Thailand’s economic downturn is often discussed in terms of GDP, national markets, and investment statistics, but behind the numbers, individuals employed in the country’s enormous informal economy are feeling deep financial strain. At the Aorjira market in Khon Kaen, vendors struggle to turn enough profit to support themselves and keep their small businesses afloat.
By Mariko Powers and Zoe Swartz
Fluorescent lights flicker as customers weave through the narrow alleys and islands created by stalls at the Aorjira market, the largest food market in Khon Kaen. Vendors showcase everything from silver fish to hanging red meats, robust leafy vegetables, vibrant fruits, and countless bags of rice. The bustling traffic and diversity of products suggest that the market is thriving, but vendors behind the stalls face deep financial uncertainty.
“It’s difficult to sell rice because customers buy less,” says Ms. Nawarat Tapbun, a 72-year-old native of Khon Kaen, who has been selling rice at this market for fifty years. “The whole economic system is suffering now,” she says, shaking her head. Since last year’s coup, she has been struggling to turn the profits she had known in previous years. What she used to be able to sell in one day now takes her two.
Ms. Narawat is not alone. The vast majority of Thailand’s workforce – over 64% in 2013 – make their living in the informal sector. These self-employed workers, including vendors, tuk-tuk drivers, and farmers, are more vulnerable to economic fluctuations because they often lack social protection – and they are feeling the brunt of the recent economic downturn in the Northeast.
Ms. Aumpai Koetphon, 64, who owns a shoe and accessories shop at Khon Kaen’s downtown bus terminal, has been struggling to keep her business open, as well.
“I have to think about how to pay the rent and people aren’t buying much from my store,” she says, citing politics as the source of the poor economy in Thailand. “It’s been getting worse and worse. The government keeps promising a better economy, but nothing has happened,” she says.
In interviews with dozens of market vendors in Khon Kaen, salespeople report that their daily income has decreased as much as 50% since the coup last year. Paul Collier, an economics professor at Oxford University, has estimated that, in general, coups cost a country 7% of a year’s income when tracked over time.
While it is difficult to translate the junta’s rule directly to reduced incomes, Ms. Panee Srikaew, 47, who makes her living selling lottery tickets outside the market, can link her losses to current government policy. A new policy standardizing the price of lottery tickets at 80 baht diminished vendor’s profits to 4 baht per ticket. Ms. Panee used to make 500 baht per day in sales, and now has an income of 200 baht a day.
Mr. Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political science lecturer at Ubon Ratchathani University, says that the current situation is more complicated than the military government’s economic strategy. Falling exports, declining property values, and the performance of global markets have buffeted the country independent of the current regime.
“It’s not just the coup that made the situation worse,” he says. “We’ve never had a good plan for economic growth. Successive governments haven’t done a good job of promoting the Thai economy – they blame the previous government and never learn from each other. We see now that everything is based on political expedience.”
This lack of strong economic planning came at a cost, which is now reverberating in Khon Kaen’s informal sector. Ms. Nawarat leads a simple life by the train tracks in one of the city’s slum communities. Her already frugal lifestyle has not changed much since the coup, however, she feels that her financial situation is deteriorating.
For 50 years, she has been selling sticky rice at the market every day from 3 a.m. until 9:30 a.m. and managed to set aside about 200-300,000 baht in savings. But this roughly equals the debt she racked up from investment losses and loans she received to start her and her children’s rice business.
Ms. Narawat is proud to have successfully chipped away at her family’s debt – once almost a million baht – but she still fears she will not be able to support herself and her husband through their old age. At 72-years-old, Ms. Nawarat plans to work until she is no longer able, but she knows that those days are coming to an end. “I’m worried my savings will run out before I die,” she says.
Hers is a familiar story in the debt-ridden Northeast. In recent years, Thailand’s household debt spiraled to a level “among the highest in the region and well above average for a country in the upper-middle income range,” a 2014 Bank of Thailand report finds.
Ms. Nawarat used to be confident that she could turn a profit on any purchase she made. She earned money, for example, by buying a fish for 100 baht, grilling it over her charcoal stove, and selling it for 140 baht. Now, she counts every penny twice before making a purchase and tends to stick only to her staples that she knows will sell well.
Currently, Thailand is the slowest growing economy in Southeast Asia and has been stagnating in and on the verge of recession for several years. The country’s economic outlook has continued to fall since the 2014 coup, with Thailand’s finance ministry cutting its economic growth forecast from 5% down to 2.7%.
Many vendors in the market now resort to depleting their savings, leaving nothing to fall back upon. Ms. Aumpai has already closed one of her shops and is using her dwindling savings to keep her shoe store afloat. “If this one doesn’t get better by the end of the year, I will close this one too,” she says, gesturing to the rows of sneakers, sandals, and flats lining the walls. “I don’t have a plan for what I will do if this one fails.”
Those affected by the hurting economy are adapting to a reduced income by curbing their own spending. Ms. Aumpai says that she stopped eating out as much as she used to and is cutting any unnecessary expenses. As the customer base of the small merchants at the Aorjira market is made up of mainly self-employed people, their reduced spending perpetuates a cycle of reduced sales.
In September, Thailand’s consumer confidence fell to a 16-month low and showed only slight improvement in October, according to a survey by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce (UTCC). Ms. Aumpai says she wants “the government to make the economy better” but has little faith that this will come to pass.
In August, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha reinstated Mr. Somkid Jatusripitak, who steered the economic ship of the Thaksin government, as minister of finance and deputy prime minister. The junta’s decision to install Somkid suggests an uncertain economic vision, which both rejects and relies on the very policies that the military government once condemned as heedless populism.
After adding Mr. Somkid Jatusripitak to its economic team, the military government approved a 136 billion baht (about $3.8 billion) stimulus package including the revival of the village fund program, once one of the Thaksin government’s key stimulus programs.
As Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, Thailand’s position as a hub of tourism and manufacturing helped clench its status as an upper middle-income country. However, with incomes falling, consumer spending stagnating, and household debt on the rise, Thailand’s long-established veneer of stability is wearing away.
Dr. Titipol says that, in general, Thailand struggles to become a fully industrialized economy because investment in the country still relies on cheap unskilled labor – which is rapidly becoming less expensive in neighboring states. As a result, Thailand is losing its competitive edge. Dr. Titipol asserts that Thailand needs to take labor reform “more seriously.”
“We still have other strengths that Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar don’t have, like infrastructure,” Dr. Titipol explains, “we should be able to use this to support the economy and produce labor that will fill the market.”
Despite this dismal economic situation, life continues as usual at the market. Vendors still arrive at 3 a.m. to set up their booths and donate alms into the shining bowls of young monks in their rust-orange robes. Although Ms. Narawat concedes that conditions are not ideal, she has no intention of leaving her stall. “It’s not about happiness,” she states seriously, “it’s about making a living.”
Book author James Mitchell talks about Thailand’s most popular music.
In an excellent new book, James Mitchell traces the evolution of the Thai music genre luk thung (literally, “child of the fields”) from its working class origins to becoming Thailand’s most popular music. The Isaan Record talked to the author about how luk thung energized the revival of Lao-Isaan identity and culture in Thailand from the 1990s on, and how it came to play a vital role in the protest music of the country’s color-coded political conflict.
IR: How did you come to write a book about luk thung?
JM: The book is based on my Ph.D. thesis, but it is very much different. Before it was published by Silkworm, it was rejected by major ethnomusicology series because it was too multi-disciplinary for them. It mixes politics, it mixes history and there is only one chapter on music ethnology and perhaps that was not “heavy” enough for them.
In the making of the book, I collaborated with Peter Doolan, who runs the Thai music blog Mon Rak Pleng Thai and Peter Garrity, who is a passionate luk thung fan. This book would have never come about without them. Nick Nostitz contributed a couple of photos and more to the original article on the use of music by the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts.
IR: Is luk thung known outside of Thailand and is it considered an area of academic interest?
JM: Luk thung is an area that has not really become mainstream in the academic world and hopefully this book will change this a bit. It is becoming a far more well-known music genre and there are many more international luk thung fans than before. Through my website Thai Music Inventory, I’ve been contacted by people in Germany, Australia, USA and elsewhere who are fans of Thai music rather than academics.
IR: How did you become interested in luk thung and was it easy to gain access to the scene?
JM: It really was because of my wife, who I met in 2002 in Khon Kaen. After we got married and moved here, I started working at Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts at Khon Kaen University. The Dean of the Faculty, Chaloemsak Phikunsri, got me started with luk thung. He gave me some old books and articles on the topic, such as Anek Nawikamun’s “Phleng Nok Sathawat“ (“Songs Outside the Century”).
At first, it was frustrating to get people to talk to me. I tried to go everywhere in Bangkok to make connections. I tried to ask major music companies for introductions to singers but no one was interested. It is about maintaining control over their artists and their music. They seem to not want to give anything away if they don’t see an upside to it. And for academic work, they don’t see any upside to it.
But when I communicated this to my friend, Ajan Jenwit Phikap at Khon Kaen University, he immediately said , “Oh, I know a really famous luk thung artist.” He took me to meet Soraphet Phinyo right away. Soraphet became the main case study of my book and that’s how it all started.
IR: In the book, you highlight the interaction between luk thung singers and fans as a reflection of Thai society.
JM: Apart from the concerts sponsored by TV and radio stations, luk thung artists also perform at funerals, weddings, and ordination ceremonies. At concerts, all the big luk thung fans are up front, and are mostly known by name to the singers. In one amazing picture that didn’t make it into the book, two famous singers hand Peter Garrity a birthday cake. They bought it themselves and presented it to him at their concert. You’d think it should be the other way around. These reciprocal relationships are not specific to luk thung, but you certainly do not see the same kind of relationships in Thai pop, in which artists are much more standoffish.
IR: You argue that luk thung became a main driver for the revival of Isaan culture in Thailand. Can you explain what that means?
JM: Yes, and I say revival only because I am thinking back to when Isaan culture was quite strong but successive Thai governments, and that goes back to the 19th century, have put their stamp down on Isaan culture – like discouraging the use of Isaan language in both spoken and written form.
The oral nature of Isaan culture contributed to not only the success of the luk thung music industry, but the entire entertainment industry. Isaan performers now really are everywhere, like all the comedians from the Northeast who often started performing on luk thung stages. Luk thung created this space for Isaan people to move into jobs in the entertainment industry.
IR: Around what time did the Isaan cultural influence on luk thung become noticeable?
JM: This began as early as the 1950s with Benjamin and Saksri Sri-akson. Saksri was a big star in nightclubs with her song “Phu Yai Lee,” which was a phenomenon. In the 1950s and ’60s these artists were not playing so much on the Isaan identity yet, but from the early 1970s on the whole genre of luk thung isaan, or luk thung mo lam, began to develop. Around 1981-2 this really took off big time.
This development might have been linked to the large of numbers of Isaan people who migrated to central Thailand looking for work. It reached a certain point where the Isaan audience became the most important audience in Bangkok and of course also for the bands touring throughout the countryside. It might also be related to the many Isaan migrants going to work overseas and then starting to come back, which meant that their social upward mobility and their economic standing improved. They started to have more money to spend on records and concerts and that began in the early 1980s.
IR: Luk thung used to be the music of the working class, how did it move into the mainstream of Thai music?
JM: The real shift of luk thung becoming big business and rising in status took place after 1976. It was especially fueled by the rise of Phumphuang Duangjan, the big star of the 1980s.
Oddly enough, as I write in my book, Soraphet Phinyo’s singing partner Nong Nut Duangchiwan was actually a bigger star than Phumphuang for two or three years in the early 1980s. But by 1984 Phumphuang became the dominant luk thung star until her death in 1992. She added dancing to her stage acts and her voice was just very powerful and sexy – before that most female luk thung singers were more sweet and nice. She was also really the first person to combine luk thung with Thai pop.
