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PROFILE

2015 February 27
by The Isaan Record

Khon Kaen University Student Artist Convicted for Lese Majeste

This week, Patiwat Saraiyaem was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for lèse majesté because of his role in the play, “The Wolf Bride.” Patiwat is the most recent student to have been imprisoned under the law, and has been an advocate for Isaan peoples’ rights and democracy for years.

On Monday, the criminal court sentenced Khon Kaen University student Patiwat Saraiyaem and activist Pornthip Munkong to five years in jail for their involvement in a satirical play that was deemed “damaging to the monarchy.” The court reduced the sentence by half for their admission of guilt.

Since last year’s military coup, the number of lese majeste prisoners may have reached a historic high, according to iLaw, a Bangkok-based human rights advocacy group. Mr. Patiwat is the first student known to be convicted since the 1980s.

Mr. Patiwat was arrested last August for acting in the play, “The Wolf Bride,” that was performed at Thammasat University in October 2013. The play was set in a fictional kingdom in which Mr. Patiwat starred as the Brahmin advisor to the king. The production was part of a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of 1973 student protests.

Mr. Patiwat, who goes by “Bank,” is a twenty-three-year old student at Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts. His peers and teachers describe him as a devoted advocate of democracy, a talented performer, a one-of-a-kind character with a wild wit.

Bank grew up in Sakon Nakhon, in a village not far from the Phu Phan mountain range, an area that once served as the central base of Thailand’s Communist Party during the sixties and seventies. His uncle joined the communist movement when he was young, and it was his political views that sparked Bank’s early interest in social welfare.

“I learned from my family and my community about the people’s movement in Isaan and their struggle for citizens’ rights,” Bank said in an interview with The Isaan Record in May 2014.

Bank moved to Khon Kaen in 2010 to enroll in Khon Kaen University’s Folk Music and Performance Program — a decision he made against his family’s wishes. He wanted nothing more than to be a performer of mo lam, an eclectic style of folk music native to Laos and Northeastern Thailand.

During university holidays, he would not go home like other students, but stayed on campus instead. In his village, people ridiculed him for wanting to become a mo lam performer, to them a sure path into poverty.

Bank poses in one of his mo lam stage costumes.  Bank's flamboyant stage costumes are notorious around campus.

Bank poses in one of his mo lam stage costumes. His flamboyant stage costumes are notorious around campus.

“He has great passion and talent,” said his mo lam teacher, who asked not be named. “From the day I met him, I had a feeling that his ancestors might have been mo lam artists,” she said, as she played recordings of Bank’s songs.

Bank quickly made his mark at Khon Kaen University as both the class star and class clown. He threw all his energy into perfecting his stage skills and mastering various Isaan instruments, including the khaen, a mouth reed organ that usually accompanies mo lam performances. However, according to his teacher, his real forte is singing and songwriting. Like most mo lam songs, Bank’s lyrics revolve around stories of romance and unrequited love, but also political issues—especially the rights of the people of Isaan—all flavored with a wry sense of humor.

On stage, Bank calls himself, “bak nuat ngoen lan,” which roughly translates to ‘The Million-Baht Mustache Man,” an ironic reference to his well-groomed facial hair and a career choice that is unlikely to fill his pockets.

Bank showed pride in his Isaan roots, despite widespread prejudice experienced by people from the Northeast. While his peers salivated over denim, he opted out of the mandatory student uniform for traditional Northeastern garb, insisting on a new faculty uniform.

Bank with a pa kha ma, a Thai traditional cloth for males, which he remembers his grandfather always wore when Bank was young.

Bank with a pa kha ma, a Thai traditional cloth for males, which he remembers his
grandfather always wore when Bank was young.

The hardship of the people in the Northeast motivated Bank to become a social activist. “Isaan has been historically suppressed and exploited by the powers of the central region,” Bank said last May, in a thick Isaan accent.

But the crackdown on red shirt protesters in Bangkok in May 2010 fully cemented his commitment to fight for social justice and democracy.

“The violence in Bangkok really got to him. He couldn’t bear that so many people were killed only because they asked for democracy,” said a fellow activist, who asked not to be identified. The killings of the protesters, many of them from the Northeast, drove Bank to engage more with national activist groups and he began skipping class to perform at red shirt protests around the country.

This didn’t keep him from working with the student activist community at Khon Kaen University. He was elected as the secretary general of the Student Federation of the Northeast in 2010, and; he was a member of the Student Council in 2011 and a committee member of the Student Union in 2013.

In September 2010, the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security gave Bank the National Outstanding Youth Award. It was Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn who personally handed the award to Bank.

Any minute Bank could spare he devoted to the small student activist group Sum Kieow Dao, or Harvesting the Stars, one of the few politically engaged student clubs at the university. The group worked with progressive NGOs in the Northeast and garnered student support for pressing social and political issues, work that Bank found shamefully absent from the university curriculum.

Bank at a anti-coup protest in Khon Kaen May 2014

Bank at an anti-coup protest at Central Plaza in Khon Kaen in May 2014. Photo credit: Sara Stiehl

“Students nowadays don’t care for politics and they don’t think for themselves — they just eat, sleep and shit — excuse my language,” Bank exclaimed, exploding into laughter. He added that he believes that universities should teach students how to be critical thinkers in order to help build a democratic society. For Bank, students across the country have been misled by an education system that stifles any critical voice that going against the status quo.

In early 2011, after the controversial arrest of Amphon “Akong” Tangnoppakul for defaming the monarchy, Sum Kieow Dao organized a protest campaign against Thailand’s lese majeste law, or article 112 of the Criminal Code—the very law that has now put Bank behind bars.

According to a friend, Bank understood that his involvement with the play could land him into trouble, but he didn’t expect that anyone would interpret the performance as defaming the monarchy.

Bank playing a fictional advisor to a fictional king in the fictional play, in the "The Wolf Bride," in 2013. His performance was deemed offensive to the monarchy and he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Bank playing a fictional advisor to a fictional king in the fictional play “The Wolf Bride,” in 2013. His performance was deemed offensive to the monarchy and he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Only a few months before his arrest, Bank expressed his concerns about the burgeoning number of lese majeste arrests. “I am afraid of the witch hunters going after red shirt activists,” Bank said, referring to the Rubbish Collection Organization, an ultra-royalist group based in Bangkok. “If you dare to think differently, you are already guilty,” he warned.

In the late morning of February 23, Bank stood to hear the judge read the verdict on his case at the Ratchada Criminal Court in Bangkok. After the judge ruled against Bank and Pornthip, a group of activist supporters chanted protest songs for the two outside the courthouse.

“Even though the skies turn dark for months, the stars are still shining,” they sang, as a silver van led the two prisoners off to serve their sentences.

 

 

 

 

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GUEST CONTRIBUTION

2015 February 23
by The Isaan Record

OP-ED: International Mother Language Day: Implications for Isaan

Without an official language policy, Thailand’s many ethnolinguistic minorities cannot experience equality.

By John Draper, Guest Contributor

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International Mother Language Day has been celebrated since 1999 and promotes awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

This past Saturday marked International Mother Language Day, and while it is not particularly celebrated in Thailand, there were a couple of academic seminars in Chiang Mai and at Mahidol University in Bangkok. It is a difficult day to celebrate in Thailand, at the best of times, due to the fact there is no official national language policy, nor much affirmative action for approximately 70 ethnic minorities in Thailand.

Around 14 ethnolinguistic minorities live in Isaan, which has a population of approximately 19 million. Most of these are from the Tai-Kadai language family, with around 15 million being Thai-Lao, or Western Lao—there are three sub-families, the Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Champasak—and another 156,000 who are Phu Thai. An estimated two million are Thai Chinese, mainly intermarried with the Thai Lao, and over a million are from the Mon-Khmer language family— mainly the Northern Khmer.

In particular, the Lao have a history of warfare against their southern neighbors that dates back to the period of the Kingdom of the Million Elephants under the White Parasol (1354-1707), which jockeyed for control of populations and tributes with the fellow Tai Kingdom of Sukhothai (1238-1583), and gave way to the Tai Kingdom of Ayutthaya (1351-1767). A major Lao “rebellion” in 1826-1829 against the pre-modern Kingdom of Siam saw the Kingdom of Vientiane obliterated and its people dispersed through forced marches southwards into the annexed Khorat Plateau and beyond.

In Thailand, the current interim military government may be praised for not interfering with these potentially political seminars on language. There is no doubt that language, especially when combined with ethnic rights, can be political. The self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is well known for his attempts to sing Thai-Lao folk songs during his video phone-ins on stages in 2008-2014 and thus “playing the ethnic card.”

Consequently, Thailand faintly experienced the possibility of ethnopolitical civil war, and rumors of separatism, in both the Northeast and in the North this past year. The North is the former Kingdom of Lanna, which fell to King Taksin of Thonburi in 1775, but nearly survived into the 20th century in the form of the Siamese vassal state of the Kingdom of Chiang Mai (1802-1884). In response to the recent separatist rumors, the Ministry of the Interior’s Internal Security Operations Command has conducted national reconciliation forums in Isaan and stressed how the Tai peoples once controlled a swathe of territory from Southwest China (the Sipsong Panna) down to Malaysia, east into Cambodia and west as far as India, and how disunity has caused the loss of Tai control over these territories.

