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GUEST CONTRIBUTION

2015 April 23
by The Isaan Record

OP-ED: Draft Constitution Neglects Minority Rights of Millions

This editorial provides an analysis of the 2015 Draft Constitution using the unofficial English translation here. The Thai version is available here.

By John Draper, Guest Contributor

In the draft constitution, there is no explicit mention of minorities or minority rights, making this constitution the only one in ASEAN to not have a provision for such rights. In addition, Thai is not specified in the constitution as the national language, meaning there is no recognition of other languages, nor a framework for supporting minorities along ethnolinguistic lines.

Together, these omissions make the proposed Thai constitution the most backwards in ASEAN and the one least compliant with treaty obligations in the area of linguistic human rights, namely the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, all of which have been ratified by Thailand.

In the Northeast, this affects approximately 18 indigenous ethnicities, primarily the Thai-Lao, the Northern Khmer, the Khorat, and the Phu Thai, as well as several million integrated Thai-Chinese.

Using standard predictions of language death rates proposed by a leading authority on language, David Crystal, it is likely that all those ethnolinguistic groups with populations of less than 500,000—all but a handful in the Northeast—will experience the erasure of the language aspect of their identities by 2100. This basically means that while the song forms of these minorities may survive into the next century, their children will not understand those songs. This represents a massive loss of Thai cultural heritage in the Northeast.

Section 5 of the constitution includes the standard provisions against discrimination based on race : “The Thai people, irrespective of their origins, sexes or religions, shall enjoy equal protection under this Constitution.” Also under the heading of “Human Rights,” Section 34 states: “Unjust discrimination against a person on the grounds of the difference in origin, race, language, sex, gender, age, disability, physical or health condition, personal status, economic or social standing, religious belief, education or training, or constitutionally political view shall not be made.”

However, there is passing mention of the concept of ethnicity. Chapter 2: Directive Principles of Fundamental State Policies, mentions, in Section 83 (5): “The State shall strengthen local community in the following matters…: (5) protection of indigenous and ethnic groups to maintain their identities with dignity.”

While such recognition is an advance on the former constitution in terms of specificity, it has essentially been the position of the National Economic and Social Development Board in its five-year plans as implemented by state ministries such as the Ministries of Education and of Culture for the past 15 years.

In terms of how this applies to the Northeast, it should be noted that the Thai state in the past has admirably tackled the issue of race in the region – on paper. Its 2011 report to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination under the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, available here, is remarkably enlightened. Building on Mahidol University’s 2005 Ethnolinguistic Map of Thailand project, it declares Thailand to be a multi-ethnic, pluralistic country and acknowledges the existence of 62 ethnic groups in Thailand, belonging to five language families.

In an approach informed by the latest research and detailing the state’s evolution of the understanding of the ethnic issue since the 1990s, it first lists and describes in detail three main ethnic groups in Thailand: the mountain peoples or “Persons on the Highland,” the “Sea Gypsies,” and the “Malayu-descended Thais.”

It then describes a fourth group, “other ethnic groups,” under the heading “Ethnic Groups in the Northeast,” with a detailed table listing all the ethnic groups in the Northeast except for Thai-Chinese. This is reproduced below:

Table 3: No. of Ethnic Group Population in the Northeast (Esan) by Language Family Group

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 2.50.20 PM

Crucially, the Thai Lao identity is recognized in this 2011 report for the UN Committee in a way not seen outside academic circles and in doing so undoes nearly a century of the systematic erasure of the largest minority identity in Thailand. This erasure, via a program of assimilation, began in the late 19th century with the consolidation and annexation of the Khorat Plateau and was accelerated in the 1939-1942 hyper nationalism-driven 12 State Cultural Mandates which changed the name of Siam to Thailand, made Thai the national language, and disappeared by diktat all the minority identities in Thailand. The historical treatment of the Thai Lao and their crucial importance to understanding Thai political development, including in the Thaksin era, has recently been highlighted in the English-speaking public sphere by the anthropologist Charles F. Keyes.

The 2011 report’s description of the situation in the Northeast is sympathetic to the problems of the region’s other minorities. In particular, the Kuy, Yogun and Bru are mentioned as facing extinction.

Speakers of Lao Isaan, adapted from Ethnolinguistic Maps of Thailand, Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development, Mahidol University, 2005

Speakers of Lao Isaan, adapted from Ethnolinguistic Maps of Thailand, Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development, Mahidol University, 2005

However, the description regarding the relationships between the peoples of the Northeast is somewhat unusual, “Even though there are diverse ethnic groups in the Esan region… due to the generosity and kind-heartedness of the Esan people in general, as well as their experience of interrelating with people of diverse ethnicities, the Esan people of different ethnic groups mingle well and always welcome people from other places. This background is like a special force that unites them and creates a drive for them to relate more with people in the other regions.”

