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Letters to the Editor

2015 August 27
by The Isaan Record

Letters to the editor and article responses submitted by readers.

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 much ethnic relevance 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.

Patrick Huang


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News in Brief: Kalasin villagers stopped from protesting petroleum drilling

2015 August 15
by The Isaan Record
Caption: Dr. Narongchai Akrasanee, Thailand’s Minister of Energy, visits a potential petroleum-drilling site in Kalasin province. A group of villagers protesting the project attempted to deliver a demand letter to the Minister, but were stopped by the military.

Narongchai Akrasanee, Thailand’s Minister of Energy, visits a potential petroleum-drilling site in Kalasin province. A group of villagers protesting the project attempted to deliver a demand letter to the Minister, but were stopped by the military.

KALASIN – On August 9 at 9:00 A.M., Thailand’s Minister of Energy, Narongchai Akrasanee, visited the Dong Mun petroleum-drilling site (DM-5) in Krung Kao sub-district, Tha Khun Tho district, in Kalasin province. Around 100 villagers from three community organizations waited on the road to the drilling site, hoping to deliver a letter asking for the project to be stopped.

At 10:00 A.M., over 300 police officers and military personnel formed a blockade to prevent villagers from obstructing the road, allowing the minister to pass. After Minister Narongchai safely reached the mining site, an undercover official approached the protesters and asked for two volunteers to deliver the letter to the minister. Villagers refused and asked that the minister come to them instead.

At 11:00 A.M., officers pushed the protesters aside to make way for ministry vehicles to depart. As the minister prepared to leave, villagers called out to him, entreating the minister to exit his car and accept the letter.

At 11:00 A.M., officers pushed the protesters aside to make way for ministry vehicles to depart. As the minister prepared to leave, villagers called out to him, entreating the minister to exit his car and accept the letter.

After he left without reviewing their request, the protesters went to Na Kham Noi village in Kalasin province – a potential site for the petroleum gas factory – where the minister had been scheduled to visit that afternoon. The protesters waited until the afternoon but the minister never arrived. A representative from the group commented that the organizations will go to Bangkok to deliver the letter at the Ministry of Energy and will continue to protect the community from the petroleum-drilling project.

 

Northeasterners Mark 50th Anniversary of the Communist Armed Struggle

2015 August 13
by The Isaan Record

NAKHON PHANOM – Fifty years ago, Comrade Tang fought for communism in the first violent clash between communist fighters and Thai security forces. Last week, at 88 years old, he marked the anniversary with a call for democracy.

"Nabua - A historical village“ reads the sign at the village entrance.

“Nabua – A historical village“ reads the sign at the village entrance.

In the early morning on August 7, villagers and local politicians flocked through the gate of Nabua’s village temple to commemorate the incident that came to be known as the “Day the First Gunshot Rang Out.” Against the military’s demands, the crowd of 250 not only celebrated the former communists, but also rallied for freedom from the current military rule in Thailand.

On August 7, 1965 Nabua, an ethnic Phu Thai village, made headlines all across Indochina when Thailand’s first-ever physical confrontation between communist fighters and Thai security forces occurred. According to eyewitnesses, eight communist villagers were involved, one of whom was shot dead during the incident after the town was surrounded by state forces.

Nabua villagers give alms in the local temple to mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the "Day the First Gunshot Rang out".

Nabua villagers give alms in the local temple to mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the “Day the First Gunshot Rang Out”.

Comrade Tang, one of these eight villagers, sits on the tiled floor of the temple’s sala and greets every newcomer with an excited glance.

“This is the second year we were not allowed to have a big celebration and our funding was cut,” he said in an interview, dressed in a pearly-white uniform and sporting black-rimmed glasses. “In the past, the military would join in to celebrate our shared political history, but now they are coming in to control us.” Before he could begin the ceremony, he rose from his seat to greet two military officers who came to observe the event.

Villagers have been commemorating the incident for the last fourteen years with large events featuring political debates, lectures, and cultural performances. But, for the second year in a row, military officials asked them to keep the event small and banned any political conversation. In addition, the event’s funding from the local government was cut by half this year, from 20,000 to 10,000 baht, according to village leaders.