The main problem is that this approach to reconciliation only stresses the similarities and does not show the main differences separating the Central-Thais from the Thai-Lao and from other major ethnolinguistic groups in the Northeast. In fact, Thailand has started accommodating ethnic minorities over the last decade. No language is banned, most can be heard on community radios and sometimes on television, and ethnic identities are promoted for their tourism potential. However, without a national language policy establishing equality, with Thai as a de jure national language, this is not enough to prevent ethnopolitical differences being exploited in the future.

02-21-mother-language

IMLD was introduced by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Multicultural Organization (UNESCO) and calls upon United Nations members “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world.”

Just ask the Welsh how they feel about Welsh. It is not that all Welsh people are avidly learning the language—only around 15% are literate. The point is that they voted in a referendum in 1997 to be in charge of managing their own local government, resulting in the 1998 Government of Wales Act and the subsequent Government of Wales Act 2006, and then in 2012 the Welsh passed the National Assembly for Wales (Official Languages) Act. This act makes Welsh one of Wales’ two official languages, and is designed to bring equality to Welsh in Wales, meaning any Welsh person should be able to live all their life in Wales only speaking Welsh in their education and in all contacts with officialdom. It is an excellent example of language policy by a devolved government under a reasonably enlightened parliamentary democracy—the United Kingdom (UK).

Which brings us to the People’s Republic of China, often criticised for not being a reasonably enlightened parliamentary model. It is unusual for the West and China to agree on human rights issues and any writer is taking a risk if holding up China to be a bastion of human rights. But, remarkably, China has 56 recognised ethnicities. Its treatment of its over 1 million Tai (Dai) minority is about as good as it gets in China—Xishuangbanna (based on the historical Sipsong Panna)—is an autonomous state of the kind the Dalai Lama is calling for in Tibet.

Chinese attitude toward its minorities is mainly pragmatic –equality between Han and Dai had been promoted as early as the 1910’s in order to bring stability to the south-western frontier in Yunnan, and China reached out to the area with medical assistance from 1949. In 1953, Xishuangbanna first became an autonomous region, and the Dais, together with a dozen other minorities, were permitted their own alphabet and printed educational matter under a bilingual Dai/Mandarin program—a bold step for a regime which has otherwise linked its success, as has the Thai state, to standardising a single writing system and the accompanying monolithic bureaucracy.

Xishuangbanna became an autonomous prefecture in 1955 and in 1987 passed the Law of the Xishuangbanna Dai Nationality Autonomous Prefecture for Self-Government to bring it into line with Chinese national law on regional national autonomy, and for most of its history it has been led by an ethnic Dai. Another similar Dai province, also in Yunnan, is Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture. Under Chinese affirmative action measures, like other recognised minorities, the Dai taxes raised in these states are all spent in the state. There are also quotas for university entrance positions, and the central government promotes infrastructure development and reserves high-level positions for Dais.

The pragmatism exercised by China in its affirmative action also has a geopolitical background: its policies are based on the Marxist-Leninist theoretical underpinnings of equality of national minorities, together with equality of languages and cultures, and territorial autonomy, as in the Soviet states model. While all this did not work out particularly well for the USSR, Chinese academics, who studied the fall of the USSR, concluded that the theory was not at fault, but that a lack of equality together with power imbalances in practice was the root of the problem.

These are precisely the same conclusions that led the UK’s Labour government into passing the Government of Wales Act and the present UK Conservative/Liberal coalition into granting more rights to Scotland, preventing its independence. These are also the conclusions that may inexorably lead the Kingdom of Thailand, under a constitutional monarchy, to grant regional and provincial autonomy to its ethnic minorities via a decentralization program and an accompanying national language policy.

For a country that effectively stopped mentioning it had any Thai-Lao citizens since the 1910s, such a decision may be more symbolic than world-changing. Cynically, decentralizing and granting language rights is an exercise in granting just enough rights and liberties to prevent real power being devolved, while benefiting from the political stability it would bring and profiting from the side effects, such as more ethnic tourism. Optimistically, it is a means of initiating decentralized government to be more responsive to local needs and a way to reduce graft by weakening the chains of corruption. Linguistically and culturally, it would bring equality to all Northeastern Thai children, including the Thai-Lao, Thailand’s Northern Khmer, and the Phu Thai.

Internationally, the move would comply with numerous UN treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and would make International Mother Language Day a day to celebrate throughout the “land of freedom.”

John Draper is a sociolinguist with a first degree from Oxford University in Modern History and an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Southern Queensland. He is currently a lecturer at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University and is assigned to the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Programme.

Yingluck Shinawatra’s Impeachment Exposes Concerns about the Future of Democracy in Thailand

2015 February 4
by The Isaan Record

The Isaan Record’s continued report on reactions from the Northeast to the impeachment of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

KHON KAEN – In the Northeast the impeachment of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra continues to raise questions over the legitimacy of the process and quashes the hopes of many for a return to democratic rule.

The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) recently impeached Ms. Yingluck over allegations of corruption in her government’s rice subsidy scheme and imposed a five-year-ban from politics. Ms. Yingluck also faces criminal charges of dereliction of duty put forward by the Office of the Attorney-General based on an investigation by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).

Ms. Yingluck will likely stand trial in the Supreme Court Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions, just as her brother Thaksin Shinawatra in 2008, who fled the court’s ruling into self-imposed exile.

“This case will be hard to fight because the court will base its legal proceeding on the already completed investigation of the NACC, which found her involved with the alleged corruption,” explains former Khon Kaen senator Wan Suwannaphong in an interview.“In this kind of case, if Ms. Yingluck is ruled guilty, there can be no appeal.”

In Pheu Thai Party’s rice subsidy scheme, the government bought rice from local farmers at up to twice the market rate and stockpiled it with hopes of hiking up global prices before selling it for a profit. At the time, Thailand was the world’s largest exporter of rice, but other countries increased their exports, causing the price of rice on the world market to plunge. That left Thailand with a financial loss of about US$15 billion and an estimated 18 million tons of rice stored away in warehouses.

In some cases rice was supposedly smuggled from neighboring countries and sold to the government at the subsidized rate.

Many, however, believe there was nothing criminal about the policy. Dr. Wiboon Shamsheun, a former Pheu Thai vice minister from Kalasin points out that the policy was expected to cause financial loss. Every government faces the challenge of finding ways to stimulate economic growth. The Yingluck administration used the rice subsidy scheme as a wealth distribution mechanism to support farmers and inject money into the economy.

“Obviously, people like populist policies because they receive benefits through them. And if people like it, what’s the damage? What’s the point of being a government that isn’t popular with the people?” asks Dr. Wiboon.

Dr. Wiboon also questions the legality of Ms. Yingluck’s removal from power. He argues that the former prime minister’s impeachment has no legal grounds since the interim constitution of 2014 neither includes a mechanism for impeachment nor specifies proceedings for such a case.

“This country is governed through a parliamentary system in which there is no impeachment motion as this is a characteristic of presidential systems. It’s like putting the wrong lid on the wrong pot”, explains Dr. Wiboon. “So it is unclear what governance or legal principles [the NLA] is referring to.”

Wasan Chuchai, secretary and committee member of the Khon Kaen provincial branch of the Lawyers Council of Thailand, disagrees and argues that it is the right of NLA members to impeach any holders of political positions according to the law. However, he concedes that the NLA’s decision was not a legal decision proving wrongdoing on the part of Ms. Yingluck, which can only be determined by the courts.

“The impeachment of Ms. Yingluck is about keeping her off the political stage and preventing her from taking any political office again. This is a mechanism that is necessary in our system,” says Mr. Wasan.

Tul Prasertsilpa, president of the Citizen’s Anti-Corruption Network Khon Kaen, stresses the legitimacy of the impeachment motion as based on the constitution. His group is closely aligned with Suthep Thauksuban’s anti-government protests that instigated the downfall of the Yingluck government a year ago.

“The impeachment forces Ms. Yingluck to finally show responsibility to the parliament and the people for her government’s political wrongdoing,” Mr. Tul says.

After the impeachment, the military government, citing martial law, forbade Ms. Yingluck from holding a press conference. On her personal Facebook page, though, a note was posted stating that democracy had died along with the rule of law.

Mr. Wasan says that this statement, “Doesn’t respect the legal system in our country. Ms. Yingluck never acknowledged her faults and she doesn’t want to take any responsibility for her mistakes. Now she is defending herself and blames her own failures on the system.”

However, Ms. Yingluck’s statement rings true for many, reflecting the prevailing gloominess about the prospects of democracy and true reconciliation in the country.

“In many instances, we thought that democracy in Thailand was dying, but then we still had a flicker of hope in us. Now, after the impeachment of Ms. Yingluck, we see that democracy is in fact dead,” says Sutin Klangsaeng, a member of the Pheu Thai party-list from Maha Sarakham. He added that his party has lost all of its confidence in the military government’s reconciliation process.