Nonetheless, submitted as it was in 2011, it completely overlooks Thai-Thai Lao interactions, including widespread destruction in the Northeast in May 2010, mainly focusing on violence against symbols of Thai national rule, including the arson of provincial administrative halls. Indeed, it might be argued that the prevention of additional ethno-political violence in May 2014 was one of the unstated reasons which drove the Thai military to intervene in its May 22 coup.

The draft constitution of 2015 is obviously a retrograde step compared to the progressively-minded report to the UN committee combatting racism. It ignores the more normative constitutions of its neighbors regarding minority rights; is apparently oblivious to the pattern of pluralistic progress put in place since the 1997 Constitution and developed in partnership between major Thai universities, UN organs such as UNESCO and UNICEF, as well as indigenous organizations themselves such as the Tribal Assembly of Thailand and the Inter Mountain Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand Association; and it overlooks its treaty obligations.

Thailand cannot portray itself as a pluralistic country in its reports to supra-national organizations such as the United Nations while failing to put in place organic legislation or at least constitutional safeguards to support minority ethnolinguistic rights, such as the stalled draft of National Language Policy. Nor can it, according to its own draft constitution, grant any measure of autonomy to the Thai Malayu, who now exercise limited elements of Sharia law in the three southern provinces collectively named the Deep South, without providing for autonomy for the Thai Lao and other major minorities such as the six million Khon Mueang of the North.

The discrepancy between the “Thainess” of the draft constitution and the hard-won scientifically-based developments in Thai academia, Thai concepts of pluralism, and Thai understanding of their own history as embodied in the 2011 report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, is obvious. It represents a massive reality gap between how radical conservative elements of Thailand’s socio-political spectrum portray the country to its own people in local media and how Thailand could—and still can—develop itself in this crucial field of minority rights in partnership with the international community.

 Thailand cannot continue to dumb down its own population and aim to assimilate rather than integrate and equalize. Further, in recent high-level support for the concept of pan-Thainess based on pseudoscience it risks more than becoming a pariah state; it invokes a specter of xenophobia and the march to authoritarianism buoyed by the chauvinism, which harbors the conceit of the natural leadership of a superior race.

The draft constitution suggests valuable political reforms and is a major intellectual work in its own right. While the promise of reconciliation is there, its inward-looking nature and the lack of any appreciation for minority rights will be its own undoing in the years to come unless it is itself reformed as a matter of urgency.

***

Postscript

After having read this article, you may at first see the Thai military as the “bad guys.” This would, however, be to fall into the trap of dualism. The Thai military developed Thainess through the filters of British imperialism, French colonialism, Italian fascism, and German Nazism, as well as the bushido concept and Japanese imperialism. More recently, their institutional memory includes some of the worst forms of counter-insurgency and psychological warfare imaginable, acquired during the dirty wars of the Cold War period. And most recently, fourth generation warfare and the technology that facilitates the surveillance state have informed Thai military thinking.

One result of this mentality is that the study of Chakri-period dynastic history in Thailand has been criminalized through the lese majéste laws, seemingly against the wishes of those the law would seek to protect. This death of history – a history dominated by the interactions of an absolute monarchy (and now a strong form of constitutional monarchy) with peoples now minorities in Thailand – has supported processes of assimilation rather than equalization. All this has been documented in the academic literature, a literature that cannot in its entirety be read or studied in Thailand.

Still, the Thai military is not “the enemy”. It is a product of a system and consists of individuals, ones that does not necessarily understand why it is a tragedy that many Thai Lao children reject the “Lao” part of their identity nor why it is a tragedy that the majority of Thai Lao children’s cultural identity has been erased to the extent that they do not know they used to have a civilization including a rich literary heritage. In the quest to portray Thailand as a utopia of Thainess, those in the Thai military may not understand these tragedies because the study of history in Thailand has been turned into a pseudo-science and because the study of its sister science, philosophy, is not promoted as part of a holistic education.

You may, on having read the article, feel that what has happened and that what is happening in Thailand constitutes a crime – a crime against humanity. You would not be alone. Cultural genocide was written into the draft Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and removed at the last moment because of the sensitivities of the period and of the crime itself. Alternative names for what is happening in Thailand, known to some reading this introduction, are ethnocide and linguicide.