Comrade Tang greets two military officers who came two observe the event and took photos of the audience.

Comrade Tang greets two military officers who came two observe the event and took photos of the audience.

Among the event’s guests were 150 students from Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University. Their lecturer, Wichan Sittitham, had organized a lecture the day before the ceremony to encourage his students to learn about their region’s political history.

“The power of the older generation here is giving me goosebumps,” said Rotchana Ngaolakon, a third-year student in the university’s Public Administration program. “Like Comrade Tang, he is only a farmer, but he followed a strong ideology against oppression. Even up to today, he is still demanding to return democracy to the people.”

Comrade Tang, whose full name is Chom Saenmit, delivered a speech to the students at the event at the university’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. He is determined to help teach students and others in his region about the often-ignored realities of the communist movement’s history in Isaan.

Comrade Tang speaks to an audience of villagers, students and local politicians. Behind him is a portrait of the communist villager who was shot dead in the clashes on August 7, 1965.

Comrade Tang speaks to an audience of villagers, students and local politicians. Behind him is a portrait of the communist villager who was shot dead in the clashes on August 7, 1965.

“It was good to have the event at Rajabhat University yesterday to talk about the political meaning of [August 7],” he says. “But, the problem is that these kind of events at universities are not easily accessible for other villagers.”

Despite the military’s order to avoid political topics, speakers at the anniversary event stressed the need for a return to a democratic system in Thailand.

Former MP and Pheu Thai politician Paichit Sriwarakham, dressed in traditional Isaan garb, praised the people of Nabua for setting an example in opposing dictatorship 50 years ago. “People should stay united in demanding democracy,” he told a cheering audience.

“We have been fighting for democracy for a long time and it’s time to deliver it to the people,” said Comrade Tang in his speech. “In the past, the state killed many people in our village, in their homes, and in their fields.” As he began recounting the anti-communist suppression in the 1960s and 70s, however, the moderator quickly interrupted him and announced the next program item, an ethnic Phu Thai dance performance.

For Comrade Tang, the annual celebration is the only opportunity to get public recognition of what he views as a decades-long struggle against dictatorship. After the collapse of the Communist Party of Thailand in the early 1980s, Comrade Tang had returned to a life as a rice farmer in his village. “We realized that without these commemorative events, the history of our political struggle would be lost,” he said in an interview.

Students from Rajabhat Sakon Nakhon University listen Comrade Tang talking about the political history of Nabua.

Students from Rajabhat Sakon Nakhon University listen Comrade Tang talk about the political history of Nabua.

On the temple’s lush grounds, small groups of students congregated to speak with former communist fighters. Ms. Rotchana, one such student, felt aggrieved by the absence of the communist movement in her history classes.

“The Nabua incident is not often talked about in our society, but it is an important slice of history for the Phu Thai and people in Isaan. And for us students, we get to learn about something that is not covered in our university books,” she said, adding that her parents did not want her to attend the event.

Former village teacher Santayakon Jitmat and students from Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University perform revolutionary songs on a small stage on the temple ground.

Former village teacher Santayakon Jitmat and students from Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University perform revolutionary songs on a small stage on the temple ground.

Thailand’s education system is known for its elite-focused, narrow treatments of the country’s political history. Public Administration student Anuwat Saelim said that this breeds political apathy among students. “The ones who are interested in politics and people’s movements, like Dao Din, are seen as radicals, as society’s black sheep,” he said, referring to the Northeast student group that has recently organized protests against the military government.

“In the past, young people grabbed a gun and fought [for their beliefs],” said Mr. Anuwat. “Today, the few students who dared to write protest signs are hunted down by the state. The ruling class must be really afraid of us.”

Six hundred protesters demand to keep Khon Kaen’s central bus terminal

2015 August 7
by The Isaan Record
Since 2013, the group “Rak Pattana Baw Kaw Saw 1,” has been organizing to prevent the closure of Khon Kaen’s central bus station. Yesterday’s protest comes after repeated efforts to petition local administration. Banner reads, “Khon Kaen needs two bus stations.”

Since 2013, the group “Rak Pattana Baw Kaw Saw 1,” has been organizing to prevent the closure of Khon Kaen’s central bus station. Yesterday’s protest comes after repeated efforts to petition local administration. Banner reads, “Khon Kaen needs two bus stations.”