This sense of resignation is echoed by Mr. Wan, who has little hope for a return to democratic rule under the current circumstances. “You cannot plant the seeds of democracy anywhere in Thailand at the moment. It’s like a volcano just exploded and all the land is covered in lava—democracy cannot grow because of the heat.”

In the last two weeks, the impeachment has garnered national and international criticism. At home, the military junta has launched a new round of summoning key Pheu Thai and red shirt leaders who have spoken out against the NLA’s decision. But quieting international critiques has proven more difficult.

On a visit to Thailand last week, senior US envoy, Daniel Russel, described the disposal of Ms. Yingluck and the criminal charges against her, as potentially “politically driven.” He called for an end to martial law and expressed concerns about the restraints on freedoms since the military seized power.

In contrast, Mr. Tul argues that martial law and restrictions on freedom of expression are still necessary to ensure social peace in the country, even if the international community may see it as a sign of “underdevelopment” of Thailand’s democracy.

“Freedom comes with responsibility and it means that everyone can exercise their rights,” Mr. Tul reasons. “But if people use their rights to incite division among each other and to violate the law, this is not freedom.”

The military government reacted to Mr. Russel’s comments by summoning the most senior American diplomat stationed in Bangkok and expressing its displeasure. Deputy Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said that the US lacks an understanding of Thai politics.

However, for Dr. Wiboon, the main problem lies elsewhere. “Now they claim that the US doesn’t understand Thailand,” he says. “But it’s rather that Thailand doesn’t understand democracy.”

Voices from Isaan: The Impeachment of Yingluck Shinawatra

2015 January 27
by The Isaan Record

People in Khon Kaen voice their opinions on the impeachment of former prime minister and Pheu Thai party leader Yingluck Shinawatra.

 

KHON KAEN – Last friday, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), a body hand-picked by the military government, voted with an overwhelming majority to retroactively impeach former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra over her role in the rice subsidy scheme. Ms. Yingluck is now banned from politics for five years and faces criminal charges that could lead to a 10-year prison sentence.

In Khon Kaen, people are divided over the impeachment of the former prime minister, but many expressed their approval of Pheu Thai’s rice subsidy scheme. The Isaan Record talked to people in the city center about the NLA’s recent decision. While some were reluctant to share their views on politics, most respondents eagerly voiced their opinions.

Nongnut Wiansri, a fifty-seven-year-old female market vendor says, “The process of the impeachment was not just. Yingluck was already bullied out of government, had to give up her position as prime minister, and now they continue trampling on her.”

Speaking in favor of the rice subsidy scheme, Ms. Nongnut says, “The farmers are the backbone of the nation, right? But they don’t receive enough support, and now without the rice scheme they have to sell their rice at a much lower price.”

Atthaphon Chumwong, a twenty-seven-year-old police academy student from Maha Sarakham, disagrees. “As former head of state, Ms. Yingluck needs to take responsibility for the obvious flaws in the rice scheme. In my village, many people had to wait for a very long time to get paid; some didn’t get paid at all.”

He believes that the rice subsidy scheme was a good policy in theory but the execution failed. “The delay of payments caused farmers to lose money. The government should have had a better plan,” Mr. Atthaphon says.

Nearly all respondents agreed that the process of Yingluck Shinawatra’s impeachment was unfair and exposed deep flaws in Thailand’s justice system.

Maliwan Thamsimma, a thirty-seven-year-old female market vendor, wonders, “I’ve never really believed in the justice system. From my experience, when people like me have to go to court, they hardly ever receive justice. And how can they, when even the former head of state is not treated fairly?”

[For more thoughts from Khon Kaen on the impeachment of Yingluck Shinawatra, click through the slideshow above.]

The Master Plan: Solving Deforestation or Yet Another Strategy to Remove and Evict People?

2015 January 8
by The Isaan Record

The NCPO claims to be reclaiming forest land from investors, but the poor continue to suffer. Junta policy introduced under martial law destroys livelihoods of thousands of forest inhabitants.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has set out to end a long-standing history of land rights conflicts between the Thai state and communities living in national forest reserve areas. Despite junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha request for citizens’ “Participation and Honesty” in the matter, the NCPO’s strategy has been less about collaboration and more about amputation when confronting forest communities. 

The NCPO began its campaign in June with the release of Order 64/2014. The order enables government agencies to put an end to deforestation by removing any encroachers on national reserve lands. In August the NCPO followed up with a Master Plan describing how to implement Order 64/2014. The end goal is to increase forest cover in Thailand to 40% within ten years.

A discourse surrounding the Master Plan is that commercial investors’ exploitation of Thailand’s natural resources is responsible for deforestation and must be stopped. The NCPO appeared sincere in its intentions to target only wealthy investors after releasing Order 66/2014, which states that a supplemental directive government operation must not impact the poor and landless who had lived on the land before the enforcement of Order 64.

Yet, as the NCPO has implemented its Master Plan, it has repeatedly identified many impoverished villagers who have lived in the forest for decades as “investors.” As a result they have lost the protection of Order 66. In some cases the NCPO has made allegations with scanty evidence that villagers are part of production ring funded by wealthy investors.

Village communities in the Isaan region have been impacted directly. At present, the NCPO is charging 17 villagers for trespassing and has seized the farmlands of 70 families in Samchai District, Kalasin Province. Similarly, they are charging 37 villagers for trespassing Phuphan District, Sakhon Nakon Province, and have already destroyed upwards of 383 rais of villagers’ rubber tree farms. If the villagers are found guilty of these charges, they could be imprisoned for up to two years. In Khon San District, Chaiyaphum Province the villages of Baw Keaw and Khok Yao are facing forced eviction from their homes and farmlands, and have receive notices demanding they evacuate. The NCPO evicted at least 1,000 villagers from their homes and land in Kao Bart village, Non Dindaeng District, Buriram Province.

In November the NCPO reported successful prosecution of over 500 forest encroachers and the seizure of over 300,000 rai of land throughout Thailand. Currently, the National Human Rights Commission has received 32 complaints regarding land rights violations but expects more exist.

The NCPO’s crusade has been terribly efficient. Instead of democratically resolving a conflict between the two sides, it has physically and politically removed the villagers from the conversation on land tenure altogether. Martial law has silenced protests from people’s movements on all levels of society, and villagers are left waiting for the day when they can demand their rights and return to their homes.

Produced by Paul Sullivan, Bowdoin College & Wilder Nicholson, Bowdoin College.

Contact: Isaan Land Rights Issue Study Group  (NGO-COD) Northeast
six hundred and eighty-six fifths Soi Wuttaram, Namunag Rd., Muang District., Khon Kaen 40000
Tel. / Fax. (66) 043-228-
992/322267

Martial Law in Northeast of Thailand creates common cause between pro-democracy and community rights groups

2014 December 20
by The Isaan Record

Six months after Thailand’s martial law is imposed discontent stirs across diverse factions.

BURIRAM PROVINCE, THAILAND — Sitting cross-legged in a bamboo hut, concealed by tall corn stalks, the 62-year-old man seems at ease, enjoying passion fruit and a cigarette.  Yet, the laughter leaves his eyes as he casts furtive glances towards the sound of every vehicle that rumbles past.  

“I am afraid that once you leave,” Mr. Lun Soisot nervously admits, “the military will come and ask what we were doing.”

Mr. Lun was a rice farmer before the military arrived in his village and evicted everyone from their homes and farmland.

Mr. Lun was a rice farmer before the military arrived in his village and evicted everyone from their homes and farmland.

Mr. Lun knows too well what happens when the military takes special interest in a person. The military arrested Mr. Lun and other community leaders in Kao Bat Village, who protested the junta’s decision to evict villagers from Dong Yai Wildlife Sanctuary in July. Paitoon, his son and a local activist, has also faced arrest and is now on the run.  

Mr. Lun and his son are just two of the estimated hundreds of grassroots leaders that have been arrested, threatened, and harassed by the junta that seized power in the May 22 coup.  

The reach of martial law

Martial law, instituted two days before the coup, has maintained a tight grip over Thailand – outlawing political meetings of five or more people, prohibiting criticism of the junta, and charging civilians in military courts.  

The crackdown on opposition, through a series of arrests and detentions, has discouraged any attempts to speak out against the military regime. These tactics have kept Thailand remarkably quiet for the last six months.

The post-coup calm has been particularly unusual in the Northeast, which is a stronghold for the Red Shirts, a pro-democracy movement allied to deposed former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. The Red Shirt’s lack of organized resistance suggests that martial law has been effective in silencing dissent.

As of November 30th, the organization iLaw documented 626 cases of persons apprehended under martial law, 340 of which led to arrest.  

The vast majority of those apprehended were pro-democracy politicians, academics, activists, and journalists in Bangkok publicly summoned by the military soon after the coup.  

