Off the Radar, Red Villages Wait

KHON KAEN – As the Election Commission continues to delay its endorsement of Pheu Thai’s prime ministerial candidate Yingluck Shinawatra, Red Shirts in Khon Kaen are collectively lying in wait.

Much like the Red Village movement in the rural Northeast, urban Khon Kaen slums and neighborhoods have been quietly morphing into Red Villages of their own. Their transformations, however, were never marked by inaugural festivities (like those in the countryside) but rather gradually determined through ongoing political discussions about shared hopes and dreams.

Reuters recently reported that 320 Red Villages in Khon Kaen and Udon Thani provinces have registered with the regional offices of the United Front for Democracy (UDD), the official title of the Red Shirts. The Red Village movement, however, is not new. Over the past three years, more and more Red Shirts have begun to call their communities Red, many never registering with UDD offices.

While Reuters reported that 100 of these Red Villages were launched in Khon Kaen, a UDD media coordinator, who asked to remain anonymous, estimates that the total number of Khon Kaen Red Villages is far greater. Of the 2,000 villages in the whole province, he said, 500 call themselves Red Villages.

Ta Wan Mai Red Village shows its colors.

Ta Wan Mai Red Village shows its colors.

And, according to Amnuay Warayot, a leader of the unregistered Red Village Ta Wan Mai in Khon Kaen city, around 92 Red Villages have emerged in the city alone over the past three years.

Despite media attention on rural Red Villages, leaders of this community insisted that unofficial Red Villages like their own are practically identical. “There is absolutely no difference between our [unregistered] Red Community and those Red Villages in the countryside,” said Ms. Amnuay’s co-leader, Chaw-an Kwammun.

Now, Ta Wan Mai and hundreds of other Red Villages are waiting to hear if they can finally celebrate Ms. Yingluck’s election to the premiership.

“We won’t celebrate because Yingluck is not yet the Prime Minister,” said Ms. Amnuay. “We only know that Pheu Thai has the highest score in the polls. We will celebrate when she is truly elected.”

Last Wednesday, the Election Commission held back endorsements for 142 members of Parliament, including Pheu Thai’s Ms. Yingluck, who is expected to be named Thailand’s next Prime Minister. The Election Commission will announce its next round of endorsements this Tuesday.

Sitting under a community pavilion, surrounded by a lush and well-manicured garden, Ms. Amnuay recalled how her 145-household community used to live in a rundown slum. Mr. Thaksin’s Ban Mankong project, an initiative launched in 2003 to remedy housing problems in poor communities, granted them the funds to relocate to well-built homes in a secure community.

“The Ban Mankong project made our dreams come true,” she said. “We declared ourselves a Red Community when Thaksin was exiled two years ago because we loved him in our hearts. Now, we have bigger houses and access to facilities.” Ms. Amnuay estimates that ninety-nine percent of Ta Wan Mai residents are Red Shirts. And, just as in the rural Red Villages, Red flags line the rows of homes in the community, waving alongside national and royal flags, too.

Yet other self-proclaimed Red Villages in Khon Kaen city do not have Mr. Thaksin to thank for cleaner, safer, and more secure housing. Instead, they simply hope that Ms. Yingluck will also create opportunities for them.

Ms. Banjong Khunsen, an inhabitant of the unofficial Red Village Therapak One, still lives in a slum beside the railway. She and her neighbors believe in Mr. Thaksin because, “he has the right policies for poor people.” She is confident that Ms. Yingluck has the same goals as her brother and wants to see change in her community soon.

“We don’t use flags in our community, but our hearts have turned Red,” Ms. Bangjong said. She estimates that ninety percent of the residents of Therapak One are Red Shirts.

Ms. Banjong explained that before Mr. Thaksin was elected, her community was not closely knit. However, after Mr. Thaksin was exiled in 2007, villagers began to communicate with each other more, talking about politics and their dreams for the future. They have considered themselves a Red Village for many years.

“We’ve been waiting for this time for so long, almost five years. We want our favorite politicians to win,” she said in anticipation of the Election Commission’s upcoming announcement of endorsed candidates.

Grichawat Lowatcharin, a lecturer on Local Government at Khon Kaen University, explained that this kind of community-based organizing is largely influenced by decentralization policies launched in the early 1990’s.

In 1994, the Tambon Administration Organization (TAO) took on the role of a local governing body. Since then, each village nationwide has elected two representatives every four years to serve on the TAO council. Representatives discuss their concerns and vote to allocate their council’s funds accordingly.  Each tambon, also known as a subdistrict, is composed of about a dozen villages or communities.

“Before, villagers had to wait for provincial or district officers to visit them infrequently. Now, the TAO is at the village level and the administration is made up of representatives of each village. The villagers have learned more about the democratic process partly because of these local elections in their communities,” Mr. Grichawat said.

Mr. Grichawat added that Thai Rak Thai’s OTOP campaign (a stimulus program that promotes one local industry from each tambon) and microfinance investments complemented the decentralization policies, teaching communities to manage themselves financially.

Through this Red Village movement, many rural and urban community members have shown that they are not only capable of managing their communities financially, but also ideologically.

This weekend, they are sitting tight, anticipating Tuesday’s announcement. As the news breaks, Red Villagers throughout the city will call each other in a haphazard phone chain to report the updates and make plans to gather.

“Right now, we’re just waiting. We’re waiting for the government to be approved. We want to see what the UDD will do [after the endorsement announcement]. Then, we will follow,” said Ms. Banjong. “We’re ready to participate, together.”