This does not mean the Thai military is guilty of a crime. The Nuremberg Trials essentially made the point that individuals are guilty of crimes, not peoples or institutions. And, those of you who are familiar with Buddhism know that it teaches absolute compassion for the human condition. In fact, individuals in the Thai military, as epitomized by General Prayut, appear to be desperately engaged in a war on endemic, embedded corruption in the Thai polity in bid to stave off sanctions by the West due to the appalling crimes against human rights taking place in Thailand every minute of every hour of every day, including the trafficking and slavery of minority children.

In this bid, the Thai military as an institution is also taking on the “cleaning house” of an entire country. General Prayut himself, and in some ways the whole socio-political system, have been demonstrating signs of increasing cognitive dissonance due to the enormity of this task of attempting to purge corruption from one of the world’s most corrupt states. Thailand is corrupt if only because of the accidents of history, its geographical position and the size of its population. But, the underlying psychology of Thai client-patronage networks which support corruption existing within a social system prioritizing Buddhist values and thereby rejecting materialism and promoting a path towards goodness also creates such a dissonance. Still, the pervasive extent of political, bureaucratic, police and military corruption is perhaps only just being appreciated by the Thai establishment, which seeks to promote such goodness.

In the words of a Thai metaphor, the eyes of some in the Thai military are likely only now, because they have sought to implement broad reforms not seen in a generation, being brightened regarding the massive task before them. This may be a sudden psychological shock for some of them. On issues such as slavery in the fishing industry, on forest reform, on education, and even on the pricing of lottery tickets, the Thai military seems both exasperated and at a loss. For this, in the Buddhist tradition, they deserve compassion.

If you understand and agree with the basic premises in this postscript and sympathize with the sentiments expressed in the article above, you may feel a moral obligation to help those determined to spread and develop a Thainess based on the fundamental premise of a multi-ethnic state which recognizes the reality of both triumphs and tragedies in Thailand’s own history – one that cannot at present be argued for by Thai ethnic groups because of the overwhelming discourse of pan-Thaism currently being produced by the Thai military. Furthermore, in the ultimate tragedy, the majority of these minorities not only do not know – cannot know – their own histories, they do not know they have rights under treaties like the one mentioned in the article.

If, after reading the article, you do want to help, please post it to lists, to websites, to Facebook, and to friends and colleagues via email. Requests to post the article to websites should be directed to the original copyright owner, The Isaan Record (editor@isaanrecord.com). The Thai military needs to be helped to understand that there is an alternative future for Thailand which does not rest upon rejecting a model constructed of both pluralism and of individual rights and responsibilities in favor of totalitarian authoritarianism. It needs to understand the draft constitution must be amended to include minority rights, and it needs to understand why.

John Draper is a project manager with the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Programme at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University and writes for the Khon Kaen School.

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Thailand’s Drought Lets Rice Farmers’ Debt Grow

2015 April 21
by The Isaan Record

In the debt-ridden Northeast, many rice farmers struggle to make ends meet after the government shut off the irrigation systems leaving them without the profits of the second annual rice crop. But for the military government, the drought might help its economic strategy.

Outside her Khon Kaen home, rice farmer Sumatra Sodatoom sits in the shade of a longan tree. In April, Ms. Sumatra is usually off selling her second rice harvest of the year. But this year, the government closed the country’s irrigation system early, preventing many farmers in the dry Northeast from planting the off-season rice crop they have come to depend on.

Late last year, the military government announced through the village loudspeaker in Nong Kha village that it would close the taps of the area’s irrigation system. In February, the Royal Irrigation Department warned that Thailand would be hit by its worst drought in decades after water levels sank to a 15-year low.

After the main rice crop is harvested, Thai rice farmers with access to irrigation often grow a second or off-season rice crop. Like many other rice farmers in the Northeast, Ms. Sumatra needs the income from the second annual harvest to pay off her debt.

Her family owes 800,000 baht (roughly $23,000) to the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC). Ms. Sumatra’s personal debt amounts to 280,000 baht (about $8,600) from loans she took out for her undergraduate degree.

“Next year our debt situation will get even worse than it is already because we will have to pay off the lease for our tractor,” says 31-year-old Ms. Sumatra.

Her family racked up debt during a failed investment in chicken contract farming, and they are not alone. According to Nong Kha’s Headwoman Bua-ngoen Plamsin, almost all of the village’s 165 households are in debt to either the BAAC or the village fund program.

"Everything would be much better if the government had given us a price guarantee for our rice. Instead of talking about cheap loans, they should make sure we get a good price for our crops," says 31-year-old rice farmer Sumatra Sodatoom.

“Everything would be much better if the government had given us a price guarantee for our rice. Instead of talking about cheap loans, they should make sure we get a good price for our crops,” says 31-year-old rice farmer Sumatra Sodatoom.