In 1989 and 1991 the royal patronage over luk thung began with “50 Years of luk thung” celebrations and Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn became involved with it. She actually wrote the lyrics to the song “Som Tam,” the big Phumphuang hit, which explains how to make som tam.
IR: You write that the usual portrayal of luk thung as an apolitical genre is a misperception, why is that?
JM: Craig A. Lockert wrote a very good book, Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia, which looks at political use of music throughout the region. He concluded that luk thung could not be used for political purposes because of the extravagant lifestyles of the artists and all the commercial trappings of modern luk thung – like all the dancers, the wonderful costumes, the commercialized lyrics. But when I saw luk thung artists perform at Red shirt protests, it became clear to me that the concert really was part of the protest.
IR: Does that mean that luk thung became politicized through the Red Shirt protests?
JM: No, it was not the first time for luk thung to carry politicized messages. In the 1950s, before it was called luk thung, it was called phleng chiwit (“songs of life”), which is not be confused with phleng phuea chiwit (“songs for life”). Phleng chiwit is a very early version of luk thung; the songs were sung in rural accents using rural themes, and they were highly political. So much so that the songwriters were put in jail or they were threatened.
During the 1970s phleng phuea chiwit was the dominant protest music, but from what I have found even during that time luk thung was used a lot for protests, for example by the communist insurgents.
So, luk thung has always been political, but it has always been heavily censored too. It has been the music of the working class and of the poor, but it wasn’t until the Red Shirts that the working class could really be open about their criticism of the establishment in public.
IR: Have only the Red Shirts made use of luk thung music or did the Yellow Shirts incorporate it in their protests too?
JM: When the Yellow Shirts and the other offspring groups used luk thung it was clear that they didn’t have any real connection to the music. They use it because it is popular and it is party music, so all the yellow luk thung songs are either very patriotic songs or they are party songs.
The Red Shirts were able to use luk thung with what might be the main focus of this genre, namely themes of sadness and mourning. For example, they were able to write all these songs about Thaksin and his absence. And really, the theme of absence is what luk thung is all about. But not only songs about Thaksin, also mourning songs for Red Shirts who were killed during protests or about the absence of democracy. For the Yellow Shirts, there were never these kinds of songs. When the yellow side used luk thung, it wasn’t professional luk thung singers performing, but more Thai pop stars or old luk krung singers – it always felt quite token.
IR: Given the political nature of many luk thung songs, has the scene been affected by last year’s military coup?
JM: There have been less luk thung concerts since the coup. At least, during the martial law period, I think it was difficult to put concerts on at night. However, the regime has made up for this by using luk thung concerts as “rewards” for certain communities or as a propaganda tool.
There aren’t any political songs being put out in Thailand right now. It is amazing to me how successful the junta has been in oppressing political expression. All the political artists are pretty scared at the moment. The only political songs that are being released at the moment come from overseas, for example from the band Fai Yen. They are pumping out music all the time and some of their songs are luk thung.
IR: Do you have plans for another book?
JM: A lot of my current research has been on old Thai records in the 78 rpm format and I plan to publish a complete discography of Thai 78s, which has never been done for any Southeast Asian country. I find these records through collectors, especially buy and sale forums on the internet. There is a lively scene of Thai record collectors, but the part of 78 format collectors is quite small and specialized.
I am also planning to write more articles and I would like to write something on Fai Yen. I didn’t cover them in my book and I keep discovering new protest music that I missed. I’m also planning an article on Sayan Sanya. Chris Baker quite rightly points out that the book misses out on some of the biggest stars, such as Sayan, simply because they are not from Isaan. In the end the book became a triangle of luk thung, Isaan culture, and politics with a focus on the Red Shirts. Of course, in the future there could also be a second, updated edition of the book or perhaps a new, more comprehensive history of luk thung.
By James Leonard Mitchell
James Leonard Mitchell completed his Ph.D. from Macquarie University in 2012 and is currently a lecturer at Khon Kaen University and an adjunct research fellow at Monash University, Australia.
By Rebecca Goncharoff
This Friday, two representatives of a village affected by a gold mine in Loei Province and two members of Dao Din – a student activist group at Khon Kaen University – will travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, to meet with communities from across North America and Oaxaca state that are also protesting large-scale mining projects.
The Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange (ENGAGE), a coalition of former study abroad students, raised the money to cover the Thai participants’ travel costs through an online crowdfunding campaign and several fundraising events in Khon Kaen City. It also received a grant from the Global Greengrants Fund, a charity that supports environmental actions around the world.
The exchange was organized by ENGAGE and Servicios Universitarios Y Redes de Conocimientos en Oaxaca A.C. (SURCO), a Mexican community organizing network, after 300 masked men attacked Na Nong Bong, the gold mine-affected village in Loei, in May of last year.
“After learning about this blatant disregard for human rights in Thailand, ENGAGE felt it necessary to take action and support the villagers who have been fighting the mine for years,” says Rachel Karpelowitz, former ENGAGE Network Coordinator.
Na Nong Bong villagers have been fighting to close the gold mine located less than a kilometer from their homes for almost a decade. They say that the chemical waste produced by the mine has contaminated local streams and water sources used for farming and household purposes, leading to illness and reduced crop yields. In 2009, the Ministry of Public Health advised residents not to drink water from nearby sources or eat local vegetables.
Two students from the Dao Din human rights activist group will also join the exchange. Dao Din has been supporting the villagers in their efforts to close the gold mine for over seven years.
During the two-week exchange the Thai participants, joined by representatives of Canadian First Nations groups and an Appalachian community organizer, will travel to different indigenous communities in Oaxaca state in an effort to share strategies and experiences among mining resistance activists.
