 confirming that their demands had been passed on to the government in Bangkok.
At the world premiere of Cemetery of Splendour at Cannes Film Festival last week, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s newest work was well received. But despite receiving a standing ovation and being celebrated among film critics, the director came home empty-handed in the prize ceremony.
Set in his hometown Khon Kaen, Cemetery of Splendour (Thai: Rak Thi Khon Kaen), tells the story of Jenjira, a housewife who takes care of group of soldiers who suffer from a mysterious sleeping sickness (watch the trailer at the bottom).
In a recent interview with The Isaan Record, Apichatpong explained that the film is inspired much by his childhood memories of Khon Kaen, a city that is now slowly losing its identity, he said.
Cemetery of Splendour missed out on the official selection and was screened in the Un Certain Regard section, which presents “original and different” films. It is Apichatpong’s first feature-length film since his 2010 Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
Apichatpong showed no regret that his film did not appear in the main section. On the contrary, the world premiere was a “stress-free situation,” he said, because his film did not have to prove itself in the competition.
And even though his film was not awarded a prize this year, it was lauded by both the audience and film critics alike. The Guardian’s Brad Bradshaw compares it with “a very calm sort of hysteria” and the applause after the first screening lasted well over ten minutes.
“I felt touched by the reception of the film. The standing ovation was longer than when I showed Uncle Boonmee which made me happy for my producers because together we worked so hard to get this film off the ground,” Apichatpong told The Isaan Record.
Cemetery of Splendour will be screening around the globe at many film festivals and will be released in France in September. However, it is unlikely that the film will hit Thai theaters any time soon.
This morning, seven student activists from Khon Kaen University were released on bail of 7,500 baht from police custody after being charged with violating the National Council for Peace and Order’s (NCPO) ban on political gatherings.The student activists from the Dao Din group had staged an anti-coup protest at Khon Kaen City’s Democracy Monument on Friday, the first anniversary of the May 22 military coup.
Security forces in plain clothes broke up the student’s peaceful protest and detained seven core Dao Din members, three student bystanders and three observers from the organization Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR).
All detained were brought to the Sri Patcharin Military Base and later, seven of the student activists were moved for detention to the provincial police station.
In the evening, around 70 people from Khon Kaen and nearby northeastern provinces gathered in front of the police station where they sang songs and lit candles in support of the detained activists.
At around midnight, one student was moved to Srinagarind Hospital after he complained about pain caused by blows to the face and the crotch when the security forces broke up the protest. He was later returned to the police station.
Several attempts to negotiate with police to release the students failed and many supporters spent the night in front of the police station.
On Saturday morning, the seven Dao Din students were released on bail under the condition they would refrain from any further political action. After their release, they sang a song and read a statement. Jatupat Boonpattaraksa, one of the detained students, told The Isaan Record that they were treated well by the police, received water and were allowed to take one smoke break. All seven of them will have to report to the police on June 8.
In Bangkok, 38 students protesters were detained yesterday for 12 hours but were released today without charges.
On friday, supporters of the detained Dao Din student activists gathered in front of Khon Kaen's Provincial Police Station (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn).
People from Khon Kaen and nearby provinces sang songs and lit candles in support of the detained student activists (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn).
In a symbolic move, the student supporters placed candles on the ground in front of the police station (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn).
A supporter from Sakon Nakhon province places a candle on the ground (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn).
The detained Dao Din activists on a smoke break during their detention (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn).
The detained Dao Din activists inside the police station (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn).
Many supporters spent the night in front of the police station until the seven Dao Din activists were released at 9.30am on Saturday (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn).
Dao Din: People need to stand up for themselves
Ian Buruma, a prominent global writer, has just published an article in Harpers entitled, “A Polite Coup.” It is behind a pay-wall, but here is an extract from an interview he had last December with a Dao Din student:
“The students who were arrested for making the three-finger salute belong to the so-called Dao Din group, a kind of informal student society whose members get together to discuss social and political issue…”
“I met one of the students, an articulate young woman from a farming family who had taken out a loan to study law at Khon Kaen University. She appeared to be motivated entirely by youthful idealism. Her goal was to become a human right lawyer. Villagers, she said, are constantly being bullied by corporate lawyers who defend the interests of mining companies or factory owners. Unable to afford their own lawyers, they are powerless to fight back. She mentioned the case of a gold mine whose pollution she and others had protested. After the coup, she had been ordered to stay away from the mine.”
“The young woman wanted me to understand that she was not fighting for any particular political party. She thought that people were placing too much hope in leaders instead of standing up for themselves. Policies and laws should come from below. “Red shirts,” she said, “wait for things to come from above.” But she agreed with the red shirts that it was essential to have the right to vote. Now that right had been taken away.”
Update: The following video was produced in conjunction with this feature, to showcase the effects of eviction on people in Isaan.
Eight months after the implementation of the Thai government’s Master Plan to reforest the country, villagers in Isaan bear the burden of a flawed policy at the cost of their livelihood and health.
KALASIN – Three thousand rubber trees lie fallen on top of each other as if nothing more than a row of toppled dominoes. A slender man with calloused hands and laugh lines around his eyes gazes at the field that was once his life savings, primary source of income, and home. It is now covered in weeds, destroyed in the name of environmental conservation and reforestation.