For rice farmer Thonglam Thongnoi and his family of four, this year’s prospects are particularly gloomy.

“I can’t pay my debt because I don’t have the income from a second rice crop,” he says. “I’m devastated. Money-wise there is no hope for us this year.”

In 2013, the Northeast held the highest debt-to-income ratio in the country, at 65 percent, according to data from the National Statistical Office. The figure captures the average percentage of consumers’ monthly income that goes toward paying debt. In comparison, the South’s debt-to-income ratio in the same year was 42 percent.

Khamphong Wongwai, a 50-year-old rice farmer and seamstress from Yasothon province, says that she holds debt with both the BAAC and the village fund. She uses the loans to invest in her rice farming, for daily spending, and to pay for her children’s education.

Ms. Khamphong has mainly short-term loans with the BAAC, which can be taken out before the rice-growing season and must be paid back with interest after the harvest. She finds herself trapped in a cycle of loans: She takes out a new loan every season for the same amount and she is only ever able to pay off the interest.

“For the profit I make from my rice, I pay everything I have to the bank, but my debt never decreases,” Ms. Khamphong says.

“This year the price of rice is not good and chemical fertilizer has stayed expensive," says Khamphong Wongwai. a 50-year-old rice farmer and seamstress from Yasothon province.

“This year the price of rice is not good and chemical fertilizer has stayed expensive,” says Khamphong Wongwai. a 50-year-old rice farmer and seamstress from Yasothon province.

In recent years, household debt in Thailand has spiraled. Bank of Thailand data shows that debt levels rose from 61 percent of the gross domestic product in 2009 to 85 percent in late 2014, making Thailand’s household debt the highest in Southeast Asia.

In late March, the BAAC announced a debt relief program for 818,000 farmers, including those affected by government restrictions on growing off-season rice.

Dr. Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist at Ubon Ratchathani University who researches the country’s rice policy, suggests that debt relief programs miss the point.

“There have been debt suspension programs in the past, but I think it is more important that we find sustainable ways to help indebted farmers by supporting them to generate higher income rather than writing off their debt,” he says.

Some say that rice farmers’ burgeoning debt is partly caused by ripple effects of the previous government’s controversial rice subsidy scheme that guaranteed farmers rice prices at up to twice the market rate.

“Under the rice scheme, many farmers invested everything they had to boost their yields,” observes Kunlapasorn Chuengrungruangphat, an employee at a rice mill in Yasothon. “But now with the prices down behavior hasn’t changed. They keep investing and their debt grows.”

The previous government’s rice policy was widely popular among rice farmers in the Northeast. It pushed up rural incomes and pulled many out of debt, at least temporarily.

“My life got much better,” says Pai Kaewbunruang, a Khon Kaen farmer recalling the period. “I didn’t really buy anything but instead gave money to my children and I paid off my debt with the BAAC. It was like a huge burden was lifted from my shoulders.”

The military government that came to power through a coup last year condemned the rice subsidy as a “populist policy” and retroactively impeached former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra over her alleged involvement in the scheme.

In place of the rice subsidy program, the military government has paid 1,000 baht per rai to small-scale farmers, a policy it characterized as “non-populist.” The policy, though, has left farmers more vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of the market.

“I had brought the rice seeds already, but when they announced that there was not enough water I had to sell the seeds again. I bought them for 15 baht per kilogram and sold for 7. So I am at loss," says Pharat Saphromma, a rice farmer in Khon Kaen's Nong Rua district.

“I had brought the rice seeds already, but when they announced that there was not enough water I had to sell the seeds again. I bought them for 15 baht per kilogram and sold for 7, so I am at loss,” says Pharat Saphromma, a rice farmer in Khon Kaen’s Nong Rua district.

The world market price for Thai rice are at its lowest since June last year. With the current global oversupply of rice, prices for the grain are not expected to rise any time soon.

Ms. Khamphong, who grows jasmine and sticky rice on her 12 rai of land, says, “The current government doesn’t support farmers. I don’t think they help with anything because the price of rice is still low.”

Under former government’s rice subsidy scheme, she earned 70,000 to 80,000 baht from selling her rice. But since the coup, her annual income has plunged to 40,000 baht.

While rice farmers struggle with high debt, low market prices, lack of state support, and an indirect ban on production for this season, the country’s drought might actually help the military government’s economic strategy.

As a result of the rice subsidy scheme, Thailand has 17.8 million tons of stockpiled rice. With less rice produced this dry season, the military government can clear out stockpiles to reduce storage costs. The last thing it wants is to buy more rice from Thai farmers.

Yields of the off-season rice is expected to drop by 43 percent to its lowest level in 15 years, according to the Office of Agricultural Economics.