The participants argue that multinational mining companies threaten their local lands, communities, and cultures. Organizers hope the exchange will strengthen grassroots movements against the environmental contamination and violence brought about by extraction projects.
“It is critical that communities around the world, that people—who rarely are given choices about how the lands they live on are used—share experiences, explore strategies, and create coordinated action on a global level,” says Jonathan Treat, Director of Delegations for SURCO.
The two Na Nong Bong villagers traveling to Mexico – Phrattrapron Kaenjumpa, 35, and Surapan Rujichaiyavat, 44, were selected by fellow community members to represent the village in the delegation. Both were among those activist leaders hog-tied and beaten in the last year’s attack. Feeling unsafe ever since, the villagers are eager to learn new strategies to defend themselves against the mining company, Tungkum Ltd., and its allies.
“We need to learn how we can protect ourselves,” says Mr. Surapan, hopeful that he can learn from the experiences of Mexican anti-mining activists. “There might be times in the future when we will have to face similar situations [as the communities in Mexico].”
The Na Nong Bong villagers’ fear for safety resonates in San Jose del Progreso, a small town south of Oaxaca City. In March 2012, Bernardo Vazquez, a local activist, was assassinated after actively opposing a Canadian silver and gold mining project in his community.
The Dao Din students traveling to Mexico, Suttikiat Khotchaso, 27, and Jutamas Srihutthaphadungkit, 20, are hopeful that they will be able to share what they learned in Mexico by bringing back strategies for grassroots organizations in Northeastern Thailand.
“Sometimes old methods or strategies no longer apply,” Ms. Jutamas says. “We might not be using the best strategies because we don’t know how other people in other areas are doing things. It will be good to learn from other peoples’ experiences and then improve our own.”
Under the military government in Thailand, Na Nong Bong villagers and Dao Din activists have all faced threats. Villagers were ordered to stop organizing under martial law, and then under Article 44 of the Interim Constitution, which bans political activity in groups of five or more people. In June, seven Dao Din students were detained for 12 days after protesting the military regime.
Despite their continued struggle for human rights and against dictatorship, the delegates still fret over the details of international travel. “I’ve never been on an airplane before,” says Ms. Jutamas with a shrug, “what if I mess it up?”
Rebecca Goncharoff is a freelance writer living in Khon Kaen.
By Genevieve Glatsky, Jaime Webb, and Megan Brookens
A train roared past as Kovit Boonjear, a man with a long pony-tail and mischievous look in his eyes, smoked a cigarette behind his modest home in one of Khon Kaen’s slum communities. “I never give interviews,” he said with a smile and more than a hint of irony.
A 60-year-old Isaan transplant from the south of Thailand, Kovit is sparing with his words – not because he does not enjoy conversation, but as a matter of safety. He has been a community rights activist since 1983, a contentious career path in the eyes of the stringent Thai military regime. Freedom of speech and assembly are limited and many of Kovit’s allies and friends have been temporarily detained and fear arrest. With over 30 years of experience, he is well accustomed to the risks that come with the job he has dedicated his life to.
Despite his poor upbringing, Kovit and his siblings all attended school. His father worked tirelessly as a security guard and waiter so that he could send his children to live with their mother in Bangkok, where there were more educational opportunities. His older brother became involved in an activist group while in law school and inspired Kovit to follow a similar path.
During the 1960s and 1970s, when Kovit was starting his law degree, Thai student activism was gaining strong momentum. Several universities had programs that sent students to work with marginalized rural communities so that they could better understand the challenges faced by Thailand’s poor.
As a freshman at Ramkhamhaeng University School of Law, Kovit stayed with a construction worker who was building a school in Bangkok. Because his host’s family didn’t have national identification cards his children were unable to attend the school their father spent so many hours building. The irony resonated with Kovit. “It made me think that if people invest their time in something, they should also profit from the value,” he said.
According to Kovit, his passion for supporting marginalized people stems from this early experience. Seeing first-hand the injustices faced by the urban poor, particularly regarding their lack of access to education, he felt compelled to leverage his own educational opportunities to fight for their rights.
He took his first job after college at the International Foster Care Organization Khon Kaen and he has called the Northeast home ever since. Kovit’s work now revolves around supporting marginalized communities, such as Khon Kaen’s slum residents and villagers resisting a mining company in Loei Province. Kovit uses his experience as a lawyer to navigate the complex legal system to ensure communities’ rights are upheld.
“The law is changing for the benefit of government officers, politicians, and businessmen,” said Kovit, shaking his head in dismay, “not for the poor.” Even with a law degree, he still spends vast amounts of time studying to keep up with ever-changing Thai policy.
Kovit values his high level of formal education, but believes that he can learn the most from personal exchange with people. Understanding the lives of everyday people has always been at the crux of his organizing strategy.
“When the villagers are wet, I am wet. When the villagers are hungry, I am hungry. I never consider myself an outsider. I consider myself a part of the community,” he said as he shared a meal with his neighbor, made from vegetables grown in his own garden.
“I listen. I talk with people,” he said. “The best way to make change happen is by casually stopping by.” Whether working in the rice fields with villagers or laughing over a glass of whiskey, Kovit can often be found discussing social justice issues with those around him.
He has worked closely with the community leaders in Wang Saphung subdistrict of Loei Province in their decade-long struggle to close a gold mine located less than a kilometer from their village. Villagers claim that the mine’s chemical discharge has caused illness and environmental contamination, and that the mining company’s henchmen initiated an attack on the village last May. In response to the tense situation following the attack, Kovit lived in the community for a year to help the villagers create mining-resistance strategies.
“Kovit helped us organize and provided critical information. He was especially helpful after our village was attacked and decisions were being made rapidly,” said Surapan Rujichaiwat, the leader of Khon Rak Ban Koed (People Who Love Their Home), an organization of concerned villagers that has been advocating for the closure of the gold mine.
It is one of Kovit’s primary goals to ensure that communities can sustain their movement without his assistance by identifying leaders and developing a long-term strategy. “I try to accomplish two things in the communities I work with: education and organization. This gets them to think on their own,” Kovit said.