The military has focused much energy on suppressing opposition here in the Northeast as it is the heartland of the Red Shirts. While there’s ample anecdotal evidence, exact statistics on those affected by martial law in the Northeast are hard to come by. As many as 130 people in the region have been affected by martial law, according to iLaw, and upwards of 50 who have been formally arrested. But there are dozens if not hundreds of students, community activists, and university professors who have been unofficially “invited” in by the military for a chat, harassed at work, monitored, and threatened.

‘We fear for our lives’

Martial law and the fear of the junta’s formal and informal intimidation tactics may explain why a unified resistance movement has not formed.

Dr. Alongkorn Akkasaeng, Assistant Dean at Mahasarkham University’s College of Politics and Governance, felt his work impacted by martial law when he was called in to speak at a military base. “The experience has caused me to be more careful in what I say and write,” he explains. Many of his colleagues have been called in and continue to be called in, and so “everyone is quite aware that they are being monitored by the military.”

Last month, five students from the activist group “Dao Din,” borrowing from the movie “The Hunger Games,” raised three fingers directly in front of Prime Minister and junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha when he was visiting the Northeast for the first time.

The students were immediately arrested. As their protest and detention attracted national and international attention, the military decided to release them without charge. But even after their release, the students have been persistently harassed and monitored by the military, driving some students to move out of their homes.  “We fear for our lives,” stated one of the students in an interview with the Bangkok Post.

But more than anti-coup groups have been affected by martial law. The junta’s decrees, such as Order No. 64 that authorizes the military to evict communities from their land for the sake of national forests, has embroiled rural communities. Faced with the loss of homes and livelihoods, grassroots-level activists are the latest victims of martial in Thailand’s Northeast.  The widespread repression of rights to freedom of assembly and expression has severely limited their ability to advocate for community rights.

It was reported in Prachatai on Dec. 16 that almost 1,800 warrants have been issued against farmers on charges of trespassing into forest areas. Activists claim that if the junta continues its eviction polices, as many as 30,000 Isaan people may be affected.

‘Leave my family alone’

Kridsakorn Silark, an activist working with dam-affected communities in Ubon Ratchathani province, has similarly been summoned and harassed for speaking out against the military’s human rights violations.

On November 18, the military asked Mr. Kridsakorn to deactivate his professional Facebook page, on which he had publicly asked the junta to cooperate with dam-affected villagers, as well as his personal account that he used to express his pro-democracy opinions.

Mr. Kridsakorn proudly shows off his controversial Facebook page, on which he posted a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi: “You should never let your fears prevent you from doing what you know is right.”

Mr. Kridsakorn proudly shows off his controversial Facebook page, on which he posted a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi: “You should never let your fears prevent you from doing what you know is right.”

Claiming that he had forgotten the account password, Mr. Kridsakorn kept the page up and dodged the military’s calls.

After three days of evasion, however, Mr. Kridsakorn received a call from his mother; military officers had begun to harass her, calling every ten minutes and eventually showing up at her house. Mr. Kridsakorn realized he had no choice but to meet with the military.

“I was very angry.  They can do anything they want to me, but leave my family alone,” he snapped.

At the meeting, officers forbade Mr. Kridsakorn from writing anti-coup declarations and from posting anything on his Facebook critical of the junta.

These intimidation tactics employed by the military are used particularly harshly against those affiliated with the Red Shirt movement.

On the day of the coup, “Daeng” (a false name used for fear of reprisals), a Red Shirt media activist in the Northeast, threw a hard drive of his life’s work into water, knowing what it held could incriminate him under the newly imposed martial law.

The fear that drove him to such extremes remains at the forefront of his thoughts. While being interviewed, Daeng insisted on moving locations several times, convinced that a government spy was eavesdropping nearby.

Daeng spent a month covertly collecting stories on the impact of martial law in the region, especially stories that the junta has attempted to cover up. Daeng has unique insight into the mood of the Northeast.

“People only talk with people they trust.  Everyone wants to talk, though,” says Daeng. “They’re stressed, they’re not satisfied, and they’re angry.”

He tells the story of an unnamed Red Shirt DJ in the Northeast.  On the day of the coup, 50 soldiers swarmed her workplace, only to find that she was not there.  When they were also unable to locate her at her home, the military held her 10-year-old son hostage. Panicked at the thought of being separated from her son and subjecting him to trauma, she had no choice but to turn herself in.

In addition to threatening family members, the junta has employed other methods to intimidate and blackmail dissidents, such as freezing financial accounts, planting evidence, and extortion through the use of explicit photos.

Of the dozens of people Daeng spoke to, the majority signed an “agreement” with the military, pledging to refrain, under threat of arrest for violating martial law, from attending meetings, expressing political opinions, speaking to the media, or leaving the country.

‘We push forward because we know it is the right thing to do’

Most have adhered strictly to the “agreement” out of fear. However, some who have signed, such as Mr. Kridsakorn, insist that signing does not indicate surrender.

“I think I have to be more cautious because I was summoned.  But on the other hand, if I do and say nothing, they will feel as if they can do anything.  I have to move forward to ensure they do not feel this way,” says Mr. Kridsakorn.

Mr. Kridsakorn’s cautious defiance is not an isolated instance. Academics, villagers, activists, and Red Shirts across the Northeast have also voiced their resolve to keep fighting, despite the threat of repercussions for speaking out under martial law.

The five Dao Din students continue to be monitored closely by the military.  One female student was requested, on December 9th, to come speak to military officers about her group’s activities, over a month after their protest.

She refused to go, reflecting the defiance of the group.  They have also displayed their unwavering opposition to the military regime in interviews.  Capitalizing on newfound notoriety, the Dao Din students called Thai citizens to action: “We want you to fight,” they said last month in a Prachatai interview. People across Thailand have publicly raised three fingers in support of the students.  

Even Mr. Lun, a villager whose name remains unknown to the nation, refuses to give in: “The military tries to stop our movement, but we push forward because we know it is the right thing to do.”

Common ground

Although community activists, like Mr. Lun and Mr. Kridsakorn, on the one hand, and Red Shirts on the other, have typically operated separately, the collective oppression under martial law has created an unexpected common cause between the two groups.

Dr. Alongkorn suggests that although community activists and Red Shirts have different ideologies – the former focused on rights connected to their livelihoods and the latter on issues of democracy – they both share a commitment to rights and the value of equality.  “In this ongoing struggle,” he says, “[color-coded politics] are secondary.”

“I believe the junta would have something to worry about if these two movements were to find common ground and enjoin their struggles, but I don’t think the junta has quite seen the bigger picture,” he adds.

An academic and former red shirt leader in Khon Kaen also acknowledges the difference in objectives between the two groups.  But, Ms. Phanwadee Tantisirin adds, “It is democracy and rights that will allow both groups to be able to fight for their cause. We will have to wait to see if these two groups can come together to fight the military government.”

Looking ahead

On December 10, at the Isaan Human Rights Festival in Khon Kaen, villagers, NGOs, students and academics came together to openly express their frustration with how martial law has suppressed their ability to advocate for community rights.  The event was one of the first where these different groups were brought together to articulate their common struggle.

Although the military had disallowed organizers of the Human Rights Festival from mentioning politics or martial law, participants were not fazed.  One villager asked the crowd, “if we can’t talk about martial law, the NCPO, or politics, what can we talk about?”

Although the military had disallowed organizers of the Human Rights Festival from mentioning politics or martial law, participants were not fazed. One villager asked the crowd, “if we can’t talk about martial law, the NCPO, or politics, what can we talk about?”

Whether or not these factions will unify in opposition remains unclear.  Yet, the sentiment of individuals from each group does indicate a resolve to continue fighting for human rights and democracy.  As the stories of military harassment circulate throughout the Northeast, dissent appears to becoming more and more common.

“The things that have happened within our village and other villages have been spread to everyone, and it has caused fear,” explains Mr. Lun.  “The military is making a lot of enemies without even knowing it.”

As Mr. Lun sits on the bamboo floor of the small hut, he asserts his defiance to the coup and commitment to work towards a better Thailand.

“In every movement there has to be someone stubborn enough to get other people to join.  We choose to be fireflies in the forest.  We are willing to be small sources of light – even though they’re small, it’s better than total darkness.”

Alexandrea Lee studies international studies at Johns Hopkins University and Catherine Darin studies economics at the University of Pennsylvania. They are student journalists who have been studying in Khon Kaen for the past four months.

First published on Prachatai English

The Interrupted Lives of the “Khon Kaen Model” Families

2014 December 16
by The Isaan Record

Seven months ago twenty-six people were arrested in Khon Kaen and now face charges of terrorism and treason—offences that could exact the death penalty. The case, known as the “Khon Kaen Model,” is the most high-profile case to be tried in a military court since the junta took power in May. Kate Cowie-Haskell and Plia Xiong have been following the case in Khon Kaen to learn more about the process of military court and its consequences for families of the defendants. [Those interviewed for this story preferred that neither real names nor photographs be used, worried that it may affect the case of their family members.]

It is past noon, but “Nok” is still in her pajamas. She stands in front of her open refrigerator, staring at its meager contents. The shelves have become bare as the months drag on and she is unable to search for a job. Finally, she removes two eggs and turns toward the cluttered kitchen. “I can’t go anywhere, so I can’t make any money,” she says as she cracks the eggs into a pan. “The soldiers watch me whenever I leave.”