KHON KAEN- Yesterday 600 protesters, organized by the group, “Rak Pattana Baw Kaw Saw 1, gathered at the Khon Kaen Provincial Hall to voice their concern over the government’s decision to close Khon Kaen’s original bus terminal and consolidate all bus transportation in the city’s new bus terminal, 7km from the city center.

Khon Kaen used to have two bus stations downtown, the original bus station (Baw Kaw Saw 1), and a second terminal for air conditioned buses. The second terminal  closed at the opening of the third terminal in 2014.

Protesters believe that closing the first station—which is located in the heart of the city—will greatly restrict access to downtown Khon Kaen for the 20,000 passengers who rely on buses for transportation each day. Protesters also claim that moving all bus transport to the distant terminal will increase the cost of transportation in the city. Many believe taxis will be the only option to get to and from the new location.

Mr. Anusak Vatcharronon, a police officer observing the protest, expressed concern that the move will cause several problems. He says, “Taxis that run from the new station will not use the meter and will just charge whatever they want. It’s not fair to the people.”

In addition, the 300 vendors and shop owners of Baw Kaw Saw 1, as well as bus drivers employed by the station, fear they will lose their jobs. Banphot Chamaarat, an elderly bus driver whose route runs between Khon Kaen and Ubon Ratchatani, says that the newer private bus station will not hire the bus drivers from the original terminal. “The bus station has been here for forty to fifty years and suddenly they are trying to move it,” said Mr. Banohot, “hundreds of other bus drivers will lose their jobs.”

The Khon Kaen Transportation Committee claims that the move will reduce traffic in the city and allow for business to expand into the old bus station’s prime location.

Protesters believe that the decision to move the bus station did not follow proper protocol, as Khon Kaen’s provincial government mandated the move without approval from the Ministry of Transport. Organizers claim that the consolidation is illegal without the consultation and support of the central government.

Boonme Tengcharoen, a protest leader, says the move was proposed and pushed forward by a local committee composed of Khon Kaen’s Governor, Chief of Justice, and representatives from the Department of Industry, Chamber of Commerce, and Provincial Transportation Department.

While community leaders discussed terms with officials behind closed doors, protestors outside shared meals, sang, played music, and passed around the megaphone.

While community leaders discussed terms with officials behind closed doors, protestors outside shared meals, sang, and played music.

Protest organizers, Phathanason Sangjansri and Taweerat Anaruk delivered protestors’ demands to the Vice-Governor of Khon Kaen, Wiwat Metheewannakit, in lieu of Thailand’s Deputy Minister of Transport, Arkhom Termpittayapaisith.

The aim of the meeting was both to implore government officials to allow the old bus station to remain in operation and to request a meeting with the Minister of Transport on August 22, the date that the station was scheduled to close. Officials in yesterday’s meeting agreed to postpone the closure until the Minister of Transport issues a response.

During the protest Mr. Wiwat Metheewannakit, Vice Governor of Khon Kaen [left], and Mr. Taweerat [right] agreed upon terms to pass on to the central government in Bangkok. A major goal of the demonstration was to gain recognition of the issue outside of Khon Kaen.

During the protest Mr. Wiwat Metheewannakit, Vice Governor of Khon Kaen [left], and Mr. Taweerat [right] agreed upon terms to pass on to the central government in Bangkok. A major goal of the demonstration was to gain recognition of the issue outside of Khon Kaen.

“I think it’s possible that the Ministry will agree with our request,” says Mr. Taweerat. “Other provinces in Thailand have two bus stations. Both of Khon Kaen’s are being used now and it’s working.”

The Vice-Governor agreed to submit a document to the Ministry of Transport detailing the day’s events and protesters’ demand for two bus stations, and their request that the Minister of Transport meet with concerned citizens on August 22. Until then, both protesters and the provincial government have agreed to cease action.

Voices from Isaan: A National Unity Government?

2015 August 7
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – The economy is a main concern for Northeasterners as they respond to the proposal of installing a national unity government composed of politicians from the main political parties.