His nonviolent resistance tactics help villagers’ mobilizing efforts to gain momentum. However, as Kovit draws increased attention to communities’ struggles, he too faces heightened risk. He claims his name often appears at the top of the military’s list of people to monitor.
In 2013, he learned that fighting against resource development projects garners the attention of more than just the military. A military officer began following Kovit under the pretense of protecting him from a $10,000 bounty on his head, Kovit claimed. While this could just have been an intimidation tactic, Kovit suspects that the bounty was issued by the mining company.
Despite the threats, Kovit remains undeterred. He has already recruited 18,000 signatures for a petition he is circulating against current Thai mining policy. His goal is to garner 20,000 supporters.
“We have to be careful all the time. One thing I really believe is that the villagers will protect me,” he said.
Moving forward, Kovit seeks to expand his impact outside of Thailand. He is currently working on a website that will spotlight mining-affected communities throughout all ASEAN countries. The effort is one more step in the direction of increasing public understanding of marginalized peoples’ experiences.
Genevieve Glatsky studies International Relations and Megan Brookens majors in Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Jaime Webb studies Music and Philosophy at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.
By Anne Sadler and William Lee
SAKON NAKHON – The ongoing clash between the government’s forest reclamation policy and community land rights in the Northeast came to a head on October 21st. Standing before the provincial court in Sakon Nakhon Province, nine villagers from Jatrabiab village — each convicted with encroaching on protected forests — listened as the judge handed down their sentences.
For six of the nine villagers, the verdict was disheartening. Each must abandon their land, pay a fine ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 baht, and submit to a form of probation for at least a year. Still, they fared much better than three of their neighbors.
Mrs. Kong Phongsakbun, Mr. Bunsom Phongsakbun, and Mrs. Surat Srisawat share 40 rai of land in an area the government has deemed “reserve forest.” For working on this land, Mrs. Kong and Mr. Bunsom received a sentence of three years in prison, while Mrs. Surat received two and a half years.
Wednesday’s sentencing is the latest chapter in a saga that began in 2012, when Thai authorities arrested 34 Jatrabiab villagers — largely rubber farmers—for trespassing in a reserve forest.
Prosecutors’ initially lacked the willpower to take substantive action against the accused. The villagers’ court cases lay dormant for some time, but were revived after the 2014 military coup thrust into power an active junta bent on pushing its “master plan,” which includes a commitment to swiftly increase Thailand’s forest cover to 40% — up from the present nationwide proportion of 33%.
A primary government strategy to reach this goal has been to reclaim illegally used forestlands, though villagers across Isaan argue that the forests are being used legally. They say the borders of reserve forests, national parks and protected areas, which the government mandates must be free of human activity — were drawn with people’s livelihood inside them.
Holding back tears, 51-year-old Mr. Phakdi Srisawat, the husband and son-in-law of the trio facing jail time, was overcome by the judge’s ruling. “It is unfair, I don’t know what to do,” he said, struggling to find words. Mr. Phakdi now faces the daunting task of collecting a total bail of more than one million baht, without a job or land to leverage, since his land was also confiscated.
While distressed about the fate of her grandparents and mother, 27-year-old Ms. Saowalak Srisawat fears most for her father. “Without my mother, my father is broken-hearted,” she said. “In this way, he suffers more than my mother.”
Mr. Thanomsak Rawatchai, one of the three lawyers representing the villagers, expressed disappointment with the verdict. “What the judge gave to the villagers, it’s too much,” he said.
Though nearly all of the villagers pled guilty to avoid harsher sentences, they maintain their arrests were unjust. By their account, they have owned the land in question for decades, and have the tax records to prove it. Mr. Phakdi asserts his wife’s parents had lived on their land for at least 34 years.
In a narrative difficult to substantiate, villagers claim that the Royal Forest Department (RFD) — a government agency responsible for managing forest resources — agreed to provide them with land titles in 2012. It turned out to be a deceptive ploy, they allege, as the RFD collected and submitted their signatures to the police. The police then arrested all those listed as “trespassers.”
RFD officials emphasize that the target of the reclamation policy are investors: wealthy landowners exploiting the forests for personal gain. Furthermore, NCPO Order 66 requires that poor or landless people living on reserve land prior to June 2014 not be adversely affected. However, evidence suggests the reality is the reverse.
Even considering Thailand’s ever-changing political system, the legal definition of an “investor” is remarkably inconsistent. In an interview earlier this month, Sakon Nakhon RFD officials stated that those with more than 50 rai of land qualify as investors. Some villagers claim it is 30 rai. On Wednesday, for the judge, it was 25 rai.
“What law does the judge use to send people to jail for 25 rai of land?” said Mr. Laothai Ninnuan, an advisor to the Isaan Farmer Association who has worked with the Jatrabiab community for over 30 years. “The law states that they can have 50 rai. The judge just made that law up,” he claimed.
Following Wednesday’s hearing, all but one of the 34 villagers involved, a juvenile at the time of his arrest, have received sentencing. Most of those facing jail-time are in varying stages of the appeals process.
Mr. Thanomsak stressed that judges have the wrong attitude about the relationship between villagers and forestland. While judges think of villagers as catalysts of environmental destruction, Mr. Thanomsak explained that, in reality, their communities have been able to sustain themselves and the land for decades.
Throughout the day, dozens of Jatrabiab villagers sat in an outdoor structure adjacent to the courthouse, gathered in solidarity for the nine awaiting their sentences. When asked about the large turnout of supporters, Mr. Phakdi choked out just one word —“happy”— before succumbing to silence.
For now, the trio remains behind bars, awaiting bail. “We will continue to fight; we will find a way to get them out,” said Ms. Saowalak. “But today, I don’t know what to do.”
The State Prosecutor’s Office was not available for comment, citing official business.