Mr. Paiwan Taebamrung, 46-years-old, recounts the circumstances under which it all happened. A district officer came fully armed to his house at night demanding Mr. Paiwan leave his property. The smell of whiskey was in the air. Three days later, the officer returned with the village headman. Mr. Paiwan watched as dozens of officers cut down 30 out of 36 rai of his rubber trees.
The Master Plan, rolled out by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) shortly after the coup last year, purports to target commercial investors who own and exploit thousands of rai to grow rubber, cassava, and other cash crops.
Villagers claim they are not at all investors – only poor families trying to make a living on land they have worked their whole lives.
“Many impoverished villagers who have lived in the forest for decades have been identified as investors,” explains Dr. Nattakant Akarapongpisak, a lecturer in the Faculty of Politics and Government at Maha Sarakham University.
This was the case with Mr. Paiwan. “They labeled me an investor and told me I had to move out. My family has been working on this land for 47 years.” Mr. Paiwan’s house was deemed an illegal structure, and he and his wife have had to move in with his elder sister.
Now, eight months after his eviction, the repercussions of the Master Plan are as strong as ever. Mr. Paiwan and his wife have had to find work as day laborers making the minimum wage of 300 baht per day.
“It is hard to make ends meet,” he says, “and I feel frustrated I am not working my own land. I worked in the South for 20 years to save up enough money to buy the rubber trees.”
According to the Internal Security Operations Command, farmers in 68 provinces are facing similar charges and evictions. What began as an admirable goal of achieving forest cover in Thailand within 10 years has now turned into a laundry list of human rights violations.
The International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) clearly outlines the right to work, and protects people from deprivation of their means of subsistence. Barring access to land directly contradicts the principles the Thai state has sworn to uphold.
With his land seized, Mr. Pongsamai Silawan, a resident of Kalasin province, lost his primary means of income. He soon discovered that his meager salary as a day laborer was not enough to support his family.
“I have to sneak onto my land to tap for rubber,” the 52-year-old Mr. Pongsamai says. He recounts the events of a day following his secret tapping. As he was cooking rice, he heard the dogs barking. “I dropped everything. The officers were coming,” he says. “When the dogs bark, I am ready to run.”
If caught, Mr. Pongsamai could face up to four years in prison.
Mr. Pongsamai faces a dilemma. “Between being afraid and having no food, which would you choose?” he asks. He has had to cut back on many expenses. “I can’t afford food from the market. I must scavenge for it in the forest. I don’t have money for my motorcycle, and I am even in debt to the gas station.”
In the nearby village of Jatrabiab, in Sakon Nakhon Province, the government has taken a more direct approach. Labeled as “investors,” 34 villagers have been charged with trespassing and encroachment.
Charges have piled up in some families. The Srikham family had three members charged for encroachment. Ms. Khamlamun Srikham was called in to the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) under the pretext of registering her land in order to receive land titles.
She had wanted to divide the land she farmed into three parts – one for herself, and two parts for her daughters who could have land titles in their own names as an inheritance.
Yet soon after, Ms. Khamlamun and her two daughters were all charged for trespassing. The key piece of evidence behind the charges was the very information Ms. Khamlamun had provided to the RFD.
“We trusted [the RFD representative] as a government employee, that he would allocate the land to us,” Mr. Chai Thongdeenok explains. “But the RFD truly tricked us villagers. Now we have no rights and cannot use the land.”
Ms. Khamlamun’s eldest daughter was charged even though she’s been working in Bangkok for over 20 years. She now has to cover transportation costs to and from Bangkok to attend court hearings.
For Amorn, Ms. Khamlamun’s younger daughter, what hurts the most is the effect the charges have had on her father. “He used to talk and laugh. But since the court case he is quiet and doesn’t say much,” she says. “I believe everyone who’s been charged is suffering from depression.”
Charges have been often exaggerated, say many of those arrested, adding even more pressure on these fragile families. When Ms. Khamphai Todkaew was brought to court, she found that she had been charged with farming 36 rai of land, when she only owned four rai.
These discrepancies in charges are not anomalies – of the 34 people charged, 25 reported being charged with incorrect property amounts.
Ms. Khamphai’s husband, Mr. Prasert, offered to be charged in her place, and thought he had reached an agreement with the police to such effect. Yet when the case was brought before the judge, the court charged both husband and wife.
They were presented with two choices: either fight but risk four years in prison if found guilty, or give up and suffer a reduced penalty of two years. In the absence of adequate legal advice, they opted not to fight the charge and instead plead guilty.
The arrests of both the mother and father have shaken the entire family. The eldest son, Lerdsak, 23 years old, has fallen apart emotionally. After 10 days in a psychiatric ward, he has returned home but is still at risk. “Every day now my brother has to take psychiatric medicines to manage his condition,” says his brother, Jakkrit. “He cannot work and we must spend a lot of time taking care of him.”
At least three families have had a family member see a doctor or have been admitted to the hospital for psychiatric illnesses. This not only puts an added strain on state mental health facilities, but burdens families with medical payments and extra care of loved ones.
Despite negotiations with representatives of the RFD, farmers in Jatrabiab were denied access to their land during the legal proceedings. A survey of families shows that 75% of those charged are barring access to their primary source of income, resulting in an average loss of monthly income of 50-80 percent per capita.
The absence of a steady primary income source, court fees, and agricultural loans have resulted in insurmountable debt. Collectively, the charged villagers owe around 4.2 million baht, or 180,000 baht per person on average.