The government water pump in Nong Pheu village in Khon Kaen's Nong Rua district.

The government water pump in Nong Pheu village in Khon Kaen’s Nong Rua district.

In Nong Kha village, Assistant Village Headman Prasit Thangwon wonders why the government prohibited use of irrigation. “The water is there,” he insists. “People who work at the dam tell us that there was enough water for us to plant a second rice crop.”

Without the income from the second rice crop, many farming families have to depend on the financial support from their children, many of whom work in the cities. Others have sent family members out to work in the sugar cane industry or at local factories.

Mr. Pharat says that the government advised people in the village to switch to other crops that consume less water. “They tell us to grow chili or corn instead, but how can this make up for my loss in profit this season?” he asks, “And if everyone grows corn then the price will go down too.”

Drafting the Constitution in a Drought of Supporters

2015 March 29
by The Isaan Record

KHON KAEN – In late January, about 250 Northeasterners from six provinces gathered at the conference room of the Petcharat Garden Hotel in Roi Et to participate in the drafting process of Thailand’s twentieth constitution. The military government claims to be seeking citizen participation in drafting the constitution, but these public forums to gather input from Thais across the country seem to be nothing but a false front in the Northeast.

Last November the military government appointed a 36-member committee headed by legal scholar Bavornsak Uwanno from the conservative King Prajadhipok’s Institute (KPI) to draft a new charter. This so-called Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) was given a four-month window to propose a draft before sending it for approval to the National Reform Council (NRC). And Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha stressed that the drafting process would focus on the public’s participation.

In a country that cannot seem to seriously commit to one constitution, the military government’s announcement that it would scrap the 2007 constitution and start anew startled no one. However, their stated commitment to draw input from the voices of everyday Thai citizens seems peculiar for a regime that has suspended all democratic processes and put a lid on public opposition.

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The logo of the public forums “Finding a Solution for Thailand”.

 

Under the title “Finding a Solution For Thailand: Weaving People’s Power to Reform Thailand” the CDC and the NRC launched a series of public forums to engage citizens. These two-day events toured ten cities across the country, including the three Northeastern provinces of Roi Et, Udon Thani, and Surin.

Early announcements indicated that villagers would be randomly picked through the house registration system. But in Khon Kaen fewer than ten villagers accepted the invitation to join the forum in Roi Et and the bulk of participants were recruited through the personal connections of the organizers. Sompong Pratoomthong, Chairman of the KPI’s Center for Civic Development in Khon Kaen and an organizer of the forums, suggested public interest in the event was low.

At the event in Roi Et, Chairman Wanchai Watanasap urged the attendants to respect each other’s opinions and warned that there cannot be any conflict among the participants. Then he divided the crowd into eight discussion groups and sent them off with a moderator and a notetaker.

In one of the small groups, the moderator kicked off the discussion by asking about the participants’ vision for Thailand after the new constitution was in place. The room remained silent until a young man raised his hand and said, “I don’t want any more coups.” The moderator quickly responded that such concerns would require private conversations with the organisers.

Among the most prominent civil society groups in the Northeast, many are debating the merits of participating in the public forums at all. Some, like Suvit Kulapwong, General-Secretary of NGO CORD Isan, reject the legitimacy of the military-installed government and the charter drafting process.

“They talk about reform, but this is just gibberish. This reform process is not for the people, but for the elites in power who are trying to reorganize their relationships and clear their conflict,” said Mr. Suvit, referring to the prolonged rivalry between the country’s conservative establishment and the camp of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Among those who oppose the constitution drafting process, the belief prevails that without lifting martial law and allowing freedom of expression, there cannot be an open dialogue on the contents of the new charter. Under the current circumstances all participation is to no avail.

“The main point of a democracy is to acknowledge the voices of the people,” said Jakrapong Thanavorapong, an activist working to protect natural resources in Isaan. “We are not participating in the public forums because we don’t believe a new constitution can offer any solutions to the problems in Isaan.”

But Wipattanachai Pimhin, a civil society leader from Khon Kaen’s Nam Phong District, is not convinced that participation is futile. He chose to participate in the public forums. “We are not obeying the military junta, but the forums are the only channel for us and the people to give input to drafting process,” he said. However, he admits that the chances of the CDC considering civil society’s suggestions are low.

Each public forum concludes with a list of suggestions purportedly compiled by the participants to be considered for the constitution. However, some participants in Khon Kaen voiced concerns that the government has already finished drafting a constitution and will ignore public opinion.

Supot Thongnerkhaw, one of six group chairmen of the public forum in Roi Et, said that he has zero hope that any of their suggestions will make it into the constitution. “In my opinion, the whole process is just window-dressing. The CDC and the NRC most likely already have a draft in the drawer. If our suggestions fit in, fine, but if not, they will just ignore them,” Mr. Supot said.