It has been a month since Nok, still in her forties, was released on bail for medical reasons from the Khon Kaen Central Prison. There she was held for five months with the twenty-five other people accused of plotting the “Khon Kaen Model” of resistance, an alleged Red Shirt plan to overthrow the military government that came into power on the 22nd of May. The suspects were arrested in the days following the coup, and imprisoned on June 4th.

Nok was released from prison, but she has been unable to fall back into her role as the provider for the seven people in her family. Instead, she spent most of the last month under what is essentially house arrest. She doesn’t want to give the soldiers a reason to suspect she is organizing or attending meetings, so she limits contact with friends and never strays more than a few hundred meters from her house. Nok is even too afraid to find work, fearing that contact with anyone outside her family may incriminate her again. Her family’s financial situation has become dire since her arrest, and continues to deteriorate despite her release from prison.

“It has been a very hard time for our family,” admits Nok’s father, who has become increasingly immobile as muscular atrophy claims his body. He sits in the small makeshift bedroom that has become his world in the past few years. “I am becoming weaker, and I can’t support the family. We have many financial problems now. With three kids, school and meals cost a lot.”

Nok doesn’t know when she will be able to find a job. For now, she is paralyzed by the knowledge that the military can interpret anything she does as a reason to put her back in prison.

“We have no income, and I have to think about everything I do before I do it. Every decision I make can affect my family now, and I don’t want to make our situation worse.”

* * *

The Khon Kaen Model suspects and their families have been under the watchful eye of the military government since the arrests were made in May. All twenty-six suspects were accused of nine charges, including amassing arms and conspiracy to commit terrorism.

Order No. 37 of the junta, stipulating that offenses against the “internal security of the Kingdom” come under the jurisdiction of a military court, was issued days after defendants in the Khon Kaen Model case had already been apprehended. A lawyer familiar with the case called this arrangement “strange” and “against legal principles.”  Regardless, the Khon Kaen Model case is being tried in military court.

A number of international human rights organizations have denounced civilians being tried by military court as a violation of human rights. In military court there are no appeals, and bail has so far been denied to the Khon Kaen Model suspects without preexisting medical conditions. All twenty-six suspects could face the death penalty.

November 26th—Shackled, the defendants enter the court at the Sri Patcharin military base for the case's third hearing as their families look on.

November 26th—Shackled, the defendants enter the court at the Sri Patcharin military base for the case’s third hearing as their families look on.

The defense lawyers have repeatedly called for the case to be moved to a civilian criminal court on the grounds that a trial by military tribunal violates Article 4 of the junta’s 2014 interim constitution, which vaguely states that the new government will protect human rights.

According to Mr. Wilder Tayler, the Secretary-General of the International Commission of Jurists, “Under international standards, civilians should not be subject to the jurisdiction of military tribunals, particularly where, like in military-ruled Thailand, military tribunals lack the institutional independence from the executive required by international law regarding fair trials.”

The court proceedings of the Khon Kaen Model case have appalled the defendants and their lawyers. Since May the judges assigned to the case have already changed once, and two of the three current judges are military personnel with no professional background in law. The court has also been unclear about the dates of court appearances for the defendants, rescheduling hearings multiple times.

A legal expert familiar with the details of the case who asked to remain unnamed is frustrated with the lack of transparency in the court process. “I don’t know what principle the court is working from. Are they waiting for the political situation to get better? Or are they waiting for orders from higher powers? The more detailed of this case are revealed, this expert says, “the clearer it is that these families can’t get justice.”

The high-profile nature of the case, particularly the terrorism charges, has garnered a lot of attention for the accused and their families. The media has painted the families as treasonous and violent. As a result, they have been ostracized in their communities.  

* * *

“Dao” has been socially isolated since her husband’s arrest. She sits at a table in her sparsely furnished home, which for her has become unbearably empty.

“Nobody comes to visit my family. They see us as criminals and they think we are trying to ruin the country,” Dao says through tears. “I am a Red Shirt but I have no war weapons— I don’t even know what they look like.”

Before the arrest, Dao and her husband sold sausages, making around 1,000 baht per day. But suddenly, after the arrests she could only make 200 baht per day. Now her most eager customers are the dogs she gives her leftovers to at the end of the night.

“My neighbors used to come buy sausages from me, but now they don’t even come near me. I ask them why, and they just say they don’t want to eat sausages anymore.”

Dao mentions that some of her old friends received phone calls from a person who warned them to avoid interacting with her. She does not know who these calls were from.

Unable to handle the way people stare at her (or worse, ignore her) in the street, Dao locks herself in her home. Now, her only comfort lies in the fifteen-minute visits she has with her husband at prison. She goes whenever she can afford the bus fare. Desperate for fast cash she skips meals and sells her motorcycles, sewing machines, rice steamers—anything she can find—at the scrap dealer for a fifth of their price. She often stays at the jail long after morning visitation hours are over, sitting alone in the darkening waiting room until she is asked to return to her empty home.

In the few months after the arrest Dao’s 18-year-old daughter, “Noi,” was her mother’s sole companion and only source of income. An accomplished boxer, Noi made around 5,000 baht for each of her fights in a boxing ring in Khon Kaen. Without her father to drive her, Noi took public transport to the ring every week with her mother. When the fights ended too late for the women to catch a bus home the two slept on the bare mats at the ring, using their bags as pillows. But soon after the arrests the ring manager heard about Noi’s situation and started putting her in lower fight levels, where she could only make 300 baht per fight.

Disgusted with this treatment and fed up with the teasing she endured at school, Noi dropped out of eleventh grade. She left her mother and moved to a province in another region, where she is able to conceal her connection to the Khon Kaen Model. Now she boxes during the week and takes adult education classes on the weekend, sending money to her mother when she can.

* * *

“Aom,” 17, is also sacrificing her education because of the Khon Kaen Model case. Her father was one of the twenty-six people arrested in May, and as each day passes without his income her family faces greater losses.

In the dark kitchen of her family’s cement home Aom chops up vegetables for the evening meal. Out of the corner of her eye she sees her backpack slouching against the dirty wall, with unfinished readings and assignments threatening to spill out of it. She hasn’t picked it up since the last time she went to school four days ago. Tonight though, she knows she will have to tackle some of the assignments that have been building up on her since the semester began in November.

Aom’s school fees have become an unbearable strain. The weekly 100 baht that Aom needs for transportation to school is now required for basic necessities for herself, her four-year old brother, and her mother. Recently Aom’s mother, Mai, has become so desperate for money that she asked her daughter to drop out of school and find work.

It has been a tense topic for the mother and daughter recently, as Aom insists that she should stay in school for one more year so she can graduate. For now, the family has reached a fragile compromise: Aom will go to school only two or three days a week.

“No mother wants her child to leave school,” Mai says as she watches her daughter sweep the oil-stained floor of their kitchen. “I want her to have the highest education possible so she can get a good job and have a future.  But I don’t know where to get money—if my husband was here we could work this out together.”

Over the last semester and a half, school has become a battleground. Aom is failing most of her classes. Already her poor attendance has barred her from taking the final exams for half of her classes this semester. She will have to make up the assignments next semester, on top of her new schoolwork.

“I don’t know if I will be able to do it,” Aom confides. “But I want to graduate high school so I can get a good job.”

She has dreams of studying hotel management at Khon Kaen University, the leading university in the Northeast. Her sociable personality would serve her well, and she is intrigued by the glamour of it all. “I want to look fancy,” she laughs.

However, her dreams are quickly moving beyond her reach. She has a commitment to support her family, and her mother’s emotional instability since the arrests has only made it more necessary to shoulder some of the caretaking burden left behind by her father.

Mai tries to put on a brave face and smile for her two children, but the sorrow that lies just beneath the surface is sometimes unmanageable. “After the arrest I cried for weeks,” she admits quietly. “I was devastated, I didn’t know what to do with my life. My daughter saw this and stopped going to school for two weeks to keep me company.”

With her future on the line, Aom must now try to balance the financial distress caused by the case and her family’s emotional upheaval, even while coping with her own sense of loss.

“I miss my father,” she says. “When I think about him I want to cry.”

Seven months after the arrests it is clear that the acute emotional loss the Khon Kaen Model families feel has cut far deeper than their financial losses. Without the presence of their loved ones, they are suspended in a kind of mourning— indefinitely. The convoluted processes of the military court give families little hope that their suffering will end in the near future.  

Since the arrests few questions have been answered for the affected families. They have asked to see the evidence against their loved ones, they have asked for bail, for release dates, for the dates of court hearings. And they have asked, again and again: What have we done to justify such grave punishment?

A lawyer in the case fears for the future of his defendants’ families. “Not knowing the next date and knowing that the court refuses to give bail has impacted families a lot. They are in limbo—they don’t know when they will be together again.”

* * *

Like Aom’s mother, the members of the “Damrong” family have been paralyzed by grief since the arrest of “Somsak”: their husband, father, and grandfather.