Even under the best circumstances, it would take a farmer almost a decade to pay off this debt even without interest. When external factors such as available workdays, health and family expenses, and unexpected expenditures are taken into account, it is unlikely that families can ever repay it.
Land evictions of this type in Thailand have rarely met positive outcomes. The prospects of compensation from the state are low, says Dr. Nattakant, drawing comparisons with the Khor Jor Kor program in 1992. According to Dr. Nattakant, under the 1992 program, government officials stated that there would be just and appropriate compensation measures. However, the funding never came and the land the government allocated was already occupied.
Today, military rule exacerbates the situation, argues Dr. Nattakant. “Officials have blocked villagers any access to help from their allies, including media, NGOs, activists, and academics. Some of the villagers have been received death threats if they tell the media about their plight.”
The military makes it nearly impossible for villagers to share their concerns with larger society. “The use of martial law or Section 44 of the interim constitution and the repeated summoning processes,” says Dr. Nattakant, “clearly violate the rights of local people to resist, or even question the implementation of the plan.”
Despite international condemnation and statements issued by the United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR), the NCPO has failed to protect the rights of the poor. As of last November, over 500 forest encroachers had been prosecuted and 300,000 rai of land had been seized.
Under the NCPO’s approach, many more will suffer like Mr. Pongsamai and the Todkaew children, as they are pushed off their land and further into the margins of Thai society.
Feature by Sarah Sanbar who studies International Relations at Claremont McKenna College. She is a student-journalist on the CIEE Khon Kaen study abroad program.
Video by Margaret Kierstead who studies Journalism at George Washington University. She is a student-journalist on the CIEE Khon Kaen study abroad program.
INTERVIEW: Sleeping Soldiers, Sinking Ships, and Dinosaurs: Filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul discusses his upcoming film
Northeastern Thailand rarely features in internationally acclaimed cinema, but the region has been the setting for filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s beautifully allusive and atmospheric films for years.
Apichatpong grew up in the Northeast and graduated in architecture from Khon Kaen University. He then proceeded to study cinema at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In his films, Apichatpong creates mesmerizing images and nonlinear plots that often blur the boundaries between reality and imagination. While his work eludes any clear political leaning, Apichatpong cultivates a vivid interest in the margins. He often focuses on characters who rarely make it on Thai screens, like homosexual soldiers and migrant workers.
This fascination with borderlands and his enchantment with Khon Kaen have kept luring him to the Northeast. He once referred to the region as “the most precious treasure” of filmmaking possibilities in Thailand, and he wondered whether Isaan’s energy is “the backbone of contemporary Thai society and culture.”
After Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010, and the hour-long Mekong Hotel from 2012, Apichatpong now returns with a new feature set in the Northeast.
Cemetery of Splendour (Thai: Rak Thi Khon Kaen) tells the story of a middle-aged woman who cares for a group of soldiers who contracted a mysterious sleeping sickness. Apichatpong calls the film a “very personal portrait” of his hometown Khon Kaen and “a rumination of Thailand, a feverish nation.”
This week, Cemetery of Splendour will have its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in France. The Isaan Record talked to Apichatpong about childhood memories, Isaan dreaminess, sinking ships, dinosaurs and the Northeast’s communist past.
IR: How is your personal relationship to the Northeast reflected in your films?
A: Most of my films are more or less based on my memories from my time growing up in Khon Kaen. The landscape around and also the architecture. I prefer to depict the mood of Isaan, I guess it’s also the charm of the region.
My grandfather was from China and he relocated to Nakhon Sawan, so my father is actually from there. And my mom is from Bangkok, she is also from a Chinese family. After they graduated as medical doctors, they chose to live in Khon Kaen, to work at the hospital there. At that time nobody wanted to go to the Northeast.
When I was a little boy, I spent most of my time around the hospital. We lived in the doctor’s housing unit in the hospital area. And most of the doctors were from somewhere else and not from the Northeast.
I wasn’t really conscious about featuring the Northeast in my films in the beginning. I was more interested in borders. For one of my first films, I was interested in the Thai-Burmese border. I always was fascinated by the act of crossing borders.
It was only later when we had more of a budget that I started to feel that I wanted to move my films closer to Isaan. About half of Syndromes and a Century was shot in the Northeast. And Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was about 95% shot in Isaan, in Khon Kaen and Loei Province. My newest film Cemetery of Splendour was shot completely in Khon Kaen.
IR: You are quoted saying that when you were younger you tried to hide your background of being from Khon Kaen. How has that changed over time?
I would say that I was from Khon Kaen, and people would laugh.
A: Yes, it has changed a lot. When I was younger, up until my 20s, when I was trying to get into architectural school, I went to a tutoring school for architecture. I would say that I was from Khon Kaen, and people would laugh. But that would never happen now. It has changed quite a lot, in a good way. There are still some bits of resentment, but less than before.
For many people too, like Jenjira Pongpas, my regular actress, while she was living in Bangkok, she worked for a woman who supplied extras for TV and movies –supporting casts. And one of Jenjira’s jobs was to help them get rid of their Isaan accents. She taught them how to properly speak central Thai.
IR: Why is your newest film set in your hometown Khon Kaen?
A: Partly because I haven’t really been back too often. My mother and my brother live in Khon Kaen, so it was almost an excuse to spend a longer period of time with them.