Anne Sadler studies English Literature at Davidson College (North Carolina) and William Lee majors in Environmental Science at Tulane University of Louisiana.
Among a wilderness of green shrubbery, Somkit Singsong sat in front of a small clay hut outside his village in Khon Kaen province. Sporting a beard akin to Vietnamese revolutionary leaders, Somkit recounted the days when there was a bounty on his head. “They came for me at the crack of dawn. Helicopters with spotlights hovered over the village. They wanted to kill me,” he said calmly.
From a rural Isaan childhood to student activism in Bangkok and six years with the communist armed struggle, the 65-year-old is now leading a green development project in his Northeastern home. But the life of Somkit will forever be linked to Thailand’s turbulent times of the 1970s.
Somkit’s rural Isaan upbringing distances him from most student activists in 1970s, who tended to come from the urban middle class. Somkit’s university education likewise made him different from most of those Isaan villagers who left their rice fields to fight with the communists during that period.
A prolific writer and co-founder of the Isaan Writers’ Association, Somkit has published several novels, short stories, and poems. Most of his writing belongs to a genre of literature known as wannakam phuea chiwit or “Literature for Life,” which features strong protest themes.
His most famous work remains the words to a song that became the anthem of the political movements of the 1970s. Along with fellow student activist Visa Kanthap, he wrote the lyrics to the song Khon Kap Khwai (“People and Buffalo”) that would later be made famous by Caravan – a folk-rock band that itself grew out of the pro-democracy protests of 1973.
“Every year on October 14, I organize an anniversary event in my home to remember the protests,” said Somkit. “We play ‘People and Buffalo’ because it helps people understand society and has now become part of history itself.”
Village Childhood and City Education
Born into a rice farming family, Somkit spent his childhood in Sap Daeng village, Khon Kaen province. In the early 1960s, he followed a family member to central Thailand to attend middle school on the Thonburi side of the Chao Praya River. Sarit Thanarat – the military dictator who had seized power in 1958 – had just drank himself to death, Somkit remembered.
Somkit shared his high school years with someone who would play a fateful role in Thailand’s politics decades later and pave the way for another military coup. “Suthep Thaugsuban was in the same year. We were friends back then,” he remembered. “After high school, Suthep failed the entrance exam for Thammasat University while I scored as the second best,” Somkit said, with a mischievous grin on his face.
Rewarded with a scholarship from the National Education Council, he enrolled in the newly-established Journalism and Mass Communications program at Thammasat University in 1969. The stipend of 1,500 baht covered his semester tuition fees and bankrolled a comfortable life in Bangkok.
Throughout the 1960s, a military junta had maintained its grip on power and formed an economic and anti-communist partnership with the United States. The Northeast hosted tens of thousands of US military personnel stationed there to support the American proxy war in Vietnam. In return, the US government gave Thailand major financial and development aid.
Bringing Activism to the Countryside
In the late 1960s, resistance to military rule reached a boiling point among university students. In the highly politicized atmosphere at Thammasat University, Somkit formed his own political creed and the sharp-tongued Northeastener soon became a leader among student activists.
“I had the feeling that Thailand was not free, but a colony of America,” Somkit said, explaining his motivation to join the budding student movement. “We talked often about independence and how to end inequalities in Thai society,” he said.
On October 14, 1973 a student-led uprising swept the military rulers out of government and launched a three-year democratic interlude for Thailand. After the unexpected victory, Somkit quit his studies, left the capital and returned to his home in the countryside.
Somkit said he felt frustrated with the attitudes of people in Bangkok. “I had a vision to build the society of my dreams in my home village,” he said, adding that the state gave too little support to the country’s rural population. He began organizing development projects around his village and engaged in politics by joining the central committee of the Socialist Party of Thailand.
“In the countryside, students were seen as the heroes of the time,” he recalled, “so I travelled around and gave speeches explaining politics to villagers.” But hostility against students and progressives was also rising. “The local bureaucrats hated me and called me a national security risk, a traitor, and a communist,” Somkit said grimly.
Into the Arms of the Communists
On October 6, 1976, the military dictatorship regained power with a bloody crackdown on students and protesters at Thammasat University. The shockwaves of the massacre reached Somkit’s village a couple of days later. State and paramilitary forces were hunting down communists and all of those branded “enemies of the state,” and they soon surrounded the area. Left with no other choice, the then-26-year-old fled his home, hiding in the townhouse of a friend until undercover communist agents offered him safe passage to a base in the Dong Mun forest, north of Kalasin province.
Somkit claimed that prior to this he had no connection to the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), which had launched a guerrilla war against the state from the Northeast in 1965. “The CPT had spies all over Isaan back then, and I realized only later that they had kept an eye on me after I returned from Bangkok,” he said.
Immediately after the massacre of October 6, the CPT invited all dissidents to join the armed revolutionary struggle, accusing the Bangkok establishment and American government of backing the killings. About 3,000 students, leftist intellectuals, and farmer and labour leaders followed the communist call and fled into the forests.
Ironically, it was the state’s anti-communist witch-hunt that drove Somkit into the arms of the communist fighters. He was never one of them, he stressed, but an ardent defender of socialist revolution – a fine distinction that seems to be lost on most people these days, he complained.
Somkit received a warm welcome at the CPT’s base, and his involvement with the Socialist Party led others to regard him as a senior party member. “They treated me with so much respect, but I was really just a boy,” Somkit said.
After the CPT leadership invited Somkit to a major cadre meeting in Laos, he embarked on a weeklong trek to the border, where he was flown by helicopter to Muang Xai in Oudomxay province. “It was pure indulgence,” said Somkit. “There were servants, free cigars, and the fridge was filled with wines from Europe,” he added.
Somkit felt proud to meet high-ranking communist leaders like Udom Srisuwan, the communist party’s major theorist, and Phayom Chulanont, a Thai army defector. (In a historic twist, Phayom’s son would later lead military operations against communist fighters and be appointed Interim Prime Minister under the 2006 military coup.)