“Joy” has been married to Somsak for 36 years, and his arrest has taken a steep emotional toll on her. As she walks across the rutted yard in front of the family home, she pauses. “Everything reminds me of him,” she says solemnly. She looks to the front of the small house, where a vegetable garden stubbornly persists amidst riotous vines. “He loves planting,” she says, her voice choked. “He made that vegetable garden, and he built this house and dug out the fish pond. Anywhere you look you have to think about him.”

His absence is a void that his loved ones cannot ignore. Friends come to join family dinners, but everyone has become so accustomed to the rhythm of life with Somsak that they are at a loss when there are pauses in the conversation that his jokes normally fill.

“It is like there is no happiness in the family,” says Joy. “I have no energy, and all I can think about is how to help him.”

Since May the family has thrown itself into efforts to bail him out. They raised money and scoured documents, but the military has denied bail. Seven months later, Somsak is still in jail, and his wife still doesn’t know why.

“If we knew he was guilty it would be different because there would be a reason for him to be there. But I can’t think of anything he did wrong.”

Her claims match those of the defendants, all of whom have claimed innocence to the accusations.  But despite what a lawyer described as “weak” evidence against them, the trial persists.

The only thing Joy is absolutely sure of is that her husband should have been released long ago. “All we want is for him to be back with us. If there was justice he would be home by now.”

Justice, it seems, is not something the Khon Kaen Model families will see soon. At the third case hearing on November 26th the court was as vague as ever, once again cancelling the next court appearance and failing to provide a new date. The lawyers’ request to move the case to a civilian criminal court remains under deliberation.  

A relative of one of the defendants reacts after seeing her husband walk into the courtroom in chains.

A relative of one of the defendants reacts after seeing her husband walk into the courtroom in chains.

Meanwhile, these families must continue their battle with the uncertainty that is consuming their lives. The unanswered questions loom over them, and the unbelievable power the military holds over their situation permeates their daily life.

* * *

Dusk is just settling over Nok’s small home when she climbs on her motorcycle to buy vegetables down the road. As the motorcycle pulls away Nok’s brother rises and makes his way to the end of the dusty driveway, where he stares after the vanishing taillights. He stands there in the dark, headlights occasionally illuminating his concerned face, until his sister returns fifteen minutes later.


“He thinks that if I leave I might not come home again,” explains Nok. “Every time he returns home, he checks up on me and he is happy to see that I am still here.”

She drops the bag of vegetables on the table and sags against the wall of her home, the home that has become her prison.

Kate Cowie-Haskell studies Anthropology at the University of Rochester and Plia Xiong is majoring in Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They are student journalists on the CIEE Khon Kaen study abroad program.

Co-published on Prachatai English

Isaan people use Human Rights Festival to air grievances in time of martial law and censorship

2014 December 11
by The Isaan Record

 

Khon Kaen– Despite concerns from the military, about 400 people from thirteen provinces participated in the 7th Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival held yesterday at Kwanmor Hotel in Khon Kaen. New to the festival this year was the participation of diplomats from the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, the European Union, Sweden, and the United States.

The event, funded primarily by European Union’s “Thailand-EU Policy Dialogues Support Facility” program, has been organized almost every year since 2006 to commemorate International Human Rights Day. Event organizers say the annual festival has provided a venue for communities and networks to come together to share their human rights situation and make demands.

The morning session began with an opening statement by Mr. Jarrod Weir of the EU, and talks by Ms. Anne-Charlotte Malm, head of Sweden’s regional SIDA program, and Mr. Norman Pflanz, a human rights officer from the United States.

The “Ambassadors’ Forum on Human Rights” followed, featuring Mr. Mark Kent, UK ambassador to Thailand, Ambassador Philip Calvert of Canada, and New Zealand Ambassador Reuben Levermore.

 

HRF Article Draft 1 group photo-2

From left to right: Mr. Hanno Trayhurn, Political Officer, British Embassy; Mr. Norman Pflanz,; Ms. Camilla Ottosson, Human Rights Officer, Swedish Embassy; Ms. Anne-Charlotte Malm; Ambassador Mark Kent; Ambassador Philip Calvert; Ambassador Reuben Levermore; Mr. Jarrod Weir

 

The ambassadors related the human rights journeys of their respective countries, emphasizing the need for freedom of expression and assembly in the pursuit of a democratic society. Ambassadors Calvert and Levermore highlighted how indigenous people’s rights became an important part of the “fabric” of the human rights landscape in Canada and New Zealand.

 

HRF Article Draft 1 CA

Ambassador Calvert: Cultural rights essential component of human rights in Canada

Ambassador Calvert said, “Canada has learned that when you suppress cultural rights—the right to speak your own language and connection to the land—the results are disastrous.”

Ambassador Kent, who preferred to address the audience in Thai, spoke about the importance of equality and equal opportunity.

“I am from a small village in rural England. Growing up, my father was a truck driver, yet I was given the opportunity to go to Oxford. From this I have seen the importance of equal access and rights for all people, whether they are rich or poor, from the city or the country.”

The ambassador’s affirmation of equal rights for rural people was received warmly by the audience.

 

HRF Article Draft 1 Kent

Ambassador Kent: reiterates UK disappointment with coup and continued imposition of martial law

 

Members of various affected communities and networks throughout the Northeast had the rare chance to share with the foreign guests their growing frustration with the enduring human rights issues facing their communities.

Villagers in Kalasin province who are fighting to prevent the drilling of petroleum near their land were among those voicing concerns about Thailand’s inequities.

“Usually foreign companies collaborate with the Thai government to create problems for our communities,” a Kalasin villager said. “They look at us as a minority and claim that we have to sacrifice for the nation. We sent letters and spoke to the media, but our rights are still violated. You might have a more powerful voice than us, so I think you can make our small voices heard.”

The visiting diplomats acknowledged the value of this chance to speak directly with common people from the Northeast to better understand the human rights situation in the Thailand.

“Bangkok is important to us [as ambassadors], but it’s not the whole of Thailand,” said Ambassador Levermore. “The Northeast is a very important region. The chance to come up here for the day gives us an opportunity to hear the concerns people have on a day to day basis.”

 

HRF Article Draft 1 NZ

NZ Ambassador Levermore: Isaan perspective important for understanding Thailand

An afternoon session focused on human rights abuses in the Northeast, with eight short videos on consumer rights, right to healthcare, right to land and livelihood, and right to a safe environment, followed with statements from each community.

The festival was one of the first of its kind since the imposition of martial law in Thailand. Many academic seminars have been cancelled or closed down due to military intervention.

 

HRF Article Draft 1 crowd

Energy high in tightly-packed meeting room as attendees eager to be heard by others and international guests

The festival was organized by the NGO Coordinating Committee on Rural Development (NGO-CORD), the Council on International Educational Exchange in Khon Kaen (CIEE), and a student network of the Northeast.

One Khon Kaen military source told organizers that the military had been “50/50” on whether to cancel or allow the event. Military authorities requested on the day prior to the festival that the organizers write up and sign an agreement to refrain from criticizing the NCPO, or mention politics or martial law. Organizers agreed that they would themselves not bring up these topics and they would censor festival media.

However, organizers stated at the beginning of the day’s events that while they had agreed not to bring up such topics, they hoped that participants would speak freely, given it was International Human Rights Day.

One participant stood up and asked, “If we can’t talk about martial law, the NCPO, or politics, what can we talk about?”

The self-censorship on the part of organizers made some of the videos incomprehensible, given that martial law had affected many of the communities represented at the event, especially those affected by the NCPO’s controversial land policies which have led to the arrest and eviction of many Isaan communities.

In the showing of a short documentary on evictions of communities from forests, confused voices broke out in the many parts where the film’s sound was muted and subtitles blurred. When an organizer explained that the film had been subjected to censorship, the room burst out in a chorus of knowing laughter.

One of the villagers whose words had been silenced in the film stood up, his fists clenched, and said, “I am not afraid to say here what was censored on the video. Forty four days after the coup the military issued an eviction notice in my community. [The junta] just wants us out of the forest. They don’t care how many decades ago we moved in.”

His defiance was met with cheers and support from other affected villages.

 

Villagers and activists alike stood up to express their experiences and opinions in a public setting for the first time since the imposition of martial law.

Villagers and activists alike take rare opportunity to speak publicly under martial law.

Mr. David Streckfuss, a lead organizer of the event and director of CIEE Khon Kaen, observed that the event was one of the first where red shirts activists, who have felt the full force of martial law in Isaan, and community rights activists who have likewise been arrested and detained, shared a unique moment in their common struggle against repression under martial law.

Mr. Decha Premrudelert a long-standing leader NGO leader in the Northeast, agreed. “People are made stronger by sharing experiences. They have to come together in order to find a way to survive.”

Many participants were unfazed by the presence of plain-clothed security officials taking pictures at the event. “I’m not scared of the military because it is my right to be here,” said Mr. Miew Jongsadapklang from Yasothorn. “Why be afraid?”

 

The threat of martial law did not stop villagers from candidly speaking out against their communties’ human rights violations. In the background is the blurred screen of a censored video.