I feel like Khon Kaen has changed quite a lot. Every time I’ve been back, there is always this memory, the old things layered under what is now. It is almost a bit of a farewell film because honestly, I feel like I should take up the challenge to work somewhere other than Thailand. So, maybe it’s good to have a last film set in my hometown.
Originally, I meant to set the film in Nong Khai, because Jenjira is from there. She has been inspiring me a lot, especially through her memories of Isaan. Also, I really love the Mekong River and there is of course this fascination with borders, the Thai-Lao border. In fact, I think Khon Kaen is not that photogenic compared to Nong Khai, and this felt like a challenge to me too.
IR: How do your childhood memories of Khon Kaen feature in your film?
A: I based it on the hospital that I spent so much time in as a child, and also my school. Because my world back then as a child was really only that: the hospital, the school, and also the local cinemas. So this film is a combination of the three.
I think the film looks at the city with the eyes of sadness.
And we used a school that is maybe 15 minutes from Khon Kaen University, which in terms of architecture is a mixture of wood and concrete. Actually, this is almost a mixture of my school and my old wooden house at the hospital complex.
When I grew up more than thirty years ago, there were mainly dirt roads in the town. And there were not as many buildings as there are today. And because of my architectural background, Khon Kaen sometimes feels like a failure of city planning to me. The traffic is getting quite bad now and there are not that many trees around anymore.
I feel sorry to say that Khon Kaen is becoming very similar to other cities around the country that have no identity anymore. The best that city planners can come up with is placing dinosaurs around the city. We also feature that in the film. I think the film looks at the city with the eyes of sadness.
IR: Is your new film more based in an urban setting than, for example, Uncle Boonmee or Hotel Mekong?
A: It is a combination of neutral places. In the beginning you see something that looks more like a rural school and then the viewer is taken to the city. But not really like a sprawling city, it’s more like shots of the night market in Khon Kaen. And then also the lake, Bueng Kaen Nakhon. So these are more of these neutral grounds which I chose because they have mostly remained the same from when I was young until now.
IR: You talked about your fascination with borders and the act of crossing borders. Do you feel like your films also often cross some sort of border between the Northeast and Bangkok?
Yes, that’s for sure. It’s not only the Northeast, but also the North and the South. These regions are separated spiritually from the center which also translates into a political dimension.
But in my films there are many borders, for example the one between the dead and the living. And also the border between the everyday life and dreams. And I believe that for the Northeast, it is pretty obvious that there is this layer of the two worlds on top of people’s imagination. When you look at Isaan folk tales, they are full of fantastical imaginary or animistic beliefs. So it seems that people and myself included live not only in this one singular dimension, but in various different realities and in their dreams. These can be dreams of the supernatural, the spiritual world, but also dreams of a better future.
IR: How would you describe Thailand’s current political situation and how does it impact your filmmaking?
For me, living in this country represents powerlessness, but at the same time this negative force really drives me to work.
A: Well, I would say, the situation is almost boring. It’s almost like this is one of the Thai seasons, a short winter, a rainy season, a hot season and then the coup season. It’s a never-ending cycle and this is terrible of course. And I feel tired of it.
That is why this film and previous ones look at the country in quite a sad way, full of sorrows. For me, living in this country represents powerlessness, but at the same time this negative force really drives me to work. I don’t know if I were to live somewhere else that I would be as productive.
IR: Previous films of yours have been censored in Thailand. Do you expect to run into censorship problems with your newest film?
A: In fact there’s only Syndromes and a Century that ran into problems with the censors. That film, to me, was so pure and innocent. So you never know what will happen in this country.
IR: Have you ever felt scared or threatened because of the work that you do?
A: Of course. As a filmmaker and artist, it is about expression, so it is a promise that you are being true to yourself. But can you do that in this climate? Often times I cannot call myself a true artist.
It is like being on a sinking ship, but it is a quite comfortable ship. There is music, there is good food, but it is sinking, and we don’t realize it.
IR: What do you think is in store for the future Thailand and how is this related to your work?
A: It is a cycle of power balance, but the problem is that the majority of the people are not part of this power. So right now it is about the recalibration of this power out there, between different institutions. What can I say, I am just amazed that we have survived this far.
For me it is like being on a sinking ship, but it is a quite comfortable ship. There is music, there is good food, but it is sinking, and we don’t realize it.
IR: Is the recurring theme of sleeping and dreaming in your films a political commentary? Are the sleeping soldiers a reference to the Thai military?
A: It could be interpreted like that. Because here you can’t do anything about it, you just sleep and this is a form of escape into the world of dreams. I have featured this theme since Blissfully Yours and also in my Primitive project in Nakhon Panom, in which all the teens are sleeping.
It’s like the intrusion of a fantasy which I sometimes feel like when watching the news. There is the sheer force of craziness. In previous projects I was always interested in the act of sleeping as a form of escape. I did some research about sleeping sicknesses and I discovered cases of people suffering from this kind of sickness during the WWII era. We still don’t know much about these cases.
I am also quite fascinated by uniforms; sexually and also in terms of power in society. So in Cemetery of Splendour, I sort of combine these two fascinations and interests.
IR: What is the significance of the communist past of the Northeast in your films?