Failed Revolution and Finding a New Mission
Somkit never saw much good in the armed struggle and soon felt his work with the CPT was fruitless. He disliked the hierarchical structures of the organization and criticized it for allying with China and adopting a Maoist ideology – a move that would isolate the party from other communist movements in Southeast Asia.
When China’s foreign policy flipped in the late 1970s and the Chinese regime became friendly with the Thai government, the CPT was cut off from the Chinese support that had financed its activities. Soon after, ideological disputes between the party leadership and student activists eventually drove the students to part ways with the communist movement and return to the cities.
Most students abandoned the revolutionary struggle feeling jaded, but Somkit returned to his village hoping to continue where he had left off. He initiated several development and environmental projects and established a publishing house in Sap Daeng village. “The CPT was falling apart, but for me it really all had just started,” he said.
Somkit begrudgingly acknowledges that the experience of the faltering communist revolution and the return of military rule in the 1980s left its mark on his generation of leftists. Many fell into a state of political shock following their return from the forests. While some of them would reemerge in the country’s nascent NGO scene years later, they tended to turn their backs on political organizations, often taking a stance against representative democracy.
After Somkit made rural Isaan the center of his life again, he retreated from politics and turned to environmentalism. Along the way, political disillusionment crept into his life.
Somkit had a final fling with electoral politics as a candidate in a local election, but failed to win. “I didn’t have money to give to anyone – the ones who had cash bought all the votes,” he said. “Maybe it’s for the better; in parliament I might have turned into a bad person.”
Scorning Politics, Continuing Activism
A motor scooter came rumbling down the dirt road leading to Somkit’s development project, which lies between two fields far from Sap Daeng village. Somkit’s son climbed off his motor scooter, put down a bag with ice and cheap beer, and disappeared behind the clay hut to prepare lunch. The thirty-something-year-old is taking care of his father, whose health has declined in recent years.
Today, it seems former activist Somkit has not even a glimmer of faith in Thailand’s political development. “If I look at the future of this country, all I see is darkness,” he said. “Just look around you, is there light anywhere here?”
Somkit scorns national politics and while he does not approve of last year’s coup, he calls the current military government “the best of the worst.”
Thai politics has always been a stage “for those who seek benefits and power,” Somkit said, but corruption and nepotism escalated when Thaksin Shinawatra entered the scene.
“Thaksin put the nation on sale and Lee Kuan Yew bought it,” Somkit said, referring to the controversial deal between Thaksin’s family and the Singapore-owned Temasak Holdings in 2006.
The Shinawatra family’s sale of its share in the telecommunications giant Shin Corp to an investment arm of the Singaporean government incited major public outcry over what was regarded as an unfair tax exemption for the powerful family. Thaksin was accused of “selling out” national assets. The controversy surrounding the sale added momentum to the anti-Thaksin protests that precipitated the 2006 military coup.
Somkit also has little respect for the recent political agenda of some fellow student activists from the 1970s. “The radical leftists really thought they could use Thaksin to overthrow the capitalist system and the monarchy,” he said, mentioning two prominent red shirt leaders.
“I was once a socialist and anti-monarchy,” he said, “but then, I realized that there is no other king in this world that is working as hard as ours.” Somkit discovered his love for the country’s royal institution through his newfound passion to defend the environment, a mission that the monarch always supported, he said as his son returned from cooking. The fried cobra dish he served was in no time discovered by hungry red ants.
In a way, history played a joke on many members of Somkit’s generation. Once leaders of the country’s most progressive forces longing to foment a revolution, today many seem stuck without any political vision. And as many political observers have noted, these former student activists today often find themselves cheering those who try to freeze society’s progress.
In Somkit’s view, things are “just different now” and he has moved on from his past of political activism. “The world’s big issues today are environmental,” he claimed. “Political problems make up only a small part of it.”
As Somkit picked a few red ants off some pieces of fried cobra, a construction worker trudged out of the thick green undergrowth to hand Somkit a bill.
Next to the clay hut, Somkit is building an education center for organic agriculture. And the 65-year-old continues to think about new projects that focus on chemical free farming and he vows to fight against the influence of global agribusiness on Thailand’s farmers.
“The farmers are committing suicide by putting chemical fertilizers into their fields,” he said. “What we need is a new Green Revolution.”
Since the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Northeastern Thais have left their farms at home to work as agricultural laborers in Israel, often facing exploitation by manpower agencies and employers. Despite a recent push to improve the working conditions of Thai farmworkers in Israel, their situation often remains precarious.
By Matan Kaminer
Over 22,000 migrant workers, mostly from Isaan, are at work on farms in Israel. Although they are but a small percentage of the total number of Isaan villagers who migrate to work abroad, the Israeli agricultural sector has become completely dependent on their labor.
In some rural settlements, Thais now outnumber Israelis, and in modern Hebrew tailandi has become almost a synonym for “farmworker.” Though wages in Israel are much higher than those in Thailand, workers’ labor rights are often violated and living conditions are sometimes atrocious, as has been documented by Israeli NGO “Workers’ Hotline” and the international organization Human Rights Watch.
I interviewed three Isaan villagers who have worked in Israel about their migrant experience. Though the durations of their stays in Israel are spread over two decades, the picture they present is in some ways very similar: the work is hard and one pays a personal price for going abroad for so long. At the same time, working in Israel has enabled our interviewees to achieve financial goals that would have been impossible otherwise.
However, my three interviewees differed greatly in some aspects of their experience – demonstrating that much depends on the particular farm on which one happens to be employed when in Israel.
Large-scale labor migration from Thailand to Israel began around 1993, when the Israeli government took steps to end the massive participation of Palestinian workers in the labor market. These workers, coming from the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were judged to be too rebellious following the Palestinian Intifada (uprising) of 1987-1991, and plans were made to replace them with workers from developing countries. The government began allowing farmers to recruit workers from Thailand, and they quickly became the majority of workers employed on Israeli farms.