Last month, members of the National Reform Council (NRC) and conservative social critic Prawase Wasi floated the idea of a national unity government with a politically “neutral” person serving as prime minister. Government members could either be appointed or drawn from those two parties that win the most votes in an election.

NRC whip Alongkorn Polabutr pointed out that the proposal was not supported by the majority of NRC’s members. The military government’s Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon dismissed the idea as “Out of question as no one had a mandate to make it happen.” Weng Tojirakarn, leader of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and Pheu Thai politician alleged  that the proposal was an attempt of the military junta to remain in power by installing a prime minister of their choice

Late last month, Bangkok Poll reported its survey found that a majority of people from all regions, including 53.9 percent in the Northeast, favor a national unity government over a democratically elected government.

The Isaan Record talked to people in Khon Kaen’s city center and on the university campus about the proposal. Many people did not want to share their opinions or refused to give their names, citing the current political climate that they claimed bans people from speaking freely.

Sixty-five-year-old vendor Loi Muenwai does not support the idea of a national unity government. “I don’t want the current government to change,” she says sitting behind her steaming pots and bags of khanom jin noodles. “The country is peaceful now and there is also less corruption,” she says.

For Ruangthong Maboontham, a fifty-three-year-old housewife it does not really matter who sits in parliament.”We small people have to adapt ourselves anyway,” she says. “And right now the biggest problem is the economy,” she adds before walking off to catch a bus to her village.

Noi Khammoon, a forty-eight-year-old market vendor, says that she would only support a national unity government if it could improve the country’s economic situation. “Since the current government took power it has become much harder for me to sell my products and prices have gone up. Everyone around here says they suffer from the bad economy.” As she empties a sack of shallots on a tray, she adds, “I’d prefer a democratic government that comes to power through elections, but I really wonder how long it is going to take until we get to vote again.”

Another market vendor, sixty-year-old Khun Khonson agrees that the improvement of the economy is the critical factor. “If different political groups would get to agree with each other in such a government,then that would be good,” she says. “But really, I would favor whoever can manage to improve our economic situation. Everything has become more expensive and the current government is only working for itself.”

Fifty-two-year-old bus driver Somporn Phukrun supports the military government but harshly criticizes its economic strategy, “Obviously Prayuth’s people are not skilled in dealing with the country’s economic issues. They should appoint better people instead of talking about a national unity government that won’t help at all,” he says.

Nikorn Thapchai, a fifty-six-year-old tuktuk driver disagrees. “I like the idea of a national unity government, but I don’t want to see any current politicians in there,” he says from the backseat of his vehicle. “I’d prefer such a government to be made up of neutral people only.”

“How can anyone be neutral in all of this?” asks fifty-seven-year-old laborer Sisawang Riantit, and comments that such a government would most likely be appointed. “If the military wants to be a real government then they should form a party and compete in democratic elections.”

Sanwit Puangsri, a thirty-one-year-old graduate student at KKU’s Faculty of Agriculture rejects the proposal to create a national unity government. “I don’t see any benefit [in this] and I believe the current government is good enough, especially because it is working for the king,” he says. He acknowledges that under the military government people’s liberties are curtailed but says, “We have to accept this. The government is just trying to solve all the problems that were created by the former government.”

Q&A with ‘Dao Din’

2015 August 5
by The Isaan Record

The Law and Human Rights for Society Group, better known as “Dao Din,” is a student activist group that recently has been widely praised and criticized for involvement in anti-junta student protests. Critics have raised questions about the reasons behind the group’s symbolic activities against the coup, the group’s alleged backers,  and even about the low grades of members in the university.

The Isaan Record talks to two Dao Din members, Suwicha Pitangkorn and Supachai Phuklongploy, about the recently voiced criticisms.

After Dao Din’s protests against the coup, many critics have wondered publicly about “who is behind or in controls the group.” There have been allegations that the group is backed by politicians or a political party, by communist groups, or even by an international organization. How would you respond to this?

Suwicha: Oh, this is easy to answer. I barely know anything about any politicians, who they are, or what they do. So why would they support us? Why would they hire us? Mostly, what we do is go to rural communities. Villagers of these communities support us. We go and stay with them as if we were their children. When they organize events or activities we would go to help, and in return, they are the ones who come to help us.