A: In a way, this is just me trying to understand what happened during that time. While working with Jenjira, I learned that her father was part of the Internal Security Operations Command during the communist period. He was in a special unit that went out to the villages to suppress communism by screening propaganda films at Buddhist temples. So there is this link to films.
And then I travelled along the Mekong River and stayed at a village in Nakhon Phanom Province. I learned more about that time, which was not totally new to me, but it still impacted me and brought me to listen to people who were traumatized in different ways.
I wondered how come I had so little knowledge about this.
And it’s quite astonishing that this all happened during my lifetime. I wondered how come I had so little knowledge about this. And I believe that these events from then are a very important factor for where Thailand is today.
When I was little, more than once there were 24 hours of cartoons on TV. And that was often exactly the time when the coups, the killings in the villages happened. So this happened while I was enjoying watching my cartoons.
Also the presence of American troops in the Northeast, I remember a US Army base in Khon Kaen as well. And I think they showed 16mm black-and-white movies, like King Kong, and I remember really enjoying watching those movies. I mean this is where part of my love for cinema and American culture comes from, while at the same time it spread fear of communism.
IR: In Uncle Boonmee there is a scene at the table when the spirit of the sister appears and they talk about her foreign husband, Hans. In your newest film there is also a foreign husband. What’s the significance of this for you?
A: All my movies are personal and they always feature people that I love. And Jenjira is one of them. Over the years she really had this mission to find a husband [laughs]. A good husband. We are all looking for a good person for ourselves. She was married to foreigner before who was quite abusive. So they separated and she landed a couple more foreigner partners until she found her current husband who is a really great guy from New Mexico. They have been married for four years and live in Nong Khai. And the foreigner in Cemetery is a reference to him.
In the future Isaan will be very different from what it is now—it might become the center of the country.
I also have this interest in Isaan’s phenomenon of women marrying foreigners. I believe this will have an impact on the region. In the future Isaan will be very different from what it is now—it might become the center of the country. You have all these mixed kids who are financially well-off and of course many also go to better schools. So the landscape of the Northeast will change.
IR: How was the shooting and editing process of Cemetery of Splendor?
A: Shooting in Khon Kaen was a very smooth experience and there was a lot of support from Khon Kaen City, from the police, and from people. It was my first time doing most of everything in Khon Kaen, so that was very new to me.
Usually, I rely so much on the resources in Bangkok. When we casted Isaan people we would find them in Bangkok. But this time, we did casting in Khon Kaen and the process of meeting people there was amazing. Now, I have a long list of talented actors—all of them non-professionals. They have other jobs, but they are really good.
For this film, the shooting was quite straight forward, we followed the script. In fact, I didn’t improvise that much. We really stressed the importance of timing for the shooting; we had to follow the sun. And even though there wasn’t much room for improvisation, it turned out very good for me.
The editing has changed quite a bit for this film. We cut off about 30% of the film. We put the focus more on Jenjira. Before there were other supporting characters but now the movie is her.
IR: In Khon Kaen, is there a community or support structure for filmmakers?
A: Not much, but there are groups of young filmmakers, and a lot of talent. There are agents for modelling, for advertising, and for events, but not much.
From what I know there is only one guy who is really established. Uten Sririwi who made Poo Bao Tai Baan–this guy has a company there. One funny thing is that he has a son, and he named him Apichatpong. So that’s very flattering.
There just isn’t a big audience anywhere for this kind of film. It would be a minority film for every country.
IR: Do you have a release date for Cemetery of Splendour?
A: Only for France, in September. That’s something that boxes me in–people always say I don’t make films for Thai people and it makes it even worse when I don’t show my films here. But it is totally not true because there just isn’t a big audience anywhere for this kind of film. It is a minority film for every country.
IR: But internationally you have quite a crowd of followers.
A: Yeah, it is just that we have different kinds of movie cultures, and hopefully that will also change some day. For example, in Korea or Taiwan, there is a big support from the government, so that not only does domestic movie-making flourish, but also the people’s point of view about the world’s cinema changes; they start to appreciate it. But for Thailand, we can only access such films online and often illegally, so there is not really an official way. This is a real pity.
It would be better if there were state support for this kind of art because I believe that it really changes people. It kind of expands one’s awareness about the world and about different views.
Cemetery of Splendour (Thai: Rak Thi Khon Kaen) will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18.
Yesterday, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) passed bills to privatize Khon Kaen University and three other higher education institutions. The continuing privatization of Thailand’s universities raises concerns among student activists and academics who warn of soaring tuition fees, exclusion of lower income students, and too much power moving into the hands of too few.
As Thailand remains under military rule, many question the timing of the recent push to transition more universities from a public to a so-called “autonomous” status.
In addition to Khon Kaen University (KKU), similar bills were passed for Thammasat, Kasetsart, and Suan Dusit Rajabhat Universities.
University privatization plans have been the target of student protests in recent months. Last Thursday, students from Thammasat University presented a petition with 2,702 signatures to the NLA, calling for more transparency in the privatization process and student participation in the university’s affairs
In early April at KKU, a student activist climbed onto the roof of the campus’ centrally-located Complex to roll out a banner featuring the message: “Khon Kaen University Company Limited – University President-Dictator.” He was calling to oppose the government’s push to turn the public university into a privatized institution.
The initiative for an autonomous university system began in the 1990s and accelerated due to pressure to privatize public services from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.
Since then, 15 universities out of 185 tertiary education institutions nationwide have transitioned to the autonomous system, almost always accompanied by student protests.