Not cowed by martial law: Villagers candidly speak out against human rights violations. In the background is the blurred screen of a censored video.

Assistant Dean at Mahasarkham University’s College of Politics and Governance, Dr. Alongkorn Akkasaeng, the event’s moderator, said he believed the event was beneficial.

“There have been significant human rights violations in the Northeast for decades. Whenever we talk about rights in Thailand, it is only about political rights and elections,” he said.

“But usually the discussion is not about everyday rights, such as those guaranteeing having enough to eat or having a place to stay. These rights are neglected because they happen to marginalized groups. The persistent violation of these rights in the Northeast and Thailand should be something the world community is made aware of.”

Mr. Kritdsakorn Silarak, an activist based in Ubon Ratchathani, was proud of the event and its potential outcome.

“Community members were more confident and more assertive which can lead to a large community movement that fights for our human rights. This is an important first step for a brighter future.”

At the end of the festival, representatives from most participating groups each came up with a right they believed would address their issue. All these rights were drawn up to make the “Isaan Human Rights Declaration of December 10th, 2014.” The declaration states: “All Thai people have the right:

—to manage environmental resources and take part in solving problems;
—to take part in politics and elections;
—to freely and directly express their opinions;
—to air grievances to the government;
—to have their opinions taken seriously by the government and for the
government to address grievances through concrete actions;
—to access education;
—to housing and land;
—to have the laws that guarantee the rights and protection of the people;
—to equal and fair treatment in the justice system;
—to public health and welfare services;
—to participate in the media;
—to access accurate information from the government”

Two days after the festival, UK Ambassador Mark Kent wrote the following on his blog,

“At the festival I spoke about the importance of freedom of expression to a strong democratic culture. Freedom of expression and a free media and social media are essential rights that allow citizens to be adequately informed and able to vote according to their own interests. Without these rights, and without opportunity for debate, any return to elections will not be meaningful. The NCPO claims that they are providing the platform for debate on reform of the political system through the National Reform Council and various local initiatives. However it is clear that many local activists in Isaan feel they do not possess the opportunity for their voice to be heard, given the current limitations on freedom of speech. One activist told me it feels like local people are being forced to wait as the military imposes reform upon them, rather than being actively involved in the process.

It was also striking that many local people feel that the current restrictions are beginning to infringe upon their daily life. Farmers with concerns over their economic situation are unable to organise to protest for a change in Government policy. Local groups struggling to protect land rights against corporate interests in their area are unable to campaign or effectively access justice. They feel unable to voice concerns about health and environmental issues. Without the participation of local communities and transparency in decision making, injustice and corruption can flourish. It’s not hard to see how limitations on freedom of expression and assembly have a real impact on local communities throughout Thailand.

For a democracy to be genuine, it must be inclusive. All citizens should have equal rights and the opportunity to participate fully in the political process, and to have a say in decisions that affect their lives. Democracy also subjects governments to the rule of law and ensures that all citizens receive equal protection under the law and that their rights are protected by the legal system. Thailand is a party to many international human rights conventions – including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – that are supposed to enshrine these democratic principles. Under martial law, these principles are not being upheld. If Thailand wishes to become a respected and active player in the global community it must take these issues seriously. The Isaan villages may not be familiar with UN conventions, but they should be able to benefit from the rights in them in their daily life.”

The full post can be found here.

 

By: Alexandrea Lee, Johns Hopkins University; Catherine Darin, University of Pennsylvania; and Rebecca Goncharoff

Photo credit to: Aaron Hedquist, George Washington University; Emma Tran, Tulane
University; and Jeremy Starn

EU, Western Diplomats to speak at Isaan Human Rights Festival in Khon Kaen on International Human Rights Day

2014 December 3
by The Isaan Record
 Poster--3 Dec. 14.001

 

Thai is belowThai is below

Thai is below

The Seventh Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival will be held on December 10th at Khon Kaen University’s Kwan Mor Hotel. This year’s event features talks by Western diplomats, presentations on human rights issues facing Isaan communities, and screening of human rights-related films.

The event is funded primarily through the European Union’s “Thailand-EU Policy Dialogues Support Facility” program. Sponsors include the embassies of Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as the NGO Coordinating Committee on Rural Development (NGO-CORD) and the Council on International Educational Exchange’s Council Study Center (CIEE) at Khon Kaen University.

The morning session, entitled, “Human Rights Lessons from Abroad,” has representatives from the EU, Sweden, and the United States speaking on the human rights context in their own countries and their work in Southeast Asia. A highlight is the “Ambassadors’ Forum on Human Rights.” Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, H.E. Mr. Philip Calvert, New Zealand’s Ambassador to Thailand, H.E. Mr. Reuben Levermore, and H.E. Mr. Mark Kent of the United Kingdom will all be speaking at the event.

The afternoon session has short video presentations, booths displaying human rights issues in the Northeast, and various other activities. Representatives from a dozen groups from eleven provinces will discuss human rights issues related to the right to access in the healthcare system, producer and consumer rights, right to livelihood for dam-affected communities, right to public participation for mining-affected communities, rights to housing and participation for communities occupying forest land, and right to natural resources for communities affected by industry.

Organizers hope the event will help local participants understand the human rights experience and work of other countries, and help international participants understand the challenges facing various groups in the Northeast of Thailand. By starting a dialogue at the festival, organizers say, it is hoped that an ongoing dialogue on human rights between Northeast communities and the diplomatic community in Bangkok can be established.

Registration begins at 8 a.m. and the opening ceremony is at 8:30 a.m.

The event is free and open to the public. For more details, see the Facebook page, International Academic Seminar The 7th Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival

A sister human rights event, entitled, “Democracy and Human Rights within Thailand and the EU – a Forum of Exchange,” will take place at Ubon Ratchathani University on the same day.

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Strong Central Government Important for Junta Policy

2014 December 2
by The Isaan Record

Mr. Khamtorn Tawornsatit took up the position of Khon Kaen governor on June 3 of this year. A career civil servant, Mr. Kamtorn has a Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning and started as a district officer in Sakorn Nakorn Province in 1992. His first governorship was of Mae Hong Son Province in 2009. He was governor of Chainat Province for just eight months before his appointment to Khon Kaen, as part of move by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) immediately after the May 22 coup to replace several governors suspected of supporting the February elections. The Isaan Record recently sat down with Mr. Kamtorn to discuss his perspectives on the current situation and the role of provincial government.

 

Ending Color-Coded Divisions

The Isaan Record: How have you been handling the creation of harmony and conformity of people in Khon Kaen in the case of colored-shirt villages?

Governor Kamtorn Tawornsatit: I’d like to inform you that the word ‘colored-shirt villages’ was a measurement to address the critical atmosphere caused by the differences in information and beliefs of the people. The NCPO therefore came and took control of the country. First, we have to look at the people as Thai, that we are all Thai. This idea eliminates division and violence. When we are divided, we think of others not as Thai, but as opponents. Thus, this crisis could be peacefully resolved if we looked at others as Thai. There would be no violence if we trusted each other.

 

“We have to look at the people as Thai, that we are all Thai. This idea eliminates division and violence.” (photograph by Jeremy Starn)

“We have to look at the people as Thai, that we are all Thai. This idea eliminates division and
violence.” (photograph by Jeremy Starn)

 

Today, I have managed to eliminate the colored shirts in each community. Each community is different. Khon Kaen people are not the same as they appear. They have different beliefs. [Understanding] this will make us successful in the creation of harmony and conformity. If one makes an assumption that all these folk are all the same and think the same, that’s not true. Thai people have freedom within them. When we are aware of their right to believe or like [what they choose], we respect their right. But at the same time, we could [think differently] because different facts and visions [influence us]. First, we have to respect each other’s thoughts. Each village and subdistrict is not the same. Some quickly understand the situation. Others may not quickly understand the situation. However, we consider which community or village can understand the situation well. We have talked in principle about what the causes of the crisis were or what environments can lead to violence, [and] we urged them to stop. [We had to] stop the flow of information that has caused division; this is the most important. Then people understand peace and happiness.

I’d like to compare Thailand to the human body with many diseases such as hypertension, [with] blood, bones, [and] including the lungs, spleen, and heart. There is a doctor for each disease. But if each doctor treats this patient all on his or her own, it would affect the other diseases. Therefore, the situation [on May 22] was critical. It was already moving forward and could not be turned back. No one could handle it. Everyone speculated there would be violence. Therefore, no one knew which disease ought to be treated first, nor which doctor should be the first. In medicine, there is a leader of the doctors who decides what disease is critical and should be treated first. As can be seen, the situation had to be stopped and the administration had to take control. After everyone cooperated, we could take the opportunity [to analyze] what causes there were to all this conflict and then to manage the divisive ideas systematically. And then guidelines could be proposed to solve the problems which [in turn] lead to reform.

IR: What are the benefits of the Damrong Dhamma Center (centers established by the NCPO in every province to aid in public service) establishment for the people in Khon Kaen?