Supachai: If you really want to know who is backing our group, [consider this:] it has been about 12 years now since Dao Din was established and we have been to various communities [that are dealing with] different issues. We mobilize around politics because the problems we work with are connected to the power structure. To be clear, I would say we are following the people’s will, the people who are being oppressed these days.

Concerning the allegation that there is an international organization backing the group prior to their arrest, Dao Din reportedly visited international organizations like the United Nations and the European Union. What made you visit these organizations?

Suwicha: We went to meet with the UN because we believe that they could help us in our demand that the Thai government follows treaties related to human rights that the Thai state has ratified. This was a way to prevent violations of student rights and to ensure that students are able to express [their opinions]. The UN is an organization that we can count on as we now are unable to count on the Thai government to protect our rights. So we believe that UN would help us in pushing the government to respect basic human rights.

Supachai: Actually, the UN invited us to meet with them. This is one of their functions. This is what they do. They are always keeping an eye on the situation and on violations committed by the NCPO government. Throughout the year, both the EU and the British Embassy in Bangkok have followed the situation closely. We went there just to share our stories and tell them how our rights have been violated.

In order to run the activities you are involved with–such as going to communities that are struggling with various issues–where does your group get financial support from?

Suwicha: The money we use for activities comes from various sources, but mainly it is funded by the Komol Kimthong Foundation in accordance to a project that we proposed to them. This foundation receives funding from the Thai Health Promotion Foundation. We also got some funding from our faculty (Faculty of Law, Khon Kaen University). There is this mechanism we created to receive this fund which is under the Environmental Preservation Club that we are running. But if we don’t have money, of course, we use our own money to sponsor our activities.

Sometimes we ask for donations at the night markets on campus or in the city. For the travelling costs, if we have some money, we would take a bus to visit the communities. If we don’t have any money, we just hitchhike. If the community is close we can drive our motorcycles there.

Supachai: In fact, we don’t really care or pay attention much to the money stuff. We are just following our hearts. If we don’t have money we just hitchhike.

Recently Dao Din members’ school records were revealed online. What do you think about the relationship between grades and the legitimacy in coming out against the coup?

Supachi: I was really shocked about this. In fact, this information is personal information and it should not have been disclosed to the public. I have no idea where they got this from. I see that in Thailand the political culture still cannot get away from hate speech. They use our school records to discredit us. I think this is not creative at all. I got low grades but as I see it, school records or grades cannot really be used to value a human being or their righteousness or morality at all.

Suwicha: I acknowledge that we are not good at studying, and I don’t feel hurt. However, at least we have done something to shake the foundation of society. We got to learn [that] directly from working with the villagers. If I had very good grades but I didn’t contribute anything beneficial to society, it doesn’t mean anything. I study at the Faculty of Law, and I am happy that I got low grades because at least I am able to do something for society and people.

It has also been alleged that democratically elected governments were involved in corruption and that they approved various development projects, some of which Dao Din is protesting against.  How were you active during the previous governments?

Suwicha: For example, during the previous governments, we have fought against the university privatization. We have sent many letters to the Office of the Prime Minister. We did flash mobs all the time. It is not that we haven’t done anything. We believe that poor people must have the rights to education.

Supachai: If asking about what we have done, we have done quite a lot. You can see what we have done on our group’s Facebook page. We have fought against government projects during every period, no matter whether they were elected or not. For example, we disagreed and stood against the water management plan when Dr. Plodprasop Suraswadi was the minister. But what is different is that in the time of an elected government, we had the rights to oppose and protest. We had freedom of expression, [the right to] express our opinions on politics. It is different from the junta government which can arrest you for only posting a sign. Recently, there was this woman, Ms. Rinda, who just posted something online and then was arrested. No matter who is in the government, if there is injustice and oppression, we won’t accept it.

Suwicha: Under other governments it is better in the way that we had freedom of expression. We were able to gather in public. When we disagreed with what the government did, we could protest. We were able to gather and address the problems we saw. But under this government, only thinking about it already makes us guilty.

The movement of the so-called Octobrists (the student movement of the 1970s) is now divided into two sides. What do you think caused this to happen? How is Dao Din or the Neo-Democracy Movement similar of different?