Once made autonomous, universities leave the state’s bureaucratic system and set up their own administrative and budgetary structures. All decision-making power on management and financial matters as well as personnel and curricula policies is held by the university council.
According to the draft of Khon Kaen University’s new charter obtained by The Isaan Record, this powerful body is composed of 30 members, the majority of which are royally appointed for three years and can be reappointed.
The council is dominated by high-level, Bangkok-based officials, but also includes the university’s president and administration, five elected faculty members, one elected representative of university staff, the governor of Khon Kaen Province, and at least one representative from the Ministry of Education.
The university council can act independently on administrative and budgetary matters without having to wait for the central government’s approval, as it is the case for public universities.
Proponents of this system stress that it brings universities more flexibility and independence from state bureaucracy, but critics warn that it will decrease the accountability of the university administration.
Khon Kaen University’s main student activist group, Dao Din, criticizes the lack of student participation in the process and is concerned that after the transition the university council will be able to wield unchecked power over the university affairs.
“If it was really necessary for [Khon Kaen] University to become autonomous, then we students want to take part in the decision-making process,” said 20-year-old Phayu Boonsophon, a Dao Din member from Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Law.
According to Dao Din, the university held a public forum on the issue to gather opinions from the student community nearly a decade ago. Since then, the university has been quoting this one-time event as evidence of student inclusion in process of privatization.
Student concerns are shared by Yukti Mukdawijitra, an assistant professor at Thammasat University. The efforts to move universities into the autonomous system comes with greater centralization, Dr. Yukti told The Isaan Record over email.
“In an autonomous university, professors and lecturers, as well as supportive staff and students, will be under tighter control,” Dr. Yukti wrote. “The president and the board of referees of the university are more powerful and there will be much less participation from representatives from the faculties.”
In contrast to a public university, its autonomous counterpart no longer fully depends on state funding based on the number of students, but instead receives an annual block grant from the state budget. For this reason, autonomous universities are driven to find other sources of revenues through, for example, increased tuition fees or profitable “special” programs.
Concerns have been raised over the potential commercialization of educational services, equity, and access to higher education by lower income groups.
In 2012, the website ThaiPublica found that tuition fees at Burapha University increased significantly after it became autonomous in 2008. The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences raised semester tuition rates of its regular programs from under 10,000 baht to 14,000 baht, an increase of at least 40 percent.
“The state is responsible for providing education to its people free of charge. But when the state is dominated by capitalists, then education immediately becomes a business,” says Decha Premrudeelert, a long-time education activist in Khon Kaen. “As a consequence, the poor have less access to higher education and the gap between the rich and the poor gradually widens.”
Public universities in the Northeast have a special responsibility, as the region is Thailand’s poorest, explains Alongkorn Akkasaeng, Assistant Dean at Mahasarakham University’s College of Politics and Governance. Unlike universities in Bangkok, universities here offer education to a high number of students from low-income families.
“Khon Kaen University needs to decide if it wants to make profit or support society by offering education,” Dr. Alongkorn said.
Students might not be the only group affected by universities’ transition to an autonomous status. Even though university administrative staff and lecturers receive a slightly higher salary in the autonomous system, they may be granted fewer benefits, as they are no longer employed as civil servants.
“In public universities, almost all employees are civil servants who are better off in terms of health care and retirement plans. Essentially, I think privatization is a process to reduce costs and spending on the social welfare of employees, including professors and lecturers,” said Dr. Yutki.
However, the push to privatize Thailand’s universities has not met significant opposition. If done right, autonomy from the government’s bureaucracy can translate into a more efficient university administration system and might consequently improve the quality of education, explained Sathaporn Reungtham, Assistant Professor at Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.
“The only problem is that until now the university’s administrators have failed to answer how the autonomous status will exactly improve the university’s situation. There is a lack of accountability that makes me not very hopeful about this whole process,” Dr. Sathaporn said.
After the coup in 2006, seven universities were hastily made autonomous, including the country’s oldest educational institution, Chulalongkorn University, in spite of student protests. At that time, only Khon Kaen University withdrew its bid for autonomous status in response to public opposition.
This time around, it seems like Khon Kaen University’s administrators seized the moment to change the university’s status without public scrutiny.
In a bid to prevent protest from students or faculty, wrote Dr. Yukti, “it is clear that the administrators of universities want to take advantage of the military rule.”
Following last year’s military coup led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, several presidents of major universities were appointed to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), the military junta’s rubber-stamp parliament.
Student activist Mr. Phayu claimed, “Khon Kaen University President [Kittichai Triratanasirichai] volunteered to become a member of the NLA only to propose this autonomy bill and then raised his hand to pass it.”
OP-ED: Draft Constitution Neglects Minority Rights of Millions
By John Draper, Guest Contributor
In the draft constitution, there is no explicit mention of minorities or minority rights, making this constitution the only one in ASEAN to not have a provision for such rights. In addition, Thai is not specified in the constitution as the national language, meaning there is no recognition of other languages, nor a framework for supporting minorities along ethnolinguistic lines.
Together, these omissions make the proposed Thai constitution the most backwards in ASEAN and the one least compliant with treaty obligations in the area of linguistic human rights, namely the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, all of which have been ratified by Thailand.
