From rice fields to rebellion: Untold stories of Northeastern Thailand’s armed struggle (PART II)

Today The Isaan Record presents the second of a special three-part series of articles on the experience of rural Northeasterners in the communist movement. (Read part one here)

From Rebels to Thai National Development Partners
Thousands of Communists insurgents and their families came marching out of the forests when hopes for the revolution were shattered. But unlike the left-wing students who were allowed to continue their studies in Bangkok when they gave up their rebellion, many Northeastern Communists had no lives to return to. Others had often occupied their families’ lands, or they were too ashamed of their defeat to return to their home villages.

The CPT fighters were greeted by speeches, television cameras and free meals provided by the state. The insurgents who were no longer called terrorists but “Thai National Development Partners,” and the military government hurried to reintegrate the rebellious Northeasterners back into life as farmers.

Under the condition that they lay down their arms, each family in Chat Pattana Chat Thai received 15 rai of land and five cows. “Everything was set up for us. They gave us food and kitchen utensils. “It wasn’t too hard to settle down here at first,” says Jomtrai Chuatamuen, the wife Comrade Phairat, the former communist fighter who is selling life insurances today.

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Jomtrai Chuatamuen fought along with her husband Comrade Phairat for the communist movement for almost twenty years. The couple met, got married and had two children at the CPT base in the Phu Phan Mountains before accepting an amnesty offer from the state in the early 1980s.

But the state’s generosity came with a catch. The land given to them turned out to be unsuited for rice farming and so could not feed the surrendered communist families. The land was also never officially registered and so even today, no one in Chat Pattana Chat Thai, or in the other two villages set up for the communist veterans in the region, possesses full title to the land that they have called their own for over twenty years—a situation all too common in the Northeast.

In 2015, the villagers received an alarming reminder of this precarious settlement when they were asked by local authorities to sign an eviction agreement in line with Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s push to reclaim forests from encroachers.

In exchange for giving up their armed insurgency, many CPT members were also promised financial compensation for the atrocities allegedly committed by the state in its efforts to crush communism.

In 2007, a total sum of 269 million baht (about $7.5 million) in compensation was disbursed to 2,600 Communist veterans in the Northeast. A second round of payments followed in 2009 pushing the number of compensated former CPT members to 11,960 nationwide who, on average, received about 203,000 baht (about $5,600) per head, according to a MCOT TV report.

Comrade Phairat never received any compensation in land or money, he claims. He was unable to provide any documentation of his involvement with the CPT. The same applies to Bunsong, who worked along with Phairat for the communists, and Comrade U-sa, the Nabua villager who was trained in a communist base in Vietnam – they were never compensated by the state in any way.

“It just shows that we did a pretty damn good job,” Comrade Phairat says jokingly. “We kept our mission secret to this very day.”

Uneven Transitions, Uneven Memories
Retiring from the revolution and transitioning back to normal life played out differently for most students who had joined the CPT. Returning to the cities with crushed spirits, they spent years of soul-searching and dealing with their shattered dreams of democracy.

But despite their shame, many eventually made careers as academics, writers, politicians and entrepreneurs. They started telling their stories of middle-class rebellion in books and movies, successfully rewriting the history of leftist failure. Today, many in Thai society recognize the former student activists are heroes in a fight for democracy

“The story of the Communist movement in Thailand has mainly been written by the students of the October 14 generation,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison academic Ian Baird in an interview with The Isaan Record, referring to the pro-democracy protests that toppled the military government in 1973. “The voices of the rural members of the CPT have mostly been absent from history and I think that’s problematic,” he added.

As the former Communists in the Northeast are aging, the memories of their turbulent lives are fading into oblivion. Their own efforts to publicly remember the role they played in Thailand’s political history receives hardly any attention from the public.

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89-year-old Comrade Tang greets two military officers at last year’s 50-year- anniversary celebrating the begin of the communist armed struggle. The military only allowed a small event and banned all political content. This year, the event is banned altogether because it conflicts with the constitution referendum on August 7.

Last year in 2015, the people of Nabua village were prepared to mark the 50th anniversary of August 7, 1965, the day the first physical confrontation between communist fighters and Thai security forces occurred. The incident became known as “The Day the First Gunshot Rang Out”. They planned a large celebration that included political debates and lectures.

But unlike the day when they laid down their arms and marched out of the wild, there were no television cameras or state-sponsored meals. Instead, military officials sent by ordered the villagers to keep the event small and banned all political content. Plain-clothes police officers came to the village temple to observe the villagers’ gathering.

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Chom Saenmit, or Comrade Tang, experienced the clash with state security forces on August 7, 1965.

“We began commemorating this day because otherwise our history will be lost,” says 89-year-old Chom Saenmit, alias Comrade Tang, one of the eight villagers who kicked off the armed struggle against the state in 1965.

Anuwat Saelim, a Public Administration student at Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University who attended the event in Nabua as part of a class activity, says he barely knew anything about communism in the countryside. “I only knew stories from my grandfather about evil communists hiding in the forests to kill people in the villages,” he recalls.

Public memories of those times often echo the period’s anti-communist state rhetoric that reached its extreme high point in 1976 when a well-known Buddhist monk proclaimed that the killing of communists was the duty of all Thai citizens. Current state-approved history books now avoid mention of rural Northeasterners’ involvement with communism altogether.

In the recent history book “History of the Thai Nation,” sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and approved by Prime Minister General Prayuth, the communist period is mentioned only in passing. While the text does devote half a page to the students’ flight to the forests after the massacre at Thammasat University in 1976, it remains silent on the rural communists’ struggle.

“Histories of villagers have tended to receive less attention in mainstream history than the students,” said Baird, adding that the role of the students in the events of October 1976 were of national importance. “But those events meant little to villagers in rural areas.”

In Chat Pattana Chat Thai, efforts to publicly remember the history of its residents are well hidden in an unused wing of the village school.

Comrade Phairat had trouble locating the key to the so-called community’s musuem, which turned out to be a dusty room cluttered with communist paraphernalia and walls lined with faded photographs of villagers in communist attire.

The room was set up and funded as the personal project of a schoolteacher a few years back. But some villagers voiced concerns that the political content might attract unwanted attention from the authorities. Today, the museum room’s door remains mostly locked and it hardly seems to live up to its purpose.

Villagers in Nabua face a similar situation. They have been calling for a proper museum for years to replace the makeshift hut that today contains the history of their turbulent past. But efforts never made it past the planning stage due to a lack of funds, said Comrade U-sa.

Comrade Phairat always had the ambition to turn the story of how he challenged state power from the forests in the Northeast into a book. “I started writing when I was still with the CPT,” he says. “But somehow the manuscript was lost when I gave up the fight.”

Tomorrow is the third and final part of The Isaan Record’s special series on the experience of rural Northeasterners in the communist movement, “Isaan rebels move on to new battles.”