While the forums convey to the public that the constitution drafters are interested in broad-based participation, Titipol Phakdeewanich, Political Scientist at Ubon Ratchathani University, believes their main purpose lies elsewhere. “The goal is to give legitimacy to the drafting process,” Mr Titipol reasons, “so they can show the international community that the constitution is based on popular will.”

Political observers have noted that the CDC is composed of members of the conservative elite who were involved in the drafting of the military-backed 2007 constitution. Some members reportedly participated in or supported last year’s anti-government protest, which raises concerns over the nonpartisanship of the drafting body.

Mr. Titipol argues that the members of the drafting committee mainly represent Thailand’s old generation. He is trying to engage students through public seminars at his university, but many of them believe that their voices do not matter, and they fear potential repercussions from the authorities if they express dissenting opinions.

“There are people in their sixties and seventies writing Thailand’s new constitution, but any drafting process should include younger people. After all, this charter is mainly written for the younger generation. We live in the 21st century and we don’t want see Thailand move backwards in time, do we?”

Isaan Opposition Movement Seminar held at Thammasat University

2015 March 22
by The Isaan Record

Community members, lawyers, academics, and students from the Northeast and Bangkok convened this Friday to kick off a new political movement to defend the rights of Isaan people under martial law.

Community members openly discussed widespread repression under martial law in a rare event held in Bangkok on Friday.

Community members openly discussed widespread repression under martial law in a rare event held in Bangkok on Friday.

BANGKOK- On Friday morning, Khon Kaen University law students from the activist group Dao Din, gathered sleepily after a long train ride to the capital, before walking into a conference room at Thammasat University. Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, one of the students who staged a three-finger salute protest at Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s speech in Khon Kaen last December, briefed the students on the security protocol for the day, in case the seminar was shut down.

“Make sure you move villagers to a safe location if anything happens,” he told his peers before the seminar began.

Over sixty people joined the seminar under the name,“Isaan in the Middle of Bangkok: Peoples’ Life in the Center of Development.” Isaan community groups, students, academics, and lawyers discussed the effects of martial law and the immediate need to repeal it. They declared “New Isaan,” as an emergent political movement in opposition to military rule. Despite the students’ preparation for potential military intervention, the seminar was held without interruption.

The need for the security plan echoed the same climate described by Isaan villagers who feel the daily effects of martial law. Representatives from over ten communities across the Northeast joined the seminar, including those from the gold mine affected area in Loei Province, the forest community that was evicted from Kao Baat, village of Non Din Daeng District in Buriram Province, the potential natural gas sites in Kranuan District of Khon Kaen Province and Kalasin Province, a water transferal project in Roi Et Province, the potential industrial zone in Nam Phong District of Khon Kaen Province, the Phu Pan National Park in Sakon Nakhon Province, and the potential Pong Khun Phet Dam in Chaiyaphum Province.

According to Mr. Jatupat, the seminar was held in Bangkok because it is the country’s center of power and home of the decision makers that Isaan people struggle against.

Villagers expressed many common sentiments, including living life in fear and the disconnect between Bangkok and the Northeast. Porntip Hongchai, a forty-five-year-old activist from the gold mine area in Loei province, described her frustration.

“People in Bangkok hold these stereotypes against us Northeasterners. They think we’re poor and stupid; that we have nothing. We’re good singers or just a joke in the media, but our homes are for mining and industry. They don’t listen to us at all. The New Isaan won’t be obedient to those in power any more.”

Many members described the military presence and surveillance in their communities that came with martial law. They claimed that the military uses the law to negotiate villager compliance with industry interests.

“National security agencies and soldiers still have the mindset that villagers who remain in the forest are communists. They’ve made our relationships with local authorities worse,” said thirty-two-year-old Paitoon Soisod of Kao Baat.

“It’s clear that the military and the company are working together,” added fifty-nine-year-old Pakon Srakangtoom, a villager from Kranuan District.

In their testimonies, villagers stated that they have always had issues with past governments, but the limits on demonstration and expression have now made it nearly impossible for them to defend their rights.

“I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel with regards to martial law,” said Mr. Paitoon, “the fear is deeply embedded into our hearts, but we continue to fight. If we don’t fight, we’ll die.”

To which moderator, Kornchanok Saenprasert, responded, “Now the situation is, if you fight, you’re dead. But if you don’t fight, you’re still fucking dead.”