In the Northeast, this affects approximately 18 indigenous ethnicities, primarily the Thai-Lao, the Northern Khmer, the Khorat, and the Phu Thai, as well as several million integrated Thai-Chinese.
Using standard predictions of language death rates proposed by a leading authority on language, David Crystal, it is likely that all those ethnolinguistic groups with populations of less than 500,000—all but a handful in the Northeast—will experience the erasure of the language aspect of their identities by 2100. This basically means that while the song forms of these minorities may survive into the next century, their children will not understand those songs. This represents a massive loss of Thai cultural heritage in the Northeast.
Section 5 of the constitution includes the standard provisions against discrimination based on race : “The Thai people, irrespective of their origins, sexes or religions, shall enjoy equal protection under this Constitution.” Also under the heading of “Human Rights,” Section 34 states: “Unjust discrimination against a person on the grounds of the difference in origin, race, language, sex, gender, age, disability, physical or health condition, personal status, economic or social standing, religious belief, education or training, or constitutionally political view shall not be made.”
However, there is passing mention of the concept of ethnicity. Chapter 2: Directive Principles of Fundamental State Policies, mentions, in Section 83 (5): “The State shall strengthen local community in the following matters…: (5) protection of indigenous and ethnic groups to maintain their identities with dignity.”
While such recognition is an advance on the former constitution in terms of specificity, it has essentially been the position of the National Economic and Social Development Board in its five-year plans as implemented by state ministries such as the Ministries of Education and of Culture for the past 15 years.
In terms of how this applies to the Northeast, it should be noted that the Thai state in the past has admirably tackled the issue of race in the region – on paper. Its 2011 report to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination under the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, available here, is remarkably enlightened. Building on Mahidol University’s 2005 Ethnolinguistic Map of Thailand project, it declares Thailand to be a multi-ethnic, pluralistic country and acknowledges the existence of 62 ethnic groups in Thailand, belonging to five language families.
In an approach informed by the latest research and detailing the state’s evolution of the understanding of the ethnic issue since the 1990s, it first lists and describes in detail three main ethnic groups in Thailand: the mountain peoples or “Persons on the Highland,” the “Sea Gypsies,” and the “Malayu-descended Thais.”
It then describes a fourth group, “other ethnic groups,” under the heading “Ethnic Groups in the Northeast,” with a detailed table listing all the ethnic groups in the Northeast except for Thai-Chinese. This is reproduced below:
Table 3: No. of Ethnic Group Population in the Northeast (Esan) by Language Family Group
Crucially, the Thai Lao identity is recognized in this 2011 report for the UN Committee in a way not seen outside academic circles and in doing so undoes nearly a century of the systematic erasure of the largest minority identity in Thailand. This erasure, via a program of assimilation, began in the late 19th century with the consolidation and annexation of the Khorat Plateau and was accelerated in the 1939-1942 hyper nationalism-driven 12 State Cultural Mandates which changed the name of Siam to Thailand, made Thai the national language, and disappeared by diktat all the minority identities in Thailand. The historical treatment of the Thai Lao and their crucial importance to understanding Thai political development, including in the Thaksin era, has recently been highlighted in the English-speaking public sphere by the anthropologist Charles F. Keyes.
The 2011 report’s description of the situation in the Northeast is sympathetic to the problems of the region’s other minorities. In particular, the Kuy, Yogun and Bru are mentioned as facing extinction.
However, the description regarding the relationships between the peoples of the Northeast is somewhat unusual, “Even though there are diverse ethnic groups in the Esan region… due to the generosity and kind-heartedness of the Esan people in general, as well as their experience of interrelating with people of diverse ethnicities, the Esan people of different ethnic groups mingle well and always welcome people from other places. This background is like a special force that unites them and creates a drive for them to relate more with people in the other regions.”
Nonetheless, submitted as it was in 2011, it completely overlooks Thai-Thai Lao interactions, including widespread destruction in the Northeast in May 2010, mainly focusing on violence against symbols of Thai national rule, including the arson of provincial administrative halls. Indeed, it might be argued that the prevention of additional ethno-political violence in May 2014 was one of the unstated reasons which drove the Thai military to intervene in its May 22 coup.
The draft constitution of 2015 is obviously a retrograde step compared to the progressively-minded report to the UN committee combatting racism. It ignores the more normative constitutions of its neighbors regarding minority rights; is apparently oblivious to the pattern of pluralistic progress put in place since the 1997 Constitution and developed in partnership between major Thai universities, UN organs such as UNESCO and UNICEF, as well as indigenous organizations themselves such as the Tribal Assembly of Thailand and the Inter Mountain Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand Association; and it overlooks its treaty obligations.
Thailand cannot portray itself as a pluralistic country in its reports to supra-national organizations such as the United Nations while failing to put in place organic legislation or at least constitutional safeguards to support minority ethnolinguistic rights, such as the stalled draft of National Language Policy. Nor can it, according to its own draft constitution, grant any measure of autonomy to the Thai Malayu, who now exercise limited elements of Sharia law in the three southern provinces collectively named the Deep South, without providing for autonomy for the Thai Lao and other major minorities such as the six million Khon Mueang of the North.
The discrepancy between the “Thainess” of the draft constitution and the hard-won scientifically-based developments in Thai academia, Thai concepts of pluralism, and Thai understanding of their own history as embodied in the 2011 report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, is obvious. It represents a massive reality gap between how radical conservative elements of Thailand’s socio-political spectrum portray the country to its own people in local media and how Thailand could—and still can—develop itself in this crucial field of minority rights in partnership with the international community.
