Red Village Thwarted, a Community Divided

KHON KAEN – In Non Reuang, an unassuming Northeastern village located just 15 kilometers north of Khon Kaen city, fallow rice fields line pothole-ridden roads made dusty with windswept topsoil. Here, most residents are looking to have those roads repaved. Others are interested in having the local elementary school’s bathrooms renovated. These are the daily concerns of a small provincial town in which everyone knows everyone else.

But on December 23, Non Reuang made headlines when a group of concerned citizens successfully torpedoed plans to establish the community as a Red Village, just one day before its proposed inauguration ceremony. A village-wide vote saw 160 votes cast against the Red Village’s establishment and, as a result of a Red Shirt boycott, none cast in support.

The Red Village movement, conceived in the run up to last year’s July 3 election, has seen hundreds of villages throughout the Northeast name themselves “Red Villages for Democracy” in an attempt to demonstrate organizational power and scale. But in places like Non Reuang, the movement has strained community relations and deepened political divides.

The lead up to the village’s public referendum inspired unneighborly behavior of all kinds which has raised questions about the social net worth of redrawing rural landscapes into two-toned political maps. Red Shirts accuse the opposition group of voter intimidation, dissemination of libelous and misleading information, and even assaulting a Red Shirt supporter in front of the polling station. The opposition, on the other hand, claim that Red Shirts from other villages were brought in to artificially inflate support and that the Red Village movement is a Trojan Horse, the beginning of a Red conspiracy to dominate all levels of local government.

In light of all the squabbling and finger pointing that has come out of the last month, Village Leader and self-proclaimed “middle-man” Samran Srivichan has grown concerned that the disagreement seriously undermines the community’s well-being. “For the Red Shirts, [the Red flag of the Red Village movement] is a symbol of unity, but if everyone is not behind it, then it is not a unifying symbol,” he said. And to Mr. Samran, there are very practical advantages to having his community unified, or at the very least, capable of civility.

“Unity is very important for all of us,” he said. “If we want to build a house or a road, we can do it. We can work together. If we are not unified, then people are not willing to do this.”

Though Non Reuang is the first village in Khon Kaen to successfully oppose a Red Village’s establishment, Mr. Samran is certainly not the first to express concerns about the movement. In June of last year Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is much despised amongst the Red Shirts for the May 2010 military crackdown that left dozens of unarmed Red Shirts dead, criticized the Red Villages for their potentially destabilizing effects. Gen. Prayuth’s emphasis on the importance of national unity can be heard in Mr. Samran’s own criticisms. “I don’t want there to be signs that break our unity,” the village leader said. “We should just have flags and posters of the king and queen.” Indeed, Mr. Samran has no fewer than 16 posters of King Bhumibol Adulyadej adorning the exterior walls of his home.

A voter for the Red Shirt-backed Pheu Thai government, Mr. Samran said that the opposition to the Red Village’s establishment was partially due to poor procedure. Many complained that they did not know about the Red Shirts’ plans until a mid-December village meeting devolved into shouts and name-calling. It was then that Mr. Samran proposed that the village hold a public referendum on the matter.

Though Ms. Ratanawan Suksala, a leading proponent of the Red Village movement in Isaan, told the Isaan Record last month that at least 70% of a given community must be in support of the Red Village in order for it to be inaugurated, the eleventh hour bickering in Non Reuang casts some doubt on the rigorousness with which that figure is assured, if at all.

Phaiboon Sornsakda, Mr. Samran’s assistant, wondered if the Red Shirts thought the July 3 general election results were justification enough to inaugurate the village. “Around 70% of the village voted for Pheu Thai,” he said. “We can vote for Pheu Thai politicians, but that doesn’t mean we are voting for Red Shirts.”

While Pheu Thai’s most fervent supporters come out of the Red Shirt movement, the party’s populist platforms also attract many votes from rural farmers who do not directly identify with the Red Shirt movement.

Despite Non Reuang’s dispute, nearby Wang Taw village is set to be inaugurated as a Red Village later this month. For both Mr. Paiboon and Mr. Samran, this should appease upset Non Reuang Red Shirt supporters and according to Mr. Samran, “that’s the end of the story.”

However, just 50 meters down the road, at a house lined with Red flags and whose walls are decorated with a photo collage of a Red Shirt rally, a group of Red villagers have more to say. Sanong Chaiyatha, easily the most outspoken Red Shirt in the village, considers the Wang Taw concession to be totally inadequate. She had wanted to found the Red Village in Non Reuang as a way to receive donations from the movement’s considerable largesse in order to fix the village’s crumbling roads and renovate the elementary school’s dilapidated bathroom. Now that the Red Village proposal has been decisively quashed, her village will have greater difficulty finding funds from the Red Shirt movement.

Nevertheless, Ms. Sanong said she would continue her search for funds elsewhere and, now, is left waiting. “Soon, I hope [Mr. Samran] will retire, so that a new village leader will make new decisions to help make the village a better place,” she said.

Though Non Reuang did not officially turn Red this December, it is now certainly a different place to live.