Suwicha: As I see it, what Dao Din has been doing is that we have been working with villagers in their communities for a long time. We aim to have villagers and the people sector to be involved in our movement. This is the difference between the Octoberist movement (in the 1970s) which involved mainly students.

Supachai: The movement back then was led by students. When you grow up and time changes, people start to think differently. The movement in the 1970s was united for a time. There were various groups and concepts, but they rose up to fight against dictatorship back then. It was like they wanted to get rid of the dictatorship first and then would focus on their specific issues. After that it split into two sides, as we have seen. Now, in our time, we are trying to show that it is not just students. We wanted to show how the people, the common people, have been oppressed. We see that after the NCPO leaves, of course there will not be any unity. However, we believe that difference and diversity are beautiful things. And after that, the struggle of each party would then have to follow the path of justice, follow the rule of law. I mean, we are trying to bring back a democratic society first.

Freshly-released anti-coup student activists tell stories from jail

2015 July 11
by The Isaan Record

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
DD!

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

Noi

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.

“Arty” (Chusri) –  Supachai Pukrongploy

Arty

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

Pai

 

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

Tong

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

Base

 

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.

Payu Boonsopon

Payu

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.

Anything else?

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

Nice

 What were your living conditions in prison like?At first I felt really anxious since I had assumed that it would be scary, like the media had told me. When entered the reception zone, everything was done so rigorously, done according to prison protocol. The warden was in charge of keeping order in the Zones. There was a cell leader who took care of the rules in the cell. At first when we were all together in Zone 1 there wasn’t much to do since there were no books to read, so we just sat around. After we were separated into different Zones, the wardens kept an eye on our safety. In the prison’s eyes, we were not criminals who robbed or killed, but we were prisoners of conscience.When we were all together in Zone 1, it wasn’t all happy-go-lucky but at least we weren’t lonely. We were totally unprepared for the separation, so I admit to feeling lonely after that.Life in Zone 2 wasn’t so different, and there were books to read too. Zone 2 is divided into territorial areas, called baan (houses). For example, inmates who come from around the Ramkhamhaeng area will be in Baan Ram. Other baan include Baan Malaysia, Baan Singapore, Baan Islam, Baan Lad Phrao. There’s an entire system of governance, and jobs assigned to the members of each baan. The leader of each baan, por [father] baan, takes care of the members. The members’ jobs include finding goods, saving seats, reserving the laundry area, and hanging up the laundry. They have a system in place and members each have their jobs.Did you meet any other political prisoners?

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.

Asaree Thaitrakulpanich, Yiamyut Sutthichaya, and Narisara Suepaisal contributed to this report.

NEWS IN BRIEF: US Activists Support Detained Thai Students and Protest Military Rule in Thailand

2015 July 1
by The Isaan Record

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.

On Monday, June 29 ENGAGE, a non-profit network called for a return of democracy in Thailand through a protest outside the Thai Consulate in Los Angeles. 

On Monday, June 29, ENGAGE, a non-profit network called for a return of democracy in Thailand through a protest outside the Thai Consulate in Los Angeles. (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn)

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.

Fourteen pairs of shoes symbolize each student arrested in Bangkok for peaceful protesting. 

Fourteen pairs of shoes symbolize each student arrested in Bangkok for peaceful protesting. (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn)

“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.”

Jude Peckinpaugh announced the demands of ENGAGE in solidarity with the Neo-Democracy Movement. (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn)

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.

IMG_2887

Zoe Swartz and Cat Darin, ENGAGE members, discussed the goals of the protest with an onlooker originally from Chiang Mai. (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn)

Apichatpong’s ‘Cemetery of Splendour’ Draws Standing Ovation at Cannes

2015 May 29
by The Isaan Record

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.

cemetery_of_splendour_1-450

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.

NEWS UPDATE: Seven Student Activists in Khon Kaen are Released on Bail

2015 May 23
by The Isaan Record

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 Dao Din student activists inside Khon Kaen's Provincial Police Station (Photo credit: Jeremy Jefferson).

The Dao Din student activists inside Khon Kaen’s Provincial Police Station (Photo credit: Jeremy Starn)

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.