KT: The Damrong Dhamma Center was born from the NCPO Order 96. A NCPO order is on the same level as a decree and alters many laws. For example, a governor has the duty to control the operation of the bureaucracy [with authority] derived from the central government. These are the mechanisms of the justice process. Previously, governors had no authority in these areas but did have the power to call people in for questioning if necessary. But now, they have power to command [these areas]. The authority to command has now been unified in seven or eight areas, such as in forests, where the governor can take command for more efficient law enforcement.

For the many complaints received from the people, the governor can announce guidelines on how to support the people. At the moment, command orders [go out] to all officials in the province, thus even local officials from the central government [have to obey] if the governor asks them for their cooperation to solve a problem. In the past, [in trying to find a] solution to a problem, the official were overwhelmed by the problem. Official could not solve all the problems in a timely fashion. But now, it is the problems that are overwhelmed by the officials. That is, working in an integrated way, the officials are able to solve problems. If even a single problem is taken care of, it might also solve other problems.

IR: What is the provincial government doing in terms of national security and maintaining peace and order in Khon Kaen (short and long term)?

KT: First, for the state’s administrative power to be used, people must trust in the state’s mechanisms. We want peace and happiness. What state officials can do is deliver on justice. Justice comes from good governance observed by state officials. After all officials observe good governance, work can be fast and accurate, [and with that] then comes fairness and justice. Justice is about how the legal process is enforced. The last part, fairness, is how well the political rights, the duties and power of the people, are taken care of. In the long term, it is about having a peoplecentric and problem-solving approach. To address problems of the people in this case, the government has announced the 12 Core Thai Values policy. This shows that people come before the structure and the system.

Addressing Problems of the People

IR: What is the government doing to address the short and long-term problems facing people of Khon Kaen?

KT: The urgent problem is the livelihood of farmers. Farmers are the foundation of the country. It is the farmers who are having problems now, especially with production and the market. In this, the livelihood of [the farmers] must be taken care of, the economy has to flow, and a reduction of social costs will all create opportunities for the people. In the long run, according to my principles, I think the problem concerns the country’s plans [on the one hand] and the national scheme [on the other]. They do not match with each other. First, for the long term, is the National Economic and Social Development Plan (NESDP). The plan provides the big picture and gives direction to this country. We give too little attention to it. It should be held as the principle for state administration for every level of government. The national scheme is related to the NESDP. For example, land usage must match with soil potential. This gets much less attention and leads to disasters and development problems. NESDP is my long-term, primary solution [to the country’s problems].

 

“If one asks, ‘Who is a governor?’—the governor is the ears and eyes for the government in each province.” (photograph by Jeremy Starn)

“If one asks, ‘Who is a governor?’—the governor is the ears and eyes for the government in each province.” (photograph by Jeremy Starn)

 

IR: What is the provincial government doing in terms of providing economy stimulus and raising revenue for the people of Khon Kaen?

KT: We must look at Khon Kaen’s gross [provincial] product by its character. In theory, Khon Kaen is the center of Isaan. Therefore, agriculture is not the most important aspect of Khon Kaen. Gross product comes from many industries such as green logistics, Khon Kaen serving as a medical and educational hub, and as a Meetings, Incentives, Conferencing, Exhibitions (MICE) city. The income from these tells us we are the center of the region. If more development takes place, Khon Kaen could be the center of the Mekong basin and next, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

[*Ed. Note: Khon Kaen was designated by the Thai government as a MICE City in July 2013. A MICE city is one promoted as “a premium destination for meetings, incentive travels, conferences, and exhibitions.”]

IR: In the provincial administration, is there an opportunity for civil society to be involved in the process? In which areas in particular?

KT: For provincial development planning, we have a provincial development committee which already includes all related sectors. It’s simply not true that as a new governor I can change [government] policy—this is an old misunderstanding. There are laws, plans, decrees, good governance, and the provincial development plan in the way [of my doing that]. Vision must come from the planning committees, their strategies, and their missions. The governor comes and assigns policy in operations, not in development. Therefore, I’m quite sure that Thailand is already good in principle. The people, civil society, and the private sector are already involved. But the upper mechanism of budget allocation and budget considerations can only support that vision.

IR: Why is good governance important?

KT: One confusing aspect of the state administration is that the state mechanisms do not have credibility and reliability in the eyes of the people. Therefore, observing the principle of good governance is how to win the people’s trust, confidence, and feeling of reliability [in the government]. When this is accomplished, I think the people will cooperate and become a part of economic, social, and political development.

Decentralization and Self-Governance

IR: What is the vital key of decentralization?

KT: There are three mechanisms in the administration: centralization, authorization, and decentralization. But if we tried to use one or another in Thailand, it would not work because we have all three mechanisms. We must use them together. In the history of Thailand, it was never that we had separated states such as Buriram, Khon Kaen that then joined together to become a nation. It was born as a kingdom by itself as the Rattanakosin kingdom and then spread. Thailand’s decentralization has spread management and development—not government administration. For example, the areas of services or development can be decentralized. However, security-related administration cannot be decentralized. Therefore, only decentralization of management and development will be done. But, because [people] misunderstand the nature of a unitary state of Thailand, people might think the word “freedom” must be used. With Thai democracy, it is impossible to talk about rights and freedoms by the book because rights and freedoms are related to the quality of the people. If we don’t have democracy yet, then the quality, perspectives, and knowledge of our people should be taken into consideration. I’m not complaining, but these are all obstacle to democracy.

IR: In your opinion, should governors be elected or appointed?

KT: If you are the government, will you only stay in Bangkok? We had the same atmosphere during the [Cold War], that is, when the Communist [Party] of Thailand still existed. District and provincial authorities had to fight in all work zones. There was the government in Bangkok [but] it meant nothing because it could not help us. We only had the district offices to fight with that force.

At the same time, if we look at present situation, [can] you be the government without eyes and ears? How can you be an efficient government? Where is the nation? There has to be one government for the whole country. For a government to occupy the whole of Thailand, [local central government offices] have to be the government’s eyes and ears. Governors get their salaries from the Ministry of Interior, but do all the jobs from every department/ministry. If one asks, “Who is a governor?” the governor is the ears and eyes for the government in each province. Who is the district head? The district head is the [central] government in a district. Imagine what would happen to the country if the government was not in Bangkok, in Isaan or in the South—there would no one from the central government [in those places].

“With Thai democracy, it is impossible to talk about rights and freedoms by the book because rights and freedoms are related to the quality of the people.” (photograph by Jeremy Starn)

 

IR: Is Khon Kaen ready for an elected governor?

KT: I insist that the [central] government must be in every region. You can change the governor or the title. That is, the governor is called the representative of the government which handles national security, foreign affairs, peace and order. To the question, can we assign national security to a local government? No! You must think how a self-governed province manages its revenue. Will they share it? I’m afraid they would try to keep it in their province.

IR: Is Khon Kaen ready to be self-governed province?

KT: Khon Kaen can be self-governed in some areas, [but] not all. One must understand—where is self-governance happening on the planet? Some areas can be handled, some cannot. Thus, the readiness of Khon Kaen depends on high urbanization. For example, Khon Kaen municipality is self-governed but they cannot manage some areas, such as garbage fee collection, on their own. Some think everything can be handled. Elected people can handle some issues, but not others. [The issues they cannot handle,] must be handled by appointed people. Raising garbage fees is problematic and unwelcome. Decentralization cannot be done in all areas; self-governed provinces cannot manage all issues.

IR: What about local elected bodies whose term has ended and the appointed officials there who are now in charge? The NCPO did not extend their terms and instead has used appointments to fill vacancies. What is your view on this?

KT: It is within my authority to appoint [new] members [to formerly elected local bodies]. While we are [in a period] when we do not have confidence in the electoral process and the election system is being reformed, we use appointments as authorized by the NCPO. The procedures and rules are already defined. [Appointees] must be a bureaucrat who has served in the position in the area for a certain period as legislatively defined.

IR: How is decentralization related to solving Khon Kaen’s problems?

KT: The most urgent matter is to proceed according to the vision. It is not physically possible for Khon Kaen to be a self-governed province. It needs leaders. Even managing traffic jams is difficult, because there are those who stand to lose. Thus, appointed people are needed. Today, there are many issues related to solving problems of the municipality and organizing the city. If asked why [these problems haven’t been solved yet,] it is because of elections. If you are elected, will you be able to [act with discretion] or will you think you can do anything?

Looking to the Future

IR: What area is Khon Kaen ready for in terms of the ASEAN Economic Community?

KT: Khon Kaen has Mice-City industries which indicate its capability to support expositions, seminar tourism, and it is a medical hub as well as the gateway to other main cities in ASEAN. Khon Kaen is not a city focusing on border trade but is an aviation hub for business negotiations in this region.

IR: What message do you want to give to people in Khon Kaen?

KT: The bureaucracy is the mechanism of the government. Taking care of the people’s welfare is the duty [of the bureaucrat]. When bureaucrats do their job with good governance and with responsibility to the people, the faith and trust of the people [in us] will provide the energy for us to move together. Without trust, the country cannot develop. Come and work together [with us].

***