Thailand cannot continue to dumb down its own population and aim to assimilate rather than integrate and equalize. Further, in recent high-level support for the concept of pan-Thainess based on pseudoscience it risks more than becoming a pariah state; it invokes a specter of xenophobia and the march to authoritarianism buoyed by the chauvinism, which harbors the conceit of the natural leadership of a superior race.
The draft constitution suggests valuable political reforms and is a major intellectual work in its own right. While the promise of reconciliation is there, its inward-looking nature and the lack of any appreciation for minority rights will be its own undoing in the years to come unless it is itself reformed as a matter of urgency.
After having read this article, you may at first see the Thai military as the “bad guys.” This would, however, be to fall into the trap of dualism. The Thai military developed Thainess through the filters of British imperialism, French colonialism, Italian fascism, and German Nazism, as well as the bushido concept and Japanese imperialism. More recently, their institutional memory includes some of the worst forms of counter-insurgency and psychological warfare imaginable, acquired during the dirty wars of the Cold War period. And most recently, fourth generation warfare and the technology that facilitates the surveillance state have informed Thai military thinking.
One result of this mentality is that the study of Chakri-period dynastic history in Thailand has been criminalized through the lese majéste laws, seemingly against the wishes of those the law would seek to protect. This death of history – a history dominated by the interactions of an absolute monarchy (and now a strong form of constitutional monarchy) with peoples now minorities in Thailand – has supported processes of assimilation rather than equalization. All this has been documented in the academic literature, a literature that cannot in its entirety be read or studied in Thailand.
Still, the Thai military is not “the enemy”. It is a product of a system and consists of individuals, ones that does not necessarily understand why it is a tragedy that many Thai Lao children reject the “Lao” part of their identity nor why it is a tragedy that the majority of Thai Lao children’s cultural identity has been erased to the extent that they do not know they used to have a civilization including a rich literary heritage. In the quest to portray Thailand as a utopia of Thainess, those in the Thai military may not understand these tragedies because the study of history in Thailand has been turned into a pseudo-science and because the study of its sister science, philosophy, is not promoted as part of a holistic education.
You may, on having read the article, feel that what has happened and that what is happening in Thailand constitutes a crime – a crime against humanity. You would not be alone. Cultural genocide was written into the draft Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and removed at the last moment because of the sensitivities of the period and of the crime itself. Alternative names for what is happening in Thailand, known to some reading this introduction, are ethnocide and linguicide.
This does not mean the Thai military is guilty of a crime. The Nuremberg Trials essentially made the point that individuals are guilty of crimes, not peoples or institutions. And, those of you who are familiar with Buddhism know that it teaches absolute compassion for the human condition. In fact, individuals in the Thai military, as epitomized by General Prayut, appear to be desperately engaged in a war on endemic, embedded corruption in the Thai polity in bid to stave off sanctions by the West due to the appalling crimes against human rights taking place in Thailand every minute of every hour of every day, including the trafficking and slavery of minority children.
In this bid, the Thai military as an institution is also taking on the “cleaning house” of an entire country. General Prayut himself, and in some ways the whole socio-political system, have been demonstrating signs of increasing cognitive dissonance due to the enormity of this task of attempting to purge corruption from one of the world’s most corrupt states. Thailand is corrupt if only because of the accidents of history, its geographical position and the size of its population. But, the underlying psychology of Thai client-patronage networks which support corruption existing within a social system prioritizing Buddhist values and thereby rejecting materialism and promoting a path towards goodness also creates such a dissonance. Still, the pervasive extent of political, bureaucratic, police and military corruption is perhaps only just being appreciated by the Thai establishment, which seeks to promote such goodness.
In the words of a Thai metaphor, the eyes of some in the Thai military are likely only now, because they have sought to implement broad reforms not seen in a generation, being brightened regarding the massive task before them. This may be a sudden psychological shock for some of them. On issues such as slavery in the fishing industry, on forest reform, on education, and even on the pricing of lottery tickets, the Thai military seems both exasperated and at a loss. For this, in the Buddhist tradition, they deserve compassion.
If you understand and agree with the basic premises in this postscript and sympathize with the sentiments expressed in the article above, you may feel a moral obligation to help those determined to spread and develop a Thainess based on the fundamental premise of a multi-ethnic state which recognizes the reality of both triumphs and tragedies in Thailand’s own history – one that cannot at present be argued for by Thai ethnic groups because of the overwhelming discourse of pan-Thaism currently being produced by the Thai military. Furthermore, in the ultimate tragedy, the majority of these minorities not only do not know – cannot know – their own histories, they do not know they have rights under treaties like the one mentioned in the article.
If, after reading the article, you do want to help, please post it to lists, to websites, to Facebook, and to friends and colleagues via email. Requests to post the article to websites should be directed to the original copyright owner, The Isaan Record (firstname.lastname@example.org). The Thai military needs to be helped to understand that there is an alternative future for Thailand which does not rest upon rejecting a model constructed of both pluralism and of individual rights and responsibilities in favor of totalitarian authoritarianism. It needs to understand the draft constitution must be amended to include minority rights, and it needs to understand why.
John Draper is a project manager with the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Programme at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University and writes for the Khon Kaen School.