Until 2012, in order to obtain work in Israel a Thai laborer would have to contract with a local manpower agency in Thailand. This agency would connect with a manpower agency in Israel , and the worker would then be eligible to receive a visa for a five-year work contract. Careful to prevent the possibility of workers settling in Israel permanently, Israeli authorities limited each worker to one five-year work period, and disallowed married couples from being in the country at the same time.
Manpower agencies charged workers exorbitant fees, ranging up to 370,000 baht. Workers would often spend their first year in Israel working off the debts incurred in order to pay this fee.
In 2012, the Israeli and Thai governments signed a bilateral agreement aimed at cutting out the middlemen who were charging migrants these exorbitant fees, replacing Thai manpower agencies with the International Organization for Migration, a non-profit intergovernmental group. Today the problem of exorbitant fees has been become less severe and migrants pay around 75,000 baht, which go to the IOM and manpower agencies on the Israeli side.
However, many other problems associated with migrant life continue. A report recently released by Human Rights Watch found that workers are subject to dangerous and unhygienic living conditions, extremely long working hours, and substandard medical care.
Officially, Thai migrants in Israel are protected by Israeli labor laws, including those regulating the minimum wage and overtime hours. However, a study conducted by myself and Noa Shauer of the Israeli non-governmental organization Kav La’oved (Workers Hotline) found that in 2013, none of the migrants who reported their work conditions to the organization were paid according to the law. Their average wage for regular hours stood at around 70% of the legal minimum. Overtime for work of more than ten hours a day, which is quite common in the agricultural sector, was paid at only 55% of the legal requirement. Human Rights Watch reached similar conclusions.
Thai migrant workers’ weak negotiation position in Israel is in part due to the “bound” nature of their employment. Clauses in their contracts, as well as their linguistic isolation and lack of acquaintance with the country, make it very difficult for workers to change employers’ behavior.
Thus, even when migrant workers are aware of the substandard nature of the conditions of their employment, there is little they can do to improve their situation. Many migrants say that the working conditions, together with the long hours and sadness of missing home and family, are behind the prevalence of alcohol and drug abuse among workers.
Some point to drug and alcohol abuse as a possible factor behind the nocturnal deaths of workers, known in Thai as lai tai. These mysterious deaths are also known in Isaan, and some consider them to be caused by evil spirits such as phi mae mai or “widow ghosts.”
Between 2008 and 2013, 43 Thai men perished this way in Israel, yet there has been no systematic investigation into their cause of death. The lack of interest displayed by the Israeli authorities in this case is symptomatic of the general lack of public or state concern for migrant workers’ welfare.
While the workers I spoke to corroborated many of the findings mentioned above, they spoke of the experience of working in Israel as a generally positive one. They said the work enabled them to acquire property and make other monetary gains in life that otherwise they could not have achieved.
The first of my interviewees, Joe – a pseudonym – in his forties, lives in a village near Chumphae in Khon Kaen province. He received us on the ceramic-tile floor of his two-story house and later took us to a field where he grows sugarcane – a field bought with money he earned while working in Israel in the 1990s.
Joe’s distant relatives, Maew and Jaey (also pseudonyms), live in a village in Udon Thani province that has sent many workers to Israel over the years. Their stories exemplify the wide variety of working conditions found in Israel.
Maew, also in her forties, worked on a farm in the hyper-arid Jordan Valley, near Jericho in the occupied Palestinian territories. She worked up to 14 hours a day tending vegetables in greenhouses and made between 35,000 and 45,000 baht a month, of which she was able to save about 25,000 to send home to her family. In employing her for such long hours for such low pay (by Israeli standards), her employers violated the local minimum wage law and possibly other laws as well.
Maew’s younger relative Jaey made the same wages, but working only six hours a day milking cows near Acre in Israel’s north, in proximity to urban centers and in a much milder climate zone.
One cause for the difference may be the fact that Maew worked on a moshav or collective settlement, and Jaey on a kibbutz or communal settlement; the latter tend to be both wealthier and more committed to the historic humanistic values of the Israeli “labor settlement” movement.
The co-existence of such huge disparities in labor and wage conditions is clearly an effect of the “bound” employment regime. If workers could freely choose whom to work for, conditions would undoubtedly equalize, with better results for workers like Maew.
Although she is aware of these disparities, Maew did not react to them with anger or indignation. She told me that she was glad of the opportunity to work long hours and make as much money as possible to send home, and did not see the fact that her relative Jaey had made the same amount of money working about half the hours as unjust.
Maew and Jaey also touched upon another interesting and troubling issue. They told me that villagers in the area who had worked in Israel were approached by lawyers claiming that they could get access to Israeli “tax refunds” for them.
According to Maew, hundreds of locals had signed papers for these lawyers but none had seen any money. Their story corroborates reports of Israeli lawyers representing Thai workers to sue the employers for severance pay – another legal requirement that is often unheeded.
The NGOs are worried that these lawyers may be engaged in unscrupulous practices vis-à-vis their clients – a concern that Maew’s story seems to strengthen, as villagers signed up and never heard anything back or received any money, and as they may have been misinformed as to the nature of the legal proceedings.
Labor migration is a global phenomenon, linking countries across the world in a chain of human movement that embodies both opportunity and exploitation. The workers I spoke to – who did not know me well and may have hesitated to be completely forthright – spoke of working in Israel as, overall, a positive experience.
Yet even this must be understood against the background of the alternative – either going to work elsewhere in Thailand or abroad, where conditions and pay are often worse, or being mired in unemployment and poverty back home in Isaan.
Compared to some of their neighbors, those villagers who are given the opportunity to do backbreaking work for below-minimum pay, thousands of kilometers from home, for years on end, may be the lucky ones.
Matan Kaminer is a Ph.D student in anthropology at the University of Michigan. His research is on Thai migrant farmworkers in Israel. Additional reporting and translation by Disaraporn Phalapree.
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.
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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.