The morning panel concluded with Ms. Porntip reading “The Declaration for the New Isaan” (read it here), a powerful reckoning with the Central region’s dominance over the Northeast and call to arms against the military government. Student activists played “The Song of Commoners ” while members of the seminar sang along.

Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a Dao Din activist, and Nathapong Phukaew from Friends of Activists Network perform “The Song of Commoners”.

Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a Dao Din activist, and Nathapong Phukaew from Friends of Activists Network perform “The Song of Commoners”.

During the afternoon panel several lawyers and academics, both from Bangkok and the Northeast, discussed the historic context of martial law and the continual conflict between Bangkok and the Northeast.

“The government always tells the people they should sacrifice the environment they depend on for the rest of the country,” said Bencharat Chua, lecturer of Human Rights and Peace Studies at Thammasat University. She continued, “Now they ask them to sacrifice their right to protest for the peace and harmony of the country.”

“The hypocrisy of Bangkok is that they don’t want Isaan people to have their own political expression,” said Samchaiy Sresunt (center), a faculty member at the Graduate Volunteer Centre at Thammasat University.

As the event came to an end, twenty-seven-year-old organizer Suttikiat Khontchaso thanked the participants for joining. “Even those who weren’t invited,” he said referring to the four alleged plainclothes military representatives that were present taking pictures of the event.

“This is the day we establish New Isaan, a movement for Isaan people to join,” Mr. Suttikiat concluded, “Isaan is historically the birthplace of political movements, and ours is no different. We hope that this movement can serve as an example to people in other regions.”

The Dao Din student activists were also hopeful about this new movement’s potential. Mr. Jatupat said,“I hope that New Isaan will be able to create change. People should not just receive the policies that are handed to them. They should create their own future.”

NEWS IN BRIEF

2015 March 13
by The Isaan Record

Ancient Isaan Script to be Revitalized in New Public Effort

The Khon Kaen Municipality, Khon Kaen University and the Isan Culture Maitenance and Revitalization Program are collaborating to create programs to teach the Isaan heritage script, Tai Noi.

ToiNoiScript

Learning how to write Tai Noi will allow Isaan people to write the language they most commonly speak in every day life. Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

 

KHON KAEN– In Northeast Thailand fourteen million people speak the Isaan language in their homes, however, the language lacks a writing system and it is not taught in public schools. In a recent effort, Khon Kaen University (KKU), the Khon Kaen Municipality, and the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Program (ICMRP) hope to reconcile the disconnect.

On 27-28 February, Khon Kaen Municipality and the Department of Culture at KKU held a two-day seminar as the culmination of a three-year effort to develop a syllabus and resources to teach the Isaan language using the Tai Noi script, an initiative supported by ICMRP. The university and the Khon Kaen Municipality signed a memorandum of understanding that will enable schools to teach the Isaan language using the ancient script. The event was attended by approximately 100 people from schools, temples, universities, and municipalities in Khon Kaen Province.

The Tai Noi script dates back to the Sukothai period, and accommodates the six tones of Isaan, allowing the speaker to pronounce the language more accurately than when Thai phonetics are used.

Supporters of the effort to formally teach the Isaan language argue that forging a connection to the region’s written past will help create a living culture of literacy in Isaan, as well as boost people’s pride in Isaan’s heritage. Many have argued that Northeasterners have been historically looked down upon by other Thais, especially those in Bangkok, and the impulse to bolster Isaan’s cultural uniqueness is a means to mitigate such discrimination.

The project is limited to eighteen schools in four municipalities in Khon Kaen Province, and works with a dialect of Isaan originally derived from the Vientiane sub-family of Lao. There are also efforts on behalf of Georgia State University to create a Thai-English-Isaan dictionary.

The university’s support of the project was surprising to some because the Thai educational system has historically emphasized the exclusive use of Central Thai and English for instruction. The Thai state has long insisted on the unity of people within the kingdom under the ethno-national concept of “Thai-ness.” State support, however small, for the countries’ minorities and various ethnic groups is uncommon.

The MOU signals more corporation between the municipality and KKU to facilitate events and workshops that highlight Isaan culture.

The MOU signals more corporation between the municipality and KKU to facilitate events and workshops that highlight Isaan culture.

According to John Draper, the coordinator of ICMRP, recognizing and preserving Thai cultural diversity is necessary and not divisive.

“Most Isaan people, whose culture started as Lao and is now a mix of Thai and Lao, would still not like to be called ‘Lao’ by outsiders, though among family and friends they would be more likely to describe their language, festivals, food, and music as ‘Lao.’ The danger comes when people stress differences over similarities in order to create ethnic conflict and disunity, or when people stress similarities over differences to go beyond what is a reasonable level of nationalism.”

Dr. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration at KKU also validated the necessity of the initiative, “The MOU will bring all participating organizations to work together and achieve the goal of revitalizing the cultural identity and values of the Northeast region.”

Few people have learned Tai Noi as it has traditionally only been used by monks in village ceremonies, according to Dr. Udom Basri, a scholar of Tai Noi and Isaan at Maha Chulalongkorn Buddhist University. This has posed a challenge to common people who might use the script.

“Only monks can learn it, or people who go to temples to learn from the monks. But, now new monks don’t know how to learn Tai Noi. Now, palm leaf manuscripts have been put away like treasures and cannot be touched. This project is important both for new monks who want to read manuscripts and for villagers who want to read the manuscripts.”

Now that instruction in the mother language of most people in the Northeast has gained support both from KKU and the municipality, greater cultural development within Isaan is a possibility.

“We need to look at the Northeast as rich in culture rather than looking at it as a region of poverty,” says the mayor of Khon Kaen, Teerasak Teekhayuphan, “In Thailand, we note that the Southerners speak in their own language fluently and gracefully in social contexts. This is the same in the North. However, our children are shy about doing this. We need to create a future where they are also proud of their identity, and we look forward to working with Khon Kaen University to do this.”

 

 

 

Voices from Isaan: The Constitution Drafting

2015 March 6
by The Isaan Record

People in Khon Kaen express their hopes and worries about the drafting of the country’s new constitution.

KHON KAEN – The drafting of Thailand’s twentieth constitution is entering its last stage. According to Chairman Borwornsak Uwanno, the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) will submit the final draft to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) by end of May. The new constitution is the centerpiece of the military government’s reform process and a prerequisite for the promised return to democratic rule.

In Khon Kaen, people are skeptical that the new charter will prevent the country from slipping back into new phase of political instability. The Isaan Record talked to people in the city center about their concerns regarding the drafting process and their expectations for the new constitution. Many were reluctant to talk or refused to give their names, citing the current political climate that they said bans people from speaking freely.

“I want it to be the best constitution of all,” says fifty-four-year-old Samai Phetpurkpong, a state employee collecting parking fees in front of Banglamphoo Market. “I don’t want them to just return to one of the old constitutions because that’s where the whole yellow-red chaos all began,” she adds before running off to collect the hourly two baht parking fee from someone.

Kuanjai Srijandee, a fourty-three-year-old drink vendor and rice farmer disagrees. “I want the 1997 constitution back because it was the people’s constitution and many joined in to write it.” For her, the 2007 constitution that followed the military coup in 2006 already marked a step backwards for the country’s democracy. “It doesn’t matter if they write a new constitution now. Nothing will change. Thailand now is like Myanmar was in the past,” Ms. Kuanjai says.

A fifty-three-year-old fruit vendor and self-identified yellow shirt who asked to be identified only by her nickname Nit, says that she has some hope for the new constitution. Asked about what should be included in the new charter, she answers, “I really want them to include an article that makes sure that any large-scale government project can only go ahead with local peoples’ participation.”

Referring to the controversial gas exploration project in Khon Kaen’s Kranuan district, she adds, “Some people benefit from this project, but what about those who don’t? Their voices can’t just be ignored. We really have to do better than that.”

Many respondents raised questions about the transparency of the constitution drafting process and voiced concerns about public participation. “There should be more information for the public, like what laws they are actually writing. This should be accessible to everyone,” says sixty-five-year-old worker Aod Tumyoma. “Also, I think there should be a national referendum on the new constitution,” he says.

Punjawat Namso, a twenty-five-year-old graduate from Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Engineering, criticizes the lack of public participation in the drafting process. “And this is mainly because this government has not come to power through an election,” he reasons.

The constitution drafting process seemed distant to many of those questioned. “For local people, the new constitution won’t really affect us much, it’s for those people up there, the politicians,” explains Jaratporn Khonkla, a fifty-eight-year-old housekeeper. As she starts her motorbike to take off, she adds “I don’t think it will bring anything new for the country.”

This view is echoed by Pitak Boonbangyang, a fourty-eight-year-old street vendor. As he packs up his stall, he says “They always change the constitution and come up with a new one. And then they don’t respect it. For how long should this go on?” He wipes his face with a towel that hangs over his shoulder and adds, “There really isn’t much hope for democracy in Thailand at the moment. It seems like the country doesn’t really know what democracy actually is.”

[For more thoughts from Khon Kaen on the drafting of the new constitution, click through the slideshows.]

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 the sky turned dark, the moon disappeared forever, the stars are still shining, and the faith will always be there” they sang, as a silver van led the two prisoners off to serve their sentences.

 

 

 

 

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

IMG14415825

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.]